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The PRO-Files: Don’t Make These Marketing Missteps

Marketing must be difficult because there sure are a lot of ways photographers mess it up. Whether it’s futilely searching for a magic bullet or analysis paralysis that keeps us from getting even the basics done, righting our most egregious wrongs is a great way to get on track to marketing success. To that end, we asked veteran photo rep and marketing expert Maria Piscopo, author of the newly updated Photographer’s Guide to Marketing and Self Promotion, for her insights on the biggest marketing mistakes photographers make—and more importantly, how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: A Vague Marketing Message

Successful marketing begins with a clearly defined marketing message, or direction. Without it, successes are limited and difficult to repeat. A photographer may do a little bit of everything, from weddings to corporate portraits to product photography, but there’s not a good way to be everything to everyone—and certainly no way to market this approach. Instead, photographers should concentrate on marketing for the type of work they want more of. Start by thinking about the type of clients who need that and target their marketing accordingly. Essentially, you’ve got to know who your target market is, and what you want to tell them, before you can come up with a plan to reach them.

“It’s a natural instinct to want to do it all,” Piscopo explains, “but there’s no way to market ‘all.’ Clients only hire for what they need and don’t care about the other things you can or want to do as a photographer. It’s much more effective to decide what you want to do more of and then find the clients for that work. What you want to do more of can be either more of the same work—just with bigger, better clients and budgets—or changing direction entirely.”

The marketing message is important as the foundation of a marketing plan. For a corporate photographer that message might be one of a reliable, traditional craftsman with decades of experience catering to progressive business leaders in the region. Or a wedding photographer, for instance, might target their message to a select segment of the affluent population in a particular part of town who value a traditional visual aesthetic and are willing to pay for it. Whatever the message, the important thing is that the photographer has taken the time to determine it—first by deciding on the type of work they want to do and then consider who might hire for that. Without first determining the marketing message, any marketing attempt is simply a shot in the dark.

“Think of it as using your navigation app to find a place on a map,” Piscopo says. “It’s important because if you don’t have an address then all the navigation in the world will not work for you. The starting point of your marketing plan is your marketing message. You can have more than one marketing message, but it’s most cost-effective to start out with one and build from there.”

Specialize To Become A Generalist

Refining a marketing message seems particularly daunting to photographers who don’t just do one thing. Sure, if all a photographer does is shoot cars for Detroit automakers, the marketing message is pretty clear. But more than likely, the photographer who formerly specialized in photographing Detroit steel has had to branch out. So how do you market with a focus when the business is based on generalizing?

“It’s difficult to fight off the ‘do it all,’” Piscopo says, “as well as the stigma attached to being a specialist. I don’t like to use that word—unless of course I’m talking to a client; they love a specialist—so I prefer to view this as specializing to become a generalist. By this I mean identify one of the four areas of photography you love the most and then find as broad a base of clients for that work. The four areas to choose your direction—by ‘direction’ I mean marketing message—are: by subject, by industry, by the use of your images or by your style. When you focus on one, then you can expand that to a broader base—all for the same type of work. For example, if your marketing message or direction is the fashion industry, then your broad base of potential clients would be in different uses for fashion photography: advertising, editorial, graphic design, social media. So now you’re specializing to become a generalist!”

Mistake #2: Lack of a Detailed Marketing Plan

Many photographers’ marketing efforts begin and end with a passive attitude toward referrals—hoping that our happiest clients will give our name to would-be customers. But for a more active approach to marketing, and for an approach that isn’t comprised of random, disconnected parts working independently, it takes a marketing plan.

Once you’ve got a target market and an appropriate message in mind, then and only then can you build a marketing plan, complete with action items and resources assigned. Without a marketing plan, a photographer is simply picking and choosing at random what outreach efforts they will undertake. Not only is this random approach less efficient than starting with a plan, it’s typically less effective and more expensive, too.

“I am not a fan of scattershot marketing,” Piscopo says, “because it’s expensive and it’s not effective. And for those reading this that believe in word-of-mouth marketing, I agree with you. But it doesn’t stand alone. Building referrals is a very important part of a good marketing plan. Notice I said ‘building referrals,’ not just waiting around for them.”

Piscopo says the marketing plan should not be attempted alone by a photographer without much marketing experience, so recruiting help to write the plan—and to review it on an annual basis—makes good sense.

“Writing a business plan is daunting,” Piscopo says, “and I’d suggest getting professional help with that. I recommend your local office of S.C.O.R.E [a nationwide organization of retired executives who volunteer to mentor small business owners] for free consultation to get started. A marketing plan is part of an overall business plan and you don’t need to be a marketing expert to write that one. My book has a very simple template for a step-by-step action plan. I think the really difficult part is having the discipline and the confidence to take those actions.”

“A photography marketing consultant can certainly help when you have clarity on your marketing message,” Piscopo adds. “Even then, many consultants can help you start by identifying your message because it is so difficult for you to be objective about your work.”

The Four Areas Of Planning And Action

Piscopo breaks down the seemingly infinite outreach options available into four distinct categories. In this way, she’s able to turn what to many is a vague and unquantifiable process into something straightforward and easier to work on.

“My template for a marketing plan always includes planning and actions in four areas,” she says. “Advertising, direct marketing, personal selling and public relations. With either print or online marketing, your planning will break down into these four areas. Think of it as building rungs (the different and varied actions) all the way up a ladder to reach the top (the client). You can’t reach the top on one or two rungs.”

Small Steps That Lead To Leaps Forward

Knowing this—that it takes multiple marketing actions to move the needle in a meaningful way—is daunting to many photographers, so instead we do nothing, or next to nothing, and hope for the best. Instead, Piscopo says, it’s best to understand the big picture but to tackle the marketing process by breaking it into smaller, more manageable steps.

“I’ve found this paralysis is very common,” she says. “I recommend two things. One, your actions should be bite-sized tasks and small enough to be less daunting. For example, the action ‘need e-mail campaign’ is way too big. (Who will design it? What’s your message? What action are you asking the viewer to take? How long between mailings? Where will you get the client list?) Second, when you schedule every action of your plan you will have a better chance to getting the work done instead of waiting for when you ‘get around to it.’”

Instead, Piscopo says, start with something smaller—taking baby steps, or bite-sized tasks—to getting marketing done. Which of these should come first on a marketing plan? Piscopo says it’s the stuff that requires interpersonal communication: the phone calls and the face-to-face meetings that make up the most traditional marketing there is.

“Assuming your target market is well defined,” she says, “and your marketing plan drafted, I like to start with the personal selling actions. I can’t say it’s easy—nothing is—but any personal one-on-one with potential clients will get you a faster return on your investment.”

“There are two reasons to start with the interpersonal, one-on-one marketing steps first,” Piscopo says, “as a great way to get maximum bang for your buck. First, one-on-one marketing—and I even hesitate to call it ‘selling’ since everyone hates that word—to a qualified pool of clients and potential clients has the quickest return on your investment. By qualified I mean they have come to you through your postcards, e-mailings, website, etcetera, or you have chosen them because you just know in your heart they need to be your client. And two, if you are just starting out—or changing direction or recharging your business—this one-on-one contact is more of an investment of time than money. Time is something we can all find. Money is not so easy.”

Maria's newly updated book, The Photographer’s Guide to Marketing and Self Promotion, is available at Amazon.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.


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