"I looked at it as a necessary sacrifice."
I launched a Groupon in April 2010, when my business was around 1 ½ years old. It was the best thing I ever did for my business, which is an opinion you might not hear from most business owners who have used Groupon. When I did the Groupon, they only did one deal every 24 hours, as opposed to their current website which runs hundreds of deals for weeks at a time, but I think the basic lessons are the same.
Are you ready to hear how crazy I was? After a couple weeks of discussion back & forth with Groupon, we decided to launch my deal. $49 for a one hour photo shoot anywhere in San Diego County with a disc of 30 retouched high resolution images. Oh, by the way, Groupon takes 50% of that. Yeah I know… crazy.
We decided to cap the maximum amount of sessions sold at 760 & give clients up to one year to redeem. My Groupon representative told me most Groupons sold about 50% of their limit. I figured that would have me doing one session every day for a year, and of course I could do multiple sessions in one day to have a day or two off a year.
"By 4pm, my Groupon had completely sold out - the first Groupon to ever do so in San Diego."
Groupon gave me 24 hours notice that my proposal had been accepted & my Groupon would be running the following day. Thankfully my husband and I had the day off as little did we know the two of us (he’s in no way a part of my business by the way) would be sitting in front of our computers for almost 19 hours straight.
I was awoken at 4am with a phone call from someone who wanted details about the photo shoot. As I pulled myself out of bed, I logged on & noticed that by 4am I had already sold over 100 sessions & had over 50 unread emails. The Groupon clients were here, and they were ready to book. I quickly typed out some template emails to answer the most common questions & my husband & I got busy replying to everyone as quickly as possible. By 4pm, my Groupon had completely sold out - the first Groupon to ever do so in San Diego.
Was This a Good Idea?
That 4am phone call should have been an indication of the year to come. Most Groupon clients (not all… but most) are ruthless in their redeeming of a deal. I had to completely eliminate my phone number from the internet, as I would receive dozens of late night/early morning phone calls. I took on 4 sessions a day, giving myself 2 days off per week for editing/catching up on emails/packaging & delivering product/attempting to take a little break from work & even with that hectic schedule, my schedule filled up two-three months in advance.
What I Learned
Doesn’t sound like it was such a good thing right? Well it was. Instead of looking at the experience as a way to make some fast money (I knew I’d most likely be LOSING money), I looked at it as a necessary sacrifice. I needed a way to get my name out there & was still fine-tuning my craft, and saw this as a perfect way to gain experience & establish myself as a full-time, working photographer. I certainly learned a thing or two, so if you are ever considering doing a Groupon or something similar, here are 7 tips to keep in mind.
- Always leave room to upsell. By giving away a CD, I gave zero incentive to clients to purchase anything else from me. Therefore, each session was pretty much capped at the $24.50 (pre-tax) I was making. Stupid stupid stupid.
- Be realistic about scheduling. Not all clients will want to schedule in an orderly, even fashion. My thinking that I could spread everyone out over the year was wrong. About half of the buyers contacted me within the first month, another 25% contacted me right before the holidays when I was already booked up, and the last 25% contacted me the month prior to expiration. I ended up extending the deal out by 6 months or so to accommodate anyone who had at least contacted me prior to expiration.
- Make sure your client knows exactly what’s included & how the session will unfold. It’s SUPER important to have very clear instructions for your clients regarding their session. I wrote up email templates for my top 10 locations so I could quickly copy & paste into “reminder” emails, which were sent out a few days before each session. Be sure to outline your reschedule & tardiness policy. The less people pay for something, the less they tend to value it. This means a lot of clients tried to reschedule last minute, or show up 20 minutes late. By outlining clear instructions both via email & via their contract, I protected myself from having to stay late at sessions because clients were late. Sessions ended at their scheduled time no matter what time they showed up.
- You have to do a good job. You have to go above & beyond what they expect from a discounted shoot. I made sure my personality shined through my emails, and that no matter how exhausted I was, I showed up on time (early!) to each session with a bright, bubbly demeanor. I am confident I acted no differently toward my Groupon clients than I did full-price clients. My Groupon clients in return wrote me dozens upon dozens of 5 star Yelp reviews, which is actually the #1 reason Groupon was an AMAZING boost in my business, as I currently receive about 80% of my new inquiries via Yelp.
- Most people will not come back to you. At first. No matter how much they loved their photos, Groupon clients will likely hire another Groupon photographer for their next session. They had a great experience with you, so they’ll hope they can have that happen again & save some more cash! I was a little bummed by this at first, but then something awesome happened. About two years after my Groupon ended, I started seeing an influx of returning Groupon customers, especially around the holidays. They admitted to me that they had tried another Groupon photographer for their photos the following year, and had nowhere NEAR the experience they had with me. So now they were back, as lifelong, full-paying customers. And they haven’t left my side since.
- Be organized. I would have totally died without my email templates (which I still use today, just slightly modified!), a reliable calendar (be sure to note all important aspects of your session on the calendar: client name, location of shoot, phone number, email, type of session, etc), and some type of system to keep track of your weekly shoots, editing, & deliveries. I am proud to say I never once double booked a session or forgot a session. Considering I was getting upwards of 30 new emails each day, that’s pretty impressive!
- Set your goals. What do you want to accomplish with this deal? If you want to use Groupon to make money, you have to know your profit margin. You have to sit down & calculate your costs for each session (gas, equipment, packaging, insurance, etc) & make sure your session is priced accordingly right off the bat, even if no clients choose to upgrade in any way. For better or worse, I viewed my Groupon as a sacrifice money-wise & was okay with not making much money with it. In the end, it worked out for me.
When all is said & done, the returning clients, Yelp reviews, & word of mouth referrals skyrocketed my business to a place I really don’t think would have been possible without Groupon. Would I do it again? Not at this point in my business and if I did, I would likely do it differently. However, I’m in a different place in my business now. Most people have to walk before they can run. Groupon gave me a way to improve my skills, streamline my workflow, & build my business. It’s not for everybody, but it’s also not the enemy some make it out to be!
My Business Today
My business is currently 5 years old & I’m pretty happy with where my business is currently. One of the toughest obstacles with being a former Groupon business is keeping the loyalty of your discount-driven clients while still raising prices enough to make a living. The biggest struggle I have now is I’m probably still working too much. In terms of dollars and sense, I now run a $100,000+ per year photo business with my average session bringing in $500 (digitals included) & I do around 230 sessions per year. The good news is, I’ve been able to slowly raise prices each year I’m in business, and have cut my work load down by quite a bit. I still have a ways to go, but I’m gentle with my clients as I DO have a lot of Groupon clients who are still coming to me, and I don’t want to give them sticker shock all at once. I also run specials & such at the end of every year through my Facebook page to A) Make some extra money during the holidays, B) Give all clients a chance to purchase gift certificates before prices increase, and C) Give former Groupon clients that deal that they are always looking for.
Since I used my Groupon year to fine-tune my craft, I not only have more confidence in my photography skills, but more confidence to call the shots. If a client is insisting on a summer weekend beach session at noon, I’m not the right person for them & I have no problem telling them that now, whereas earlier in my business I would have probably cringed & agreed, thus having a stressful shoot & less-than-ideal results. It’s great to be in a spot where you don’t NEED every inquiry that comes your way.
Well that's my crazy story. Have you ever considered Groupon or something similar? I'd love to know your experience or any questions you might have!