This post is the result of having heard several small time photographers and Instagram "influencers" (they were under 1000 subs) complain that they were not given free passes into their local zoo to take photos. The reasoning behind these people's complaints was that they were giving the zoo free "exposure" and therefore the cost of admission was being offset by their advertising for the zoo. These people are dead wrong and lets talk about that.
First we need to take this transaction and break it down. Let's suppose the cost of admission to the zoo is $10 and the photographer plans to visit for only one day. There is an equation here that can be mathematically expressed. If you are trading your digital advertising for the price of admission to the zoo. Then you are saying that your 'exposure' is worth at least $10. Let's see how this works.
So as the PR or advertising person at the zoo I have to evaluate something here, and that is how valuable your internet followers are to us at the zoo. We can run very targeted ads on Facebook and spend $10 in advertising to exclusively animal lovers in our community. In the case of Sioux Falls that works out to somewhere between 350 and 2,200 people for $10. "But I have 500 followers" you protest. Well, those followers are probably not all from the local community and certainly aren't all going to be swayed to visit the zoo because of your post.
So I evaluate your proposal and determine that your exposure for us is worth than $10.
What that means for us is that we are as a nonprofit, now no longer the charity ourselves, but are now running a charity for you, the internet person. It's a bad deal for the zoo. It's also extremely selfish when people about this. What about those poor animals that need to eat? What about the employees that need paychecks?
Lets suppose that I do run the numbers,
I do decide that your social media presence is valued at $10 and is equal to the cost admission. Do you get in for free now? Probably not. Any decent zoo is going to have an advertising budget and giving you free admission would just mean increasing the advertising budget while decreasing the net income. It's still probably not a good deal for the zoo.
The zoo decides that your exposure is greater than the price of admission. Do you get in for free? Possibly, at least the more uneven the equation the higher your chances are. Here's the problem. Since you must have at least some fame in order to be valued in such a way, you have a social responsibility and eyes are watching how you behave. At this point you may not want to skip paying. The reason being that it will hurt your image and you will look like a total douche. Rich people tip well because they know they are being watched and image is everything. If you are on social media on yachts drinking expensive booze and partying yet haggle over $10 admission to a nonprofit zoo, you are going to have a PR disaster. Even if you are just a successful photographer it could tarnish your reputation. Your reputation is worth more than $10
So when is it worth trying to arrange not paying at the zoo?
Perhaps you pay the zoo back in a way greater than paying $10. For example, you take some photos and frame one very good one and donate it to the zoo. Such a gift would make you more like a friend of the zoo than a patron. Perhaps you just agree to take free photos and sign over the rights to the zoo. Well then you are volunteering! You shouldn't pay to volunteer.
Why should you almost always pay? Because they give you value!
I've taken quite a few good photos of animals at zoos that are on par with what I could see in the wild. I've even sold a few that have paid back my price of admission. My local zoo gives me something that I find valuable and therefore I am making a business transaction that will pay me back every time I go. If you are going all the time then by all means a season ticket may be in order. Zoos are an awesome place to take photos of wild animals, so give them what they are worth. It makes you look good and it means that we will have a place to keep photographing wild animals.