Photography is not only fun and games at ThinkGeek, but a traffic and sales driver

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When you deal in the type of products online purveyor ThinkGeek does – wacky computer peripherals, quirky science-based office toys, caffeinated consumables, and geek gadgetry – the items sometimes require a bit of explanation. And true to the composition principle of “show, don’t tell,” ThinkGeek regularly looks to photography to get the job done.

But standard catalog shots simply won’t do when it comes to showing off items like the Panic Button Light Switch Replacement Kit or Massive Cosplay Titan Sword. So nine times out of 10, ThinkGeek doesn’t use the standard catalog shots. It instead opts for what it calls “out of catalog” or “lifestyle” shots from in-house photographer Michael Collins.

“Where some people may just see a tactical bag, we see a bug out back for a zombie survival kit,” said Steve Zimmermann, undersecretary for the Ministry of Misinformation (PR) for ThinkGeek. “The lifestyle images help us tell a product’s story in a way that is purely unique to ThinkGeek. 

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“This is especially true for some of the tech-focused items we bring onto the site. Their purpose or function may not always be immediately distinguishable, and a great product shot helps highlight why someone would want to buy it,” Zimmermann said.

Photography is something that’s increasingly become part of our brand.

For nearly five years, Collins has been the go-to guy at ThinkGeek for those photos. He said the key to ThinkGeek’s photography success is creating “something that shows the product’s function, so you not only see the product but get a sense of what it does.” To do so, he goes straight to breaking the No. 1 geek rule by taking the products out of their boxes and playing with everything from toy helicopters to lasers, working to create scenes that are framed around Internet culture and puts that product’s function at the forefront. 

“Once you come to realize the people we’re appealing to, you can have a lot of fun with the photos,” Collins said. “If I have some sort of off-the-wall idea bouncing around in my head, I can actually figure out some way to connect that to the work I’m doing.”

And Collins is unabashed in his goal to create images that bloggers might want to repost – be it a clever photo of Spider-Man’s feet holding on to a rope (pictured below) to hawk Marvel Superhero Socks or mining the company’s deep closet of Star Wars costumes to dress employees to set an entire scene for the Admiral Ackbar Singing Bass (pictured above) – to bring more attention to ThinkGeek.

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“I think photography is something that’s increasingly become part of our brand,” Collins said. “And that pushes us in front of some people who might not have seen us otherwise. Occasionally, I’ll see someone who has uploaded a photo I took to Facebook, which is kind of a weird thing, when there’s no relationship – they just saw it somewhere and liked it. Hopefully it also has a link to the product. But we’re seeing where everything is connected in social media, photography really ends up driving a lot of traffic to the site.” 

If photography is contributing to their success, then it’s clearly working: Geeknet, the parent of ThinkGeek, saw a 55-percent increase in Web sales in 2010 versus the previous year, and has continued to grow since then – its revenue grew 21 percent in the fourth-quarter of 2012, compared to the same time last year. Zimmermann said the company is in the process of hiring a second in-house photographer to expand upon and polish the success of ThinkGeek’s lifestyle shots.

But the in-house product shots alone aren’t enough, as Internet culture is based around forums, social media, user participation, and sharing personal experiences in an effort to connect. So ThinkGeek has also factored customer participation into its plan in the form of “action shots,” which allow customers to show their creative uses for the company’s products once they get out there in the real world. And many of those shots, for the last three and a half years, have been filtered through Carrie Gouldin, the site’s Web community manager.

“The process hasn’t changed too much since it started – basically you take a photograph of yourself and whatever you purchased at home in a funny shot,” Gouldin explained. “We’ll take that and file it under whichever item is included in the shot. And we use those again in our e-mail newsletters that features action shots.”

“The action shots give fans a chance to show off their take on the product as well as give a little geek-cred,” Zimmermann added. “It’s a way they can show their friends and strangers that they’ve grabbed the newest thing and have some fun with it at the same time. It’s important for us, because it helps develop a sense of community on the site and let’s our customers know that they’re as much a part of ThinkGeek as we are.”

(Images via ThinkGeek)

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