Going Pro: Marketing

Posted on 9/7/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

If you have decided on a career as a freelance photographer, your vocation will be marketing and your avocation, or sideline, will be photography.
The "Going Pro" series
The Freelance Challenge
Are Great Images Enough?
Demand by the Numbers
Image Oversupply

State of the Internet Market
State of the Print Market
Photography as a Career

The marketing aspect of a photography business involves identifying potential customers,
creating customer interest in the services you offer and building strong customer relationships. It is not unusual for self-employed photographers to spend 80% of their time in the marketing and administrative aspects of their business and 20% actually producing pictures.

The first step when establishing a business is to clearly understand and anticipate the perceived needs of potential customers. Then, by using marketing and sales techniques the photographer must let potential customers know that he or she can produce the kind of imagery the customer wants, as well as demonstrate that he or she can satisfy the customer’s needs more effectively than competitors. Satisfying the customer’s needs can sometimes involve producing images that do not necessarily represent how the photographer would like to spend his or her time. However, producing what the customer wants to buy is necessary to achieving a profitable business.

Photographers are often told to “shoot what they love.” But for freelance photographers dependent on the revenue from their pictures for their livelihood, just shooting what they love can lead to poverty, if there are insufficient customers interested in paying for what they produce.

Marketing becomes more important and more difficult when supply in the industry is greater than demand, or when there are more photographers seeking work than there are jobs to go around. Currently, there is a huge oversupply of imagery and an over-abundance of photographers seeking work. Given the competition, the photographer with the best marketing plan often becomes more successful than the photographer with the most exciting portfolio.

Identifying customers

The first step in marketing is to identify potential customers and find the right people to talk to within any organization. Companies like Agency Access, Adbase and others provide updated mailing lists. With services like these, photographers can build a list of publications, ad agencies and other potential customers and put together email or direct mail campaigns.

List services are a good starting point but may not be targeted to the specific talents of a given photographer. Photographers should use such lists as one resource in building a custom list of potential clients.
Such list services are a good starting point but may not be targeted to the specific talents of a given photographer. Therefore, photographers should use such lists as one resource in building a custom list of potential clients that have use for the style of work the photographer is prepared to produce. The process of building and modifying that custom list, as certain customers are added and others deleted, will continue throughout the photographer’s career.

Photographers cannot expect editors to regularly check photographer Web sites, even if a great working relationship with an editor already exists. Thus, when they have something new that they are sure is the type of thing that would be of interest to a particular editor, a short update email is probably the best approach. Such emails must be targeted and selective; sending an email blast to every editor on your list every time you post a new image will result in editors ignoring all your emails.

Freelance photographers need to find ways to aggressively promote their brand, while not appearing to be a pest. Such promotion must be consistent, not a one-shot deal. One of the hardest things for an individual photographer to do is to consistently promote during busy shooting periods. Photographers tend to get distracted when they are taking pictures and forget about setting aside time for marketing. When this happens and the work tapers off, as it always does, photographers then turn to frantically looking for new work.

Most people who hire freelance photographers have irregular needs. Timing is everything. Once you have identified someone who might be interested in your style of work, send them a mailing or a reminder email at least once a quarter. The trick is to somehow keep your name and ability to do their photo job in front of them at exactly the time they have work that needs to be done. Of course, there is no perfect way to do this, but consistent reminders offer the best chance of hitting the right customer at the right time.

The most important thing to recognize is that the marketing strategies that work tend to change constantly, and photographers need to constantly look for new and unique ways to get the attention of potential customers.
Successful marketing strategies are ever changing. A decade or more ago, a photographer would create a portfolio of printed pieces, advertise in sourcebooks and make personal meeting appointments with editors and creative directors. To some degree, these strategies still have value, but today it is much harder to get meetings with potential customers than it used to be, so a printed portfolio may not be as important as it use to be. If you need more information on designing and presenting a portfolio, you might want to look at Successful Self-Promotion for Photographers by Elyse Weissberg and No Plastic Sleeves: The Complete Portfolio Guide for Photographers and Designers by Larry Volk and Danielle Currier.

Sourcebook ads do not seen to be drawing the customers they use to, and photographers often report that they do not receive enough new business to cover the cost of their ad, let alone make a profit. Direct mail marketing pieces used to bring in a lot of work, but now less so, because the buyers receive so much of it. Email and a good web site are the most used marketing tools today. But the most important thing to recognize is that the strategies that work tend to change constantly, and photographers need to constantly look for new and unique ways to get the attention of potential customers.

Face-to-face interaction is a great way to make strong contacts. But commercial and editorial photographers often work for customers located in many parts of the country or around the world, and personal contact may not be practical. On the other hand, those who shoot weddings and portraits in a local area should consider joining the many local professional, social, business or sports organizations—the Chamber of Commerce, Lion’s Club and Rotary Club. Contacts within these organizations can provide important references and referrals. When customers hire a photographer to cover an event or produce a particular set of images, their decision will often be based more on the photographer’s personality than on the quality of the work samples presented—assuming, of course, that the work meets a baseline level of quality.

For photographers selling stock, the decision is always based on the suitability of the image for the customer’s purpose. A photographer’s personality and reputation are unimportant to a buyer, because all they are interested in is the existing image. The most antisocial photographers can sometimes be successful, if they have a good rep and the imagery is the kind customers want to buy. Photographers who want to license rights to stock images need to market in a totally different way from those who are looking for wedding, portrait or commercial work.

Getting help

Many photographers who do not enjoy or are not skilled at marketing turn that role over to someone else. Some couples work as a team: one spouse handles much of the marketing and administrative activities, freeing the other, typically one with requisite technical and creative skills, to concentrate on photographic duties. This can be an ideal situation, provided the spouse enjoys and is good at the marketing aspects of the business.

As much or more time needs to be spent on marketing as is spent on production. It is important for the creative person to recognize that the marketer’s contribution is equal to or greater than the creator’s own. Without that contribution, the creator could not be nearly as effective or productive on his or her own.

Some of the more successful photographers are able to hire a freelance representative, or full-time in-house staff member to handle the marketing duties. However, such photographers usually have to achieve a significant level of success before they can justify the expense of a skilled marketing person or interest a freelance representative in taking them on.

When entering into a relationship with an agent or distributor, it is important to recognize how their interests differ from yours.
Some turn to agents or distributors that represent the work of many photographers, particularly if they are licensing rights to stock images. In one sense, this is ideal because the agent takes care of all the marketing, but some of the most effective agents also take the lion’s share of any revenue generated, leaving the creator feeling exploited. Another factor to consider is that agents and distributors usually do not share a lot of sales information that could be of great value in helping the creator determine what to shoot and where to most productively spend his or her time. There is no easy solution to this problem, because the interests of the agent who represents many contributors are different from those of any individual creator. When entering into a relationship with an agent or distributor, it is important to recognize how their interests differ from yours.

Creators working with agents also need to constantly assess whether it is in their best interest to work with one organization exclusively, or to work with many on a non-exclusive basis. The right answer to this question changes as the industry changes, as the creator’s career matures and as various agents change their marketing strategies. A choice made one year may no longer be the correct approach two or three years down the road.

Build a good Web site

Today, every photographer needs a Web site. As we mentioned earlier, a decade or more ago, every commercial photographer needed a print portfolio. Such portfolios may have some value now, but the primary way to exhibit one’s work is online. Many photographers are also starting to put their portfolios on iPads. Who knows what the most used strategy will be a decade from now? It could be a YouTube video that follows a photographer as he works a important job.

In some cases, photographers may need more than one Web site. If a photographer is trying to both get commercial assignments and sell fine art, he might want to present the work on two different sites so as not to confuse the customer. Customers who buy fine art are different from those looking for a photographer for commercial work. The approach to each should be different. A single site showing both types of work sends a mixed message; the more focused the message, the better.

The site should be simple and easy to navigate. Visitors should feel welcome. Flash is a turn-off for many and probably should not be used. The easier to see images, the better. Many photographers also struggle with security and information trade-offs. Should they require registration and watermark their images to track potential customers and make it difficult for people to steal? Or should they make life easy for customers and take the risk that someone may steal? That’s a tough decision, but if you hope to get assignments or make sales, you need to make it easy for potential customers to review their work.

Some recommend that a photographer’s Web site should give customers “a reason to come back regularly.” In most cases, that is very hard to accomplish. The customer will return because of an email notifying them about new work, and maybe when they need a photographer for an assignment, but not because an editor thought, “I’ve got to go look at Joe’s new work today.”

Some argue that selling direct can be very successful. I believe most customers go to the larger sites that represent tons of every type of subject. Going to individual sites is just too much work.
I do not recommend that individual photographers try to sell stock from their own Web site, unless they have a very unique niche. If your site is the only place on the Internet where customers can find a certain subject matter when they do a Google search using certain keywords, then it might make sense to sell directly—but very few have such a niche collection. People like Dan Heller argue that selling direct can be very successful. I believe most customers go to the larger sites that represent tons of every type of subject. Going to individual sites is just too much work. If you want to sell stock, place the images with one or more of the major distributors, because they have the attention of the customers.

When it comes to stock, it is important to recognize that there is a major base of customers out there now who are small business and personal users. It is unlikely that they will ever show up on your master list of people you will be marketing to on a regular basis. In the aggregate, these customers are a significant market, responsible for about 30% of all revenue generated from the licensing of stock worldwide. If you want to reach this segment of the market, it is mandatory that your images be represented by one or more of the major microstock distributors. It will be unprofitable to try to deal with these customers through an individual photographer’s site with a limited offering and without the capability of fully e-commerce enabled transactions.

The next thing to consider is how to draw potential customers to your site. Many photographers build a pretty site and think they are done, or start posting to photographer groups with requests to “take a look at my site,” forgetting that other photographers will not be customers. You’ve got to reach out to customers.

In very simple terms, there are three ways to draw customers: search engine optimization, offline marketing focused on driving online traffic and e-marketing, mainly via email.

The most important is to make effective use of SEO techniques to make it easy for customers to find your site when they go to Google and search for a particular subject, a particular style of imagery or a photographer in a particular geographic area. Two recommended guides for learning about SEO are Google's Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide and the PhotoShelter SEO Cookbook, which focuses more on photography-specific considerations. Both provide a good foundation. Another key to success is how well your images are keyworded and optimized for search engine placement. There is no big secret to SEO, it is simply a matter of investing the time.

The second is to hand out business card, or promotional pieces, to everyone you come in contact with or who is on your mailing list.

The third is email. Email new work regularly, maybe once a month, to show the people on your list what you have done recently. A single image with a link to more is enough. Always include a picture that opens when the email opens. John Math says, “If someone opens an email and immediately sees a picture they can’t help looking at it. If it is just text, or text with a click to open the pictures, they may put the email at the bottom of their ‘to read’ list and never get back to it. Most people will not ignore a picture.”

Copyright © Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Sep 8, 2010
    Good article Jim.

    You should mention my newest book (and 15th) also offers ways to get both new commercial work and get the most from stock sales. It has been praised by many photographers getting started in today's world.


  • Yva Momatiuk Posted Sep 8, 2010
    Thanks, Jim. Would you consider writing about commercial photo reps, listing them and pointing out their strong (and niche) aspects?
    Yva Momatiuk

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