Locking in Your Clients and Buyers

Photography: AtomicShed

Once you’ve made contact with a buyer, shown him that you produce images that he needs, demonstrated that your pricing is competitive, and proven that you can be relied upon to deliver great shots, you’ll have put in a lot of work. You’ll want that work to keep paying you by keeping that client on board. It’s always much harder to find a new client and start the marketing process all over again than to keep in touch with an old one who already knows, trusts and likes you. But buyers rarely have a strong sense of loyalty. Their heads will always be turned by the next photographer with lower prices, pretty pictures and the professionalism to deliver them smoothly. So what can you do to lock your clients and buyers in, and prevent them wandering off once you’ve made your first deal?

Stock companies have what appears to be the best strategy. It’s a little like an airline’s loyalty program but one in which the customer is forced to buy the air miles in advance.

The stereotype price level of a buck a microstock image is actually almost impossible to find, if only because prices are rarely quoted on an image-by-image basis. Instead buyers pay for credits which they can exchange for images. A new buyer looking for a single image on iStockPhoto, for example, has to pay a minimum of $18.25 for twelve credits at a rate of $1.52 per credit. That’s unlikely to translate to twelve separate purchases at one credit each. The only photographs that are available for single credits are sized at “XSmall.” “Small” images cost three credits, while “Medium” swallow up six. If the buyer is looking for “Large” or “XLarge” sizes he’ll need ten or fifteen credits respectively.

Stock Companies Force Buyers to Leave Money Behind

But the credits come in blocks of 12, 26, 50 and so on, so whichever size of image or images a buyer chooses, there’s a good chance that he’ll have credits left over. Now he has a good reason to come back to iStockPhoto next time he needs photos. He might not have wanted to buy a subscription, the most reliable way to keep buyers on board, but having left money on the site, he’s effectively getting a discount the next time he comes to buy.

That’s not an easy model to copy, and it works best when competitors are doing the same thing. A site that simply allowed  buyers to purchase single images at a set price would look more inviting than a model which forces customers to put money towards their next purchase each time they buy. With images of a similar quality it might even be able to eat some market share. But the attractiveness of locking customers in is so strong that most microstock sites use the same model, selling credits and expecting customers to come back to use their leftovers.

For a photography seller who produces on a regular basis, selling packets of credits might work too. But a more occasional seller, with a more limited inventory, will have to look to other strategies.

Rewards for Loyalty and Referrals

The easiest is to offer a discount to returning clients, a policy followed by wedding photographer, Kelli Lynn. She gives returning clients a 25 percent discount on their portrait sessions. But she also goes a little further and provides $50 gift cards to clients who refer their friends. The cards have no time limit, are transferable and can be combined, so the more new customers the old client refers, the greater the incentive they have to go back to the photographer and use those discounts.

That might not be the best strategy for a referral program. When clients recommend a photographer to a friend their prime motivation is to help their friend, not to gain a benefit for themselves. If you’re going to pass out a discount for referrals, the prize would be more effective if it went to the new clients, not the old ones. But that would only encourage new clients to come in, not to keep the old ones on board. Perhaps the best strategy then is to reward both sides: give a discount to a new referred client to increase the value of the recommendation; and give the old client a reason to come back by showing your gratitude with a discount card.

Of course, when the new client refers someone else, they’ll receive another discount, something to bear in mind when your set your pricing levels.

Much less complex than loyalty and referral awards are newsletters. These don’t lock clients in so much as remind them that you’re still around. A newsletter alone won’t force a client to come back to you and it certainly won’t stop them from looking at your competitors but it can remind them of your work and keep them informed about the projects you’re completing. Instead of being forgotten over time, a process that quickly breaks down any sense of loyalty a customer might have felt for you, the newsletter can bring you back to mind and strengthen the positive feelings the client felt last time he worked with you. More directly, a newsletter can also act as a channel to deliver time-limited offers that do force clients to come back to you right away.

Or at least some of them. Offers in newsletters will only be taken up by a small percentage of subscribers; the rest will ignore the offer and if the newsletter doesn’t engage or interest them, they’ll ignore that too.

Persuading clients to come back to you is difficult. On the one hand, buyers have little sense of loyalty and always want the best for their money. On the other hand though, they don’t want to have to keep looking for new suppliers any more than you want to keep searching for buyers. And that’s perhaps the best strategy of all. Be the best photographer in your field and it doesn’t matter where you customers look, they’ll always come back to you.

4 comments for this post.

  1. Gwyn Headley Said:

    That's an elegantly put postulate, Dean. Picture libraries and stock agencies like us which largely sell rights managed images can't easily adapt the buyer-attractive credit system, as usage differs so greatly. But it's a great way to lock in your customers, especially when you promise to deliver something which is only just achievable after a great effort by the customer.
    Returning clients for a wedding photographer? Where does she work, Reno?

  2. Chris Reynolds Said:

    I like the ideas and suggestions you make, but it seems like it takes a tracking mechanism (like a spreadsheet) to make sure you follow up with individuals/companies. What do you use to track?

  3. Rob Said:

    Some interesting ideas to encourage returning customers. I'd be interested to hear if anyone has used such methods with commercial clients.

  4. Carlos Thomas Said:

    Awesome. To Chris, there are studio management software packages which do just this kind of thing. For instance, Light blue 3.0 is an industry software package (EXPENSIVE). A more inexpensive one is called PSM Quest.

    I offer product credit with my wedding clients to encourage the "leaving money behind" mindset.

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