When people think of a shopping cart, they think of how the websites of
retail companies work: visitors place a number of photos into the cart,
prices are automatically calculated, a payment screen is provided, an
invoice and/or receipt is created, and the product is delivered. In the
case of a photo site, this means either that a high-res images is
shipped to a printing service, or it's made available to download to the
client. The advantage is that all of this is automated, convenient for
the customer, and easy on you. However, this technology comes at a price:
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No wonder then, in a recent conversation with a colleague about why
he doesn't sell stock images on his website, he said he was looking
at some packages that do shopping carts, but added, "I could not
devote any time to really figuring them out until I did my newsletter,
shored up some business, and finished a couple of projects."
There are two problems with this response: The simpler one is the
false impression that a shopping cart is actually necessary in order
to do sales, which itself implies a general misunderstanding of how
people buy stock images. I'll get to that shortly. But the broader
problemand perhaps a more important one for career-developmentis
that people should do projects that have the longer-lasting benefits
first, and save the short-term projects for later. A newsletter is
short-term because it only generates business within the next few days.
Implementing a sales mechanism into your website has a longer time-horizon,
because it generates revenue long after you've completed the task.
Of course, there is another reality to contend with. My colleague's
economic condition is one many can identify with: he needs money
now, and projects that have longer-term payoffs don't pay today's
bills. This is where career-planning is important. You shouldn't
get yourself too dependent on short-term income; you need to build
a business infrastructure early on so that, over time, it generates
business for you while you're doing other things. Otherwise, you'll find
yourself in an endless cycle of constantly chasing short-term (and often
low-paying) business opportunities, and your business never grows.
(For more on this, see Photography and Business Sense.)
This is where e-commerce comes into play. It's not only important to
have it, it should be done as soon as possible. Every visitor to
a site that doesn't have a shopping cart is a potential missed opportunity.
(True, some people will still contact you to ask about buying, but these
will buy anywayit's everyone else you need to think about.) The good
news is that building a very basic, bare-bones ordering mechanism
sufficient for most visitors is easy.
Why is "basic" good enough? Unlike the perception that most photographers
have about stock photographythat millions of monthly visitors go to
the websites of major stock agencies to buy millions of imagesmost
real people don't buy photos that way. Stock agencies generally focus
their marketing efforts on traditional advertisers and media companies,
who have very particular and precise business models. This, as opposed
to buyers that end up on most photographers' websites who landed there
as a result of a keyword search from a general search engine. These
users don't need multiple photos; they usually only need the one that
they were looking for. Also, unlike media outlets who need photos
"right away", most users don't; they're happy to wait a few hours,
a day, or often longer. Therefore, most photographers don't need the
degree of sophistication that most shopping cart applications have for
websites. And, that level of automation, as my friend at the beginning of
this article points out, requires considerable time and effort to figure
out, and then integrate into an existing website. (That is, unless if
you're not already technically proficient.) So, a shopping cart "system"
really isn't needed by most individual photographers.
Besides, there can be other reasons why you wouldn't want to have
a site be totally automated. For example, I view each and every
order to assure that the order can be delivered in the first place.
There may be circumstances of the photo that may prohibit or limit the
sale, such as a photo of a person that isn't released, or if an image
already has a semi-exclusive license. In such cases, I wouldn't want to
run the transaction or deliver an image. Building in such decision-making
algorithms into the database that a real shopping cart application would
use would be an incredibly onerous task. Making the decisions manually
on a case-by-case basis is much easier and more time-efficient.
Remember, you're not a stock agency with millions of images and visitors.
My bet is that even the most active stock photographers who represent
their own works get no more than a few orders per day. Fulfilling orders
manually takes only moments, and all those moments will never exceed the
time necessary to learn about shopping cart software to the uninitiated.
So, the best thing to do is have a simple shopping cart "icon" next to
each image that simply provides the visitor a form to fill out. It has
the price for the image (say, as a grid of radio buttons with different
resolutions and prices) and fields for billing and payment info. When
submitted, you get an email with the values of the fields the user filled
in. This sort of HTML form is the most basic web-building feature that
is provided by all applications that build basic websites. You can even
write it by hand using sample HTML code found in any introductory HTML
book (or online).
It may surprise you that my site gets about 20,000 visitors a day, and
I host almost 40,000 images, each of which can be licensed for stock
usage or sold as prints. And though it appears I have shopping cart,
I don'tit just looks like I do. For the first five years of my
business, I used exactly the method I just described above, with revenues
up to $5000/month in sales. All this using sample "form" code that I
copied from a how-to book on HTML.
What about credit cards, you ask? Yes, you should still get a merchant
account for credit card payments, and you can still have people input
their credit card numbers when placing an order. Again, that's just what
I did, too. But it doesn't mean you have to figure out how to get your
site to process payment. You'd just do it manually: just login to your
merchant bank's website and run the transaction using their own online
processing form using your customer's data.
Incidentally, I never fulfill an order (print or license) unless and
until payment is made. Only certain repeat clients get net-30 payment
terms. Delivering photos without payment first is a sure way to eat up
your time chasing that money later. That's a business decision I came
to midway through my online careerit's just a better management of
time, and I found I wasn't losing sales. Yes, clients can often ask,
or even whine and complain, but if your site doesn't provide the option
of getting an image without payment, customers stop whining and just
input a credit card. That may not be the case for your business, but
that's beyond the scope of this discussion.
As for the expediency that an automated shopping cart system provides,
in my empirical experience, the lack of "immediate download" has only
caused a handful of lost opportunities over the course of time.
Of course, I'm not saying that shopping cart software is overblown,
nor do I mean to imply it's never needed. If you're technical enough
to employ one without spending too much time and effort figuring it out
and integrating it into your site, that's great. There are also several
website building applications specifically designed for photographers that
have shopping cart features built in. Mind you, these aren't applications
easily managed by technophobes, or even the moderately technical. You have
to understand at least enough to manage a web server in the first place.
Whatever you do, remember that the successful photographer is one who
genuinely understands where to best invest time and resources, so if
you're seriously weighing the benefits of all the costs (tangible and
intangible) of e-commerce, don't do just what you see others do. Take a
good, hard look at what you need, and don't do more than necessary. That
said, don't avoid monetizing your content just because it may seem
challenging. If you have a site at all, then you have the wherewithal
to build some kind of faux shopping cartat least, insofar as the
visitor knows it. When you've done that, then go write your newsletter
and tell everyone to come and buy something.
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