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Opinion: A fearless future for volume photography

By Marissa Latshaw

Taking business online in 2019

To say that “online” doesn’t work for volume photography is like saying a hammer doesn’t work to build a house. “Online” is a tool, like any other, that won’t do anything for your business unless you know how to direct it, how to use it. Despite this fact, some volume photographers have “tried online” and have vocally concluded (ironically, on Facebook) that it doesn’t work.

There are many industries that have had to adapt to taking their traditionally offline businesses into the online world. The music industry naturally comes to mind as musicians accustomed to selling physical albums saw their sales dry up in the late ’90s and early ’00s, being replaced by downloadable singles and then streaming services. Many of these same musicians evolved to use “online” as a tool that now helps get their music discovered, promote live performances, and ultimately make a living doing what they love.

You can draw similar parallels to retail, books, movies, transportation, news, sports… pretty much every major consumer industry has experimented with different online approaches – and it all has accelerated with the onset of mobile. The result? New, uncharted paths, unforeseen sources of revenue, significant efficiencies – and perhaps best of all, consumers who are surprised and delighted by the newfound convenience they enjoy: tapping for that first Uber ride – or carrying an entire library of books and movies on a 1-pound tablet.

Certainly, in just about every case there are growing pains during the transition – but the business owners who embrace technology and are patiently open to experimentation come out the other end with businesses on stronger, more solid footing. These businesses are set up to scale up and at the same time attract the next generation of customers who are increasingly accustomed to running their lives online from their mobile devices.

Need validation?

Nothing validates the move to take volume photography online more than last year’s Shutterfly / Lifetouch acquisition. Shutterfly has direct, online relationships with parents, and Lifetouch has the photo capture infrastructure. A perfect match, really. Together, they are driving, at a large scale, efficiency and convenience into our industry creating a new “picture day” standard for parents. They’ve fused the chasm between digital and print photo products, and this presents a tremendous opportunity for our industry.

A way forward

For the volume photographer that has a steady business based on physical order forms or hybrid methods, there is natural concern that “going online” could disrupt reliable income. That’s why having a smart, strategic approach is essential. Careful experimentation on a controlled scale is key, especially for established businesses. As with anything, it’s important to choose the right tools and then take the time to try different approaches for engaging with customers. The way forward depends on making it frictionless for parents so they know exactly when, where, and how to view and order their photos.

The impact

For photographers who are ready to embrace technology and experiment with taking their businesses online, the impact is great:

  1. Less time, less cost…less stress – One of the biggest benefits to online is the elimination of time-consuming (painful!) manual processes and backend paperwork that eat into the bottom line. This opens up the possibility to take on more, and potentially varied, jobs.
  2. Direct customer contact – Schools, leagues, and organizations no longer have to stand between the photographer and the customer. Photographers can communicate steadily with their customers before and after picture day…and beyond.
  3. Sales-driving incentives – Special offers and coupons are an essential and expected part of ecommerce. These incentives can be used strategically to encourage desired buying behaviors – like creating purchase urgency and increasing order values.
  4. Lifetime customers – Online relationships open up opportunities for sales beyond the one-time picture day, making seasonal gift sales as well as multi-year photo products possible.
  5. Better business intelligence – When running business online, every single order is packed with data that can easily be analyzed. This intelligence makes businesses smarter about everything – from which products to offer to what jobs are most profitable.
  6. Happier customers – At the end of the day, delighted customers is what every business owner strives for. The happier the customers the more guarantee of future business. By eliminating onerous steps, photographers can focus more on capturing and creating beautiful, breath-taking images and providing top-notch service to their customers.

All of these things, taken together, are already driving more sales and higher profits for the studios who are blazing the trail for our industry. These same studios embrace the paradigm shift that prioritizes profitability as the most important metric. By increasing profit margins, they are positioned to scale while zeroing in on the marketing levers that further increase participation and order values.

Not to fear

Sure, there are big, national players out there but that has never stopped the small and mid-sized business owner from carving out a niche in his or her own market. There’s no reason that it should now. A commoditized, mass-market approach to photography is never going to have the same appeal as the relationships that photographers cultivate with local families – and the quality of photography that can only be created with investment in skills and craft.

With the new year comes new opportunities to explore all of these facets of the future of our industry. We think there’s nothing to fear – in fact, we’re encouraged and excited to see how the most innovative photographers incorporate the latest tools into their businesses and lead us into places we haven’t yet imagined.

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