Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Photo Marketing isn't about pushing, it's about pulling.

Marketing is easily the most befuddling aspect of the photography business that people just can't seem to get. How to get yourself noticed by clients--whether they are art directors who might hire you, or ad agencies who license your photos, or art buyers who buy your prints--is the holy grail to building a successful photo business. There are copious books on the subject, espousing the best ways for photographers to promote themselves, whether it's through their websites, or creating photo portfolios, and all of them give very similar (if not identical) advice: push yourself out to the market by trying to establish direct contact with clients.

This technique is typified by the best-selling book in the Pro Photography section of amazon.com: "The 2007 Photographer's Market". This is, year over year, always the best selling book, all the way back to the first edition. Why does this book sell so well? Because, in addition to the generic business advice noted above (that I'll discuss soon), it actually lists the names and contact information for people who buy (or are responsible for sourcing) photographs. In fact, over 2/3 of the book is nothing more than a directory of such people, spanning market segments from editorial books and magazines, to ad agencies and even museums. At first blush, this seems like a fantastic resource, as it also lists the forms of contact these people like to receive, what format to submit portfolios, and so on.

The fundamental problem with this marketing method is that it puts the cart before the horse. That is, it assumes that selling photography is only about just putting together a collection of good-looking images and getting them to clients. If that were the case, then we would have essentially a lottery, where the winner is the one who buys the most lottery tickets (by way of sending out portfolios and trying to blindly establish contacts with as many buyers as possible), and has enough luck that the odds eventually go in his favor.

Turns out, this actually is how most photographers build their businesses, and to those lucky few who win the lottery (establish a well-paying career), they pass the baton on to the next generation of photographers through their teaching, either through photo industry groups, trade magazines or books, such as those noted above.

But, playing the lottery isn't really the best way to build a career. To properly build a photo business, you need to establish your business's foundation before implementing a marketing plan. These books discuss the marketing as if the business foundation is simply "photography," and from there, you start to market it. And here is where the books--and this entire strategy--have it wrong. Your business foundation is not photography, it's the business behind the subject of your photography. Whether it's cars, fashion, travel, or even the just generic collection of stock photos, to properly sell this material, you have to know more about the business of your client, not just the photographs that may interest them. And when you realize this, it then becomes clear that not every marketing plan is equal. How and when any given marketing strategy should be employed is not universal. Coming full circle, the whole idea of sending out your portfolio to photo editors, cold-calling art directors, sending unsolicited emails (now known as spam), sending periodic postcards, and a plethora of other similar "push marketing" tactics is a simplistic lottery game, where your chances of success are equal to that of every one of the other millions of photographers who are trying to do the same thing.
If the same one-size-fits-all marketing methods worked, then photography would surely be the easiest business in the world to succeed in. (And everyone would do it, and all would be rich.)

It all started before the internet, when the distribution of images was choked by the physical-world logistics of having to actually send portfolios and cold-calling buyers. In short, you really had no choice. Direct contact with buyers was the best way to go. And because the work, time and expense involved in this whole charade was so prohibitive, the number of people you were competing against was much smaller. In fact, the number of pro photographers before the Internet era was in the tens of thousands (a much easier number to manage than the millions who are in it today).

Even though times and circumstances have changed, what reinforces this paradigm is that the pros--most of whom sit at the top of the photo industry information food chain, such as industry trade groups, schools, and media--these old methods still work for them. Why? If you're already a well-established pro photographer with a name and reputation, your objective is less to establish new business, but to remind the small universe of your existing buyers that you're still there. So, sending reminder postcards now and then to your existing buyers is great; contacting art directors that probably already know your work has a high likelihood of success; and sending email to people closely associated with others you already know in the industry is also likely to be accepted graciously. Since most who achieve this level in their careers are also those who teach and write about the photo business, it's no wonder this is the only method taught. So, when emerging photographers see advice like, "you have to send out your portfolios to buyers," the natural and obvious response is, "where can I get a list of those buyers?" And that's why Photographer's Market is the best-selling book, year over year.

As I mentioned, things are much different today: your competition numbers in the millions, and that doesn't even count everyday people who just have their images online (and who incidentally license their images). Consequently, the marketing methods described by Photographer's Market and others don't work for someone who's unknown. Worse, these methods virtually assure you will get nowhere, and at a very high cost. The number of lottery ticket holders is so high--even among those who don't necessarily intend to even play--that the effort is next to futile.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that all photographers will fail by trying to use this marketing method. By the same token, not all lottery players will be losers. There is always going to be the statistically small percentage of people who will pick a winning lottery number, just as there will be those photographers who use the guide to contact a huge number of people, and by virtue of dumb luck, be a winner. As we all know, lotteries all over the country thrive, and they do because lotteries appeal to two aspects of human nature: we love the prospect of getting a lot for having done nothing at very little expense; and more importantly, we over-estimate percentages. That is, we don't inherently and intuitively grasp the nature of big numbers and our personal, individual relationship to it. Through fear or greed, humans naturally assume that, whatever you're talking about, it will happen to them, regardless of what statistics may otherwise dictate. Whether it's the fear of being audited, or robbed, or flying in an airplane, people's behaviors always swing extremely conservative in risk-avoidance, despite how low the real chances are. Similarly for greed: for most people, all they need to see are those groups of big winners who don't look any different from themselves, and they think they can do it, too.

And this is what brings us to photo marketing: aside from the proportionally few winners that find themselves as pseudo-celebrities, everyone else that tries the lottery-style method of photo marketing won't have this experience. In fact, most will find themselves scratching their heads thinking, "what am I doing wrong?" Any self-respecting statistician throws out the anomalous top 5% of the bell curve and focuses on the "fat part" of the graph to see what is really the most likely outcome for anyone that attempts the same methodology. And this type of marketing is a sure failure.

I don't fault the book for existing, nor for the publishers to promote it the way they do. After all, if it were more direct about how to go about the business, then its sales would be limited to only the smaller number of existing pros who might actually make the best use of it. I once was asked to proofread the 2001 edition, and I had very strong concerns about the fact that it was written by and for the pro photographer without directly saying so. The majority of people who actually buy the book will be getting entirely the wrong advice. My recommendation was to clarify that the book was not for the beginner, but only really appropriate for existing pros. I offered vast edits for how to discuss the broader business of photography without losing its intended audience (the emerging pro), but I was rebuffed. I eventually wrote my own books on that subject, which are found here.

The reason I'm writing about this now is because I get a pretty consistent stream of questions from photographers starting their businesses, and a couple recent ones mentioned guidelines in The Photographer's Market, and another mentioned doing precisely what most photo groups advocate.

I used the term loosely before, but now I'll get more direct: the methods discussed by photo business books, and especially the Photographer's Market advocate a "push" approach to marketing, under the theory that, sooner or later, your chance will come up. Devising the proper approach to marketing is not comprised of a series of sequential steps or "to do" list items. Where you need to start is by having a good handle on the fundamental businesses behind the photos you shoot. For example, one of the people who emailed me shoots kid pictures, mostly in the fashion area. She has a website that shows a portfolio of pictures. And she has a blog whose entries consist mostly of her personal relationship with photography, and some other insights to her personal life. Needless to say, nothing of what I saw shows any insight at all about children's fashion.

"Whatever it is you know," I said, "it's not apparent to me. You write a blog, but I see nothing that talks about fashion or the industry itself. You're just throwing out random thoughts and ideas about random subjects. Tell the reader what are the latest children's clothing trends for the age groups you know. Who are the companies and designers that are setting these trends? What's going out and why? What should we be on the lookout for in the next line up?"

In general, whatever your target industry is for photography, you have to know the answers to similar questions. If you can't answer those questions, don't have any expectations of being a photographer in this field. If you can answer those questions, then the first obvious thing to do is write about it. You don't have to be "right", just informed. Make your blog and/or website worth reading by people in the industry. Keep an eye on who your target audience is. An art director should see that you know something about the business that she's about to hire you for.

Of course, you also want your photos to reflect what you write. And that's where the second thing comes in. Your web site isn't there just to prove that you're a good photographer. We all assume that's the case, but oddly, even that plays second fiddle to knowledge. For example, to the fashion photographer I said, "show photos that illustrate (and discuss) the latest fashion trends for your focus age group. Also discuss photo techniques, for example, that illustrate how to make the best photo of the new line of fabrics using natural light vs. studio lights. (Or whatever.)" Over time, your blog contributions and engagements in other discussion forums on the subject will, if your ideas and analysis are sound, generate interest, which lead to links to your site, which boosts your search rankings, which brings traffic, which turns into sales. Here's where we come full circle to your photography being second fiddle to knowledge: if your site gets traffic because of your ideas, your photos will be seen (as a consequence of that) ahead of other photographers' photos, who may be far better shooters than you. Remember, in the world of the web and marketing in general, the best photographer is not the one whose images are found. It's the one whose website comes up first in searches.

So, given all that I said above, one thing needs to be made very clear: it isn't that easy (or fast) to gain that kind of credibility. It takes time to know an industry well enough to attract a critical mass of readers or followers. So, what does your marketing plan look like in the interim? After all, it isn't marketing as we're used to seeing it. That is, people expect to just contact photo editors, show a portfolio and hope to be hired based on photo talent. That's quick, immediate feedback. Taking the time to build your knowledge of the market segment that you happen to photograph doesn't have immediate benefits, so again, what do you do? To answer that, let me step back a moment and make two obvious observations that apply here:

* Photography is a commodity with infinite supply, so 99% of photographers who try to make a career out of it will fail, simply because there isn't enough business to support them all. (This is truism #1 of the photo business, as discussed here.) So, even fantastic photographers with no background business knowledge of their target market are going to fail, regardless of their attempts at "push marketing" using techniques discussed by The Photographer's Market.

* If you are, in fact, knowledgeable about your industry (children's fashion, for example), than it's likely the result of either having worked in it already, or you are very well read on the subject. In other words, most successful photographers are those who have migrated from some other industry or job function in their industry. This is what has given them a huge advantage over other photographers who don't have that background. In addition, it will have already exposed you to important people. (That is, you'll recognize names, companies, agencies, etc., so you don't really need a directory of such people.)

So, now we come back to the question posed above, "how should you market yourself while you're building your reputation?" The two bullet-items above suggest that, unless and until you have knowledge about the industry that is the subject of your photography, your marketing efforts will have little success. So, rather than asking, "how you should market yourself," the better question is to ask is, "what's the best use of your time?"

Here is where the rubber meets the road. All your activities during your ramp-up to being known will not be thought of as "marketing" now, but will be used as a platform from which to launch future marketing activities. That is, by reading about and engaging with people in the industry, you get to know people, and these people will either be your contacts, or your ushers, or your cohorts in future marketing. Fashion photographers usually start by talking to other photographers, models and others, and through those people, learn about more people. Go to conferences, shows, conventions, workshops, and so on. Don't just focus on the photography, but on the subject of your photography. ("Why is a given fabric better than another?") And as you get to know others, they will find out about you through others in the same way. As you publish more images and blog entries or other articles about what you know, your opinions and ideas, you establish the very foundation that is now the platform from which you are building your marketing plan. These writings weren't "marketing" when you were getting started, but as you become known, they are now. This is what will become the basis for your 'pull marketing" campaign. You've heard of the "six degrees of separation," where everyone in the world knows everyone else by at most 6 people? Well, when in a singular business segment, the degrees of separation where people know other people drops to about one or two. The better known you become through your self-publishing, the more likely your chances are for being found out--and recognized--by others.

This type of marketing isn't new in general, but it is for the photo business. In fact, this defines the main tidal change in how photo marketing is done in the 21st century.

So, let's review by comparing and contracting the two marketing models we've discussed. What most photographers are used to, and what most established pros continue to use, is a method called, "Push Marketing," where you initiate contact with a client directly. "Pull Marketing" is where you promote yourself through publishing in a way that gets the attention of those who share the same interests (personal or business). The perpetuation of your ideas (and presumably, your photography) earns credibility, which invariably results in clients initiating first contact. They were "pulled in."

And this brings us back to the book Photographer's Market. It has one and only one use: "push marketing." It contains the names and contact information for photo editors and art directors for people in many industries. Yet, if you have already developed your business to the point where you would actually be hired by any of those people, you will have already gotten to the point where you already know the names and certainly don't need such a directory. Sure, you may want to review it just to see if anyone's moved, or if there are any interesting new players coming into the scene that you can ask about among your other contacts, but here's where we come full circle: the book's value is only really useful for existing pros under very limited circumstances.

But, since most people who buy the book are really just beginners, not only are they going to be disappointed, but the book perpetuates the old fairy tale about the benefits of Push Marketing methods.

The way to tell if you're engaged in the "push" model or the "pull" model is by the nature of the discussions you have with photo editors and the like: when you say things like, "would you like to see my photos of kids in fun, springtime attire?" You're pushing yourself. When you say things like, "Did you see the line-up from Singapore this year? Those fabrics are awful, but it looks like Wal-Mart's going to carry it anyway." You're clearly an informed player in the industry. Guess which photographer is more likely to be hired after a few exchanges.

And when this finally happens, you'll find you're bypassing all the other wanna-be's who cold-called that same art director and who sent unsolicited portfolios and emails. You know, the photographers that bought The Photographer's Market and naively sent out copious emails, portfolios and postcards to the masses.

Whether it's children's fashion or beer or nature photography, the photo business approach is the same: know the industry, know the people in it, and be someone worth talking to about it.

(A post-edit note: just because you may engage in Pull Marketing practices doesn't itself guarantee success. You have to have good ideas that people like and perpetuate to others. There are many people who write me and ask why they aren't selling images, despite the fact that they publish a lot. In those cases, they're just simply not that smart about their industry, so their names and reputations aren't good enough to establish a footing from which to build their businesses.)