The Free Public Relations Marketing Hack Anyone Can Use
If you haven’t heard the name Austin Distel, you probably know his face. Distel’s image has dominated corporate search results on the Unsplash image site since he conducted an experiment in 2018.
The 92 photos of Distel, available on his Unsplash account, have been downloaded over 5.5 million times and viewed over 600 million times. He is one of Unsplash’s 50 most downloaded contributors with the photos used around the world in presentations, blogs and publications, websites, advertisements, design mockups and personal projects of professionals from creation. I sat down with Distel to explore how each type of brand could replicate their campaign for similar results.
Unsplash was launched in 2013 as a Tumblr blog with ten images and has grown into a huge source of free images, with over 100 million downloads each month.
Led by CEO Mikael Cho and recently acquired by Getty Images, Unsplash invites photographers and artists to submit photos for inclusion in its search results. When individuals or businesses download the image for free, a pop-up message encourages them to thank the author via tweet or other mention on social media. The user is then allowed to use the royalty-free image as they see fit, in a choice of sizes.
Users who upload photos do so on the assumption that credit is optional, not mandatory. Unsplash creates exposure for artists, creatives, and brands, and allows users to mark whether or not they are available for hire, to ensure paid work.
Distel is the marketing director of the startup, Proof, which is currently part of the Y-Combinator technology accelerator program. In 2018, he coordinated an advertising campaign targeting digital marketers. When he searched for free stock photos to use in the ad campaign, he did not find any authentic and branded photos. It was then that he decided to do a photo shoot himself.
The first images of Distel were taken in one sitting and depict a digital marketer in a hip setting. Distel was already staying in the Airbnb which will become the filming location. It didn’t use any fancy lighting, and the footage was only slightly altered in post-production. Some were taken on an iPhone, others were taken using a digital SLR camera. Distel wanted the images to look crisp and trustworthy and use his brand colors, but that’s where the planning ended.
After the campaign, which worked well for Proof, Distel thought, “If I couldn’t find decent stock photos for digital marketing, I bet others will have the same challenge. He decided to upload his images to Unsplash copyright free for anyone to use and “sort of forgot about them until a few months later when [he] received a text from a friend.
The text asked, “Dude, is that you?” And Distel saw his image used in a tweet from Tony Robbins. Upon logging back into his Unsplash account, he saw that they had been downloaded over a million times. Searching for reverse images on the images on Google showed that they had been used on Forbes, Inc, FastCo, Entrepreneur and more, even in dental advertisements.
Distel’s Unsplash experiment, performed with Proof founder Dave Rogenmoser, was born from there. This involved filming and providing the stock image crowdsourcing site with other attractive images in order to secure backlinks to their websites. They’ve scheduled photoshoots in fancy bars, offices in their building and even at their team headquarters. Distel involved his team in the footage to add variety and they organized a day of filming, much to everyone’s enjoyment.
Become # 1 for corporate photos
When uploading the images to Unsplash, Distel added tags and made sure each description contained relevant keywords. He made a list of keywords he wanted to rank for, including “entrepreneur, digital marketing, social media ads, bitcoin, remote work, Zoom calls, etc.”
Later he added more terms with high search volumes which increased his reach. These included heavy phrases such as “millennial, smiling man, masculine style”. While not in line with its business purpose, it dramatically increased the number of views and downloads of its images and opened up new niches. Distel has created folders and collections in Unsplash for these keywords.
Then comes the follow-up. Using Google’s reverse image search, Distel found where the images had been used, which tended to be large posts, and scoured the list, contacting reporters to request a link back to his site. According to the picture, Distel asked users to assign credit to distel.com or useproof.com. Its backlink success rate was around one in 250, which is over 5.5 million downloads, which is no small feat. Many users have also tweeted thank you messages to her, which has led to a growth in her social media profiles.
Distel, author of the book Subscription Secrets, said the experience brought benefits beyond search engine optimization. Photos taken during these photoshoots have been used at Sydney Airport, in Tony Robbins’ tweets, as memes, social media posts and at conferences. He believes that, including social sharing and impressions on news sites using the images, his 92 photos have been viewed over a billion times. “If this was a ‘brand awareness’ campaign on Facebook, it could have cost around $ 500,000 to get that many impressions.”
How brands can use Unsplash
Timberland Boots conducted a similar experiment, taking images for keywords like hiking, adventure, walking and climbing, and making sure Timberland boots featured heavily in the images users saw. It’s a form of SEO and digital PR, on a growing platform, with the potential for the brand to further integrate into its niche.
Distel also developed his company’s Scale or Die podcast using Unsplash. During a podcast recording in his studio, he took a photo of a phone with the podcast app open to show Scale or Die alongside The Joe Rogan Experience and The Gary Vee Show, two other flagship shows. This type of product placement ensured massive distribution and strategic market positioning for the brand of his podcast. “It’s a little fun,” he smiles.
For a brand looking to stand out, every platform can be leveraged for exposure. Distel spotted an opportunity and seized it for a single set of keywords. He believes that every brand could become famous using Unsplash in the right way. Product placement was once the preserve of film or TV-sized budgets, but Unsplash has leveled the playing field.
The work is loaded upstream. It requires setting up a photoshoot, hiring or borrowing models, capturing and editing the images for Unsplash on the basis that nothing could come of it. Brands need to be prepared to invest a lot of time and effort, but not necessarily money, for nothing in return. Images must be of high quality, professional and ambitious; writers and journalists must want to use them. They should be easy to find; listed on Unsplash using keyword rich descriptions and tags. After uploading, Unsplash does the rest and brands can let their images be found and used.
Distel believes that a brand in every space could own Unsplash for its name, and that this is a relatively new medium that even small brands can explore.
What can go wrong?
When meeting new people, they often look at Distel curiously and say that he sounds familiar to them, but don’t know where. It will often be recognized at digital marketing conferences and entrepreneurial networking events. While this is fun, Unsplash’s fame has its downsides. Distel admitted that some people had created fake social media accounts in his image, including one who followed his friends online and sent them direct messages asking them for money. BarStool Sports shared a photo where his image was used on a fake dating profile, with an unflattering description.
He sometimes has comments from disgruntled photographers, who think photographers shouldn’t use Unsplash because it belittles their work. Distel believes that Unsplash represents a huge opportunity for photographers to market themselves and hire, using images that were only going to be deleted. Her images would always credit the photographer, but the comments always pass. Either way, he knows everything is small compared to the upside.
Overall, this experience takes all the best elements of marketing and combines them for a big impact in terms of brand awareness, reach, and backlinks. A great idea, an underutilized medium, a marketer who acts quickly and creates great content that others share because it’s in their best interests to do so. The potential for brands and individuals is enormous.