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A few thoughts on marketing

Asked in a online forum recently:

I am thinking about what I could do differently for the next year for my shows and I am thinking about whether involving a marketing company to do some marketing in the city where the show is held would make a large enough difference to sales to cover the costs. […] Not sure how much the cost would be, but my thoughts are to do a test with a local show, use a marketing company to work on a solid branding as well as get an article in the paper as well as give me a couple of ads to run, that I could then in other towns/cities in advance of shows there. Has anyone had any experiences with this to say that the increase in sales outweighs the cost for the kind of business we do.

Based on my experience in agencies as a creative director, you may find it difficult to find a full-service marketing company affordable enough to make it cost-effective. It sounds like what you may need is a freelance public relations person, who can get you placements with the local media. Buying ads is probably not going to help you as much as personalized appearances and mentions in the news. Think about your audience. Do they read the newspaper? Is there a local magazine? Will they see your ad and remember it when the show comes around? Radio and television advertising is too scattershot to do you much good, except as news.

Free Publicity

If you can get interviewed a day before the show, or during the show on the local news, that’s always good. Free publicity will work better than paid advertising IMHO. Even advertising in the local show program is not generally as effective as you might think. Sure, you’ve got targeted eyeballs in the show program, but most people spend a few seconds at most with each page, often scanning the information, and saving it for when they get home.

Develop Your Own Brand

You might be better off hiring an artist consultant rather than an agency to help you define what differentiates you from similar artists. If you’re creative (and what artist isn’t?), you can do a lot of the marketing part yourself. Especially the branding and design of your materials. (See http://www.wishfulthinking.co.uk/2010/06/07/artists-creatives-internet-marketing/)

Most importantly, you want your brand to reflect your work and your personality as an artist.You may want to hire a designer to help you work on your branding, if you feel that you can’t handle it on your own. Designers, while good at working with the look and content of your materials, may not be the best fit for ad placement and media advice however. It should start with a logo that clearly defines you as an artist, and extends to the look and feel of all of your marketing materials. This includes your business card, letterhead and envelope, your artist statement, booth signage, price tags, your postcards, leave-behinds, portfolio, web site  — anything that finds its way into your customer’s hands. Separate your branding assignment from your advertising needs. Once you have a solid brand, then think about how best to increase awareness of it. Is advertising the best vehicle? or should you spend more time working on direct marketing? What about social networking?

Advertise Only as a Last Resort

If you do decide that you want to run some advertising, make sure that it matches the rest of your branding. Developing ads takes a while — there is a systematic process that you go through to determine what you need, how to get there and how to execute. Many marketing companies do this in a similar fashion, but call it different things. Essentially: Discover, Define, Design, Develop, Deploy. (An example can be found at re:group, an Ann Arbor marketing agency). If you shortcut the process, especially the first two, you may not get what you need. The main thing to remember in advertising that multiple impressions is what usually drives traffic (and sales). And for artshow artists, that’s difficult to do on a limited budget.

Focus on Public Relations

My suggestion is to work on your brand, and focus your attention on public relations & networking activities in those cities that you want to target, rather than spending your hard-earned money on fleeting media placements. Work on getting in front of your target audience through local appearances, interviews, speaking engagements and social networking.

For more advice on marketing, check out Alyson Stanfield’s web sites, or sign up for Ariane Goodwin’s Smartist Summit 2011:

http://www.artbizcoach.com/
http://www.artbizblog.com

Alyson’s book “I’d Rather be in the Studio” is also a good read and well worth the money.

Ariane Goodwin’s blog can be found at:

http://smartistcareerblog.com/
http://www.smartist.com

More than one way to skin a cat

I was asked recently if WordPress can be used to create a whole website, and a shopping cart. The short answer is yes, you can build a website from scratch on it. The bad news is that you’ll need to learn how to design a template around their existing structure if you don’t use an existing one and modify it. WordPress is a platform that separates content from presentation. The content structure doesn’t change much, but the way it is displayed in the “presentation” layer can be styled using CSS and the built-in template editor for the theme. That said, the structure itself is somewhat limiting. Thinking about how you want to display your content may ultimately make the decision to go with WordPress for you.

WordPress creates a very good basic site almost effortlessly. If you only need simple pages that match the WP structure, it can work very well. It eliminates the need for creating your own navigation elements, as you can create “pages” that will appear in the correct places and update when you add new ones. You can also create “child” pages, so that fairly complex sites can be built that are not really blogs at all. This can get you through the simple stage of creating an “about” page and some images to represent what you do. But WordPress is designed for text and images, more than ecommerce. On the good side, WP has a great search function built-in. Tagging your pages and using a third-party keyword plug-in like All-in-one SEO Pack will go a long way towards making your content very findable.

Getting to the next level with a good  ecommerce function with WordPress will be a little harder. I have not seen any good ecommerce sites built entirely on the WordPress platform. That’s not to say that you couldn’t mimic the look of the WordPress template within the blog format. But WordPress is not really set up to display grids of images with database descriptions, pricing and the other minutiae that make an ecommerce site searchable. Embedding a full scale ecommerce site within WordPress, or just linking to it might be the best bet, should you choose to start out with a basic WP site. Once you start adding multiple products and product categories, adding all of that navigation to the WP structure will be nightmarish.

Enter the WP ecommerce plug-in. While I have not examined any of these, you may be able to make one work. There are lots of third-party developers that have already spent time working on this problem. A quick search on the WP Codex for “ecommerce” in the plug-ins section turns up about 70 solutions. WP-ecommerce looks like it’s had a ton of downloads, and some extensions built into it. There are other plug-ins to enable various ecommerce platforms, including Magento, oScommerce, etc.

You will probably discover that it’s much easier to use PayPal or Google Checkout to enable payment on your ecommerce site than it is to go through the security requirements necessary to host your own site and use a full-fledged merchant gateway like Authorize. It costs more per transaction to use PayPal, but it offloads the stringent requirements to the payment processor, while letting you set your own pricing and do your own fulfillment. In the long run, it may be more cost-effective, unless your site starts doing hundreds of transactions a week.

http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/search.php?q=ecommerce&sort=

Another alternative might be hosted ecommerce. There are tons of these out there, not all good. Yahoo Stores, Volusion, Shopify are a few that come to mind. Wayzala is a hosted solution with a WordPress plug-in integration. It looks as if Wayzala’s website is built on the WordPress Platform. Photographers often turn to SmugMug, PhotoShelter and ZenFolio. Your hosting provider may also offer something along these lines, using Miva Merchant, or some other hosted solution. Many times these are also template driven and not easily customizable, aside from the monthly expense. I customized a Kurant Store Sense site once for a client. It didn’t use standard code, but Java compiled code, so was almost impossible to test! It took months to get it right. I suspect the survivors in this market are better now. Kurant has since been acquired (by eBay I think) and is marketing under a different name. It’s still the same kludgy product.

One very good thing about hosted ecommerce solutions is that they will handle the payment gateway security issues. Come audit time, you have less data security to worry about. Of course, you pay for this convenience in the monthly charges. Keep in mind that even if you have a merchant account for selling products at retail, that you will need another account for selling online. The two are not linked as a general rule, and if you want to accept credit cards online, you have to use one of the following: PayPal or Google Checkout; a hosted gateway through a third-party provider, or your own merchant service linked to a payment gateway through a secure server. Many hosted ecommerce solutions will offer options one and two, depending on how you want the customer experience to flow. IMO, using PayPal is very secure, and most customers don’t object to being redirected to a third-party site, as it has a good reputation for buyer-bias.

One place to look for more ecommerce info, including rundowns on many popular shopping carts, is Practical Ecommerce, online.

One other thing to keep in mind, is that SEO is NOT the same thing as site search. If your site is built on a database platform such as SQL or MySQL for your product line, or even if it’s imported from a flat-database such as Excel, you should have good search terms built in for your main user-centric search function. Name of product, description, short description, price, size, breed, etc. should all be built into your product database already, and can be used to provide searchable terms for your site specifically. Search Engine Optimization, on the other hand, takes into account popularity, in-bound links and a host of other information to provide the best destinations for those searching the entire web for their interests. If your key search terms are buried in JPEG images, Flash code or a Java app, they won’t be searchable at all.

>See Search Engine Watch for worthwhile info on SEO and other related topics (some of this is paid content). Google also has extensive information on how to optimize a site for their search spider. While SEO is a worthwhile endeavor, building a site that is easily navigable, searchable as to product information and loads quickly is a much higher priority for most small businesses. There is so much competition in the web universe now that even with the best optimization efforts, you still may not see a lot of traffic coming from cold leads.

There are many many books on this subject, so recommending just one or two is a tough job. For CSS, the CSS Zen Garden is a great place to start learning about separating content and presentation. The above-mentioned sites are good reading for SEO and Word Press integration issues. For any other subject, you may need to drill down into fairly specific areas to learn what you need to know. I’ve found the Peachpit Press Quickstart books very helpful over the years; the O’Reilly books are also well-written and researched.

Good luck!

Bigger is better! Another art show bin idea.

Extra large bin

An extra large bin for displaying 40" prints

A while back, I was carrying extra large prints to complement the 30×40″ framed work on the walls. I built a folding bin from solid oak 1×4″ stock to accommodate these prints.  Essentially a three-sided frame, it is hinged on the two back corners, and held open on the front edge with a 1×6″ attached with bedrail hardware from Rockler. Two long 1″ dowel rods are threaded through heavy black canvas duck that has sewn loops to accept the dowels. Both ends of the dowels are drilled to accept a 1/4″ threaded bolt, which attaches the dowel to the short ends of the frame.

In front of the bin is a simple 2×6″, pine, with 1×2″ screwed to the bottom for legs. A strip of 3/4 pine acts as a holding edge on the front. A couple coats of poly on both keep the weather out.

11 Roadworthy iPhone Apps for photographers

Monument Valley, Highway

The Forrest Gump Road

When I’m traveling or shooting on location, the iPhone 3GS is an indispensable tool. Aside from all of the great little camera apps that you can get with the iPhone, there are a few apps that are creatively useful. A couple relate directly to location use, and others are more for entertainment value while getting from place to place.

  1. Where’s that pesky sun gonna be?
    The built-in compass is great, as far as it goes. Anywhere you have line of sight communication, the compass will leverage the built in GPS system on the 3GS and give you a good indication of east and west. Very useful when you need to locate yourself in relation to a distant photographic subject. In conjunction with the compass and GPS feature, a couple of apps go further in helping you determine sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times. With a built-in database of location coordinates, these apps will tell you precisely where the sun will be at any given time during the day or night. My favorite is Focalware 2.0, published by Spiral Development. Darkness, by Bjango, is a world clock with the ability to give you sun and moon times as well. See also my post on photographic tools for a couple more ideas.
  2. Navigation.
    No expedition is complete without a set of maps. I still swear by the old-fashioned topographic kind, including the USGS maps, and the Benchmark Road and Recreation series are especially good for backroads. However,  Google Maps and Google Earth, both free, are invaluable in finding your way. Google Maps, built into the iPhone, has a better traffic indicator than many dedicated GPS systems. TomTom and Navigon both have full-featured GPS apps that function as well as dedicated GPS, but I don’t like giving up the other features of the iPhone to use it as a GPS. When multitasking hits the iPhone operating system, perhaps this will change. My wife uses Navigon, and likes it. But for me, the Garmin GPS units are better suited for highway and in-town navigation.
    Google Maps is best used in conjunction with a dash or vent mount system, such as Kensington’s windshield mount, or the Gomadic vent mount so that you can view the info without taking your eyes off the road. Personally, I like the vent mount, as it puts the phone close, without it being too intrusive. Using Google Maps on the iPhone and a GPS, I have very good advance beta on road conditions ahead as well as directional info without fumbling with a big bulky atlas.
  3. NPR Radio.
    I like to listen to audio books and NPR as well as music while driving. The iPhone is great for music and books, but sometimes the radio works just as well. But it’s hard to find NPR stations in unfamiliar territory. That’s where this group of apps comes in. NPR Station Finder excels at using the location info on the iPhone to search for nearby public radio stations. Sometimes listening to the radio is preferable to listening to streaming radio, and if you’re like me and don’t want to pay for satellite radio, finding a local NPR station is just the ticket. But you can also use the iPhone to stream public radio, with apps like the Public Radio Tuner, a collaboration between American Public Media, National Public Radio, Public Radio International and Public Interactive. If you have a good 3G signal, you can listen to 100’s of streaming public radio stations for free. NPR also has their own news tuner, NPR News, although I haven’t tried it yet. You can find it, and many more, in the iTunes App Store.
  4. Accomodations and Eats.
    Finding a good place to eat or stay is often problematic on the road. Fortunately, there are lots of apps to help you out. Most of the major hotel chains have their own app, like the Hampton Inn or Choice Hotels locators. These apps are good for finding hotels chains that you often stay at, but what about when you are miles from home on an unfamiliar stretch of road? Finding restaurants and businesses couldn’t be easier with ManGo, Vicinity and YPMobile, which all take different approaches to the problem. YPMobile excels in helping you find businesses as well as restaurants, hotels and other essentials. With predictive search and voice control, the new version is even better. You can also browse by categories, which is helpful. YPMoile is also free, and probably the most useful if you know what you’re looking for. ManGo searches the immediate vicinity for known chain restaurants, which makes it especially handy when you need a bite to eat. ManGo uses different apps for different categories, each costing $0.99. Vicinity ($2.99) goes one better, and searches for banks, cafes, convenience stores, gas, hotels, and more, all within the immediate area. Vicinity also has links to Panoramio and Flickr, a marginally useful feature, IMHO.
    Another approach taken by apps like BestExit, which let you know in advance what’s off each interstate exit. The main drawback to BestExit is that it only works on the interstate, not on tollways, or within city limits. It’s a good add-on when you need a gas station or a McDonalds, though. BestExit is just a buck, though, and has been useful the few times I’ve needed to use it. And don’t forget perennial favorites like Urban Spoon and Yelp. Both have iPhone app versions, and feature other folk’s opinions of local establishments. Urban Spoon’s iPhone app has a neat randomize feature that will give you suggestions based on a limited set of parameters and a quick shake of the phone.
  5. eReaders.
    When you stop for the night, it’s great to have a little something to keep you entertained after you’re done checking the web and your email. There’s always YouTube, built in to the iPhone, or a downloaded movie, but I like to settle in with a good book reader. I can use it in my tent, or in the back of the camper, without bothering with a flashlight. One my favorites is Stanza, which comes with the ability to download thousands of free public domain titles from the Gutenberg Project, Random House Free Library, Feedbooks and many more. You can also download tech books from O’Reilly, SmashWords and many more. A close second is Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone, which works just the same as its big brothers, letting you download any Kindle title almost instantaneously. Both apps are free, but you’ll pay for the privilege of downloading best-sellers for the Kindle. Both apps do feature many free titles, however, and are among the best values in road-worthy apps. And I haven’t even mentioned the many newsreaders that are currently available. Apps like Mashable, HuffPost, Sportacular, USA Today, and even the Bible are available at the App Store. If you like it, chances are it has an iPhone app available for it.
  6. Weather Apps.
    I almost forgot these extremely important utilities. There are two kinds of weather apps, those that run in the browser, like the NOAA weather site, and those that stand-alone. I like the stand-alone versions, and while the supplied app from Apple is okay, it doesn’t really tell you too much you can’t learn by sticking your arm out the car window. WeatherBug works extremely well, loads fast, and has a good radar display, which is important when you’re at a show and need to know whether a storm will hit at 4 or 8PM. Also good is Weather Underground, which does run in a browser window. You can put a bookmark on your iPhone desktop though, because if you’re like me, you’re constantly checking the radar. The Weather Underground radar display is better than WeatherBug’s, and features the “WunderMap”, which lets you zoom, pan and animate the display. The best news is, Weather Underground is free, while WeatherBug costs a buck.

Okay, so maybe I mentioned a few more apps along the way. These are just a few of my favorites, and all have been tested during many highway miles. Please keep in mind that it is uncool to use these while driving. If you need more info on this, read Andy Ihnatko’s post in the Sun-Times. ‘Nuff said. Pulling off to a rest area is much safer, and will keep you tootling along much longer. So drive safe & enjoy the trip!

One of the finest collections of Southwestern books in the West

If you ever happen to find yourself in Las Cruces New Mexico, you owe it to yourself to stop and visit Bowlins Book Center in Mesilla.

Mesilla is one of the most-visited historic districts in the Southwest, and for good reason. A lovely square with a beautiful church at one end, numerous shops and galleries, the famous La Posta restaurant and the incomparable aforementioned bookstore.

Bowlins handles many hard to find titles on western history, culture, geography and arts. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please ask, as the proprietors can likely find it amid the stacks of books piled high on the counters and shelves.

This is the same Bowlin family that established a string of trading posts across New Mexico. It seems incongruous that the purveyors of jackalopes and cheap moccasins could also be the owners of this magnificent book shop, but it’s true.

On my most recent visit, old Mrs. Bowlin was in attendance, along with her daughter. The elder Mrs. Bowlin greeted all of the customers, inquiring after their literary needs, and making sure that everyone was finding that hidden gem. I’m not sure that every visitor realizes what a marvel this little shop is, but if you have a love of Western lore, you definitely need to stop here at least once on your travels.

http://www.oldmesilla.org/html/books.HTML

Five handy photographic tools

As photographers, there are certain tools that we all take for granted. A camera is necessary, but not necessarily a lens, for most photographs. Something to hold the camera: hands, or a tripod, perhaps. Some way to present the images captured, whether on paper or the ephemeral flickering light of the computer screen. And then there is the non-physical aspect of photography, the thinking part. The ability to see the picture, and compose a cohesive story out of seemingly inconsequential moments. Eyes to frame the scene. Ears to hear what is happening while the image is being photographed. A designer’s mind. These perhaps are more important than the camera and tripod.

But this post isn’t about all that. No, this is about the little things that make photographic life easier in the field. Like coffee in the morning and Lightroom in the digital darkroom. Every photographer has a few tools in the camera bag that make life in the field just a bit easier. My five favorites include

  1. My iPhone. Aside from allowing me access to email and internet browsing while away from the laptop, the iPhone has a number of enhancements that make fieldwork a lot easier. Built-in GPS on the 3GS version; mapping, trip routing and traffic for free, courtesy of Google Maps; a rudimentary compass; a rudimentary camera with many third-party apps such as BestCamera, Photoshop Mobile and others; the list goes on and on.
  2. Sun locating tools. Back in the day, I used to use a little circular slide-rule device called a Sundicator. Nowadays, thanks to GPS technology, the iPhone has several good electronic equivalents. My favorite is Focalware, by Spiral Development. With a built-in compass, and the ability to find the sun and moon at any latitude and longitude, FocalWare gives you the height of the celestial objects on any day and date. It also lets you calculate the length of the shadow. With the built-in compass, you can line up a shot with the sun in the position you want. You also have the ability to lookup many common geographic locations, as well as save custom locations that are not already in the database. Darkness, a similar app by Bjango, has some additional features, such as civil, aeronautic and astronomical twilight; the ability to compare sunrise, sunset, moonrise and moonset for several locations; a nifty light map and an easy to use interface. Darkness costs $0.99, Focalware is $9.99.
    A third, desktop based application is Stephen Trainor’s The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. This app is built using Adobe Air, so you’ll need to download that first in order to run TPE. With an elegant interface, and maps enabled by Google Earth, TPE is a beautifully designed application that will do many of the same things that FocalWare and Darkness can. And it’s designed so that it can be run on a NetBook, so anywhere that you have internet connectivity, TPE will run. The main advantage to TPE is that you can see the angle of light superimposed over a map of the area you are photographing. For planning a shoot, TPE is indispensable. And best of all, it’s free. Development is funded by donations alone.
  3. A small level. Although tripod heads often have a built-in level, a small portable level is very handy to have in the bag of tricks. It doesn’t weigh much, it doesn’t cost much, and can be useful for setting up level or plumb on top of your camera. A small hot-shoe plate can be glued to the bottom of the level so that it can be affixed to your camera when using it handheld. Available at most hardware stores and home centers, a tiny three-way torpedo level costs less than $5.
  4. Lens-cleaning tools. I know this sounds obvious, but keeping a small bottle of lens cleaning fluid, a micro-fiber cloth and a small anti-static brush in the camera kit is a no-brainer. Other useful additions are a bubble blower, such as the Giottos Rocket Blower; a small sensor-cleaning kit, if you’re so inclined; and a package of pre-moistened lens-cleaning wipes. Visible Dust makes some very good sensor cleaning brushes, available directly and through photographic suppliers. I wouldn’t recommend cleaning the sensor out in the field, but it’s handy to have in the evening, especially if you change lenses often. An antistatic brush is also handy — Kinetronics makes a small StaticWisk brush on a lanyard that is quite nice.
  5. In-field backup systems. Although the proliferation of cheap CF cards in the 8, 16 and even 32Gb capacity has made portable hard-drives largely unnecessary, having a redundant copy of your media is a good idea. I’ve used Wolverine’s portable drives, as well as a laptop powered by an inverter off of the truck battery. I like to copy the contents of each card shot to an external drive before erasing the card. Ideally, I like to have two copies, one on the laptop and one on an external drive. Here’s where the Wolverine comes in handy. You can preview the images on a built-in LCD screen, and you can copy directly from the card to the device. Battery life is low, however, so carry spares, or a charger. Epson also makes backup units in 40G, 80G and 160G versions. Available through Amazon, and other retailers, many photographers use these devices. The Wolverine is a bit less money, however.

There are lots more tools that didn’t make the short list. For shooting models and small products outdoors, you can never have too many mirrors, reflectors and bounce cards. Grip supplies, from the lowly C-47 to Matthews C-stands, can be handy for larger shoots. Model and property releases. I’m positive that you have your own favorites, so don’t be shy about adding your comments!