Changing Gears. A brief blog about marketing for local photographers.

I just got off the phone with a dear friend who started a landscaping business here in Austin, last year.  She's doing okay with her business but like most of us she needs a stream of new clients to keep her business going and growing.  She'd like every client to be a big client  but we were talking about how human nature really works and after mulling it over for a while we settled for doing marketing the way big companies do when courting consumers.  We like the classic model of retail marketing.

The biggest obstacle companies of every size face is getting someone to effect initial trial.  To take active steps to work with your company the first time.  To make the move to buy your product the first time.  And there's a lot of logic to the customer's resistance.  Most things people spend money one aren't really necessities.  If your product (photographs) or service (photography) isn't in the same category as food, shelter and electricity they've probably done okay without it for a long time.  If your client is an ongoing business, like an advertising agency or marketing department within a company, they probably already have a trusted supplier or a list of referred suppliers.  Something may have changed in their situation and you've showed up on their radar as someone who can potentially  add value for them.

The customer may have determined that they'd really like to hire a photographer for their daughter's wedding.  The ad agency may need some photographs for a series of ads.  But there are doubts that you'll need to overcome to get the work.

Since the clients have never worked with you before they will have doubts.  Will they like the final image?  Will it be worth the money they have to spend?  Will you be able to deliver?  If the need is timely, are you reliable?  Will they enjoy the time they'll need to spend with you to make the job work?
Their fears as retail customers are:  Will I get what I'm paying for?  Will I like what I get?  Could I spend this money on something else and have a better emotional reward? (Better cake.  More flowers.  Nicer food. Cooler dress.)

For the responsible party at the ad agency or marcom dept. the emotional reticence is the same.  Will this supplier be able to deliver a good product?  Are they reliable?  Will we get our monies' worth?  And the fears sound something like this:  If this supplier messes up will I lose credibility with my client?  Will I lose the trust of my employer or supervisor?  Will we have time to pursue other options if this doesn't work?

Having never worked with you before all these responses are a natural part of the divining process.  On some level people hate to make bad purchases because it calls their competence into question.  I firmly believe that online product research will (or already has) outstrip porn sites in our society because people are so determined to check in with everyone else and to research each purchase in detail.

So, how do you handle getting in the door?  I'd suggest that you do it by finding a product or service your business supplies that has a low purchase cost and a very high probability for success and offering that product or service to customers first.  The price has to be low enough so that, in the event of perceived failure, the client isn't afraid of taking a risk.  You'll need to finding a pricing inflection point at which your offering value potentially outweighs the risks involved in buying it.

In my business it's the head shot or business portrait.  In the coffee business it's a small cup of coffee.  For a camera company it's 4x6 inch color prints.  I price my in studio commercial headshot sessions at $250.  This includes the sitting, a web gallery for selection and the retouching and digital delivery of a file (in three sizes) for their use in public relations and promotion.  When business slows down I'll have a sale and provide the same service for $199.

Starbucks often introduces new products by sending out coupons for a free, small serving of the product.  It takes away the "what if I don't like it?" fear.  My favorite camera store will do give aways of prints that only require that you come into their store with a coupon.  Starbucks assumes that most people who try their product (and their service and store environment) will like it and come back for more.  They've removed all the risk for you to try them.  The camera store has provided an incentive for people who are interested in photography to come in and check out their store.  They'll assume you've never been to such a good photo retailer, that you'll be impressed by their prices and their knowledgeable staff and that you'll enjoy the experience enough to make them one of your vendor's.

I know that most companies won't blink at spending $199 to get a great marketing image of one of their important employees and I hope they'll have a positive experience with me, with my delivery and with the image.  And to back that up, if they don't like what they see in the galleries, we offer a money back guarantee.  If you aren't happy with my work I'll refund your money or reshoot you for free.  Your choice.  Once they are in the studio they'll see nice work on the walls.  They'll see how I handle portrait sittings and they'll see how well people respond to their new portrait.  They get to see us in action.  They get to see the result for a low financial risk.  We've found the inflection point and used it to get them to effect trial.

Now, when they return to Starbucks they'll feel more confident about their chances for satisfaction if they order a larger, more expensive treat.  Having been treated well and having gotten wonderful color prints on their first visit, the camera store customer will feel more at home coming back to talk to an "expert" about a new lens or camera.  And now that they've had a good experience getting their portrait done at a good price (with great service) they'll feel a lot more confident talking to me about a bigger project.  With a bigger budget.

Each interface with a customer gives you the potential to strengthen the relationship (or kill it).  But in each step you have the opportunity to make them feel smart about their original decision to buy.  And that's the crucial decision for your business.

Consultants in our business love to talk about getting in the door at Nike or a big ad agency in New York but in reality only a small percentage of photographers will play in that rarified arena.  The rest of us need to understand how to work, survive and thrive in second tier markets and with normal, day-to-day clients.  Getting that first yes is critical.  It's the stepping stone to bigger and bigger projects.  And it's the financial foundation for organic growth.

So, when we got into the subject of landscaping we talked about the current reality of central Texas.  We're in the middle of a severe drought.  There's water rationing in many areas.  And the big trees on our properties are starting to be affected, not just the lawns.  And a big tree can add $50,000 to the value of good properties so it's important to do what's possible to keep the trees healthy.  A simple step is to surround the base of your trees with mulch so that when you deep water them the mulch holds in much of the precious moisture for the tree to use.  We decided that people will be slow to add new plants or undertake big landscape projects during the worst of the drought but they would have a keen interest in taking care of their trees.  My friend is putting together an offer to "remediate" effects of the dry weather on the trees by enriching the soil and putting down a healthy mulch spread, with a ringed dam, to retain water and help the trees use it efficiently.

She's determined to keep the cost per tree low.  She'll offer the service to her existing clients and target new people within her target market with a simple mailed card.  The cost point will be negligible compared to the value of the trees.  And the people in the demographic she markets to would much prefer using this service instead of sourcing mulch, transporting it and then working in the 100+ degree heat.  She'll also put together a little paper about proper tree watering as a "leave behind" piece.

Given that bigger landscaping projects can run into the tens of thousands of dollars or more getting people to effect a first trial is a great way to build the business.  It may be basic marketing but I get the sense that most people are looking for the big splash in their marketing and that may just be counter productive.  Fish in a good stream before going out after whales.  It's all about sustainability.  In landscaping and in photography.

Hope you are having a cool, fun, happy Sunday.   I'm heading out to buy some mulch.

P.S.  Once you've gotten someone to try your photos, your mulch, your coffee or your prints be sure to drop them a nice, handwritten note and tell them how much you appreciate their business.  You wouldn't be in business without them.


Jan Klier said...

Thanks :-)

Jan Klier said...

Adding a few thoughts:

Another way to break down that barrier is to build trust before the sale. This can be by someone else talking about you (referral) or by getting to interact with the prospect in a non-sales fashion (networking). Referrals are great down the road, but are a catch-22 early on.

In my business I've found that getting involved in organizations is a good way to build that trust. And I mean not just going to an event and handing out biz card. To the contrary, keep your cards in your pocket until someone asks you, and instead volunteer your time, work on behalf of the organization. That way you get to interact with prospects as a member of the organization, someone they've already decided to trust, rather than being a stranger with a sales pitch. In my case I offered to do a 30min photo shoot for the monthly newsletter of one of the organizations I'm on the board of. It's a limited supply, gets advertised as a benefit of the organization, I get to do a 1:1 session with another member at their business location, and they get to see how I work, they get something for it, at no risk. It doesn't scale, but it's another way of getting this initial interaction to overcome the fear of the unknown.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, I read this in your commercial book and thought it didn't apply to me. A year later and I realize most of my big work grows from small work. That it almost always works that way. When I try to fight what you say I fuck up. When I listen to what you say I make money. That's an interesting thing for
me to realize.

Mindless said...

Thanks for the interesting and valuable advices! :) I'm always trying to figure out how and where should I step forward.

Wolfgang Lonien said...

Hmmm 250$ for a portrait taken by Kirk Tuck? Too bad I don't live in Texas...

Denis Markell said...


At least in my neck of the woods, word of mouth was the single most important way of getting new business. That and putting promotion cards of cute kids in bags around the playgrounds. I was convinced that social networking and internet searches would be the key, but as long as I was staying local, I'd always ask how people found me and it was either through a friend (seeing the work on their wall or recommendation) or taking a postcard.

But absolutely in today's climate the "special deal" thing would be key. But as the above poster suggested, it really does come down ultimately to the quality of the work. Your portraits simply are so good I'm sure that that's what brings them back...


Bold Photography said...

@ Wolfgang - I need to take Kirk up on that, as I live nearby... :-)

Mike said...

Great ideas put out here. Already given me some ideas how to jump start some business in my neck of the woods.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Total gold here Kirk! I can't say how much these types of posts are appreciated. There's art and then the art of business - or business of art (take your pick). You're postings hit on all counts.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Dave. I try. Too hot to write anything today.

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