Why giving your clients a subtle surprise will grow your business

The smooth jazz echoed off the cavernous grocery store walls as your mom pushed the cart down the aisle.

One rickety wheel in the front of the cart spastically shook to the left and right as it shared your excitement for what was about to come next. After all, what the next aisle contained was the only reason you jovially jumped into the car when she informed you of the morning’s food shopping duties.

Your mom stretched on her tippy toes to grab the boxed pasta on sale that week. She tossed it into the cart behind you and the dried noodles shook inside their container like a set of maracas. It was as if every object surrounding you was gearing up to celebrate what would come next.

As she pushed the cart around the bend, the music overhead silenced to a hush and all you could hear was the commercial jingles from every cereal brand. You begin taking inventory of where “Snap. Crackle. Pop.” was located, along with the friendly box of the “They’re grrreeeaaat!” tiger.

However, it wasn’t the cereal itself you were examining carefully as your mom slowly pushed you past the colorful rectangles of sugary grains. Nope, it was the tiny images printed on the corner of each box you were trying to desperately evaluate. After all, whichever one competed for the best “Toy Inside!” and won would be the cereal you begged to hug close to your chest until the entire morning of shopping was done.

The magic of a surprise inside

First pioneered by Cracker Jacks, the surprise inside is something that smart marketers have done for decades. In fact, Seth Godin wrote an entire book about its power.

The thing that makes something remarkable isn’t usually directly related to the original purpose of the product or service. It’s the FREE PRIZE INSIDE, the extra stuff, the stylish bonus, the design or the remarkable service or pricing that makes people talk about it and spread the word. – Seth Godin

These days, cereal brands have bastardized this concept to death. If a cereal does not contain a prize, it’s odd and rare. However, they get away with it since their primary buyer is children, and young children don’t typically rationalize buying decisions, especially when the money being spent isn’t their own.

My boys, for example, demanded two boxes of Reese’s Puffs cereal this summer (approximately $4.99 per box, totaling almost $10.00), just so they could proceed to crush the heck out of it as they searched for the Despicable Me Minion figurine that settled to the bottom. Each toy boasted a $0.50 value, and that’s probably generous.

However, when it comes to creating art for a living and your primary audience is adults, you have a slightly different playing field in which to operate. The bad news is that your buyer rationalizes their purchasing decisions before they buy, if they’re granted the time to do so. The good news is that the playing field is quite saturated with boring businesses and an insane amount of sameness.

With just a sprinkling of creativity, however, you can blow them all away (and I know you’ve got plenty of creativity…if you didn’t you wouldn’t be here).

How to create a unique client experience that also offers a surprise

Just as Seth Godin says, the surprise isn’t the product itself. It’s something in addition to what they’re paying you money to get. The surprise doesn’t have to cost very much, either (two inch tall plastic Minion, anyone?). However, it does have to be something that the customer wouldn’t normally expect. In order to have the most impact, it should be something that communicates that you care about the customer, what they enjoy and what they’ll likely tell loads of people about.

When you go to get your car’s oil changed, if they take 10 minutes to wash your car down and spray shiny stuff on your tires, you’re thrilled! It cost them 10 minutes of their time, one ounce of shiny stuff and five gallons of water. The expense was next to nothing. But in contrast, the other car mechanics tend to leave your car dirtier after an oil change. With black fingerprints on the interior and the driver’s seat thrown all the way back, you’re happy that your oil is all set for another 5,000 miles, but you’re annoyed that they didn’t respect your vehicle.

Customers of neither auto mechanic brag to their friends about how efficient and phenomenal the oil change was. Nope. They’re either complaining about the fingerprints or they’re sharing the treat of a newly washed car.

So in order to test out a surprise for your creative business, you need to:

  • take a look at what the competition is not doing
  • understand what your target market subculture would most enjoy
  • evaluate a list of possible options and try one at a time

Comment below and share ideas of possible surprises to thrill and delight your customers

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Pin the image below as a reminder to brainstorm a surprise if you don’t have the time to right now.

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  1. says

    I photographed a couple for their engagement, then went over what kind of prints they wanted, lustre or glossy? Pearlized or metallic? One wanted glossy, while the other argued that metallic would really make that certain image POP. I when I ordered their prints, I threw in a metallic print of that image…just because! πŸ™‚ Little gestures go a long way!

  2. says

    Either at the ordering session or when I deliver the client’a order, I bring some gourmet cupcakes made by a local mom business. Clients have loved the delicious treat they wouldn’t normally make the effort to special order and pick up. And gives another mom biz more exposure.

    Today I am also including most of the proofs from the senior session with their delivery. They fell a little short of the spending level to get them free, but I know the mom is an avid scrapbooker who will love to have these for her albums.

    • says

      Hey Tyann πŸ™‚ Hope you are well!

      The two ideas are awesome. Just a small tip (…and I’m sure you’d do this anyway), make sure to explain the exception on the proofs for your client today. Surprises like that are viral (which is good!), but you don’t want her telling people that she only spent $X with you and got this great bonus for free! Others will make the connection and expect that if they hire you they’ll get that, too. Surprises are awesome, but if you break your own “rules” so to speak, things can get difficult to manage.

      Like I said, I’m sure you’d make a point to mention the exception anyway. Just thought I’d write that in case it helps others reading…


  3. says

    I’ve recently started including hand written thank-you cards with the clients order; Just saying how much fun I had working with them, etc. People actually LOVE that I took the time to write out a thank-you card, that not a lot of people do that. And whenever I do a session involving kids I bring along a lollipop or some little treat for them. Small little things like that have made people rave about my customer service!

  4. says

    That would be something nice to do. I live in a small town and along with having trouble getting clients, just having the most trouble getting the word out about me. There’s one other photographer here in town and she’s bit more expensive than me.

    Small town + Older people = Hard times

  5. says

    Hi Angela
    I totally agree with your post. I do this for most families but I try to make it specific to them. This is going to sound weird but I have an ordering session coming up and I’m going to bring a dozen farm fresh organic eggs for this family. They live in town and have been searching for a good egg source. Like me, they prefer to buy organic and would rather not have to pay $6+ in the grocery store for a dozen 4 week old eggs. Anyway, I get mine from a little farm around the corner from me so I’ll pick some up on the way to their ordering session. This conversation came up at our pre-session consult so although it is completely not photography-related, I feel like it sort of ties in.
    Take care,

    • says


      I think your idea rules. Maybe also think of a “default surprise” that can apply to all clients when these unique, individual ideas stump you (or when you’re just too busy to execute them).

      Really nice work… xoxo.

  6. says

    I love to add gift prints as a follow-up to every session with a hand-written thank you note expressing to my clients how much I enjoyed our time together (this is all gift-wrapped and hand-delivered, whenever possible). I find that not only are my clients able to see the quality of my outstanding printing lab (which makes them more likely to place a print order), but they also really seem to appreciate the gesture. I frequently get rave follow-ups! Now, if only I could more easily reach my target audience… I’m working on that!

    Thank you for all your wonderful tips, Angela! I look forward to them every week!

    All my best,


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