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Winds of Change

Winds of Change: Is it hurricane season in the photo business?

Carolyn Potts was a featured speaker at the ASMP member’s meeting held in New York during PDN PhotoPlus Expo. An article with insights from her presentation was published in the ASMP Bulletin’s Year End issue. As a complement to the article in print, this online Q&A features more of Potts’s marketing insights.

ASMP: What methods do you suggest that photographers use to identify a unique vision and distinguish their work from the pack?


CP: Finding the subject you really love to shoot rather than all the things you could shoot is a road toward your distinguishable marketing strategy. It’s a central key to your uniqueness and part of what will set you apart from someone else. Here’s one way to identify what makes your vision unique: List the things in your life that have always fascinated you. For example, when you go to a bookstore without an agenda, what section of shelves do you immediately start browsing? This will give you a clue to finding a way to provide a unique vision or value-added service that distinguishes you from your competitors.


ASMP: Are there particular strategies that you recommend photographers employ to keep ahead of new competitors entering the commercial photography market?


CP: I sure wish there was a simple answer, but it really depends on the niche in which a photographer works. That is, an effective strategy for a food shooter isn’t necessarily going to work for a fashion photographer. However, being aware of the larger business issues affecting your clients is an essential strategy. For example, many photography marketing trends float downstream from big business. Other strategies are pushed upstream from teenagers (think FaceBook and other forms of social media). Big business is reaching beyond traditional media to connect with their customers… so, too, must photographers. Recognize that the Internet and its web of multiple connections, has broken down the hierarchical business world and created a relational world. In the inter-connected, always-on, 21st century, it’s now just as possible that a prospect visits your web site via a link found in a forwarded message from a mutual friend, as it is from their responding to your postcard promo. Your marketing messages can bear fruit in unexpected places; sow them everywhere.


ASMP: What do you see as the biggest pitfall that photographers currently face in effectively marketing their work?


CP: It’s the one-two punch of “no clear marketing message” combined with “no consistent follow-through” that knocks photographers out of consideration for the fewer assignments currently available. Avoiding the all-too-common syndrome of “roller-coaster marketing” is a challenge for everyone. However, there are tools and techniques out there that can help. If you had to transition from shooting film to creating digital imagery, you probably recognized the return on investment gained by learning digital imaging tips and techniques from experts who have deep knowledge in that area. Don’t forget it’s equally important to invest in your marketing. Take workshops, read general marketing books and blogs, tap the knowledge and insights of a photography consultant. Consistent marketing is one of the main distinctions setting successful photographers apart from the crowd.


ASMP: Do you have any recommendations for the amount of time and resources a photographer should devote to marketing their work?


CP: I suggest that a photographer fully commit to working on their marketing plan for a bare minimum of 90 minutes a week — divided up any way it is manageable (e.g. some can work in 90-minute sessions; others may have to do it in smaller bites, such as 15 minutes at a time).


ASMP: What do you feel is the best way to reach clients in the current business environment?


CP: It’s complicated. That’s why I recommend an integrated media approach. Promote in as many different media as you can afford and that effectively communicate your message. Print as well as electronic. New media as well as traditional.


Now that everyone is doing e-mail blasts, relying solely on blasts to get your message out is too risky. It was a great attention-getting strategy 6 years ago. Today it doesn’t give you the same leverage as integrating your marketing message across other media. But remember, a badly designed or printed direct mail piece — even if it’s sent to the right prospect — will reflect poorly on you as a professional image supplier. Even your email blasts can fall flat. For example, you can unknowingly send out thousands of email promos with formatting that mirrors the latest SPAM message format. Constant changes in the e-delivery environment means there’s a real risk your best prospects won’t ever see your promo in their in-boxes.


ASMP: How have clients’ expectations changed recently in regard to looking at photographers’ work?


CP: The sad reality is that art buyers are commissioning fewer shoots every year. So the photographer’s work that buyers are considering for an assignment must have a clear and compelling vision — either in style or expertise — otherwise time and budget restrictions will compel them to pick from the millions of images readily available in stock — or increasingly, from the client’s “image library.” Staff cutbacks have also made it a rare luxury for agency personnel to take the time to look at a portfolio “just to see what’s out there and to keep up with new talent.” If you’re calling on clients now, they expect you’ve done your homework and are showing work that is at least somewhat related to their account needs.


ASMP: What e-mail skills are most important for a photographer to consider in marketing their work?


CP: Realize that in today’s “always-on” work environment people are accessing their e-mail accounts from multiple devices and on multiple platforms; each environment displays your message differently, so you have to test on multiple delivery platforms. The art director may have a cinema display at work, a laptop at home, an iPhone everywhere else; while the art buyer may be on a 5-year old PC that has to tie into the agency’s billing systems; and others on the team, such as the account executives, may be using Blackberrys®.


People who get hundreds of e-mails a day also appreciate messages whose Subject lines allow them to filter for relevant content.


ASMP: What are the current best practices when it comes to online promotion?


CP: The best strategies are always the ones designed to meet the needs and expectations of your target market: e.g., a time-crunched and overworked ad agency art buyer is not going to be impressed with having a long-form, musical, photographic “experience” when visiting your Web site. But a bride searching to create her fairytale wedding might. An e-mail announcing a 15 percent discount on a portrait session probably won’t mean anything to a magazine photo editor, but it may drive business to your retail studio.


ASMP: What methods of follow-through do you find to be most effective for photographers to gain brand awareness for their work?


CP: Consistent, respectful contact with your target market in multiple formats that address their problems — not your problem of needing work. People would like to respond to everyone who calls, but there simply is not enough time in the day. Voice mail messages must say more than “I’m a photographer who would like to show you my work. Please call or visit my Web site.” If I got that message I don’t think it would be compelling enough for me to carve out the time. But if you do or say something that really shows that you understand the world of your target, or you do something that captures the target’s attention, they will be much more likely meet your request.


Photographers have an advantage over some other businesses in that they are members of an innately creative species; creatures who are great at solving all kinds of problems. Look at it as yet another creative problem — just like when you’re faced with a complicated shoot you’ve never done before. Change your self-talk from “I’m just not good at selling my work” to “I creatively solve problems day-in-and-day-out; that’s what I love doing — in every area of my business.”


Marketing is not something you do when you “have the time.” If you want its rewards you must make the time. You must commit both the time and money to implement an integrated marketing plan that clearly articulates your marketing message, then drive it through as many customer touch-points as possible.


You don’t need tons of money to do this successfully. It’s more important that you’re consistent. Do whatever it takes to get the help you need to implement your strategy!


Few people have the self-discipline to go it alone (myself included!) Yet there are so many ways to get help: a success group, an intern, assistant, coach, spouse, consultant, online support/accountability group, workshop, or even making a bet with a friend or colleague who also needs to get a tedious project done, etc.


Remember: the only difference between winners and losers is that winners don’t quit.