Where are all my clients?
You have started a photography business,
and things are not going as planned!
The Facts: First, competition today is fierce! Everyone and anyone with a camera is a professional photographer (or thinks they are). Second, an influential marketer will get more clients than a fantastic photographer. Third, mediocrity is the new standard acceptance of quality.
To succeed as a business in photography, you need to examine these three facts and come up with a strategy to overcome them. But, I think it is more important to determine if you are actually ready to be a “business.”
What are your photography qualifications?
Are you a professional photographer? Some will say, “any hobbyist/amateur (in any field) that gets paid is a professional.” I say no way! Just because someone will pay you to do something they won’t or can’t do themselves doesn’t make you a professional at that skill. Along with getting paid, a “professional” needs to be an expert in their specific field, otherwise they just a hobbyist who made a few extra bucks doing something they love.
But, you do want to move from being a hobbyist to being a professional photographer. First, make sure you are an expert in your craft! It’s my opinion that if you are not an expert photographer in a specific niche, you are not ready to start your business – period! For now, be ok with being a hobbyist making a few bucks here and there. Think about a couple of different genres you would like your business centered around. When you are being asked to shoot more paid jobs than you are shooing for fun, then it’s time to start thinking about opening a business. If you are putting in more paid hours with your photography than your day job, then it might be time to start thinking about going fulltime.
Food for thought: If you start too early and a client sees your marketing material, they are immediately assuming you are a professional in your field. If you are still asking social media “what lens, what light, what body, what happened, etc.” you are not an expert photographer and not ready to start a business. Be ok being a hobbyist and start focusing on a niche and honing your craft in that niche! Learn, ask, and learn some more. Remember, photography is about creating a visual story, not so much about making money – that’s just a potential bonus!
“But I want my own business so bad!”
Photography is a very oversaturated market, and this oversaturation is the “Achilles Heel” of the Photography Business. Most business strategists will tell you that “Saturation means Strong Demand” and this is mostly true, but what they don’t tell you is that saturation also means dilution and a diluted market means exceptionally high competition with low profits. The business of photography has a second “Achilles Heel,” and that it is an extremely popular hobby due to its very inexpensive startup costs.
How does one deal with this oversaturated market? Find a niche (or two) and the target audiences. Start by making a realistic wishlist of the genre of photography you are interested in that people are willing to pay photographers to shoot. Do some research and see what the demand for these niches are and the available photographers in your area to fill them. For example, almost everyone in my market offers portraits of some kind; however, there are very few who market specifically towards food photography.
For me, I love shooting extreme action sports, I hate photographing people, wildlife is absolutely amazing, but I am a Product Photographer! When I first started, I was into Real Estate, Pets, Wedding, Portraits, Team Sports, Models, Action Sports – I was all over the map. I learned very quickly that I can’t be all things to all people and be better than my competition at each. It was way too challenging to stay focused and learn my craft in a specific niche, and my portfolio showed it. I even found myself breaking down my niche into subcategories. Product Photography has Catalog, Editorial, Small Business, Commercial. These also have subcategories like Individual, Group, Studio, Details, etc. The point is when you start focusing on the type of photography business, you want to be in, the “oversaturated market” starts to be less saturated, less intimidating, and more manageable.
The Marketing Mayhem
So you have past muster and are confident to call yourself an expert photographer in your niche, started your business, have a great location, a name, and a logo, but you are struggling to get clients through the door and don’t know why?
The first 3 years of a photography business (just about any business) is 80% marketing and 20% photography. Marketing is all about trends, research & learning, and understanding what your current market is doing is critical. Gaining traction for your business can typically take between 3-5 years, but with some focused efforts, that time can be shortened quite a bit. However, we still need to put food on the table!
“What is in my way?” Uncle Joe, A.K.A. “that guy with a camera” that seems to always be at that wedding and brides feel is a great way to save money. “Lizzie the babysitter” with her dad’s DLSR that can shoot pics of a newborn, on the cheap. Heck, this was you at one point, and now they are your competition and crushing your business!
When starting a new business, you need to focus your marketing efforts on Name & Brand recognition, your services, and establishing yourself as an expert in your field. It takes 15 instances of getting “the face of your business” in front of potential clients before they start recognizing and remember you. People need to know who you are and what you do, but moreover, they need to be able to trust that they are going to get value for their hard-earned dollars. This is a tough one for you because you may be spending marketing dollars without seeing instant revenue from it. But if people don’t know who you are, they will likely pass right by your ad!
Lets considered Uncle Joe & Lizzy again. They may suck as a photographer, but what do they have over you? Your client knows them, and that’s very powerful, it’s instant trust! So what are some ways to build that trust without spending thousands?
Most photography business genres are geographically fixed. So focus your marketing locally in your area. 95% of your clients will likely not travel more than 30-45 minutes to utilize your services. Look in your area and see what other photographers are doing to get clients and then find a way to be different that stands out and is rememberable.
Look for ways to get in front of your clients by something or someone they already trust. If your a wedding photographer, go after established wedding planners, small jewelers, bridal shops, etc., even offer a referral fee for their troubles. If your a maternity/newborn photog, go after small maternity shops, daycare centers, even local birthing centers. Ask to have your work displayed in their facilities with your contact info and offer them a referral fee as well.
Another option is to go where the work is; sites like Thumbtack, Bark, PPA’s Find a Photog, PhotoSesh, etc. will forward people looking for a photographer to your profile. These potential clients are much easier to convince than someone that really wasn’t looking for photos in the first place. These sites are a great way to get new clients, and they are doing a lot of marketing that you are competing against.
Tap into change; today (2019) Facebook Ads (social media in general) are far less effective due to oversaturation and stricter privacy policies; they are not able to get as granular as they once were. Again, you need to stand out and be recognizable against all the Uncle Joes, Lizzies, hobbyists, and professionals in your local area to succeed.
The Quality of Sucess
Let’s talk some more about Uncle Joe, Lizzie, the hobbyist (we’ll call them THEM), and even some professionals; what’s the difference between THEM and you? This is a critical question for you to have the answer because your potential clients are asking it themselves!
Quality or better yet, the “the overall assessment of quality” is one thing that is always changing. Right now, it seems that clients are more willing to settle for mediocrity over excellence! I don’t have a real explanation, and this is actually something new that has crept into our society over the past 7-8 years. It just seems that people are willing to settle, it’s sad, but it is what it is.
As a professional, it is still our responsibility and morally ethical to deliver excellence for what we are being paid for. But what about the mediocre work being paid for? Well, that’s the challenge of standing out above the rest by delivering a higher valued service close to the same prices. We, as business owners, have more expenses than THEM and therefore have to charge more. Ok, I get it, then you have to show your potential client why you are worth more and the inherent issues that may come if they choose THEM as their photographer over you, why your work is better than theirs.
Here are four types of marketing strategies to consider. While you’ll likely use them all at some point, you’ll be focused on one of them more for your area and situation. My recommendation for a new business is to use Aggressive & Offensive strategies to quickly penetrate your market.
Defensive marketing strategies refer to the actions of a market leader to protect its market share, profitability, product positioning, and mind share against an emerging competitor, usually in the form of deals, discounts, and free added services.
Offensive marketing strategies seek to attack the market by targeting the weaknesses of the competition and emphasizing the company’s strengths in comparison.
Passive marketing is simply the marketing and promotional tools we build and use to help explain what our service or product is to potential clients.
Aggressive marketing typically involves active programs to expand into new markets and stimulate new opportunities. New product development is vigorously pursued, and offensive marketing warfare strategies are a common way of obtaining additional market share.
Food for thought: if a bride wants Uncle Joe as their photographer for that special day because he is less expensive, then you probably don’t what that bride as a client because they don’t understand your value. Even if you manage to convince her, she is always going to be comparing you to Uncle Joe’s “good enough.” If a client comes to me and is focused on getting the lowest price they can, I pass. It tells me they don’t understand or care about quality or the value that quality brings to them.
So what are some ways to stand out in your local area?
- Promote lower prices by delivering Value-Added Services as add-ons. Starting out with a free for the Session and Digital Prints will keep the price low. Addin in additional services like retouching, additional setup, different locations, framing, canvas, prints, etc. are all add-ons for an additional fee. Having an al-a-cart price and the packaged prices is an excellent way of keeping things simple.
- Understand that the viewing medium for photography has changed from print to online and has even shifted from desktop to smart devices which are much smaller. Because of this trend, you can get away with a whole lot less retouching than you would have had to do for a 16×20 print. You can leave the heavy editing for prints and bundle in the editing at that time.
- Advertise the skills you have that you know Uncle Joe & Lizzie does not have (Offensive Marketing)! Most anyone can shoot outside in great (even good) Natural Light. If you are a “Natural Light Photographer” learn to use strobes, even outdoors! I almost ALWAYS use strobes outdoors for fill light and even special effects. This will show in your work and definitely put you above your competition.
- Don’t ask friends & family about the quality of your work, they lie as they don’t want to hurt your feelings. What you think may be great (per them) is just as average as your competitions. Don’t ask social media for validation either, you’ll get far too many “critics” who are likely, not close as being as good as you are. Use social media to ask about specific issues that you are struggling with. Compare your work to other’s online that you like. Try to understand what they did different even ask how it was done. You are in business for yourself, and at this point, need to be confident in your craft. If you are not confident, it will show in your work, and you may need to step back to Step 1 above.
- If you are not shooting for pay, shoot for fun (free) but on your own terms! The only way to keep yourself more valuable than your competitors is to keep learning new skills. Think about ways to help your community, look at non-profits as well, as these are ways of benefiting financially without getting paid directly. For example, contact your local SPCA or Animal Shelter and offer to photograph their animals for the Web, Print & TV. You get a great way to network with people, hone your craft, and write off the whole session on your taxes. Another option is to go to a Senior Living or Assisted Living Center and offer to shoot digital portraits for them. The Senior’s love it, they get to get glammed up and have their picture taken – total excitement for them, training for you (donating your time can also be a write off on your taxes). This is an excellent way to network with the center’s staff, give back to your community, and potentially upsell packages to their friends & families in the form of digitals and/or prints.