May 07, 2012

Marketing Creativity- Tips to Grow Your Business

Jay Cole quit his corporate job to focus on his passion full time. Due to his skills in business and marketing he was able to start a unique photography company that shoots hundreds of people per year. Here he explains how you can do the same by finding your niche and thinking creatively.

Personal Experience

I’m a retired Corporate Executive who knew what I wanted to do ever since I was 9 years old and assembled my first computer. That is until I picked up a camera 35 years later. When we adopted our daughter in 2006, I didn’t want to get left out of the mom/kid photo sessions that my wife and sons did while I worked at the office. I bought a digital camera, read a book or two and the rest, as they say, is history.

When Aaron contacted me to write an article, I was a bit surprised. I am more of a senior/sports photographer than a classical photographer. Aaron had collaborated with us in the past on some of our more interesting ideas and we’ve continued to chat off and on since then on lots of different topics.

I took a deep look at what I could offer to the Phlearn community for this article that people would be most interested in. We do some unique sports portraits, fashion-based senior pictures, but nothing extremely creative or awe-inspiring. So I said if someone was to talk to me about one thing, where could I offer the most value. So here it is…probably not what you are expecting on a photography/Photoshop site.

I’m a classically trained software guy. I worked as VP of Software Development for a Fortune 20 company with 200 developers and a $350 million revenue stream. I don’t say this to impress you, I bring it up to give you a perspective of where my thoughts and ideas come from. We had to compete with guys in a garage to some of the most predatory companies in the world. One great truism came through. Marketing and sales are king. And more importantly, being different is the best way to sell yourself and your work.

In two years, we’ve gone from nothing to shooting over 150 seniors last year and almost 200 gymnasts per year. Our average sale is near $1700 per senior and $600 per gymnast.

Key to Success

I can’t say “BE DIFFERENT” enough, and it merits repeating. The cheapest photographer, the best photographer, the one with the most looks, etc does not win. Rarely anyway. The person who can effectively differentiate themselves in the market wins and they can demand much higher prices than the market average. They don’t win everything, but they can thrive in their niche. There are so many “success formulas” out on the market for photography businesses. The old guys give you a set of hard and fast rules. If you try to compete with their rules, you’ll lose, they are more established and their infrastructure, marketing, etc demands a different approach than a startup.

You need to look at what absolutely makes you unique in the market. What unique quality do YOU have that very few other people have? You need to let the market know it, over and over and over again.

The biggest mistake is to say you are 20% cheaper or you have better lighting. Even worse is to focus on Differences that your clients don’t care about or don’t understand. An unsophisticated client can’t differentiate between hand Retouching and more lazy Gaussian Blurs on Skin. If you’re shooting for magazines it’s a bit  different. If you are trying to win on better technical merits you’ll lose again or you’ll find yourself constantly competing on an ever-shrinking price and margin.

Don’t get me wrong, we have to have good work. If we don’t, the clients won’t perceive value or benefit to shooting with you. But with good, unique work, the value of your work goes up. Why? Because there is nothing to baseline it to. Let me use an example from our market; Seniors.

Most senior pictures involve a shot in a letterman jacket, then some outfit changes, then regular senior pictures. Guys generally hate senior pictures and our competitors avoid marketing to them because girls are where the money is spent. In my case, the unique advantage was I’ve played almost every sport there is. I know the games, what plays are “cool”, how to stage the situations and I know how to explain what I want to the athletes. Our sports portraits are a combination of simulated Action shots and sports magazine cover photos.

We charge 3x to 5x the market rates for our images over our competitors. Why? Because we don’t shoot letterman jackets and the closest thing they can compare our shots to is a Sports Illustrated athlete cover shot. How much is that worth by comparison?

Guys come to us for sports shots, not senior pictures. Their parents get senior pictures in the process, but both are happy when a typical guy wouldn’t care where his mom took him, and now he does.

From The Client’s Perspective

In the end, a client can tell some Difference in an image, but they don’t know you’re more precise in your lighting and your ratios are correct. The can tell the difference only if your work is much better or way different. Much better is harder and harder to achieve these days. They can “feel” the photo is better but they don’t necessarily know why nor do they know how to ascribe a value to that Difference. Being totally different, eliminates a lot of that typical pricing pressure you get if you’re just “a little bit better.”

Another example is our work with gymnastic clubs. Again I asked myself what I have that’s unique over other photographers. I have a daughter in gymnastics but that wasn’t enough. The typical gymnastics team photographer gets $20 to $30 for an 8×10 and might, if they are lucky get $40 per person they shoot. Good ones get $60 to $80. The event photographers make even less.

I knew there were very few photographers with my corporate experience. I also have an extensive Background in branding and internet marketing. So when we sign a gym or dance studio, we package it as a fund raiser, a branding effort, or a social media marketing effort to build fans and teach them how to market to them. Oh, and by the way, we do photos too. When I’m working with a gym I present the following facts:

  • We just raised $2,000 for the last gym we did
  • They have their athletes covering their walls, which helps with retention of their customers
  • We grew their fan base from 100 to 2000 fans in 2 weeks, and we taught them how to market and grow customers in that fan base
  • Their parents want us back in 6 months for another shoot

At the beginning of the sales session, I show the sample photos for 2 minutes and then another 3 minutes at the end. They may say “we have a photographer” but once we’re done they say “oh you’re not a photographer…at least not like him”. The images are much different than the typical sports club photos which are typically shot with a blue backdrop and two umbrella’ed strobes. We bring in four photographers and tons of Lights to make it an event for the club.

Our average sale per client for an event is $600+ dollars. Some orders exceeding $2000 per client. Can you do this? Maybe, if you have a good marketing Background. But it doesn’t matter. You have something UNIQUE TO YOU that very few photographers have. Find it, exploit it, and sell it. Don’t just copy my approach or the guy down the street.

What to Spend Your Time On

This statement may make some of the artists here mad, but being different is MORE IMPORTANT than your photographic skill in making money and growing a client base. I know that’s hard to hear but it is true. It was true of the software I used to write and its true of any product or service you sell. Clients care about benefits, NOT technical or artistic competence.

There are some easy ways early in your business to differentiate from the big players while you figure out your market position. They have big costs into their studios, they have to keep Scale high to make a profit. The old saying goes “your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness and your greatest weakness can be your greatest strength”. For example, not having a studio can be thought of as either. It’s up to you on how to turn it into a strength in your market. Here are some simple tips that can give you a bit of differentiation right out of the gate.

  • Shoot weekends and week nights (big studios hate to do this)
  • Shoot on location and make sure the client knows why that’s better than some studio that thousands of other clients have shot at.
  • Market outrageously. Often time, the bigger competitors have a fear of “putting off” their client base so they stay safe in their messaging. For example, we shoot teens like fashion models. They wear fashion outfits, pose a little more sexy and adult. But when you see our picture in the yearbook it stands out. Do we put off some customers? Yes. But we attract others. We can’t be all things to all people, that’s a prescription for disaster. We throw girls in fountains, cover our athletes with mud, hire a Cirque Du Soleil school to train our models for a photo shoot and more. Anything crazy or different is always in the forefront of our mind.
  • Use Facebook to establish a personal relationship with your clients and prospects. Invite them into your life. Be a friend, not just a vendor.

Sorry for the lack of photography material, but honestly, marketing is the one topic I think I can help people with the most. Aaron has the photography/Photoshop covered more than adequately.

Best Advice I Can Give

  • Have fun. If you aren’t having fun get out and find something else to do with your life.
  • Be different, not just kinda, I mean really different. Make sure people know why and how.
  • If something is hard, do it. You should love and embrace it. Charge for it, and more than likely your competitor won’t do it. Figure out how to make the hard stuff easy and you can make some really great money.
  • Use Photoshop. If you don’t, with the improvements in cameras and Tools, you’ll be out of business in 3-4 years as the amateur market matures. Very few serious photographers can make good money without it. Outsource it if you have to. I believe Photoshop is giving a new platform for the classical artist. You don’t commission paintings of your family because it takes too long and costs too much. But Photoshop is making custom art more affordable and it can be created in a much shorter period of time.
  • Know your margin and profitability. Understand it inside out. Profitability is more important than revenue for long term growth. With that said, revenue makes things much easier in the beginning but not at the expense of profitability.
  • Understand the customer groups you are targeting. Segment it and market to each segment uniquely. One marketing message does not fit all. We market to boys different than girls, different than moms. In fact, we market to sports different than music, different than senior pictures.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away from work. Don’t just chase the money. It dilutes you and it makes you mediocre in all areas. Specialization will get you more money in the long run. It’s tough sometimes when you just need to pay bills. If you don’t want to do a certain type of work or you just don’t like doing it, quadruple your rates. The sad thing is once you do that, you often get more work.
  • Don’t ignore all the rules and advice given. They are usually there for a good reason. But ask why you need to follow it and what happens when you don’t. There is generally a set of implied premises with every piece of great business advice. Make sure the premises are there for you, if not, you may find a totally new way of doing things.
  • There are lots of talented and smart people out there. They are smarter and more talented than I am for sure. If you think you’ve figured out something no one else is smart enough to figure out, you’re dead wrong.
  • Execution and consistency in the long run is more important than skill and creativity for long term success. If you’re late on deadlines, produce inconsistent quality in your work, it kills your chances for additional work with existing clients. You will always have to attract new clients which is a much more costly proposition. Clients also pay more for reliable contractors and services.
  • Merchandise your product. Having great print products or digital products is the best way to Scale. If you shoot and get paid only for your time, you can never scale beyond your hours you have in a year. Selling product with your photo shoots will make you more than your hourly rate ever will.

Whenever I do short presentations or mini articles like this, I feel as if I don’t do justice to what it is to be in business. There is no magic pill but hopefully this will get you thinking creatively and help get you out of a rut if you’re stuck in one. And more importantly I hope it helps you make more money and get more work…that would make me very happy!

Feel free to email me if you have any questions. You can find my contact info here.  And best of luck to everyone out there on your marketing. It’s truly an amazing thing when good marketing hits the market.



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  • user image
    Eric Devir

    This is an amazing article and stirred some stuff around in the old brain pot–so here’s a ramble:

    This article really points to a hard truth–there are many many talented, committed and driven photographers out there–more than any other time in history–that want it to be their livelihood, but very few will “make it.” (Though I suppose that means different things to different people).

    Many have huge student loan debt from art school, many have huge consumer debt from buying gear, but few will have the business acumen required to make a living at it.  Art schools don’t teach it, and you can’t learn it on Flikr (but you can on Phlearn!)– how many art students can you quote deriding “selling out” or raging against turning your art into a “consumer product”?   About as many as are working in Starbucks or Barnes & Noble.

    Passion only gets you part of the way.  Commitment and hunger in the face of frustration, rejection and adveristy are arguably more important. Practical knowledge like in this article can help you make sense of it and navigate through.

    Putting yourself out there is hard and then even harder is finding the balance of mantaining your artistic integrity while serving your customer.  Again great article.

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      Couldn’t disagree more with your cliche and offensive view of art schools. My school has been an extremely beneficial and unsurpassable doorway into the commercial field of photography and to making professional contacts. In many cases you do not need this education to become a wedding or senior portrait photographer because it is simple to gimmick your way into the business by using family connections and lackluster tropes of editing to become just another “grain of sand on the beach” that makes enough to survive but is never recognized for their creativity. 1. I have seen it happen many times and 2. This is not the case for all in this business one exception being the writer of this article, who indeed has some great work.
      I do agree that there are many extremely creative people who do not market themselves enough to “make it”, however that is simply a result of their unmotivated character, not the art school. An art school literally cannot “give” you a job, it can help but in the end that needs to be done by yourself. Anyone can learn the technical aspects of photography but expanding creative problem solving and thinking is definitely developed much better through art school… and with Phlearn.anyway that aside great article!

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        It’s interesting you bring up using their personal network, because that’s how most photographers start off differentiating themselves.  I know my friends better than you.  That network usually runs out pretty quick but you’re spot on!

        • user image
          Eric Devir

          Tshantz–I meant no offense to you or to people who attend art schools (except for the super insufferable ones 🙂 ).  I myself studied the arts formally in school (and boy was I insufferable) and you are right, art school can be a great way to begin to learn how to live and breathe your craft, learn about those who came before, to establish the technical fundamentals and to build a professional network.

          I am not judging people who go that route–some need the structure, discipline, formality and institutional wisdom of school.  But it is only one of the paths to knowledge, and certainly the most costly (and dont get me started on the scam that is the predatory for-profit art school scene).  One of the greatest things about living in the future is that knowedge has been completely democratized. 

          Phlearn and Strobist are the perfect examples of this.

          Take a look at the trending pro commercial photographers now–then tell me how many are self taught and have learned the technical craft on the web, been inspired from the endless stream of quality images out “there,” and honed their vision from the simple act of producing and sharing with the world.  The answer is–a whole helluva bunch of em.  And they are a far cry from having “gimmicked” their way in or being know for their “lackluster tropes of editing.”

          And because of this unprecedented access to knowledge and tools, you are seeing more and more people coming into the profession and bringing with them life and professional experiences that will help them succeed as a pro.  The writer of this article is the perfect example of this.

          My point is that building a sustainable and profitable business is a-whole-n’other set of skills and in the increasingly saturated marketplace, skills that are every bit as critical as knowing how to compose a frame.  If your art school has a solid business program that is great and you are very lucky indeed.  But that would be an anamoly, and it shouldnt be.  Of course school doesnt hand you a job, but presumably you go to school to help develop the insight, contacts and skills that will help you not only get the jobs, but sustain the business. 

          It would be great to hear Amelia’s perspective on the art school scene and whether she thinks art schools will continue to be relevant to the profession in the future. 


          • user image
            Amelia Fletcher

            School was a great experience for me so I am always torn when people ask my opinion on it because it varies from person to person. I really benefit from learning in the classroom with my peers, as well as their feedback, and I think it will always be relevant due to the “hands on” learning. Many successful photographers are completely self taught and are successful because they worked incredibly hard. It always comes down to the effort you are willing to put in. School was a good choice for me personally, but its not for everyone and it of course isn’t necessary. 

            The mindset that you are selling out as a photographer if you aren’t creating “fine art” is silly to me. Just about anytime you pick up a camera you have the chance to be creative and make something unique!

             Unfortunately business courses usually aren’t offered which I hope will soon change, its very disappointing that this is not looked at as a huge problem in universities. Usually those schools do require internships which will help guide you and in the end it is of course up to the individual to put in the effort. I was encouraged to explore many different internship, workshop, and shadowing opportunities to learn some of these principals on my own. Of course it isn’t beneficial for everyone, but I learned how to improve as an artist in school and for me that was priceless.

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    Dane Cook

    Guy knows his audience and undoubtedly has a great plan. $250 an hour for a session that nets an average $1700 per senior- hell of a salesman.

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      Dane, this was about Marketing, but the next obvious area is sales.  If you aren’t a good salesman, you will have a more difficult time too.  So become one, or hire one.  This will get you gigs and get you additional add on sales.  Your average per gig is almost more important than your number of gigs.  I hear photographers say all the time, they hate selling…that’s a problem for the pocketbook.

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      Ronald Cates

      Guy knows his audience and undoubtedly has a great plan. $250 an hour for a session that nets an average $1700 per senior- hell of a salesman. Thanks.