So you walk into your favorite coffee shop early one morning and see a new tip jar on the counter.
You know the kind, the plastic jug with a slot cut in the top and a handwritten note thanking you in advance for tips. You see a few $1 bills and even a $5 bill in the bottom of the jar. Instead of just depositing your change into your wallet, you think “aw heck, they’re nice folks!” and dump it all in the tip jar as well.
I would bet you the contents of that tip jar that the barista, not the customers, placed the bills there. It’s a classic technique, called “salting the tip jar,” which takes advantage of a psychological principle known as social proof. Robert Cialdini summarized social proof by saying, simply:
“We determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.”
If you see that everybody else is depositing bills (not just pennies) into the tip jar, you don’t want to be the cheapskate who just walks away with your hot chocolate. You see what other people are doing, and you do it too.
The business world milks social proof for all its worth – running ads bragging about how many customers they’ve already attracted, saying “ten thousand people can’t be wrong” (even though the most cursory glance at human history suggests otherwise). But these ads work because people are constantly using others’ actions as a reference point, and for good reason:
Social proof is extremely useful. It guides us and saves us from embarrassment in new situations. If you’re visiting a friend’s house and see everyone else removing their shoes before entering, you’ll take yours off too – even if no one asked you too. If you walk into a classroom and everyone is chatting, you’ll try to strike up a conversation – but if they’re sitting at their desks without speaking, you’ll take your seat quietly. From infancy, we learn how to behave by observing how others behave. There’s nothing wrong with this.
Social proof has a bit of a darker side in photography though, which I’d like to address.
It’s a touchy subject, tied deeply to our emotions and fears, so I hope we’ll all approach it with an open mind. And that subject is: Copycatting. Ooh, it’s a loaded word, perhaps dredging up cringeworthy playground memories. Copycatting springs from the principle of social proof, it’s a part of human nature, and naturally extends into the photography business. And it can be downright dangerous, so I’d like to talk about it today. Not copycatting of image styles (I’ll save that for another post), but of business practices. Pricing. Contracts. Website wording. Etc.
When we launch our little homemade raft onto the ocean of photography, it’s pretty safe to say that most of us have no idea what we’re doing. We cast our eyes about desperately, hoping that someone will tell us. We may spend inordinate amounts of time drifting in open sea, reading maps and how-to books rather than actually plunging in our oars and heading out. At some point, we often settle upon one or two “hero” photographers, whose work and movements we follow with fervor. We row after them in their wake, assuming that because they have a bigger ship, they must know where they’re going.
But do you know that they know where they’re headed? Do you even know where they’re going, and whether you truly want to expend your precious energy following them to that destination?
Copycatting in the business world is not the same thing as taking off your shoes to avoid committing a social faux pas.
Social proof assumes that following others’ actions will benefit us as well, but that is not always the case when business and money are involved. Please read that twice. Now, we all mimic each other to some extent – anyone who says otherwise is either lying or simply unaware of themselves. We start blogs because we see others having success with them – and watch with delight as our blog adds to our success. We see others tagging their clients in Facebook images, and when we follow suit we see an increase in Facebook fans. Awesome!
However, in some instances, copying others’ work doesn’t result in success. It can truly damage your business. There are at least three areas in which copycatting is particularly inadvisable:
Aside from the moral stickiness of taking a contract outright, particularly if the photographer paid someone to create it for them, ‘borrowing’ the wording from someone else’s contract can be simply unsafe. Unless you are absolutely certain that the contract was prepared and reviewed by a lawyer to comply with the laws of your state, your contract may not protect you in the way it should. And since contracts should be built to handle worst-case scenarios, you need to make sure it doesn’t spring any leaks. I’ll concede that any contract is better than nothing at all, but trawling online and cobbling something together may still sink you.
When I needed a contract, I couldn’t afford a lawyer to create one from scratch. I created a draft contract based on research, my own experience, and some free legal examples online – and then I traded a photoshoot for a contract review with a lawyer. Even though I had done my research, the lawyer rearranged language, strengthened wording, and added provisions that I never would have thought of, but have since been thankful for. Although I have had next to no issues with my clients, the couple of times something has come up I handled the situation with much more ease because I knew I had a solid contract to back me up. I’d trade a hundred photoshoots for that peace of mind!
A source of frustration and what-if-ing if there ever was one. It’s hard to put a price on art, and your first instinct is usually to say “well, what is everyone else doing?” But looking sideways and pricing based on what you see spells bad news for your profits. First, you have no idea what others’ cost of goods + cost of doing business are. Maybe they can afford to set their album prices that low because their BFF is the CEO of Leather Craftsmen. Or maybe their brother-in-law is an album designer who does their design work for free. Maybe they’ve set their canvas prices artificially high because they’d rather sell framed prints. Maybe the prices are quite low because they have another part-time job. Maybe they had no idea what the heck they were doing either, and they copied their pricing from their friend in South Dakota who only sells discs.
Bottom line, you don’t know what their profit margins are, or whether their price list is actually making them any money. And when clients come to haggle, it’s also more tempting to cave and lower your prices if you just pulled them off of someone else’s website. It may seem innocuous to give a client a 30% discount off of their order unless you know that your profit margin is 66%, and giving that discount actually results in a 45% net profit loss. If that sentence made your eyes glaze over, I don’t blame you. But it’s easier to stand your ground when you immediately translate a “30% discount” into “they want me to take a 45% pay cut.” That can only happen if you know exactly how the numbers on your price list were created.
To set profitable pricing, I would recommend The Photographer’s Pricing Guide Workbook by The Modern Tag (affiliate link).
3) Website wording.
I know, I know, there are only so many ways to say “The session fee is $200.” But the majority of your website’s wording should be as unique and true to your brand as your photos. “Borrowing” someone else’s wording may seem like a good idea, but copyright issues aside – if it doesn’t come from your heart it can seem patched together or altogether incongruent with your images. And as in pricing, you don’t know if that person’s website is actually bringing in any clients – in which case, stealing the wording would be most inadvisable.
I know that not everyone loves writing, or finds it easy to express themselves in words. But I ask: If you’re going to put in the time and energy into creating a website, why not use it as a chance to truly shine as an individual? Why go through all that effort to get someone to your website, only to hand the microphone to someone else and let them talk? This is YOUR chance to take center stage and show prospective clients how different you are from anyone else, and how YOU are the one who can fulfill their needs.
If it’s truly a struggle, there are professionals who can help you with your website wording, classes to take, books to read. I recently ghost-wrote some web pages for another photographer, but only after extensive discussions about her brand, her goals, the type of client she wanted to reach, and the emotions she wanted to elicit. The wording on your website should use all of that information to pull the reader in, relax them, allow them to steep in your images, and push them toward booking you for the unique artist that you are, not just someone-kinda-like-you.
I’m definitely not suggesting that we should never look around at the industry, find good ideas, and build upon them.
Rather, I want us to be crystal clear on why we’re driven to do that, and aware of the dangers inherent in that practice.
If you’re uncertain about how to do something and don’t have the money for education, or the time to figure it out for yourself, it’s really hard not to just copy what someone else is doing. You’re literally fighting an instinct you’ve had since the day you were born. But be warned, you may also be setting yourself up to be legally unprotected, to lose out on profits, or to fade into the background of many other photographers who all sound kinda like you. Better to dig deep into who you are, educate yourself as much as possible, and create solid business practices that will support you.