There was a post on the JEA Listserv a couple weeks ago where an adviser asked a question about starting a photo website. Stacy Short from Argyle High School responded to the request and shared her staff’s photo site to lend a hand. I clicked through on the link because I was curious as to what they were doing and I am super glad I did. You can check out their photo site at https://photos.thetalonnews.com/.
I clicked through the site and knew I needed a little more info from Stacy on what they did and how they did it and how it has been received by the community. She graciously shared a ton of great info which I will share here now.
From Stacy Short, The Talon News Adviser
We started using SmugMug in 2011, before we had a website. Our previous administration was not keen on us being digital or online, but I convinced him that we needed a source of revenue to fund our programs for travel and equipment. So, that idea was born to showcase our student photography and hopefully make a little money on the side. SmugMug came before our website. I had some great kids back in 2010-11 who helped develop our entire program and our first priority was branding. Everything we built had to be developed around the brand, and ideally Smugmug was one of the few websites that we could develop and make it look like our own, and it had the added benefit of allowing us to set a price point, and showcase our photos with a watermark, for sale, and offered protection from those trying to steal our stuff. Making it look like the website, well we just made our website look like our brand first, but you can develop it and change the look of the program on the backside. It’s an easy thing to do in the back door part of the program. And, their support page and team is amazing. They have tutorials available on how to create logos, how to rearrange your space, and how to develop your entire site. Every time you ask a question, you get a reply, and we’ve even accidentally deleted everything on our site, but they do back ups and can restore, so it’s also an awesome back up system for all of your photography. It also accommodated video, but we don’t use it very often to upload video. Usually, the only time we use that is for graduation, and that’s just to have a back up.
So, the photography site came before our website. When it came to building our website, we built it from scratch originally using a domain with GoDaddy and bought all of our Domain names to match up with both platforms. We were able to get a unique name for SmugMug and for our website. Moving to SNO with the website came later in 2014 or 15. We made that decision because my number one computer programmer/webmaster/guru of all knowledge was graduating, and I knew that I would not be able to continue keeping things up as well as he had, so SNO offered a nice option for that and they were able to take our original website and move it over nicely into their’s.
We make about $6,000 per year on sales from the website, and really from the get-go, started doing about $1,200 per year and it’s has steadily increased over the years. About $3,000 per year now comes from the online site through direct sales, and another $3,000 to $4,000 comes from what we call photo memberships. Parents purchase a membership for their student/child and we guarantee them 25 photos over the course of the year. They have a gallery where they can access their photos and download them digitally for a set price.
The upside to this has been many. Students learn a business model, the program makes money, the students learn to focus on quality, not quantity, with a customer/consumer in mind. Seriously learn to look at the world through a different view, having to put themselves in the shoes of what would a parent want or someone who is watching the game. It is open that many opportunities for my students with local agencies who also need photos. It forces the students to understand the law, on what they can sell and what they cannot, and given them the means to create photo releases, and to understand when they can and can’t take photos. Basically, we treat this whole thing like a business, and the students must act their part.
The one downside — way back when we started our entire program, and chose to attend all of our events for photography, my principal told me that I really did not need to do that. He said if you do it, it will become the expectation. He said be careful of what you want to set up as your expectation. He was right. We will never be able to get out of this now because it has become an expectation in our community, and the parents I’ve already started purchasing memberships for next year. With the ability now first pair parents to pay online, they simply just pay with the registration. People send us money all the time, and we have to track them down to figure out what they want us to do. It’s a good problem to have, but you have to be willing to be in it for the long-haul. While we make about $2,000 per year on our print edition in senior ads, this is the only other source of funding that we have. We did away with advertising online and in print with the exception of our senior focus print product. It has been a Godsend, and sometimes a curse because it never goes away, and you really have to organize it up front and correctly to make it run smoothly.
This is been a great business model to teach the students, and actually helps them to start their own businesses on the side which can benefit from services like M&A Consulting for Woman Owned Businesses, and many of my students go on to purchase their own SmugMug accounts to showcase their own photography.
The analytics tell us that we have several hundred thousand views per month, and sometimes in just a day on popular site galleries like homecoming and graduation. We get all of our traffic on this site, directly to the site. Every time we take photos, we tweet the gallery. Most of our traffic comes either directly from Twitter, or people have the site as a bookmark and just go directly to the overall Photography site. We advertise it heavily on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. Our social media is one of the best in the state for a small high school, and that is one of the things that drives our success. Our actual website with our new stories and such it’s mediocre at best with traffic. We get traffic when we directly link the stories to Twitter and FB and everything is driven from Twitter. It is really important to have good photographer that knows how to do live uploading and tweeting, and we also have a social media manager that overseas all of that and make sure that things get done properly. Although, she just graduated and I’m training a new guy to do that for the next two years. Training is always the issue, and motivation 🙂
I also have a policy that they are not allowed to sell these photos, but this comes with a few exceptions, the advertiser being one, and special requests. The caveat is that I give students opportunities for other photo sessions that they can do to earn money on the side, like senior photo shoots and Team special requests that are not part of our normal process. While I see a way that we could make money on those things, I feel like I have to give the photographers an incentive to build their own businesses, which may need virtual assistants, and learn how to market their own products.