In a previous post, I listed my favorite marketplaces for selling vector icons. There are a lot of similarities between the various markets for selling icons, but there are also some significant differences to consider. In this post I outline some important questions to consider when deciding where to sell your vector icons.
This is a two-part article:
NB: I was the supply-side manager for Iconfinder.com for 3 years so much of the information in this article will appear biased to Iconfinder. This is only because I have first-hand knowledge of the details and data so I am using Iconfinder as an example and for comparison. While I want to see Iconfinder be successful, this article is not intended to promote Iconfinder, rather, it is intended to help inform icon designers.
How easy is it to get vector icons accepted to the marketplace in question?
The application and approval process for the various marketplaces can vary quite a bit. iStockPhoto and Shutterstock have a more difficult contributor application and approval process while sites like Iconfinder, The Noun Project, and Creative Market have a relatively quick and painless process.
iStock and Shutterstock have been selling vector icons for over a decade and as a result are very saturated with icon content. Both sites appear to be aware of this fact and encourage new contributors to be as unique as possible (shouldn’t we always be?). If your icons look very similar to other products on the site, it will be difficult to get them accepted. It also stands to reason that it will be difficult to maximize your sales if your icons are not unique enough.
Icon-only sites like The Noun Project and Iconfinder have a much easier application process. Anyone can start selling on Iconfinder provided your icons follow their contributor guidelines. They do not have separate accounts for buyers and sellers. Once you create an account, just click the “Upload Icons” link in the lefthand menu in the dashboard. Once your icons have been submitted, Iconfinder reviews them, typically in 48 hours or less, and you are a seller. You will need to provide your billing and payout information before your shop goes live, for legal purposes, but it is that simple.
The Noun Project is just as easy but the wait time for review, in my experience, is a bit longer. I have had icons reviewed within a few days up to a couple of weeks, though I admit I don’t know how typical that is. Even with the slightly longer wait time, the process is not difficult and they outline exactly what they are looking for in their submission guidelines.
Creative Market takes a different approach than other marketplaces. They do not have per-product reviews. Instead, they review samples of your work up front. If they like your work, you can upload anything you want. Keep in mind, however, they do regularly review submissions and reserve the right to remove any content that is not up to their standards. The benefit is, however, you do not need to wait to get your products to market.
How many active monthly users does the site have?
Most of the sites listed will not share their exact traffic figures (and who can blame them?), but a quick search on Alexa allows us to make an educated guess about the traffic on each site. GraphicRiver.net ranks in the top 5,000 sites on the web. iStockPhoto ranks in the top 1,200. We can safely guess that each site gets several millions of monthly visitors. Iconfinder ranks in the top 4,000 while The Noun Project ranks in the top 6,000.
The number of average monthly visitors does not tell us anything about what volume of sales and revenue we should expect, but it does tell us what the potential is. The higher the number of monthly visitors, the more opportunities your icons have to be seen and to sell.
Worth noting is that one million visitors to iStock is not the same as one million visitors to Iconfinder or The Noun Project since the focus of iStock is broader and the latter two sites sell only icons. One million visitors to Iconfinder or The Noun Project, for example, are more likely to buy icons than are one million visitors to iStock since there is no way to know for what the one million visitors to iStock are searching. They could just as likely be searching for photos instead of icons. Visitors to Iconfinder and The Noun Project, presumably, are only looking for vector icons.
How much competition is there on the site?
The number of designers already selling vector icons on the site is probably not as important as the number of vector icons and icon sets. While you will be competing with other designers, the real competition will be between your products and theirs. This is especially true when it comes to subscription services. Subscription services typically use some variation of the same basic formula to calculate how much is paid to designers. That formula is something along the lines of (sum of subscription fees for the month) ÷ (total number of downloads for the month) = per download rate. That number will then be multiplied by the number of downloads of your vector icons. The more products you have relative to the total number of products on the site, the more likely you are to have more downloads. These numbers should not discourage you from selling on any particular site, but they will tell you how much work you have cut out for you.
How much does the average designer on the site earn in monthly revenues?
I can answer anecdotally for few sites on which I sell my vector icons including The Noun Project, iconfinder, Creative Market, UI8, and Envato Elements. Howevever, you should avoid making any comparison between the sites based on these numbers because I don’t have the same products or even the same number of products on each site. For instance, I have about 2,000 vector icons on Iconfinder but only 200 on The Noun Project, and on Creative Market, UI8, and Envato Elements, I have a few icon sets.
When I was the supply-side manager for Iconfinder, our data showed a direct correlation between the number of vector icons a designer has and the total sales. This may seem like it is self-evident, but not necessarily. The data also showed that there is a correlation between quality, relevance, and the number of followers a designer has on the site. The correlation is completely anecdotal, but it is probably a safe assumption that the same would hold true on other marketplaces as well.
My sales numbers on each of the sites, per month are: Iconfinder (2,000 icons) – $300; Envato Elements (12-15 icon sets) – $200; The Noun Project (200 icons) – $50; Creative Market (12-15 icon sets) – $50; and UI8 (10-12 icon sets) – about $30.
What commission rate does the site offer?
The typical rate paid to designers in the stock icon industry ranges from 50-70%. The Noun Project, Envato, and UI8 pay out 50% of each sale to designers while Iconfinder and CreativeMarket currently pay 70% to designers. iStock and Shutterstock pay about 20-30% to designers. Authors who sell exclusively on those sites can earn a greater share but typically only up to 40%. iStock and Shutterstock also tier the payout percentage by sales volume, so the lower your sales, the lower percentage you get to keep.
It is easy to think that a site keeping 30, 40, or even 50 percent of a designers sales is a lot but when one considers everything the marketplace provides, it is a reasonable rate. The main value the marketplace provides is access to potentially millions of customers. The marketplace also provides marketing and exposure to an audience that most independent icon designers could not otherwise afford.
How actively does the marketplace market itself and what opportunities for exposure do you have?
Iconfinder actively and aggressively markets the site as well as their designers. In my time at Iconfinder, the site had about 1.3 million unique monthly visitors. The newsletter had about 1.5 million subscribers. Iconfinder also has 27,000 Twitter followers. The blog is updated weekly with a combination of in-depth articles for longer engagement and visual/inspirational content. The staff is active in the tech and design communities with guest posts published on Smashing Magazine and the Adobe Creative Cloud blog. In addition, they sponsor the annual Dribbble Meetup in Copenhagen, Denmark, where they are based, each year. Iconfinder also features new icon sets on the home page and newsletter regularly.
The Noun Project is equally active in marketing and strategic partnerships. The Noun Project holds regular “Icon-a-thons” where they work with an entity such as a non-profit and local designers to brainstorm in day-long working sessions to create custom icons. These events attract media attention and gain additional exposure for the site and its designers. They also regularly feature designers on their blog, homepage, and have their own app, Lingo, that helps promote designers by integrating their API into designer’s everyday workflow.
iStock and Shutterstock aggressively advertise to the design community in industry publications and uses re-targeting. So if a user visits iStock or Shutterstock, they will see ads for the sites everywhere they go for weeks.
Does the site offer other revenue opportunities?
Designers should consider what other opportunities a marketplace offers to add to your revenue. These additional services can come in the form of referral or affiliate fees, access to a job board, custom design projects, and direct communication with potential freelance customers.
Iconfinder has an active Custom Design program that allows customers to contact designers directly to negotiate price and scope. Designers can send a request for pre-payment directly to the customer. When a customer prepays for a project, the money is held in escrow by Iconfinder and only released to the designer once the customer has confirmed receipt of the final artwork. This setup protects both buyer and seller. For this service, Iconfinder charges only 5% of the project fee.
Iconfinder and many other marketplaces will also pay members for new customer referrals. For example, every member on Iconfinder has a referral ID which is the same as the user ID. You can use the ID to refer customers with any URL from the site plus your ID. Example https://iconfinder.com/?ref=iconify. When a new customer signs up using your link, you will be paid 50% of their first purchase whether it is a $2 icon or a $490 annual subscription. In the former case you will be paid $1 for the referral, in the latter you will be paid $245.
Creative Market, Envato, iStock, and Shutterstock all also have affiliate programs that are not directly tied to your seller account. You have to apply to the affiliate program. Icon designers should consider whether or not it makes sense to actively promote the site through affiliate programs because you are potentially driving business to your competitors. That said, I actively participate in any affiliate programs that I can because I believe that what is good for all icon designers is good for me. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships.
Who sets prices for vector icons on the marketplace?
Who sets the prices for your icons is another important factor to consider. Many marketplaces allow you to set your own prices, usually within some guidelines or restrictions. Iconfinder, UI8, CreativeMarket, and many others allow designers to set their own prices. Still others, like GraphicRiver set the prices for you.
Thomas Paine, speaking about freedom, said “What we obtain too cheaply we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value”. We can apply the same sentiment to anything that we create that has value.
What we obtain too cheaply we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. — Thomas Paine
Something that is too cheap is not valued very highly by potential customers. Selling a $30-100 icon set for $10 will almost guarantee your sales will plummet. While I was the supply-side manager for Iconfinder, we did extensive research on historical sales data at different price points. We found that $1 icons do not sale at a statistically significant higher rate than $2 or even $3 icons. In order to justify selling individual icons for $1, you would expect to sell twice as many $1 icons as $2 icons but this is simply not the case. Our data showed that lowering the price to $1 only increased sales by about 50%. So if you originally sold 100 icons at $2, lowering the price to $1 only increased sales by about 50%. However, your $200 in sales (100 icons x $2 = $200) became $150 (150 icons x $1 = $150), so the increase in sales volume resulted in a 25% decrease in sales. It simply isn’t worth it.
Customers do not seem to have an affinity or aversion based on price, within reason. Therefor, it makes sense to price your icons at the higher end of the range for the simple fact that you need to sell twice as many $1 icons to achieve the same level of revenue as selling $2 icons.
How Much Additional Work Will Selling on Yet Another Marketplace Add to Your Overhead?
This last question is an important one to consider because your time is finite. There are formulas for calculating exactly what an hour of your time is worth, even if you are a one-person shop. I would say especially if you are a one-person shop. If selling on a particular marketplace will only add another $50 to your monthly income, but takes 4 hours per month of your time, is the additional revenue worth the effort, or would you be better served spending that 4 hours marketingn the shops you already have or creating new products?
This is a question you will have to answer for yourself, of course. Some designers, like me, do all of the work associated with their business themselves. I do all of my own marketing, shop maintenance (uploading, tagging, etc), all of my own icon creation, and customer support. It takes a lot of time but I enjoy it. Other designers run their design companies like any other products company and have employees who help with administrative work like uploading and tagging products on the marketplaces. In those cases, it might make sense to pay an employee to spend 4 hours uploading to a new marketplace each month while you focus on creating new products.
In this article I have tried to share my insight into questions icon designers should seek answers to before deciding to sell on a particular marketplace. I am not trying to convince designers to sell on one marketplace versus another. My interest is in helping to promote, grow, and distinguish the icon design industry as a bona fide niche career choice.
If you have additional questions, feel free to post them in the comments section below. I am happy to answer whatever questions I can for both buyers and sellers. I am also available for e-commerce development and design consulting, as well as an expert source for media outlets.