A team of social scientists concluded three decades of research with the determination that consumers fall into one of two categories: the first shops for a great deal, while the other is in search of something special. Both groups may buy photography, but one of them presents an ideal opportunity for photographers looking to grow their businesses. It’s the ones who want something extraordinary and are willing to pay for it.
These consumers in search of the extraordinary, researchers say, represent the New Economic Order. They’re called NEOs.
Too many professional photographers make the mistake of catering to the other group. These, the researchers call Traditionals, and they make purchase decisions very differently. Here’s how an understanding of NEOs and Traditionals can help photographers be better at branding and selling their services.
How to get your photography business ready for demands and the economic changes of a new generation of clients.
NEOs vs. Traditionals
What defines a Traditional? They shop for the best price on the features they need. Members of this group are willing to cut back on their discretionary spending when it’s time to save, only making purchases when an amazing deal is too good to pass up. Walmart is the ultimate example of a retailer that caters to Traditionals: it’s got everything, always at the lowest price. Being the retailer with the second-best price is a terrible place to be—not only for Walmart’s competitors but for photographers who appeal to Traditionals as well, because margins are paper-thin and consumers will always find the cheaper alternative.
The other group, the NEOs, are entirely different. These shoppers are looking for something extraordinary. They place great value on things like quality, design, uniqueness and authenticity. NEOs will research their purchases extensively and they’re willing to pay up for something special. It’s how Apple, during the depths of the greatest economic recession in U.S. history, sold enough devices that were more expensive than their competitors to grow into one of the first trillion-dollar companies while the affordable competition went out of business. The vast majority of people who might be considered “big spenders” are NEOs. It doesn’t mean that price is unimportant; it’s simply not the deciding factor.
While these descriptions sound a lot like what’s long been said about the younger generations, Millennials don’t have the NEO market cornered. There are NEOs and Traditionals across every age, income level and social status. More interestingly, a person’s purchasing style does not tend to change with income. That makes some rich folks Traditionals, and some lower income shoppers are NEOs.
What This Means For Photographers
No matter the market, any time there is strong downward pressure on pricing—whether that’s the price of clothing, computers or photography—that seller is catering to the desires of Traditionals. Competing on price means competing for Traditionals—and likely missing out on the things that appeal to NEOs. Most photographic success stories, whether the photographer knows it or not, come from a base of NEOs.
That’s precisely the market photographer Phillip Blume targets. He and his wife Eileen run a wedding photography business outside of Atlanta, and for them, business is booming. The boom began once they understood the importance of attracting an audience of NEOs.
“One thing that we realized early on that was a real turning point for our business,” Phillip Blume says, “is that if you want to be successful, to really scale your business in this industry, it has to go way beyond trading your time and talent for money. You can't just be trading time for money. You'll never get anywhere. You'll just be spinning your wheels your whole life ‘til you die. We realized we have to appeal to the right kind of clients in the first place. We have to provide an experience. So we're no longer just providing photography, we are no longer just photographers. Instead we have to be about something bigger and provide an experience.”
Generate Profits By Creating The “It” Factor
There are only so many hours in a day, which means trading those hours at the market rate puts an inherent cap on revenue potential. But by catering to NEOs, the sky is the limit. It’s what allows so many photographers—high-end wedding shooters in particular—to limit their assignments yet grow the business. Instead they charge a premium to provide a premium experience to a select group of customers.
“It’s the ‘it’ factor,” Blume says. “Beyond the product you’re creating, it’s that ephemeral word everyone’s using: experience. I just like to make it really concrete, what is experience? It's simply letting people know that they're valued. And that just means human relationships, spending time with them, offering your expertise and making them comfortable and to remind them what's really valuable in life. No one has to buy photography from you. All people really need is food and shelter. So anything beyond that, especially photography, is a luxury.”
“Most young photography businesses are trying to appeal to Traditionals,” he says, “because Traditionals are people who look for bargain value and are price hunters. And they're basically going to go with the least expensive, what appears to them the highest value. And that's kind of understandable, because when you start as a photographer you don't have a lot of confidence and so you feel like you have to compete with the next startup on price. And we watch photographers enter our market every year and we see how quickly most of them disappear. That's really the cycle for photography businesses: going out of business in two or three years. And the reason for that is because they're all competing on price until they're actually paying to do their job because they're not earning enough to profit above their costs.”
“But if you have created a system that instead of competing on price,” Blume continues, “now you can charge what some people might call top dollar but what it really is, is a reasonable, sustainable rate to maintain a boutique business. And what it does if you charge that amount, the amount itself doesn't appeal to the market of NEOs but it's the amount plus the experience you're offering.”
“NEOs tend to understand that their life is short and they want it to be pleasant,” he adds. “So if it's user-friendly, if it gives them a great experience, then they just want to savor every moment and every experience. The good thing is it's not like NEOs are this one little niche group that we've got to try to find. NEOs now make up a slight majority of the market and they’re growing. It’s fantastic to know that. You can really use that! When you realize that, it gives you a lot of confidence to market.”
Good Business Is Where You Find It
Blume says that when he explains the concept of NEOs to other photographers they push back due to the economic challenges in the market they serve. But if it can work where he lives, he says, it can work anywhere.
“The market we live in actually has a high poverty rate,” Blume explains, “it’s one of the big reasons that a lot of people are interested in speaking with us. Because they say, ‘My market just won't support this business.’ And we say, ‘It seems tough, but we can empathize because we're in that spot as well.’ You have to look beyond what seem like the challenges and understand what Eileen and I have found: When you meet these people and market to these people, you find out you can no longer say generalizations about 'people aren't willing to pay that.' Because it's just a certain market segment, and there's always another segment who will pay that.”
Understanding that this market exists is one thing. Understanding how best to serve it is another. The first step is identifying whether a prospective customer is a NEO or a Traditional.
“It’s usually a dead giveaway,” he says, “because the first question, the red flag question, is ‘I’m getting married and I’m checking on prices for wedding photography.’ And we still answer politely and we have a template email that we send to people when we get this inquiry. But if the first thing out of someone's mouth is ‘I'm comparing prices,’ that's what Traditionals talk about. And that's all they really think about. It comes down to price, price, price.”
Three Key Tactics To Make Your Brand Ready For NEOs
Creating an experience makes sense in theory, but in practice how does a photographer—whether he’s selling weddings or corporate work, products or portraits—create the kind of an experience a NEO is willing to pay more for?
1. The About Section On Your Website: “I look at everything in pragmatics,” he says. “Immediately for us it was a change in website design. Where we normally start with photographers who we're coaching is their ‘About’ page. Everyone's About section on their website talks about the reasons they love photography and how they eat and breathe and sleep photography, and when they found their dad's camera in a closet when they were a kid and how it's helped change the way they see the world. They talk about themselves in every way you can possibly imagine. But the way you communicate an experience to a NEO—and really this is just great for human communication—you as a business don't want to appear like the main topic. You don't want to appear as the hero in this story you're writing. You want your customer to feel like the protagonist, like the hero in your story. So changing your About section from 'here's about me' to 'here's about what you're going to experience as we serve you,’ and that's going to include us meeting your needs. So you have to kind of predict who is my client and what are their needs? And you can say just really superficially, well they need photographs of their family. But then you start to get to deeper internal needs, which are a desire to somehow visibly express your love to your kids and help them to feel safe and comfortable in their home, secure as they grow up.”
“It makes you respect your art more to go through this process,” he continues, “because you start realizing what it is we really do. We don't just hand over pretty pictures. We serve some kind of role in our clients' lives. And if you can communicate that through your About page and say, you know, we are here to help you let your kids know that your love for them receives the place of honor in your home and it's visibly there… If you can communicate these things through the About page, that's A number one.”
2. Build Trust With The Followup: Blume says another great opportunity to provide an enhanced customer experience is in the first follow-up to a customer inquiry. Start by anticipating their needs and delivering above and beyond from the get-go.
“You don’t say ‘here's our pricing and here's our next availability,’” he explains. “You say, here's our pricing and availability and let's start walking you through some expert advice on how to pick out your wardrobe and here's a color key on how we're going to help you coordinate. And they haven't paid you a dime yet, but you're already serving them. So you're building this trust factor. Trust with a capital T is—from research we know—the number one characteristic that leads to sales. It's trust. And of course booking is your very first sale to a client. So that's kind of where the experience begins, and for a NEO it's just so important.”
3. Present High-End Services In A High-End Manner: Blume says that another way to up the experience is to provide subtle quality clues in everything the customer receives—from deluxe packaging for deliverables to the weight of a price list in their hand.
“You know, most of our lives is symbolism,” he explains. “Everything that we do from a ceremony or the wedding ring we wear on our finger, we're constantly creating symbols to try to grasp in our minds what is priority in life. And so in a very simple way for products and for businesses, that's the way you package something. If they have to unwrap three levels of wrapping to get to this photo book inside, then that helps to qualify the fact that there is something sacred and important about that book. It's a reminder to them that the photos are meaningful.”
“When we hand a pricing menu to our clients,” Blume continues, “we don't hand them a piece of paper. We hand them a heavy, five-star restaurant style menu so they have to open this heavy, leather bound menu in order to look at the pricing. That weight in your hands psychologically communicates to you the value of what is printed on that page inside. There's so much you do that is practical but kind of gets at giving that experience to your client, and it just goes on and on.”
Create A System To Make NEOs Your Repeat Clients
“It comes down to building a really fine-tuned system,” he adds, “where from the point that a client reaches out to you, you already begin serving them before you ever put a camera in their face. That comes through ways of advising them as an expert and how to prepare them for their session, educating them. Someone told you you're supposed to update your family photos every so often, but how do we really hold them by the hand and lead them into the place where we as artists live and we understand the value that art plays in our lives? How can we educate them on that and really get them excited and to value more what we do? And then just treating them well, surprising them and exceeding expectations along the way until finally we do the thing that we all know we're supposed to do, which is take their picture. And then after that deliver it in some way that is different than what they might expect with just a digital delivery. There's this whole system that intimidates young businesspeople, I think, because it sounds so complex and time consuming, but really you do it once and then you automate it as much as possible. And once you do that and you've saved your email templates and you reuse them for every client and all the things you can do, then you create this service that can really demand a higher dollar.”
For more information on Phillip and Eileen Blume, visit their website at theblumes.co.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.