Photo contests are among the more controversial topics within the photography community. One of the most common complaints is that some photo contests are nothing more than a “rights grab”; meaning that the sponsor of the contest inserts legal language within the fine print that essentially allow them the right to sub-license, redistribute and use all photos submitted however they wish while freeing themselves from any potential liability arising from the publication of the images. For the sponsor of the contest that’s great because they can build a stock photo library that they can profit off of for almost nothing because let’s face it, most contests award a measly amount of prizes compared to how many quality images they get in return. Photographers on the other hand are getting ripped off for submitting to such contests and not to mention can potentially open themselves up to legal liabilities for the publication of those images because they give up control over where the images will be published by agreeing to such terms. (note: I’m not a lawyer so take this with a grain of salt.) These contests aren’t small time operations either as some are sponsored by some very well known organizations. Not all photo contests serve as rights grabs however so there are some that are legitimately there to benefit the photographer such as PDN, Communication Arts Photo Annual and the ICP awards.
How much benefit photo contests are to photographers is debatable though there are some that milk the exposure for all it’s worth. One photographer claims to be “The Most Awarded Photographer in History”, several claim to be “The Master Photographer” and do very well when it comes to the sale of fine art prints to tourists. While the more common way that photographers use this exposure is to refer to themselves as an award-winning photographer in their bio. Another thing to consider when entering contests is who the judges are and the audience for the publication of the images will be targeting hence why I cited PDN and the CA Photo Annual. For editorial, commercial and stock photographers the readers of those publications are your target audience so there is potentially good exposure to be had from entering those contests though there are no guarantees of gaining additional business from the exposure.
As for myself, I believe I’ve entered only three photo contests to date but haven’t won anything. I’m selective about these contests for all the reasons listed above, not to mention that if you don’t feel the contest will help then it’s essentially throwing money away that could be best served for other marketing activities. The odds of winning the top prize in photo contests are not much greater than winning the lottery so consider how many other entries will be selected for publication because that is a more realistic goal.
And back to my first point… always read the fine print before submitting to photo contests.
I skimmed through an article in Photo District News (PDN) about Urban Outfiiters photography choices and the part that really caught my attention was a quote from their photo buyer recommending to photographers to stop wasting money on mailers and focus on web marketing. She specifically referred to blogging, Flickr, and social media because that is where she goes to find new photographers to photograph for her brand. She said she spends a lot of time seeking out new photography blogs so she knows who is out there shooting what.
From what I have read, these days there seems to be an equal mix of art buyers who say they still prefer traditional marketing methods versus those who actively seek out photography online via Google, Flickr, blogging, etc…. But in the coming years as a younger generation of art buyers gets into the workforce, we will probably see a majority swing to web 2.0 because younger demographics have grown up during the internet age and have less reservations about working with people they meet online.
Times are changing so fast culturally that it is only a matter of time before that day comes. It was just nine years ago that I had a college marketing professor state that no internet company had yet figured out a way to become profitable. Now, things that used to be taboo to talk about, such as online dating, have become a standard way to meet people. Photo buyers are people too and it is only natural that they consume social media just like anyone else. Photographers who haven’t yet accepted this cultural-shift or are too scared to jump into the web 2.0 world are kidding themselves. True, there may be some well-established photographers who can probably ride out the rest of their career without changing a thing but it is also no coincidence that there are a lot of pros who grumble about how good things used to be in the 80’s and 90’s.
Another way to look at web marketing is that it can open up a whole new world of opportunities. Within the traditional photo buying market, you have ad agencies / publishing companies / art galleries / etc… where you have every working and aspiring photographer targeting that same small niche of photo buyers. With the internet, anyone with an internet connection and a need for photos is a potential customer. Suddenly you go from competing in a crowded market where there are only several thousand potential customers to a market where you have tens of millions potential customers.
In the previous segments of “Developing Your Photography Brand”, I discussed targeting, marketing campaigns, perception of value, and the evaluation of business climate. This time, I’ll discuss the core purpose for branding: brand identity.
Having a solid brand identity is generally what gets people excited about buying stuff. Lets be honest. If you took the photos from 1,000 professional photographers and tossed them into a random pile very few would truly be unique and significantly more interesting than another’s, ex. large stock photo agency sites. However when you look through a photographer website that is branded effectively the viewing experience is vastly greater than viewing your average corporate stock photo agency website. Or to take another analogy, what makes you decide to buy one liquid hand soap product over another? Strip the labels from the bottle and they look pretty boring but attach a nicely designed label and then you feel an emotional connection to the brand.
How you develop your brand identity needs to carry over into all of your messaging from the way you write your blog to the way that photos are presented to the way you act in social media platforms like Twitter. If your photo blog is written like a glorified press release then who the hell wants to read it? Certainly that is not the way to gain a following. You want to portray yourself as having a personality not a robot. People respond best to those who come across as personable.
If you were to sum up your brand personality in one phrase what would it be? Edgy, cool, square, corporate, down to earth? Corporate is the worst in my opinion. That is just as bad as having none at all. Be consistent. Be human. If you want to have an edgy brand, then talk about the photos but use some modern slang here and there, find ways to name drop your favorite rock band if you feel that will help solidify your photography brand identity. When it comes to marketing you can’t just focus on the obvious, you have to think outside of the box.
Many photographers use a photo as their logo. Bad choice. I don’t know of any successful brand that uses a photo as their logo. The reason is that a graphic illustration is much simpler and clean. You want to convey your brand personality as quickly as possible. I think editorial and commercial photographers are the worst at branding. They are so focused on doing what has worked for others in the past to where they neglect the fundamental basics to effective marketing. The photographers who tend to be best at branding are wedding photographers. They have to because they deal with the general public so they adopt mainstream marketing tactics. Even if you can’t stomach the idea of being a wedding photographer, you should really take a look at the successful ones and see how they are promoting themselves. It is a real eye-opener.
As for photographers in my genre, the ones who get it were Galen Rowell and Art Wolfe among others. It wasn’t just their images that propelled them to success, it was the manner in which they connected with their fans. Galen’s writing about his wild adventures made him famous. Art Wolfe’s work is all over the mainstream media. I’m sure both built businesses with stock imagery but they also realized there is a much bigger market out there in selling prints in galleries, doing workshops, writing, lecturing and being a visible personality. This allowed them to diversify. So rather than spend all day bitching about Getty Images, develop your own ideas and sell them. Don’t be content with just relying on others to market for you. You are a brand, not just a photographer. Photographers are boring.
In the first part of this segment, I discussed analyzing your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. By utilizing the SWOT Analysis, you should have a better idea for what your target audience consists of. In many cases there is a main audience and a secondary audience. These are the people that your entire branding efforts should be concentrated on. Try to see things from their perspective.
There is a photographer out there that owns numerous photo galleries and is a good example of someone who has done a great job at positioning themselves within their target audience. Some landscape photographers have argued that this guy markets to the “lowest common denominator” and doesn’t have legit professional credentials contrary to what his PR would lead you to believe. So what exactly are professional credentials? It’s all in the eye of the beholder. His audience is the general public so it really doesn’t matter what his peers think of him. His galleries are located in the most heavily trafficked tourist locations in the world so the majority of people that have seen his images probably have never seen photos of Antelope Canyon or Canyonlands National Park. To seasoned travelers, those are considered iconic postcard locations, places that don’t require a lot of creativity to come away with pretty pictures. But to the general population these photos are eye-openers. Why should he push the envelope in his galleries when the pictures he sells are presumably making him millions of dollars? It’s like comparing Kenny G with Pat Metheny. Metheny has the respect of his peers but who do you think sleeps easier at night knowing that his family is taken care of?
He’s not in the business of becoming a photographer’s photographer so he doesn’t spend time marketing to them. He is in the business of selling his brand. That comes across in all his promotional work including his website. On his website, it says that he is the most awarded photographer in history. Based on the list of awards he says that he won, that claim is humorous at best, but his audience buys it so more power to him. I have also read elsewhere that he had an ad in an airport that proclaimed himself as the world’s greatest photographer. Further evidence that he is doing something that other photographers aren’t, every month in my website stat logs I have people searching for things like, “Does (photographer) have a girlfriend?” I’m not sure why those people end up clicking on my website since I don’t even know the guy but it is interesting to know that from a business perspective.
You might wonder what the heck does having female groupies have to do with running a photography business? Well, I have never once seen another query like that for any other photographer on my website logs. When people think of landscape photographers, the first impression is usually of middle-aged white men that aren’t particularly cool. This photographer obviously isn’t looked upon the same way though technically he is in the same demographic. The difference is that he has positioned himself in the realm of celebrities. He’s all about selling a particular lifestyle; a lifestyle that is the dream of most people. He doesn’t just sell art prints, he sells desire.
So what is your target audience? While going on assignment for National Geographic and Vanity Fair might be a closed market for most photographers, there are many more photo buyers out there outside of those five to ten publications. If you think about it, there are so many photographers out there that it is not even worth the time to spend significant resources marketing to those same publications that everyone else is targeting. Even if you were to get their attention, how much work would you expect to get from them considering that their list is probably a mile long?
If these top publications want to work with you then they will find you. Just make sure that you are doing what you can to be found by them if that is your ultimate goal. In the meantime, there is a much bigger market out there in this world to tap into. That is where the real work comes in. Defining your target market isn’t a process that happens overnight and might require a great deal of trail and error.
Who? Where? When? How?