Selective Focus: Reach Out and Touch Someone

Selective Focus: Reach Out and Touch Someone

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While the International CES stolidly maintains its trade-only policy, other photo shows are making a concerted effort to be inclusive of customers for photo goods. This is not to be critical of CES—it’s a highly successful show that draws scads of crowds. But all in all and quite obviously, its focus is certainly not that of a photo trade show.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I did not attend CES this year, having felt I could have gone home after one day there last year, at least in terms of my beat and interests. Judging from reports from numerous reliable sources, the photo industry as we know it was less than an afterthought at this year’s show as well.

This should not be seen as critical of the photo companies that did attend. Many of them have a solid, reputable standing in the big-box environment and, besides, they have many things to sell other than cameras, lenses and photo accessories. But from a photo reporter’s perspective, and in terms of news about exciting new products, I have to say the two overseas shows—photokina and CP+—have pretty much cornered that side of things. Their dedication to photography is true and evident. And for the last (many) years, I have heard complaints from photo companies that they get lost in the CES shuffle. Perhaps it’s time to rethink strategy.

On the Web

It’s evident that social media and direct outreach to consumers have become key elements in a company’s success and the thrust of their marketing efforts. Survey the lens, camera, accessory and aftermarket photo company’s websites and you’ll see how each of them attempts to directly engage the potential buyer.

There are instructional videos, tutorials by working pros, goods on offer, even contests and user galleries to draw interest. There are also numerous “consolidators,” somewhat generic sites that display direct news feeds and press releases from a variety of manufacturers, which they dutifully post without the least pretense of editing. Then there’s a host of bloggers, testers and advisors who churn out more information than even the most dedicated photophile could handle. They put out seemingly endless test reports, hands-on, and even YouTube videos that, believe it or not, sometimes feature the “unboxing” of a camera. (For a giggle, go to YouTube and type the phrase into the search area.)

Want to learn about the current top wide to tele zooms? Just google the phrase and a score of sites will happily provide their opinion. Want to see what’s on clearance from your favorite photo manufacturer? Check out all those company web stores. Need to find out what you can get for your old Pentax Spotmatic? Just type in the name and “price?” to see what the last 10 sales netted.

This is very impressive, and there’s no doubt it has transformed the buying and selling environment. Yet for me there’s another part of the equation. For example, I might have my eye on buying a 1998 Subaru Outback as a beater for those tough winter days. I do a quick search and find out what they are going for and who in my 15-mile radius might have one for sale. I check recalls and customer comments and the blue book. But I sure won’t buy that car without looking under the hood and taking a test-drive.

Switch to the camera side. I might like the specs on a new 36MP DSLR, but it’s going for two grand plus. Or a fast zoom that sells for $1,500. You might think all those online opinions and tests would encourage me to just plunk down my money at a linked online store, which by the way, often have affiliate relationships with the reviewers. Well, in my case at least, you’d be wrong. I would want to get my hands on the camera and see how it feels, get a quick talk-through on how it functions and see if it meets my needs. Probably as important, I’d want to look at alternatives to make sure I’m not over- or under-buying.

Dealer Base Shrinkage

That’s where dealers come in—or should I say came in. For numerous reasons—chiefly, in the very long run, the loss of the finishing business—the number of photo dealers serving even large areas has dropped dramatically. Admittedly, there are more reasons than online competition for this. But in terms of the health of the photo market, the net result is that customers have less and less places to go to get a camera in their hands. Want a cameraphone? You can’t go four blocks without running into a big-box store or phone company dealer.

So, given that clocks rarely go backward, how does the photo industry reach out and touch their potential customers? I am convinced that the web solution is not going to totally solve the problem. In my way of thinking, an online presence coupled with a hands-on, across-the-counter encounter just might help.

Trade Show Paradigms

I previously reported in this magazine about the 2014 photokina show and how it impressed me as a successful melding of a trade and consumer affair. While at times I blushed at some of the shenanigans when compared to the old, straightlaced “dealer and trade only” days, I had to admit it sure brought in large crowds of enthusiasts. They not only jammed the counters of exhibitors but also got a chance to play with the goods at many interactive areas, both within the boundaries of the booths and in the halls, and even the alleys surrounding the massive show. I eavesdropped on the crowds filling the trains going back into Cologne, and all I heard was excited chatter about this and that camera, lens or accessory. It was, to say the least, refreshing.

Other shows that should be included in having a similarly successful approach and enthusiastic reception among photographers are WPPI, the PPA show (called Imaging USA), and PhotoPlus Expo. Yes, these shows have had their challenges over the years. But each picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and reinvented themselves through a combination of strong social media, interesting programs on and off the floor, and support from manufacturers both large and small. Maybe social media got the crowds there, but once they walked through the door they were swamped with “photo fever.” Indeed, I know quite a few photo school teachers from as far as 200 miles away who were granted passes from the PhotoPlus Expo for their students and who carpooled down to the show.

Part of this is how the image is treated as the icon and the end reason for all that gear. The show in Germany had more space than ever dedicated to galleries and “pop-up” image collections. The town itself gets fully behind the show with special events and picture shows throughout the weeklong event. The other domestic shows mentioned all do their part, with competitions, portfolio reviews, continuous programs and demos. In essence, they create an atmosphere that breathes photography and gives attendees a reason to attend, all adding up to generating enthusiasm for the craft.

Consider the lighting companies. It’s hard to sell a beauty dish online—the 2D presentation hardly gives a hint at the amazing light these modifiers provide. But put a model in front of it, or better yet create a portrait studio in which attendees can get their pictures taken by a recognized pro, and the sale is much closer to being closed. Yes, the customer might be able to get this experience at a shop or company-sponsored demo, but for most folks, pro shops that handle this gear are few and far between. However, if that customer attends a show that provides the heightened energy typical of the those mentioned, and more importantly gets a chance to compare notes with those who share their passion, a sale, and a happy customer, are much more likely to result.

2015 Outlook

I know this approach would take a lot of energy and effort, something in short supply these days, what with the outlook for 2015 being further slippage in all sectors. But the recent report from CIPA about such matters offers at least a glimmer of hope. In their February 2015 press release on this year’s outlook, they state: “It is highly expected that there will be a so-called step-up demand among users who first discover the joy of photography (my emphasis) with low-end digital cameras and smartphones. That is, these users will gradually seek higher resolution and higher functionality that allows them to take photographic scenes that will never be possible with low-end products, and so they purchase higher end digital cameras to improve their photographic experience. In summary, shipments of digital cameras with an interchangeable lens are projected to show steady growth compared to that of digital cameras with a built-in lens.”

Cynics could point out the qualifier at the end there, but to me their (perhaps Pollyanna-ish) approach is key. If the industry wants to motivate sales and engage customers, and sees the need to share with them in the discovery of the joy of photography, the web alone simply isn’t going to do the trick. That might just mean finally reconsidering the energy and cost of shows like CES and dedicating those resources to direct photo industry to consumer events.

Circling the wagons? Perhaps, but it might just be time to consider what taking no course of action might imply for the industry’s future.

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