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News Flash: USB Drives Are Groovy

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Photographer Monte Isom's newest self-promotion piece, a customized USB flash drive, is winning accolades and job assignments. Isom is one of a growing number of artists and musicians using USBs to market their creative work. (Ylva Ereval/Courtesy of Monte Isom)

Photographer Monte Isom has mastered the art of self-marketing. His latest promotional piece, a tiny rectangle of plastic, could fit neatly inside the palm of your hand. It’s not much to look at--until it’s plugged in to a computer and started up.

“Play it. Burn it. Rip it. Drag it. Drop it,” commands a robotic voice, to the pounding beat of Daft Punk’s “Technologic” track. A slide show of Isom's photographs flashes across the screen, keeping time with the music. At the end of the minute-long presentation, which feels like a brief visit to a dance club, the screen freezes with Isom’s name, logo and phone number.

It’s an energetic, fun-to-watch sales pitch. But the slide show isn’t what’s grabbing attention for Isom. It’s the custom-designed USB flash drive that houses it.

“There are a lot of photographers going with the traditional postcards, but there are so many limitations,” Isom said. “I thought, what’s the best way I can give someone a promo they’re going to hold on to?”

In the ever-competitive world of marketing, USB flash drives, also known as thumb drives, have become the trend du jour. Fortune 500 companies, universities and radio stations have latched on to the idea, handing out USB freebies to clients and employees.

Now business-minded artists and musicians are following suit, showcasing their work on the drives in a fashionable and unique way. USB drives, which can be customized with individual designs, serve as both promotional tools and samples of an artist’s personal style. The musical group the White Stripes recently released a full-length album on flash drives designed to look like the band’s two members. Nine Inch Nails kicked off a marketing campaign by planting USB drives in offbeat places like public restrooms.

Kris Dawson, a guitar technician for the band Nickelback and founder of the new networking Web site MusicIndustryBook.com, recently bought 600 USB drives to help launch his site. He plans to ask acquaintances who work at music stores to hand them out with purchases of music equipment.

Dawson’s drives double as key chains and will feature the URL of his Web site on their exteriors. His goal is to remind people of the site each time they use the drive.

That’s one of the key reasons photographer Isom chose to advertise with USB drives.

“I wanted to give people a promo they’re going to use regularly and see every day,” he said. “I want to put my name and phone number in their pockets.”

Isom’s high-tech promo package--a sleekly designed metal, swivel-style USB drive that flips open and shut--was recently singled out by Photo District News magazine, which annually recognizes the self-promotional efforts of select photographers. Isom’s drive received honorable mention in the Extraordinary Promotions category.

“It packed a lot of information into a small package,” said Michelle Chant, an art buyer at the advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy and a judge in the competition.

Another appeal of USB drives is their utility. Recipients can clear the drives and store their own files on them, something they can’t do with CDs or postcards.

“I don’t expect them to keep my work on it,” Isom said. “Some do, many don’t.” He recalled an art buyer for an advertising company who came into town for a photography expo. “She told me, ‘I didn’t bring my laptop because everything I need is on your USB.’ That’s my exact goal with the exact clientele I’m looking to target,” Isom said.

USB drives do have shortcomings. Dave and Karen Shambley were disappointed with the results when they sent out a batch of USB drives to promote their fine-art business. “People wouldn’t stick them in their machines, because they were afraid they were going to get a virus,” Dave said. “You can get a lot more on a CD for a lot cheaper. And if it gets lost, it’s no big deal.”

Technical issues can also pose problems. Evan Field, a guitarist in a Washington, D.C., rock group, said his band has avoided USB drives for fear of alienating fans who aren’t technologically adept.

“If you hand someone a shrink-wrapped CD, it’s pretty clear this is music,” Field said. “We might get some pretty puzzled looks if we handed out USBs.”

Until recently, the high cost of USB drives made CDs, DVDs and postcards more attractive to individuals and small businesses. But as USB-drive prices have dropped, interest in them has risen.

“Prices have declined by almost half from last year, especially on the higher-memory-capacity drives,” said Margaret Polevoy, an account manager at iPromo.com. “And this year, the amount of USBs we’ve sold has doubled.”

Photographer Isom bought his drives online from iPromo. He said he paid about $13 each for 1,200 1GB drives.

Even at lower prices, USB campaigns have not become widespread. “I've received a few of them from photo agencies and photographers,” said Jim Surber, senior photo editor at ESPN the Magazine. “It’s a relatively new thing, only in the last year or so.”

The newness of the USB-drive trend may be exactly what makes it so effective. Isom recently met with a photo editor at Best Life, a magazine he hadn’t worked for previously. He presented his work samples--on USB drive--and got the best response he could have hoped for: an assignment.

“I walked into Best Life and walked out with a job,” Isom said. “When I’ve shown portfolios, that hasn’t happened.”

Like any technology, USB drives run the risk of eventual obsolescence. Artists and musicians can distinguish themselves from the pack using USB drives now, but what happens if and when they become ubiquitous?

“I have a feeling next year, come the Self-Promotion Awards, there will be at least 25 photographers submitting them,” Isom said. “That’s cool. I’ve just got to come up with something better.”

E-mail: ald27@columbia.edu