The Flickr Debacle: What We Can Learn From Flickr’s Mistakes

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flickr-logo-5221212If you’re a Flickr user, chances are you have some strong opinions about the changes over the past few weeks.  Flickr changed its design and some of its philosophies, a bold move that polarized their entire user-base.  There are a few who welcome the changes, there are a few that aren’t bothered by them.  But the great majority of members seem to be bothered by them; a significant percentage of them have left Flickr entirely.  While I would love to turn this into a rant about Flickr’s changes – and I would, I really would – I would instead like to turn it around into a lesson.

Flickr’s Biggest Mistake

Flickr made a lot of mistakes.  They made a drastic change – without warning – to a new layout that is cluttered, ugly and difficult to navigate.  They replaced their old mobile app with a slower and more complicated version.  And they got rid of some beloved features and even a few important ones, like photo titles on the home page.  But their biggest mistake was the complete disregard for their users.  No, I”m not talking about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s statement (alleged a misstatement) that “there’s really no such thing as a professional photographer anymore”.  What I’m really talking about is the complete revamp of their business model.  Nevermind the title of the feature, they basically got rid of the Pro account and replaced it with the ad-free feature…at twice the price of the former Pro account.  On one hand, all those great features that used to be pro features are now part of the free account.  On the other hand, it’s a slap into the face of the great majority of Flickr’s most powerful users.

This sends some mixed signals.

It tells us that we are no longer a valued customer.  It tells us that we are a commodity.  Having a terabyte of space means they want us to upload a ton.  The more we upload, the more others will browse.  The more people browse, the more ads that get sold.  It’s no longer about us.  It’s no longer about photos, or photography.  Now it’s about making money, and nothing else.  Gone is the passion for the art.  Gone is the love of community.  This has all been fading away for a long while now, but now – overnight – they confirmed it all in one fell swoop.  And the pros – yes, contrary to Mayer’s beliefs, we still exist – aren’t happy.  Our own group alone has lost at least a dozen members that I’m aware of (possibly more).

Flickr has lost sight of their own history.  And they’ve lost sight of who their clients really are.  This could be the beginning of the end of Flickr.  Maybe not.  But one thing is for sure:  They messed up.  We can learn a lot from that.

How Not To Be Flickr:

Never Forget Your Client

You are the artist, the one with the wisdom and know-how.  That is why you were hired.  But the vision and goal was originally theirs.  It’s your job to embrace their vision.  You will make it your own, but in the end, your client has the right to reject your opinions.  Now I’m not saying you should bend over backwards to make sure you fully realize your client’s vision.  If you feel their vision is misdirected, try to educate and consult.  But don’t disregard their opinion.  That’s simply disrespectful and unprofessional.

You Are Not The End User

Your deliverable – your photo – is ultimately going to end up on someone else’s website, wall, marketing material or otherwise.  You are not the ultimate end-user.  Flickr forgot this fact.  They released a site that wasn’t tested thoroughly, certainly not through some sort of opt-in public beta (as they have done in the past).  They did not seek feedback, didn’t correct navigation errors or identify trouble areas before rolling out the new design across the board without exception.  The problem on the surface is that there are problems on the site.  But the deep rooted problem is respect, or lack-thereof.  Flickr didn’t respect it’s users and chose to present these changes through a dramatic launch as opposed to getting feedback first.

In the photography business, this is why things like contact sheets exist.  Contact sheets are a way to show and communicate your approach.  But the final decision – the choice of which photo will reign supreme – is your client’s.  This is an essential feedback stage, and one that lets your client retain control.  I also like to provide progress shots to gain feedback on my processing.  Some of my clients like things very sharp and crisp, others may like softer treatments.  I ask about those things specifically, because I can adapt and tailor to meet their needs.  Flickr didn’t do that.  You shouldn’t either.

Honor Your Existing Clients

Business benefits greatly from relationships.  We need to respect and honor those relationships.  Clients that you’ve worked with before may deserve a little extra attention.  Repeat clients are ultimately the source of new clients via word-of-mouth.  So it pays to keep them happy.  I have clients that have commissioned work on a somewhat regular basis.  I hope that continues, so I’ll do whatever it takes – within reason – to make sure they do return.  If my rates increase, I ease them into it.  Maybe I give them a discount for one year, or I’ll give them an opportunity to sign on a few more commissions before they officially increase.  Here’s an example:  My summer is my busy season.  This summer is more busy than normal because I have a few new clients with several new assignments.  So my schedule has been filling up.  I called up one of my regular clients to let them know my schedule was filling up, to give them an opportunity to reserve some space.  From a bottom-line perspective, it doesn’t matter who fills my schedule.  But from a business and relationships perspective, that clearly tells my client that I respect them and appreciate their business.  I want to work with them – I really do – so I would rather it was them filling my schedule.

This type of communication is a clear sign of respect.  Flickr didn’t share any of their news with their members before the media hype, and their members, rightfully, felt mistreated.  That’s why people have left.  Don’t lose your clients; show them you honor them.

Damage Control Is Costly

When you mess up – and you will, hopefully not as bad as Flickr – be prepared to swallow a very large pill:  It is very difficult and very expensive to fix problems.  As a photographer, your exposure is relatively limited.  Suffice to say that if you mess up an assignment, no one is going to get physically hurt.  You’re not designing bridges after all, nor are you running one of the largest photo sharing communities on the internet.  But you could lose a great client, or a few clients, if you don’t handle the problem with kid gloves.  For starters, be honest: Admit that you messed up.  Then you need to present a solution and act on it.  This is all on your own dime.

Mayer’s statement about the extinction of Pro Photography was a misstatement, and I do believe that.  Flickr can and has done damage control on that.  But they won’t be able to handle the site swap.  If you follow their own forums, you’ll see thousands upon thousands of new bugs reported every day.  They’re in over their head and it will be many months before they fix them all.  During that time, their staff will be working overtime.  Lost profits to correcting these problems and a user base that diminishes a little more every day these problems aren’t fixed is going to be a huge hit to Flickr’s bottom line.  They aren’t hurting, but their profit margins are going to lessen.  It may be months before they recover from that.

Don’t be Flickr.  If you make a mistake, act fast and sincerely.

Final Thoughts

I am personally in the middle.  I’m not happy with Flickr’s changes and I am insulted by their new business model.  But I’m not sure I’m going anywhere.  But even the easy-going me has been putting more of my efforts into other sites and services ever since the change.  That means, at least on a personal level, I am spending less time on Flickr’s website.  I expect my change in behavior is fairly common.  So there are a lot of people spending less time on the site.  As a photographer, I want people considering me for my services.  But I’m not alone in this industry.  I’d be ignorant to believe I am better than any other photographer.  And it is for that reason why I do what I can to keep my clients comfortable and happy.  In the end, it’s really not about my photography.  It’s about relationships and respect.

 

 

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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