🎯 Unsplash’s viral distribution playbook

Lessons in incentives and exponentials

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Photos featured on the Unsplash home page reach more people than the cover of TIME Magazine, a post on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram, or the front page of the New York Times.

But, the image-sharing platform now generating 5,162 impressions per second (!) originally started as a marketing experiment.

It doesn’t matter if you’re building a SaaS company, media brand, ecommerce store, or marketplace, there’s something you can learn from the Unsplash distribution playbook.

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Unsplash’s viral distribution playbook

Chess Move

The what: A TLDR explanation of the strategy

Unsplash started as a simple Tumblr account, with the sole purpose of driving traffic towards Crew, a freelancer marketplace.

The Crew team had hired a photographer to shoot stock photos, and decided to share the best leftover images online.

Unsplash, the Tumblr page, promised 10 high-res curated photos every 10 days - 100% free to download for personal or professional use.

By providing goodwill into the ecosystem, and featuring a prominent backlink to Crew, they hoped to drive designers and developers looking for free photography assets to their marketplace.

Unsplash immediately rose to #1 on Hacker News, getting 50,000 visitors in the first hour.

The first signal of Unsplash’s parabolic growth.

And, a prototype of the principle that underpinned their distribution blueprint:

💡 Strategy Principle: Do things that get the internet to share your products.

Here’s 3 ways they did it:


The how: The strategic playbook boiled down to 3x key takeaways

1. Incentivise users to grow your product.

Unsplash encouraged photographers to create accounts and upload their own photos to the project.

After just 4 months, Unsplash had received 250,000 uploads.

Why were users so desperate to give away their work for free?

→ Incentives.

Unsplash allowed contributors to add a link to their own website and benefit from Unsplash’s traffic.

Unsplash’s promise: Create a free marketing channel, get leads, build social proof, give back to the community, and grow an audience - all in exchange for free photos.

The outcome: Users were populating the Unsplash database, and sharing their Unsplash profiles with their network as quasi-storefronts for their businesses.

2. Programmatic distribution, at scale.

In 2015, Unsplash launched its API in a closed beta, putting the photo library into the hands of app developers across the web.

Then in 2017, they made the API completely open and free to use.

It quickly became a core growth lever, with early adopters including Trello, InVision, and Weebly.

Wallpapers, cover photos, slides, inline photos, landing pages. You couldn’t find a creative tool that didn’t prompt you to pull an Unsplash photo directly into your project.

With each partner eagerly focussed on growing their own product, the Unsplash library proliferated exponentially.

3 years after launch, Unsplash API partners accounted for 30 percent of the distribution power of Unsplash.

3. Make marketing ‘products’, not marketing ‘content’.

When you create value and give it away for free, the internet pays attention.

The most common version of this: Create free content → if it’s valuable, people share it.

Based on a study on the New York Times most emailed articles, people are most likely to share things that are ‘useful’.

Unsplash was more than a ‘useful’ blog post. It was a product that people could use for their own purposes.

It became a magnet for not only shares, but also repeat visitors.

“When you create an app or website as marketing … people keep coming back even though you’re not putting in extra work” — Mikael Cho, Founder of Unsplash

In a given month, over half of Unsplash visitors have already visited the site before.

Following the same principle, the Unplash team shipped a string of other ‘marketing products’:

  • Launch This Year [now retired] - weekly lessons on how to build a business, handpicked by web industry professionals

  • How Much To Make An App - estimate the cost of your app idea in less than a minute

  • Moodboard - share your website design ideas with a link. No account needed

Each product launched with its own brand and website to maximise exposure and memorability, mimicking what they did with Unsplash (”unsplash.com” over “free-photos.pickcrew.com”).

Easy-to-remember names also meant higher repeat usage, and faster growth from word-of-mouth.

The results:

  • 3 of the top 5 referring sites to Crew

  • 100,000+ email subscribers

  • 40% of total Revenue

Rabbit Hole

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