Do you remember the excitement you felt on that first day of being able to call yourself a professional photographer?
It was an amazing feeling, wasn’t it?
Or, rather, a complete mishmash of feelings, like winning the lottery, being asked to give a speech, finding a lost treasure, falling in love, and a trip to the dentist all rolled up into one incredible set of emotions that can be hard to contain.
I recall it well — waking up on a January morning in the year 2000, the world relatively and unsurprisingly unscathed by the Y2K bug, and finding myself in a deliciously strange country, thinking how lucky I was to be living a dream that so many others fail to realize.
On that day, my previous life managing IT projects for a bank from a small cubicle felt so far removed from where I had landed up that I literally felt as if I’d taken one of those blue pills that Morpheus was peddling as an escape from The Matrix.
How about you?
Did your first days as a working pro photographer feel full of creative energy and bright optimism for the future?
Of course, everyone’s story is different, but yet strikingly similar too.
I actually had it pretty good from the beginning with the underwater photography business—we had a captive audience at the dive center, and there was no shortage of amazing things to point a camera at in the Egyptian Red Sea, so those first few years were great.
Every Monday, like clockwork, planes from Europe would deliver a brand-new batch of excited clients right to our doorstep.
At the time I didn’t really know how lucky we were!
It was only when I opened a portrait and wedding photography business here in the US in 2004 that I discovered the harsh reality that so many other photographers are facing day in and day out.
That reality is both simple and devastating—without the luxury of a ready-made set of clients, finding new people to photograph can feel like looking for a soda fountain in the desert. You know there ought to be one, but you’ll be darned if you know where to look or how to find it.
So it wasn’t very long before unbridled enthusiasm and optimism started to turn into frustration and more than a little concern over the future.
Where in the world was I going to find the clients I needed to sustain my business?
One thing was certain, there were no planes arriving on Mondays any more, and I felt like a complete nobody.
Surely, this couldn’t be right!
When panicking didn’t seem to fix anything, I sat down to look at the problem, and I could see there were actually at least two problems:
- One—I couldn’t figure out who I was going to market my photography to…
- Two—The marketing I did manage to do was so weak and pitiful that it got very little attention…
And that leads to the big question that went around and around in my head like a swarm of angry wasps for quite a long time.
Why Doesn’t Marketing Work When You’re New To The Business?
Why Marketing Often Fails When You're A New Photographer
Does your photography marketing deliver perform badly? If you're a new professional photographer, these are the reasons why, and how you can fix it.
That’s what I want to talk about in today’s installment, to help shine some light into this dark and dusty corner that nobody seems to want to look into all that much for some reason.
I mean, everyone else is so focused on the latest strategies, tactics and tricks, or trying to decide what color “easy button” they should buy, that they’re completely missing the point that none of those things are worth anything at all if we can’t figure out who to actually use them on.
This, I think, is the root cause of why we see so many photographers trying system after system with no success.
It’s why one photographer might have amazing success with a particular strategy and then proclaim it as a panacea for everyone else’s problems only to find that it fails miserably for most of the photographers who try it for themselves.
I’m sure you’ve experienced some of this for yourself, right? No one is immune to it, and the Internet is full of miracle cures that don’t work and magic bullets that wouldn’t even cause a werewolf to trip over it’s own tail.
So what’s the truth of the problem, really?
What is it that people aren’t talking about because, if they did, no one would buy their stupid magic systems?
Seriously, who came up with the mad notion that you can turn your camera into an ATM machine that spits out money? It’s quite laughable when you really think about it with your eyes open and the reality of a failing business right there in front of you, isn’t it?
So why is it, when you’re new to the business (or so stuck you might as well be new) that you can’t simply open up a box of magic marketing tricks and generate an instant flood of work?
To find out, I’ve spent countless hours examining my own personal experiences, talking 1-on-1 with photographers with their own marketing problems, and studying hundreds of articles from experts across the world, as well as learning a great deal from the amazing guests on the Photography Marketing Masters podcast.
From all of that, I’ve identified eight major areas you can start focusing your efforts on that I believe will allow your photography marketing to start showing better signs of life. No fast fixes here, sorry, but definitely stuff that will create a solid foundation for growth.
The culprits (in no particular order of importance) are:
- Not understanding your ideal clients…
- Too small an audience and social network…
- Lack of perceived authority…
- Limited online content…
- Inappropriate website design…
- Wasting time on the wrong social networks…
- Bad search engine optimization…
- Desperation or emergency marketing…
Let’s take a look at each of these in a bit more detail, starting with understanding your ideal clients.
Not Understanding Your Ideal Clients
Photographers are different from so many other service-type businesses because there’s such an incredibly wide spectrum of photographic specialties and an even wider range of client types within each of those, making for a very confusing array of possibilities for the photographer who’s new to the business.
In the beginning, it’s just too easy to overlook choosing a niche or certain type of prospect, and to try instead to go after everyone with a pulse in the hope that at least some of them will bite and become clients.
Does that mean you have to specialize right from the beginning and stick to just weddings, portraits, or some other specialty? No, not necessarily, but I believe it does mean you might be better off positioning yourself at some specific level in the marketplace where a certain kind of client is most likely to be found.
What do we mean by positioning?
Essentially, are you wanting to occupy the cheap end of the market where we find the high-volume and lower-priced business model? Or, are you more comfortable with the premium end—the home of the low-volume and higher-priced photographer?
Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of these business models, and there are many photographers out there making a good living at both ends of that spectrum. There are lots of folks in the middle, too, but that’s where more people are having a hard time because it’s so much harder to be seen as different to all the other choices, especially if potential customers are basing at least some of that choice on price, which we should try to avoid at all costs.
Next, you need to understand as much as you can about the people who buy that occupy the position of the market you’ve chosen to operate in. Where they live, what they love to do, who their friends are, the types of books and TV shows they like, their favorite movies, how much they value luxury items like photography etc.
Once you know as much about that as you can, you’ll have the foundation upon which you can build the rest of your marketing because it speaks directly to your customers.
Too Small An Audience And Social Network
The second problem on our list for the new photographer is having too small an audience and social network. Clearly, this is to be expected when we’re new—every photographer out there started with a client base of zero, so no surprise there.
The challenge, then, is how to build that audience and develop a larger social network, and this is where so many photographers act more out of their own egos and a need to grow fast, which not only fails to solve the problem but also causes potential problems down the road.
For example, posting requests in forums and online groups asking to trade Facebook likes with other photographers is simply a waste of time unless other photographers are your target audience.
A better way is to start posting quality and engaging content into your social media channels and on your Facebook pages that your ideal clients will love and enjoy. This doesn’t have to be your photography, it can be anything that resonates with your potential customers and intersects with their interests.
Do you see how understanding your audience in as much detail as possible, like I mentioned earlier, can have a profound effect on this and make your life so much easier?
Another way is through physical networking—getting out from behind your computer and actually going out to where your desired audience is already active.
There are lots of other ways too—volunteer, join local societies and groups, participate in the community, and make alliances with other business owners who serve the same people you do.
Also, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your audience will grow if you do this with the philosophy of keeping your audience’s needs ahead of your own.
Lack Of Perceived Authority
Number three on the list is a lack of perceived authority, but what in the world does that really mean?
Essentially, it’s the sense you get that no one is paying you any serious attention or really listening to anything you have to say because they don’t see you as an authority. That doesn’t mean you have to be a complete expert or even the best in your field but, like respect, it has to be earned, and that takes time.
I know what you’re thinking here!
Okay, Nigel, but what the heck is an authority in the photography space? It sounds more like one of those vague and wooly marketing terms everyone throws around just to make themselves sound cool and more important.
In the context of the photography business, an authority photographer is the one everyone wants to go to, whether or not they can afford their fees, because they’ve developed a reputation in the local community as the go-to photographer.
You might be forgiven for thinking that this has more to do with how good the photographer is, or how amazing their portraits are, but it actually doesn’t.
The fact is, there’s a hard truth in this business that it’s the best marketers who are successful, not necessarily the best photographers.
That’s hard to swallow if your work is stellar but no one is buying it, I know, but you’d better get used to it and start loving the marketing side of your business.
And, really, there’s no fast-track to becoming an authority, but it’s certainly achievable if you treat it more like a marathon than a sprint and you stay the course without quitting—just show up every day and do the work, that’s all it takes.
That said, there are at least a couple of things that can help here.
First, make sure you deliberately set yourself apart from as many of the other photographers in the community as you can, which essentially reduces the field to a choice of one for those prospects who match your ideal client.
The other one is testimonials—as many as you can lay your hands on!
For example, if you’re new and you offer portfolio-building sessions, then make sure you get a glowing testimonial that speaks to your differentiating factors from each and every person who gets in front of your camera. Nothing will help your credibility more than the things your happy clients will say about you.
Limited Online Content
Next on the hit list of culprits responsible for failed marketing is having a limited amount of online content.
Yes, I know we all have to start somewhere, but it’s especially important in the early stages of the business to establish a foundation of content on your website and blog—enough to make the place look lived in, as it were, and to give people something to read, rather than having them bounce away from your site and onto that of your nearest competitor.
But what do you need for this?
The best place to start is with your service pages. You’ll need to get as detailed as you can to make them as engaging and as compelling as possible to build an instant bond with the people who fit the model for your ideal client (oh, there it is again, that whole ideal client thing—it just gets into everything, doesn’t it?).
Next, flesh out your about page, your contact page, and create some FAQ’s and SAQ’s (those are the questions people should ask but don’t).
Resource pages should also be an early target for you as well.
These are small hubs of content on your site that address some of the major questions and challenges people might face who are thinking about the type of photography you offer. The list here is endless, but think about the types of issues that might prevent people from hiring a photographer of your specialty and start from there.
Next, move over to the blog and add at least five posts to get it started that highlight who you are, what you’re about, some of your work, and how you fit into the local community.
Oh, and don’t forget to include calls to action everywhere across your website and blog too, unless you want people to have to guess what you want them to do next, which is never a good idea.
Once you have these basics in place you can start promoting them via social media and to your hopefully-growing email list.
Inappropriate Website Design
On the subject of websites and blogs, be careful when choosing a design or theme, as this will have a profound effect on how effective your site is at converting prospects and visitors into leads.
For example, it’s natural to think you need a website designed primarily to show off your photography, which is actually a huge mistake. That’s okay when you’re an amateur photographer, but a business is a completely different thing altogether and requires a business website designed to maximize conversion.
If I had to name one, I would say this is the number one killer of photography businesses today, and it’s a senseless waste really because it can be so easily avoided by choosing a theme or layout that focuses on content and marketing copy as well as the imagery.
Wasting Time On The Wrong Social Networks
Moving down our list, social media marketing is another area where mistakes happen.
Social media has become a huge (some might say too huge) part of our everyday lives, but it’s hard to know where to even start with social media marketing for your business, right?
Which networks should you be on? How often and when should you post updates? Should you pay to advertise on there? Who should you connect with?
There are so many questions to answer and so much confusion, especially as one marketing expert will tell you to focus on Facebook, another one recommends LinkedIn as the best one, while others are rooting for Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.
The best thing here is to put on your noise-canceling headphones to cut out the rabble and simply focus on the networks where your best clients hang out and participate the most.
Of course, you can and should have a presence on the major social networks, but you can save a lot of wasted time and get more results by focusing most of your participation on the network that matters most to your audience.
Bad Search Engine Optimization
Bad SEO is the source of another huge time-suck and is a confusing monster for new photographers, especially.
Rather than waste a lot of time stressing out over it, I would recommend doing only the basic minimum at the beginning, and then come back to it later when you have more time to spend on it and more of an idea of what you want to achieve with your SEO goals.
Don’t bother doing any real SEO on your blog posts, for example, it’s really not worth the effort and can cause unwanted problems later on.
Instead, do some optimization on important pages like the home page, resource pages, and your service pages. That includes the page titles, some keywords, basic image optimization, headings and sub-headings, and the URL of the page.
I know it might come as a surprise to some of you, but that’s really all you need to worry about with SEO at this stage of the game.
Desperation Or Emergency Marketing
The last one on the list is doing desperate emergency marketing. I’ve talked about this in previous installments, but essentially this is where you try to implement marketing campaigns that are poorly thought out or put together in a hurry, and with no strategic reasoning or goals behind it all.
Instead, concentrate on putting together a marketing plan and calendar, and scheduling well-constructed marketing campaigns that support the core values of your business and will be attractive to your ideal clients (yes, them again, they get everywhere!).
For example, offering too many discounted sessions when you’re trying to position yourself as a premium photographer only serves to undermine your overall goals, so you’ll need to get more creative about it.
Likewise, avoid the temptation to post offers on Facebook directly, as those rarely work and upcoming changes to the Facebook algorithms mean those types of posts will be less likely to be seen anyway.
So, there you have it for today—some of the biggest reasons why marketing doesn’t work so well when you’re just starting out in the business, and I hope this has given you some good things to think about and hopefully improve upon.
In 3 Best Photography Marketing Strategies When No One Knows Who You Are we’ll take a look at some actual marketing strategies you can use when you’re brand new, so stay tuned for that one.
Closing Thoughts By Arthur Ashe
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can…
All too often, I encounter photographers who procrastinate about making changes in their business because they feel like everything must be perfectly in place before they can start.
Imperfect action always beats perfect inaction, so make the decision to start something because if you’re not moving forwards, your business is dying.
You can always tweak and improve along the way, right?