Group buying services like Groupon can greatly expand a photographer’s exposure, but at what price? We take a deeper look, and come up with a list of best practices. (Photo by Brad Mangin)
Group buying website Groupon.com says they do everything they can to offer “too good to be true” experiences, and consistently deliver on that claim. This can be both good and bad.
Last month, when a photographer in Atlanta, Georgia used the service to promote a discounted offer on her portrait photography services, many people cried foul when it was discovered that her online portfolio contained images taken from the websites of other photographers.
A heated exchange erupted in the Groupon message board, the photographer removed the images in question, and Groupon ended up refunding everyone who had purchased the offer.
This unfortunate event brought Groupon to the attention of a lot of photographers, many for the first time, who wondered if the service could be used legitimately, to benefit their own businesses.
What is Groupon, and can a photographer use it to gain exposure and make money? The answer is, “it depends.”
Groupon is a Chicago-based “deal of the day” website. It’s name is a combination of the words “group” and “coupon.” Every day, in cities around the world, the site sends out one coupon to subscribers in each market it serves. Groupon collects the money from the customer, takes 50% for themselves, and sends you the rest.
Not every business or discounted offer is accepted by Groupon. There is a review process that businesses must go through, where they help structure the deal and prepare the business for what will come next.
It is in Groupon’s best interest to make sure that the coupons they send out are no-brainer deals where anyone and everyone can spot the value.
The results can be dramatic, with thousands of people taking a deal in a single day. This can be a great way to gain exposure to new clients, but it can also be a disaster to your business if you’re not prepared, and/or if the deal is truly “too good to be true.”
Keep in mind that the type of people looking for deals through Groupon may not be your ideal customer. They are coming to you because of the deal, and not necessarily because they are impressed with your photography. A recent story appearing CNN’s website titled “Groupon study looks at culture of ‘cheapskates‘,” addresses the findings of a recent Rice University study.
“People that buy these discount coupons tend to be demanding and appear to only want the discount rather than a relationship with the business they buy from,” one business owner said.
So, with that in mind, what are the “best practices” for photographers who wish to use Groupon?
To find out, I asked a few photographers who have been through the process at least once. Joey Chandler, a San Francisco Portrait Photographer, and Charles Brabham, who runs Skipping Stone Studio in Southlake, Texas.
Groupon for Photographers: 6 Best Practices
1) Structure the deal so that up-sells are attractive to a buyer.
The only way to really make this work, is to formulate your offer so that up-sells are part of the process, and your customers will want to buy them.
For example, don’t offer a customer five 5″ x 7″ prints of their choosing with a DVD full of the entire shoot, and then offer additional prints for a fee. They’ll most likely not buy any more because 5 is plenty, and the can go home and print whatever they want later. Instead, consider offering them one 11″ x 14″ print, which they must choose on the spot, and that’s it. Each additional print is an up-sell. And if they want the digital files, that’s another up-sell.
Why 11″ x 14″ prints instead of something smaller? Because that size print can’t fit easily on a typical home scanner.
“As far as the offer itself, it is best to offer a great value for the customer while ensuring that you will have an opportunity to up-sell the offer and generate business for yourself. Think about the maximum you would want to sell too.
Our offer was a $49 in studio session plus a print. It has worked out very well for our studio. So far we have run a total of 3 offers through Groupon and all 3 have brought us a lot of business, however it is still important to have our regular customer base.” – Charles Brabham
2) Keep an eye on the bottom line, and be realistic about time.
When you structure your offer, do the math in advance. Don’t dig yourself into a hole by offering to travel to any location to shoot a portrait because travel takes time and costs money. Put a cap on the amount of time you’ll dedicate to each shoot. Don’t make image toning and retouching part of the deal because that takes a lot of time, and when you’ve got 2,000 people to take care of, time isn’t something you’ll have plenty of.
“Yes you can book yourself solid for months, but only if you extremely discount your services. This is especially challenging for a one-man show like myself. Photographing, processing, uploading and selling prints from a 100+ sessions is no easy task.
If you only want to do weddings or commercial then the Groupon won’t work. Also, if your deliverables require heavy Photoshop work then I’d really think twice about this. You are going to get a lot of customers which will require a lot of work with not much money up front.” – Joey Chandler
“The Broader the offer the more appeal to the Groupon customers. Just be sure not to over exceed your studios capacity to service the customer. You will often times end up with more business than you think from the Groupon offers, so plan accordingly.” – Charles Brabham
3) Collect the email addresses of your offer-takers.
Groupon will supply you with the names of the people who buy your coupon, but they won’t give you email addresses. This is important because at the very least, the offer should build up your mailing list for marketing and follow-up purposes later. So, make it part of your process to redeem a coupon by asking each person to email you right away, even if they are not yet ready to schedule their shoot. Once they do, grab their email address and add them to your list. You’ll want to encourage repeat business from these people, so be sure you can contact them.
“Make sure you say “Once you get your Groupon – contact me even if you don’t have a date in mind.” A good number of groupons are never redeemed and while you get paid if the groupon is redeemed or not, unused groupons do you no good. You won’t get their email address from Groupon so having them contact you is in your best interest.” – Joey Chandler
“We are still searching for the magic equation to solve that issue [returning business], however we have had several customers that have returned for future sessions after using the groupon for a different type of session. i.e some of the Family portrait groupons have scheduled Executive headshots or Senior photos after coming in for the family portraits.” – Charles Brabham
4) Do not give away your digital files.
The single biggest mistake a photographer can make it to give away the digital files as part of the Groupon offer. Yes, it’s what every customer wants, and yes, the Groupon representatives will tell you that the deal will be much more attractive if you do – but don’t. Digital files should be something that you up-sell later, if at all.
You can use the advanced image delivery tools within PhotoShelter, such as the “Personal Use Downloads” feature, to easily sell digital downloads to customers as well, so you don’t have to spend time making a DVD, or emailing the files.
5) Blog frequently about your Groupon shoots for the SEO benefits.
A Groupon offer can help improve your SEO, too. Since you will be shooting a lot of new content, it gives you something to blog about. Write about your experiences, share the photos you’ve shot, and encourage people to link to them. Your customers will probably appreciate the nice things you say about your shoot, and they’ll want to share with their friends. You may think that you’ll be too busy to worry about blogging and SEO, but when the deal ends and your life returns to normal, ranking high in search engines will matter.
6) Be very organized and prepared to handle all the work that will come.
Don’t underestimate the volume you’ll get from an offer. Have your processes in place, be ready to answer the phone, have a calendaring system in place, create a ‘Groupon FAQ’ page on your website, be ready to answer questions on the phone, via email, and through Groupon’s message board, and realize that you will need to be doing this full time. Poor organization will result in bad customer service, which will harm your business in the long run.
“Need to get your back-office processes in place – this is crucial. That means looking at your contact management system, your contracts, your website, your image processing, your image delivery, and your sales process. The actual shooting will be the easiest part.” – Joey Chandler
“Be prepared for a large number of calls and emails for the offer day and first week after running the offer.
It is important to know that it takes more time than you would think to finalize your offer and get everything set up. Be sure to plan in advance and give yourself plenty of time to approve and schedule your offer.” – Charles Brabham
During the term of the offer, you have 2 goals: To provide incredible customer service, and to produce extremely high quality photography. If you consistently do this, you stand a much better chance of getting return business and referrals from the Groupon offer-takers.
You may also consider getting some help. Chandler offers a Groupon Consulting service for photographers.
“Sessions are $100 each and done over the phone,” Chandler said. “We’ll talk about what needs to be done to maximize this opportunity and for you to stay sane.”
Those interested should contact him to schedule a call.
Groupon has grown tremendously in the past few years, but they are not the only game in town. There are other, smaller, specialized, services that harness the power of group buying that are worthy of consideration for photographers.