What happens when you ditch the shotlist?

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What creative can look like

I was recently at a conference focussed on how big brands are using digital marketing to help grow and engage their target markets, and unsurprisingly, photography plays a huge role in helping marketers achieve their goals.

One of the presenters threw up a slide showing a wall of beautiful, on-brand photographs, each one like a unique page in a big story book. The images ran off the huge screen behind the presenter and you don’t need a degree in marketing to see the immediate value these kinds of high-quality images have for a variety of digital campaigns.

The presenter explained how they had gone about creating such an impressive bank of images to help them fill the huge need for continual and creative content that is the new normal in advertising today.

Did they send out a detailed list of requirements to their agency? Did they pore through hundreds of thousands of images on stock photography sites searching for ones that had just the right look and feel? Did they (shudder) run a crowdsourcing campaign directed at photo enthusiasts and amateurs, relying on their user-generated content (UGC) to give them what they needed?

Nope. They did something far simpler, and far more effective (both in terms of time and significantly, cost). They hired a professional, whom they gave a creative brief to, then let loose.

What they needed were a lot of images, rights-free, fast that they could use to fill the image needs of their planned campaigns. The company sells healthy quick meals under one brand in its portfolio of brands. Their analytics on previous campaigns had shown a strong reaction to fresh, authentic photography, so they hired a photographer to do a shoot for them. Importantly, while the creative brief specified the key brand characteristics and personality that the photographs needed to convey, their was no detailed shot list included. Instead, the brand astutely relied on the creativity and artistry of the photographer to come up with the kinds of images they needed.

The result? They got 4000 images, shot over a 3-day span, and delivered with no strings attached. The cost per image was less than half they would have paid had they gone a more traditional route hiring through an agency, or by trying to develop a complicated set of requirements to coordinate and set up a big photoshoot.

This type of contract is trending in popularity and I think it is to the mutual advantage of photographers and their client brands. I’ve always been a proponent of bringing the photographer in on the development of creative, as opposed to having the hired hand execute on someone else’s vision. While it is unquestionably the role of a creative director to make decisions about how a brand message is articulated, creative workers do their best work when they are allowed to engage their creativity independently. It seems obvious that if you are hiring a creative person for their creativity you allow that person to actually use and engage their creativity. Yet surprisingly, there are still many contractual arrangements that view photography as a commodity and consequently diminish the role of the creative photographer.

Not all products or brands lend themselves as readily to this more creative approach to generating images, but I suspect many more could than do, and an increasing number of them will into the future.

The driver is, as ever, simply that this is what the market wants and expects. People are increasingly sensitive to what they perceive as advertising. Ads, in and of themselves, are often viewed negatively and most people would not admit to liking and ad or taking action based on an ad they saw if you asked them – regardless of whether the data says otherwise.

Photography that looks too much like it is controlled by a brand has less of an impact than a more natural, authentic image. This is one of the reason why UGC campaigns are popular and there are growing numbers of UGC platforms developing that allow brands to tap into this pool of content providers.

There is a risk/reward tradeoff of working with UGC vs. professionally generated content that brands need to consider. While crowdsourcing has the allure of being a much cheaper alternative than hiring someone professionally, by definition the quality will vary and the results may not all fit the needs of the campaign. There is a place for both kinds of content sourcing strategies, but in the case of getting high-quality, brand-aware images that meet an immediate need, nothing beats working directly with a professional photographer.

Consumers see hundreds of photographs daily streaming across multiple social platforms, sent in messaging apps between friends, and on the websites they visit.  They are sophisticated viewers and most can tell within milliseconds if an image looks real, or if it has been faked somehow. Authenticity and wholesomeness don’t just apply to ingredients on  a Chipotle menu, they are what people are searching for.  In an age characterized by easy connectivity – making a real connection matters more than ever.

Photographs crafted and designed by real photographers who take their work seriously – professionals in other words – can help brands achieve this. And they can do it on brand, on time, and on budget.

Leveraging the “experience economy” for your next event

We just met
We just met

You have to love marketers. Every few months a new catch phrase captures their attention and suddenly everyone is seeing the term pop up in their email subject lines like it’s a brand new idea, discrete and different from what’s come before and promising new riches to companies that figure out how best to leverage the trend for their wares. The “experience economy” is one of those terms being mooted as what the next big target – Millennials – is living in and how they are choosing to spend their money.

Waxing poetic in bed...
Waxing poetic in bed…

Because they’ve been saddled with student debt, and are priced out of the housing market in most places where they also stand a reasonable chance of getting a job (though probably not with much security) what this coveted and growing cohort of individuals likes to do is “have experiences”, hence the term. I would add that they also really like to share the experiences – of travel, shopping, going out, eating out or cooking at home with friends -across social media on the myriad platforms they engage with hourly.

If experience is the new black, photographic evidence of your experience is the new way to display your wealth. Despite another (complementary?) trend towards minimalism, judging from what is shared on Instagram there still appears to be a strong appetite for furnishing social proof of a non-materialistic, world travelling, lifestyle replete with lots of friends, good food and pithy moments of communing with nature. In the connected, sharing economy, one of the most liquid commodities is photography.

Let’s take a Selfie together

Selfie in Tuscany anyone?
Selfie in Tuscany anyone?

Experiences today are easier to share than ever before. It doesn’t take much effort to snap a Selfie in front of a made-for-postcards backdrop (much easier than actually sending a postcard!) and post it online. I can’t really share my home with all 778 of my Facebook friends, regardless of how many dinner parties I want to host, but I can easily and quickly share photos of the meals I’m cooking and get almost the same level of neuronal strokes that make me feel good about myself as I would if I had actually invited them all over for dinner.

In fact, the sharing of the experiences seems as important – or more – than the having of it in the first place. Does a tree falling in a forest make any sound if no one is around to hear it? The enigma can now be answered in as much time as it takes you to open up Snapchat with your thumb: NO. For the digital nomads living and working in the experience economy, if you did something and didn’t share it, it didn’t happen.

We love ourselves
We love ourselves

The more images people have of themselves, preferably in exotic locales with lots of different (ideally good-looking and/or famous) people, the greater their apparent wealth. For businesses trying to decode this trend before it transmutes into something else, the trick is weaving your brand or product into these snapshots of shared experiences without it looking like crass product placement. Doing so successfully involves creating a lifestyle around your brand that your prospects – or the people who influence your prospects – accept as authentic and real enough to want to incorporate into their own stories. It also means giving them something fun to photograph.

I’ll add that to My Story

In the experience economy, where social media are the new nation states and the social proof created through photos and videos, the new global currency, creating opportunities for good photos can grab a lot of attention cheaply.

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It’s all about the backdrop

If you’re a brand hosting an event, this can be achieved by paying a lot more attention to lighting and the visual elements of your set up than you might have done previously. It also doesn’t hurt to offer good quality booze, hire local chefs and serve original and satisfying food as well but making sure you help people take, get and share great pictures of themselves is critical.

I’ve covered hundreds of events and I’ve observed that no matter what the theme, all people at events have one thing in common: they want to get past that awkward, initial standing around phase fast. Having something fun to do (and good to drink) – whether that’s an onsite photo booth or some kind of custom prop that ties into your brand – helps loosen up the crowd and gives them a chance to start generating and sharing photos of their experience.

Or we could play spin the bottle?
Or we could play spin the bottle?

Are there fun props you can custom build that tie into your brand and are fun to pose with? Think giant shoes people can climb into, or maybe a couch shaped like a bra if you’re trying raise awareness for breast cancer. What about filling an old cast iron bathtub with your product…Setting up old school amusement park games with a twist? Anything normal turned supersized works, as would anything suspended or hanging from the ceiling. Can you implement a viewing platform somewhere higher up to afford interesting views or angles? Selling a tech-related product? What about setting up old style phone booths – the kind that used to be on every street corner but are now disappearing. Irony is still in (sort of). I can think of countless more ideas for brands with photographable products or services that can benefit from the experience economy – anything from booze to insurance. (I love coming up with ideas like this – just get in touch)

The best stories are still unfolding
The best stories are still unfolding

In the end, having experiences is just shorthand for story, and everyone today is engaged in telling and retelling their story across varied social media channels in the universal language of images. Words are being replaced by icons, emotional responses measured by the size of your emoji and lives measured by the breadth and reach of social followers. 

Giving your audience/market something new, fun, and interesting to do, document and share is a powerful way to connect with and stay connected to the people who matter to your business most. 

If your company is in the business of putting on events of any kind (a product launch, sponsored reception, brand elevating evening, etc) you are now in the business of creating experiences. Get it right and one of those experiences everyone is sharing just might be a photo of them using something you’re selling.

What makes a photograph work?

 (Julian Haber)

Hint: it’s not the make of your camera

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Though Maya Angelou wasn’t explicitly talking about what makes a good photograph work, she might as well have been.  Context is everything, and in the context of businesses using photography to help create, promote and develop their brands, understanding the secret sauce of what makes a photograph effective can be very useful, and profitable.

Studying the data trail on images across visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest will certainly lead to some actionable insights, but for a quick and simple rule of thumb, thinking about how the image used is intended to make the viewer feel is a big part about getting it right.

Go pro, amateur or UGC? It depends… 

 (Julian Haber)

Recently at an iMedia conference I was covering, I listened in on a panel discussion led by Matthew Langie, CMO at Curalate, a company that helps consumers discover brands, and helps brands leverage their visual content by, among other things, enriching their photography with relevant metadata that connects back to their commerce sites. It also conducts research into things like what makes an image popular on Pinterest, and one of their findings was that sometimes professional images – those shot by a photographer with professional lighting, expensive kit and under artistic direction, did worse (fewer repins and shares) than images shot by amateurs.

I am not surprised by this finding but I think the real reason why some images resonate better than others is not whether they were shot by a professional or not, but whether there is a match up between the feeling of the image and how the viewer feels in response to it.

In my experience working as a photographer, I’ve observed that there are certain types of contexts where people have an inherent distrust of an image that appears too polished, or looks like it went through too many filters (portraits; over-reliance on HDR in real estate shots; fake family vacation photos from all-inclusive resorts, etc). There is something about the rawness of an image captured in the moment, with minimal adjustments applied afterwards that seems to carry greater weight and authenticity. No matter if the moment is manufactured, which many are, the image – the social proof that gets shared – needs to look and feel real to have an impact. Digitally aware people today, (which includes most Millenials, but also older generations who’ve embraced digital tools and toys as they’ve grown), are very sensitive to any attempt to manipulate them, and an overly edited, “perfect” looking image is often interpreted as some kind of attempt at manipulation.

Does your image have resonance?

 (Julian Haber)

A good photograph is one that elicits a strong emotional reaction that is consonant with the imagery shown. It can be taken in a quick moment of inspiration on a phone, or after careful preparation and setup by a pro. The method is immaterial. The photograph is just the medium connecting two synchronized emotional worlds – the viewer’s, and the one shown as felt and experienced by the photographer. When the two match up, there is a connection formed and the image “works”, regardless of who took it, what it was shot with or even what it is about. A poorly taken, blurry image can have more impact than a perfectly shot, tack sharp one of the same subject matter.

I think a lot of product photography fails, for example, because it focuses too much on showing off the product and not enough on creating an emotional resonance with its intended audience. On the other hand, when the product is shown in a context that matters to the intended audience, there is an emotional connection made and the image is successful. Sometimes, the best product photography hardly shows the product at all and still manages to drive people to take action, which in marketing parlance typically means convert and buy.

This is what I would define as emotional resonance: the degree to which an image is synchronized with the emotional reaction it elicits. The greater the synchronicity, the stronger the resonance. The stronger the resonance, the greater the impact and the more likely it is that a viewer will be inspired by the image to take action.

The more overt the attempt to manipulate that response, the more likely it is that the image will fail in the sense that its resonant capacity has been diminished in direct correlation to the amount of effort that appears to have been put into making it provocative in the first place. If it seems too calculating, in other words, it loses emotional impact and will probably not work.

So what makes a photograph work?

 (Julian Haber)

I think the key is actually empathy. As the photographer, professional or not, you need empathy with your subject(s) and/or the audience for whom the image is going to be shown. If you are using the photograph for business purposes – whether as advertising, embedded native content or some other brand promoting use, you need to be even more careful about making sure the image is empathetic with your audience. As more and more images are thrust into the faces of people daily, the level of attention paid to any particular one is scant and growing scanter. What will make someone stop, look and care is not the production value or the level of saturation, or any other trick of the trade. It will be whether or not the image speaks to them personally, feels real and makes them feel something in return. No single image will reach everyone, but concentrating on how your viewer will feel and empathizing with him or her will go a long way toward making them connect with your image, and ultimately your business, brand or art.