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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Marketing Tasks vs Positioning Strategies

In a discussion forum on LinkedIn a while ago, a photographer in the UK named Clare-Louise posts a question, "What's the best way to market myself?"

The responses come flooding in: "Put your best portfolio together and send it to as many people as you can," writes one. "Do a direct mail marketing campaign," says another. "Build a great flash website," chimes a third. "Write about yourself in a blog," echoes the crowd.

All these ideas are those you've no doubt heard a million times, and many people swear by them, citing personal anecdotes to success. Yes, one should do these things. But that's not saying much. Everyone does these things. If you were to interview a room full of lottery winners, each will tell you their technique. But as you know, picking numbers is, despite the claims of the winners, nothing but luck. And so is photography, at least insofar as the marketing is concerned.

It's not that some photographers or their works aren't genuinely "better" or more appropriate for a given client than others. There are differences. The randomness comes in from the sheer volume and noise received by those who sift through it all, because they are flooded with portfolios and emails from people just like you. No matter how much you tweak, or categorize, or improve, or anything else to differentiate your photography or your presentation, the huge volume of noise that photo buyers/editors get means that such attention to detail is not going to yield much more of a difference than random chance—that someone just happened to be in the right frame of mind when he saw your portfolio.

Yes, you will find the winners that say, "I wouldn't have gotten that job had I not sent in that portfolio!" But what about the hundreds or thousands of others that did exactly the same thing, but didn't get hired. If you were to look at their contributions, you would be hard-pressed to see such a discernable difference as well, helping you appreciate just how arbitrary photo editors and art directors are.

Predictably photo buyers would strenuously disagree with this. They genuinely believe that they have unique insight into which photographer is the best one to hire. And in their minds they're right because of their own track record; their ratio of success to failure is so high because they're smart.

This is what I call this the inverse-lottery game, where almost every ticket is a winner. For them, the photographer they choose will likely do a good job because, despite what they'd like to admit, almost all of them would be perfectly suited. It's like the game that toddlers play where they pick from a tubful of rubber duckies that has a star taped underneath. In their world, they pick a duck, turn it over, and surprise! They win! They really think they knew what they were doing. But the reality is, all the ducks had a star.

That's OK. Let them think that. Here's where your strategic planning can be put to best use: When you contact someone, don't even mention photography. Instead, discuss business. Keep in mind this truism: A great photographer with bad business skills will rarely get work, but a mediocre photographer with great business skills will rise to the top.

Note that I'm not saying you shouldn't send in portfolios and try to establish first contact. You should! But that's not the whole picture. The problem with this approach is that it's based on a faulty premise: that getting hired is all about your skill as a photographer. The point is, these are tasks, not strategies.

Marketing tasks is one thing. Positioning is another. Most photographers don't position themselves. And positioning is how you establish how you are perceived as a whole, not just as an artist. Whether buyers know it or not, they have bias towards individuals that are in tune with their businesses and the issues they face. Positioning yourself as such a person is your goal.

Effective positioning can be done in an infinite number of ways, each of which involves writing and speaking authoritatively on matters pertinent to your target clients. You need to articulate a vision statement about their business.

If you really want to jump ahead of the class, you need to make yourself stand out in ways that make you more than just a photographer--you need to appear as an expert in the business of your target clients. You want to be seen as someone that can help with their business objectives by offering the "outside expert" insight, to help them see the forest for the trees that they can't do because they're in the woods. You need to offer perspective from a broader industry outlook because you have your fingers on the pulse of many companies, perhaps even their competitors.

It may sound like I'm suggesting you to actually be an expert, or to sound like a CEO. I'm not. I'm merely suggesting you talk about things you know, and use them in your promotional materials, especially in ways that are either independent of photography, or which use photos only as examples to illustrate business points. Not as a demonstration that your photography is great. (You already do that with your portfolio, website and other stuff.)

The advice above usually throws off most artists right off the bat. They think it's entirely counter-intuitive to talk about anything except photography if that's their ultimate goal. Worse, they vastly underestimate their knowledge and experience in the fields of their own photography, and they certainly underestimate the relevancy of this knowledge, especially when they are emerging in their careers and trying to get work. When I've done individualized consulting for those who get "stuck' in their careers, simple discussions on these subjects often reveal that their insight and analysis on matters in their subjects is quite advanced.

So, let's now look at Clare-Louise that started this discussion. Her website, which is at www.clare-louise.co.uk, is full of self-produced images, but you'd never know it--they look like pieces she's done for other clients. So when she posted her question to the LinkedIn forum, I was curious as to the story behind the story.

When we started talking, I probed into what here interests are, what industries she knows, her experience and expertise, and so on. This got her talking about topics that she thought was mundane and unimportant; to me, her knowledge was way over my head. She clearly knew about fashion design much better than I did, and I've known some good fashion photographers. I can only imagine she'd hit it off very well with photo buyers or editors.

Her problem was that she was only contacting them as a hungry and unemployed photographer. The psychology aspect alone put her much further behind everyone else. If, instead, she approached prospective clients with a more business-oriented approach, she'd get much better responses.

So what should she – or anyone – do? Positioning is key, and that's done by demonstrating your knowledge and expertise about a subject. Obviously, blogging is the best way to do that. If what you say and think is truly useful and wise, then your career will follow. You need to talk about stuff that buyers are interested in. Don't talk about yourself, your personal life, or what you enjoy about photography. Buyers don't care about these things -- they won't even go to your blog. You want people to land on your blog as a search result they did on a keyword that you talk about.

Another good way is to frequent discussion boards on the subject of your expertise, not photography discussion boards. Get to know people in your industry, network with them, socialize with them, and join their professional associations. If you know who's who in the field of your photography (not the photography itself), you'll have much better insight into where opportunities are.

Let's say you're a fashion photographer that focuses on children's clothing, and you wanted to contact a potential buyer at Sears. You Google her name and see what she's written, where she posts things, a blog she might have, or any other mention. Now, imagine what response you'd get if you started with, "I saw what you said about last year's catalog. Did you see the line-up for kids this fall? The fashion magazines are calling it a big departure for the pre-teens, and I hear Macy's is stocking up ahead of the curve. What do you think?" She wouldn't possibly know that this is a pitch from a photographer looking for work. This is just business banter between colleagues in the same industry.

You are more likely to not only get a reply back than if you just sent a cold-call email asking to send a portfolio. You're starting off as peers, not the master-servant relationship they're used to. Here's your opportunity to foster the relationship. The nature of your discussion will start off on a professional level, far from what this person would have ever expected from a photographer--certainly not a new and inexperienced one. Your goal is to show that you know this topic because you're experienced and informed on the subject (even if you aren't—you're also learning). Before you know it, something about "photography" comes up in conversation, and you'd be in a much better position to posture as someone she could use.

So, yes, contact clients, send portfolios, write a blog, have a sexy website. But those should be minor and incidental tasks that you take up every so often as a regular course of business. Spend your time and resources developing serious and valuable materials focusing on your knowledge of the businesses and industries that are the focus of your photography. Once you have those things, you can reshape them any one of these marketing forms long into the future.

I discuss this topic in much greater detail in my book, Profitable Photography in the Digital Age, which can be found at http://www.danheller.com/books

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