The Best Things in Life are Free?
“The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life they’re free”— B.G. DeSylva and Lew Brown,1925
I received an e-mail from a friend this morning telling me about a former newspaper photographer who has his own year long pro bono photo partnership. My friends comment s was that he hoped the person in question “picks some small non-profit in southeast Colorado, otherwise many photographers will lose more money should he partner with one of the larger non-profits.” His take was not only would this photographer be hurting himself but his fellow pros as well.
There is no more powerful word in the English language than free but while everyone knows free stuff is good, photographers have to realize there’s really no free lunch or any other kind of freebie. If you get something for free, somebody somewhere has to pay for it. One question I often hear from photographers competing against studios using freebies as inducements to new sales is “how can I compete with this?” You only have two choices and I prefer the second one. First, you can cave in and offer similar or better freebies to potential clients. This is a bad, bad idea because it starts a freebie arms race with your competition that can only end after one of you goes broke. Second, you can emphasize that your rates are lower because you don’t offer “free gifts,” an oxymoron as incongruous as “congressional ethics.”
It’s a business fact of life that clients like to feel appreciated and it doesn’t cost a lot of money to say “thanks” to them from time to time so don’t confuse freebies with expressions of appreciation to existing, supportive clients during the holidays. Around Halloween, Mary and I used to distribute small black boxes containing truffles from See’s Candies to our favorite business clients. The boxes had gold stickers bearing the studio name and phone number. By doing it in person, we also gave the clients an opportunity to discuss future projects under low-stress conditions.
Part of competing is knowing the costs of doing business and making that an element of your business plan. When I hear photographers moaning about profitability, I’m reminded of an encounter between noted photographer, Charles Lewis and someone attending one of his seminars. The gentleman asks Mr. Lewis, “I’m loosing $50 for every wedding I photograph.” Mr. Lewis looks him in the eye and replies, “You know what you need to do, don’t you?” Excitedly, the man replies, “Yes, I need to do more of them.”
Most of the time, “free” doesn’t work as part of a business plan, and using freebies to get new customers breaks one of Farace’s most unshakeable Laws: It’s hard to make money when you give stuff away.