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    SELLING PHOTOGRAPHS ON THE WEB

    11/22/2005

    It's harder than it looks.

    This site went up in 1999.

    During my first year on the web, I sold one print. And that was paid for by check. And that check bounced. So during my first full year I lost money on my one sale since I had to pay the bank a fee for the bounced check (luckily I still had my day job as a programmer).

    The web site, back then, was sort of a portfolio. Friends would use it to look at prints. I would visit them with the actual prints they were interested in and help them arrange several prints so they could see what they'd look like on their wall. That was my interior designer stage.

    Next realization: people were coming to the site and looking around but still not buying. And I'd never hear from them again.

    There had to be a reason for people to return, and to make the site less anonymous. There was a real human being behind these images. Enter the online journal (later called the blog)

    Traffic began to increase. Not to look at pictures, but to read the journal.

    By having people come back to view the journal - it helped to keep the site fresh in their minds - and some of them came back and bought prints.

    IF YOU ASK THE CUSTOMER TO DO SOMETHING EXTRA you will almost always lose the sale.

    They have quick fingers out there. Another site is just a click away. The sale is usually an impulse sale. The potential customer has to feel that the image they're looking for is just a click away. Don't show too much at once in the thumbnail gallery. Just enough so that they want to go on.

    IF YOU SELL YOUR PRINTS TOO CHEAPLY THEY WILL BE SEEN AS CHEAP.

    When I began, I tried to make the prints as cheap as possible. I just wanted to get them into people's hands. That was a mistake. On the other hand:

    IF YOUR PRINTS ARE TOO EXPENSIVE THEY WON'T SELL

    It is a delicate balance. There is a price point that is related to the size of the photograph. A print that you could never sell for $90 you might sell if you lowered the price to $85 and charged $5 more for shipping and handling. That handling happens to be the most time-consuming part of the whole process.

    This is assuming you are one of the great unknown artists of your day. If you are a known commodity - then none of this applies to you.

    This price-point thing is still a mysterious subject. But the general price range that works (as of this writing) is somewhere between $25 for a small print and $90 for a larger print.

    You may be able to sell prints on the web for more, but you'll sell less of them. The main reason for this is, as I say, You are not a known commodity, and who is going to take a chance (even if you offer a full money back return) of spending a couple of hundred dollars for a print that they've only seen on the web? And here I can't blame them.

    WHAT SELLS

    You may run into a collector of fine art once in a while but most of your customers are looking for something to hang in the living room or as a gift for a meaningful occasion. Here again - the price is important. If you are giving a gift for someone's wedding you want to pay something substantial for it.

    SO WHERE IS YOUR YOUR NICHE

    Before you do anything - you must figure out where exactly you fit into the vast universe of the web. In my case, it turned out to be Black and White Photography of New York.

    Nearly all of your traffic will come from search engines. This niche is the single most important decision you will make.

    If you decide that your niche is Fine Art Photography - good luck.

    There are ten thousand sites, many large corporate entities that compete for that phrase.

    If your niche is too narrow - you may wind up at the top of the search page for that phrase - but not enough people are looking for Photographs of pencils to make it worthwhile.

    As I write this, I'm aware that someone will end up at this page because they are searching for pencil photography (sorry).

    GOOGLE TIPS

    There are lots of books available to tell you how Google works, but here are a couple of tips:

    - The Title Meta tag, i.e. what you call your page should not only be related to what's on the page, but contain at least one of the phrases that people are searching for.

    - It doesn't do any good to just submit your link to all sorts of generalized sites. The big thing with Google is that it not only looks at the content on your site, but looks at the material on the site that links back to you. And also looks at that sites rating for that particular phrase.

    If - for example - one of your keyword phrases is "Black and White Photography" you would like to be linked back to by other sites that specialize in B&W Photography and that are ranked highly themselves for that phrase.

    - I've been told, but don't know if this is true - that Google also values sites where the content changes often. If this is true - then just having a blog dedicated to your subject matter is important but it's not something I can verify.

    - If you just put up pictures without text descriptions - Google isn't going to do much with them. Google can't yet read photographs. And I'm not sure how much it makes from the "ALT" tag. I did read that they were starting to use real human beings to categorize and rank images for their image search.

    THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT

    I don't care what they put you through - by the time you have actually gotten a paying customer you just need to do everything in your power to keep them. Take their returns gladly. If a print is damaged - send them a free print. Whatever it takes. Word will get around that you are trustworthy.

    I once had a customer who was very irate about something - can't even remember what anymore. I got a very nasty letter from him. And I took a deep breath, and told him he was completely right - and that he could have any picture he wanted as a replacement. His tone changed immediately, and a year later he was back for another picture.

    YOUR BEST ADVERTISING IS THE PRINT ITSELF

    When you do make a sale. Put everything you have into producing the best possible print you can. I can't tell you how many times someone e-mails to say they saw such and such a print on someone's wall and they want one as well. Every print you send is your advertisement.

    What you really want is for people to return for more. I have many customers that I don't hear from for a year - and then like clockwork - an order comes in for the holidays. Year after year.

    eBAY

    eBay should be thought of as a part of your marketing. Even if a print doesn't sell - or if it sells for a small amount of money - your eBay listing should always have some reference to your own site. Their rules about this are tricky, but at the very least, if you are posting a photograph, you can put a nice-sized water mark on it: copyright your_website.com

    I have had several art collectors who saw a print on eBay - and although they didn't buy it - they arrived at my site and bought several other prints.

    And if you setup a page on your own site for further information about a print listed on eBay, you are allowed to link back to that page in your description. At least you could the last time I looked.

    If you begin to get good feedback - that also helps. It helps to have a place where people can read "real comments" from other purchasers. You can setup a page on your own site for testimonials as well.

    The point is - that when I did a listing on eBay, I thought of it as a possible avenue for sales, but also as a form of advertising.

    Speaking of advertising - I have never come across any that worked or was worth the price. There may be something out there - but I don't know about it.

    WEB IMAGE SIZE

    This is another important variable. The photographers that visit your site may like to see nice big 800 pixel-wide images - but if you do this in your gallery you are going to be surprised at how many people can't see the full image on their monitor. You are really shooting for the Lowest Common Denominator. You just can't blow off half of your potential audience by doing large images.

    At one time, I had a button that allowed people to see a much larger image if they wanted to. No one used it.

    They want to get a general idea of the picture and - this is also important - anything you can tell about the photograph is helpful. I don't mean what lens you used - but something - some words to describe what was going on. something to give the image some context.

    ENOUGH TO LOOK AT

    Don't start offering prints for sale until you have at least 75 good images. Even if many of the images aren't sellable - and you know that - if they show the quality and seriousness of your work - they give presence to your more sellable prints.

    IT AIN'T GONNA BE EASY

    Selling on the web is a full-time job. In most cases you are the web-designer, the marketer, the mat cutter, the packager, the customer service department, the accountant, the tech support guy - and every once in a while the photographer.

    On the other hand - there are great satisfactions to be had. One thing is that you can show much more of your work than if you were in a physical gallery. In the few gallery shows that I did - the most I could present at one time might have been 15 prints. And things happen on the web that surprise you. Almost every year - something came along: offer to do a book (now out of print); design firms that wanted to use my work in hotels, and corporate offices.

    And best of all - and I don't mean this in a corny way - the friends I've made through this site and the helpful information - I don't think I could have continued without that sort of support.