I found this Fast Company article titled, Mayhem on Madison Avenue, to be a fascinating read. As a former ad industry creative, this really came as no surprise to me as I had realized that most of the creatives at the ad agency I worked several years ago had no idea about digital much less had experience with blogging, SEO, social media, etc… Such was the case at the other places I worked at following that agency. The sad part was that no one figured their career path might be going extinct. Well that day is has already arrived according to this article.
The article cites agencies struggling to price work in the digital era because clients want more work but are willing to pay less for the work. Various business models have popped up in the meantime including crowd-sourcing ad creative. The “race to the bottom” if you will. Ten years ago when all media spend was limited to print, broadcast and radio it was easy to work in the industry because reaching people was rather formulaic and several large holding companies owned all the advertising spend. No longer. There are a million different ways to reach the consumer now and for the consumer to receive content. “Competition” is popping up in all sorts of places that never existed previously.
Sound familiar? Yes. The photography industry has already been heading down this path for ten years now as you already know. You can literally swap out the words ad agency for Getty / Corbis and photographers and write the same story.
Having only been a photographer during the internet-era, however, I feel there has never been a more exciting time to be a creative person because of all these reasons. My photography website for example reaches tens of thousands of visitors per month and I have about 1,000 more people that I reach on a daily basis via the social media sites I’m on. Had the internet not been around when I started photography, I probably never would have even bothered to try sharing my work much less talk about it because what audience would I have – family, local camera club, a stock photo agent, and a few clients? There’s not a lot of people where I live that are into outdoors and the type of photography I do.
Had this been 15 years ago, I’d probably have a few photos hanging on display in the local library, setting up a booth at weekend farmer’s markets and art fairs, be on the phone all day cold-calling and maybe consider running some print ads in advertising award annuals with no guarantee of success but a lot of money out of my pocket. But this is 2010 and here are two sites I have had an opportunity to be featured on in the past week:
Pro Nature Photographer – a website about the business of nature photography written by long-time industry vet, Charlie Borland.
The Rogue’s Gallery – an art website for current and former ad industry professionals curated by Steffan Postaer (ad god and creator of the Altoids ad campaign).
Who knows if I’ll get any direct benefit from getting my work on these sites but I know who reads these sites and those are the types of people I’m looking to reach. When you simplify the new technology down to that level, basic marketing principles have not changed at all. It is actually easier than ever to reach people and obtain any sort of metric you could imagine that was never available previously. You can cut it up so many different ways from checking referrer sites in your web analytics and tying that to geographic data, to seeing who comments on the sites, to which organic search terms people found your site via the search engines, to seeing Quantcast demographic info about any site out there. Any webmaster in the world can create a media kit and sell to advertisers now. You could create a media kit so detailed that it would bore even the most anal media buyer. This is powerful stuff at our disposal.
In the previous segment of these articles on photography branding I touched upon the concept of brand identity. The reason why I bring that up is because I heard a story the other day about two bottles of the same wine packaged with different labels. One label looked fancy meanwhile the other one looked cheap. When a group of ten people did a wine tasting test not knowing that both bottles had the same identical content, nine out of the ten people preferred the wine that had been poured from the fancy label. They felt that the fancy label wine tasted better so therefore the conclusion from that study was that wine with effective marketing tastes better than wine that isn’t marketed well. Taste is all a matter of perception after all. Perception is all in the mind. So where does that leave your photography?
It’s all about how you present yourself and your work. For example, if you aspire to be a luxury wedding photographer then it wouldn’t be in your best interests to have a website that looks like it dates back to 1998. You’ve got to present yourself as being relevant.
While photographers are creative and are great at creating their art, they are generally terrible at marketing themselves. There are several reasons for this. One reason is that it is hard to sell something that you are so close to. For this reason it might be better to find someone to do the marketing for you. Another reason is that most people do not have the professional background or education in marketing necessary to do an effective job at it. It is hard to enjoy selling your own work trust me.
No matter which form of marketing you choose to employ (pull / push) they both require a well-conceived plan in order to be effective. In my previous articles on photography branding, we discussed targeting and market analysis; these are the starting blocks for what should be your marketing campaign. At this point you should come up with a one page brief. This is probably the most important thing I’ll have to share with you in this whole series of blog posts. As an example, here are the questions that an ad agency creative brief usually has on there:
– Why are we advertising?
– What is the advertising trying to do?
– Who are we talking to?
– What do we know that will help us?
– What is the main thought to communicate that will differentiate us from the competition?
– Tone / Creative Guidelines:
The main thought is the “concept” behind your entire campaign and the message that your audience will be receiving. It is extremely important to narrow this down to a single point to communicate. Many big companies and account people do not understand this and therefore end up with a crappy ad campaign as a result. To their credit, it is hard to fork out money for something that might not necessarily have measurable results and tempting to cram as many thoughts as possible in a marketing execution but this is a mistake. The consumer doesn’t care about your advertising. Advertising is an annoyance. If they are going to take anything away from your messaging it has to be concise and interesting. If it isn’t, then you should just hold onto your money instead until you figure out how to do this.
Once you’ve developed a good creative brief then you can decide what type of media to employ. Some ideas are so adaptable that they can translate into many forms of media from print ads, postcards, email, teaser sites, sidewalk stencil drawings to things that no one has thought of before. What you should do is evaluate what the competition is currently doing and do something totally different than them. That is the only way to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
In last week’s interview with Alaskan photographer, Ron Niebrugge, Ron said that once you are thought of as a source for cheap photos, it can be hard to shake that reputation. He was just referring to pricing and licensing decisions. There are many more ways that one can cheapen the value of their brand in the eye of the consumer and most of them are not even caused by deliberate reasons. This is not to be confused with targeting low-end markets.
An important thing to consider when establishing your brand value is where you sell yourself. Compare several pieces of art all done in a similar style. One being sold at Wal-Mart for $25, a Thomas Kincaid being sold at your local mall, and another displayed at a fine art institution. If they are all on the same playing field artistically, then what is the difference between them? It is the perceived value of the venue in which the art is being displayed. It is about prestige. There is a reason why Wal-Mart doesn’t do limited edition artwork. Because they could never get away with charging enough to make it a smart business decision so they opt for selling in quantity. Wal-Mart is seen as a place where you go to buy stuff for low prices. Whereas the gallery scene is more likely to engage in that practice to “drive up the value” of the artwork. They can do it because they created a perception of value that meets their objectives.
To put this into a photographer’s perspective: If you are trying to command premium fees for your work then posting your good images on sites like Flickr would probably be a waste of time for you, not to mention it could weaken the perceived value of your brand. The manner in which you present your work has to be appropriate for who your target audience is. We should be doing all we can to strengthen that relationship no matter what market we are targeting. It’s very difficult to achieve however and something that we should all consciously work to improve upon.
It only takes one mistake to make it all come crashing down though so we’ve got to be careful. Let’s say that you have a nicely designed website that is intended to add value to your brand. Great. But you hear that Google ads are a good way to monetize your website so one day you decide to paste Google ads all over your site. Well all the brand equity that you worked to build all goes out the window by doing that. If you have a classy website, but add one low-class element to it such as Google ads then what perception of value is the viewer left with? A mixed one at best. Certainly this is not the way to go if your goal is to maximize the value of your brand. This is not to say that Google ads aren’t a viable option, but you’ve got to ask yourself do the benefits of doing this outweigh all the negatives? Exactly what are the potential downfalls?
One thing I see a lot of photographers do to their detriment is revealing too much about themselves. There is a fine line between establishing a personal connection with your audience versus maintaining a sense of professionalism. I see photographers all the time write about their PhD in Mathematics, their love of god, etc… it is all fine and dandy to have that in your life but it adds nothing of value to your photographic brand unless you specialize in college professor lifestyle photos or work with religious groups. If you can somehow tie in your personal background in relevant fashion then it could work to your advantage such as how Ron did on his bio. Knowing that Ron has an MBA with a marketing emphasis adds something of value to potential clients because it says to them that if they have a business problem that requires photography then Ron might be able to help them solve it. But unfortunately, many other photographers approach their bio more like a journal entry than an asset to their marketing efforts. Check out this guy’s bio for example. I won’t link to this photographer directly, so you can find that link on APE’s article. It is good to show some personality in your bio because so people can get an idea for how it might be like to work with you but it shouldn’t create a negative perception of you either.
Now if this guy were trying to sell that he is a humorous guy and someone that is fun to work with then being honest might work but that’s not what I got out of reading his bio. As compelling of a read as that bio might be, that might have been career suicide. Perhaps his next career should mirror that of Hunter S. Thompson.
So what is your target audience and are you doing all you can to maximize your brand value while eliminating everything that could potentially weaken it?
The most effective way to market your photography or anything else for that matter is to develop a memorable brand. You should think of yourself as a brand first not unlike the way that McDonald’s, Target, etc… does. You are not just an artist, photographer, writer etc… You are a photographic brand. So how do you go about developing one?
When I was a business student in the earlier part of this decade, one of the basic marketing terminologies that the professors beat into our brains was called SWOT Analysis. SWOT Analysis stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.” Since most photographers are running their own show by themselves, a lot of this analysis involves figuring out what your own skills and limitations are. This should be the starting blocks for how to develop your photography brand.
Strengths / Weaknesses: For example, if you are the quiet type like many photographers are, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a weakness as long as you are aware of how to maximize your opportunities at promoting your brand. Knowing this personality trait of yours, instead of wasting time and money on designing fancy direct mail postcards that you never plan on following up with a phone call, perhaps you should invest in developing a website that allows you to accomplish your goals. Perhaps design a good print ad campaign to run in Communication Arts or other industry publications to draw targeted buyers in to your website. Or if you are married to a spouse that is more personable than you, see if you can get them to handle this aspect of the business.
Your personality should also determine what areas of photography to pursue. If you are charismatic for example, then it would probably be wise to be a service-oriented photographer such as photographing weddings, portraiture, etc… or become a “celebrity” of sorts with public speaking engagements. If you’re the egotistical type then it’s probably best to do things that don’t require communicating with others or let someone else handle those responsibilities on your behalf. You want people to like your work on their own terms, no amount of boasting about how much you love yourself is going to convince the audience otherwise.
Opportunities / Threats: One of the questions you should ask yourself is what is the current state of the market? For example, if photo buyers consistently request for model-released, senior lifestyle photos so it means several things for the photographer.
1. Not enough people are photographing these subjects
2. Demand is high – people are living healthy for a longer amount of years than ever so marketers are realizing the benefit to reaching this audience
3. Lifestyle images are in constant need of updating because fashion and hair styles change
Market conditions would suggest that these images can command premium licensing fees. This screams opportunity is all caps. However if you have no interest in photographing senior lifestyles then it makes no difference. The key is to identify every single one of your opportunities and threats then find ways to work around them. Some types of photography such as travel and wedding photography probably have more threats than opportunities but it doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities. It just requires more creativity to get where you where you want to be.
There are also other factors to consider as well: What about your personal life? How about long-term decisions?
Though senior lifestyles might be a hot subject to photograph, the fact that these photos have a limited shelf life means that these are short-term opportunities. Definitely great for paying the bills right at that moment but what happens if you can’t actively photograph anymore or get tired of it? The lifestyle images you took ten years ago are now historical photos and no longer relevant.
That may mean eventually parlaying that lifestyle photography experience into running a photo agency, teaching classes / workshops, writing, art gallery showings, designing products for other photographers, etc…