Your guide: Jon Devo
Jon has been a professional photographer for 19 years, specialising in commercial, marketing and sports photography. Alongside his photography, Jon also works as a writer and technology journalist. Find him at Instagram.com/Gadgetsjon
You’ve made the leap; you want to be a photographer full-time. Perhaps you’ve been making photography work as a side hustle for years. Perhaps you’d never considered it, but the past year has helped you discover a hidden passion and talent for taking pictures. Whatever has brought you to this decision, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about marketing oneself for success in a challenging climate.
I’ve worked in marketing and technology journalism for approaching 14 years cumulatively. My focus has been on communications, brand storytelling and gadgets. I like to think of everything that companies and individuals do to ‘sell’ their goods and services, as a process of finding an audience, connecting with them by appealing to their sensibilities and then delivering or speaking to the needs and desires of that audience.
Professional photography is no exception as a business in that regard. However, the tools we have to use and the ways we garner the attention of our paying audience is unique in a sense. Largely because our audience is often seeking an audience of their own. It could be a couple who wants to capture their timeless wedding or family photographs, or a commercial client who’s aiming to create sales-driving campaign materials.
Regardless of the output, our audience – paying clients – want to invest in someone who can bring their desire for eye-catching imagery into reality. So how do you communicate all of that to prospective clients? The global pandemic and 2020 in general has forced me to throw many of the usual tips and suggestions I’d have made a year ago in the bin. Many, but not all.
Trade shows and networking events are out of the window for now. Business cards are redundant. Some may argue that the redundancy of business cards long precedes the current pandemic, but I was still a fan. Why do I love business cards? Because they serve to nudge a prospective client into remembering you when they empty their pockets at the end of an evening.
And again when they see your card still on the side table, on their desk or in their wallet. Nudges or reminders are one of the things that will never stop being an important marketing tool. They are one of the key elements in all behavioural change. If you want to win a new client then you have to do three things well – make a strong positive first impression, nudge them with a reminder (as many polite reminders as it takes to get them to respond), and finally you have to come recommended.
This article will tell you how to do all of those things and more. So grab a notebook and pen or open the notes app on your device and settle in. But if you’re short for time, simply read my closing section under ‘No excuses’.
Optimising web presence
Websites have gone in and out of vogue over the years. In the ’90s and Noughties it was imperative if you wanted to be taken seriously as a professional anything – you had to have a .com presence. But as times have changed, social media has made the need for maintaining an individual website less important.
However, things have shifted again in the past couple of years. Algorithms that decide what gets seen and what doesn’t on social media dictate visibility and as a knock-on effect, more insidiously, they also have an effect on perceived success. If you fall foul of algorithms your content can be buried so far into obscurity that it may feel like there’s little purpose in posting your work on social media at all. It’s an unfortunate state of affairs.
But let’s not lament, let’s progress! In the face of algorithm-infected social media, websites are now reclaiming their relevance. This is because you can demonstrate your capabilities and suitability to your potential clients in full and with less of their attention being constantly tempted elsewhere. If you already have a website, you may want to skip this paragraph.
If you’d like the advice either way, you’re welcome to stay. Don’t be daunted by the thought of building or even rebuilding a website. You don’t need to invest a huge amount of time, money or energy into making something that does the job. Website builder services such as GoDaddy, Squarespace, Weebly and Wix make putting together a clean and professional-looking website straightforward.
Best of all? No coding experience is required. Website builders offer a range of templates that can be easily customised to suit your needs. Everything from the colours, the tabs, the fonts you use and the position of boxes within the site can be manipulated, depending on the template you choose. This means you just need to upload your content, fill in the text, and the rest is just a matter of selecting options you like the look of.
If you can fill out a Facebook profile, you can build a fully functioning web page using a modern website builder. When choosing your website template, I’d recommend aiming for a design that prioritises photos for obvious reasons, but also one that is uncluttered and uses a white background. White web pages make it easier for most people to read and they typically frame relevant content better.
Keep things simple
Also, choose a theme that’s dynamic and can scale well regardless of which device your website is visited from. There are a couple of aspects to running a webpage that may add an extra bit of complexity though – these include Search engine optimisation (SEO) and selling goods. If you want to sell prints or services via your website, you may need to create product SKUs (Stock Keeping Unit) and a stock database.
But again, many of the website builders I’ve mentioned above have support for shopping features, which can be purchased and bolted onto your site as added extras. If you’re not that far down the road of building your photography business and need some branding support, some sites like Wix.com even offer logo design tools.
Search engine optimisation tips
SEO can be a bit of a dark art but getting it right can make a significant difference to the success of your efforts. Optimising your site so that it ranks highly on Google searches will help to drive more traffic to your site and therefore hopefully increase your business. Everything from your website’s URL (address) and the layout can affect how it performs.
1 Add a blog page to your website
A blog page allows you to add meaningful and helpful text information to your website. The benefit of this is that you can target potential questions that prospective customers may have. For example, writing a blog titled: ‘How to take good product photos’ will drive traffic to your site from people who could benefit from your tips. In turn, when others search for ‘Product photography’ your site will receive a better ranking.
Creating content that’s relevant to your audiences helps to give your brand as a photography/creative business authority in its field. It can also be a great place to share behind-the-scenes content and showcase projects. These are all great things for potential clients to see when they visit your site as it communicates your success and ability in real terms. Finally, for a blog post to be valuable from an SEO perspective it needs to be at least 400 words in length, include images, a meta description, relevant tags and a search-friendly headline.
2 Include links in your site
Weblinking – the act of hot linking key words to other web pages – connects the content on your site to other useful pages, either internally or externally. The relevance and quality of your links will help improve your site’s value to users, which is another method used by search engines to rank websites. I would also recommend using a third-party video upload site like YouTube or Vimeo to upload any video content you want to post.
Then use insert links to include those videos on your website and also include your website link in the descriptions of all of your social media profiles and your email signature. Linking to other reputable sites can also encourage them to link back to you where relevant. Other sites linking to your page increases the trust and authenticity of your website.
3 Upload web-optimised images
Of course, you want to show off the best-quality photos possible, but uploading full-resolution images will slow down the performance of your website. Instead, use the ‘Save images for web’ function of your editing software of choice and try to keep the file size of each individual image below 2MB; this is the same for social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Large files will cause your website to load slowly, which creates a poor user experience and subsequently harms your search ranking.
For this reason, it’s also wise to avoid using unnecessary web plug-ins, widgets or uploads that don’t represent the best of your work. Cluttered sites are both slow to load and to navigate. A study conducted by eConsultancy showed that 40% of people abandoned websites that take more than three seconds to load fully and 80% of those people surveyed said they would not return.
In terms of additional support, there’s also been a small explosion in the number of talent-on-demand websites like Fiverr.com and PeoplePerHour. Not familiar with the concept? Talent-on-demand services allow individuals and small companies to put on job notifications for help with technical jobs, such as logo design or even website template building.
Then talented freelancers from all over the world can respond and offer their services for a fixed price. Taking advantage of sites like these helps to remove all of the excuses you may have been telling yourself: ‘I’m not very technically minded’, ‘I don’t know about web design’, ‘I don’t have time’.
Because you’re dealing with a huge pool of talented freelancers, ranging in experience from amateur to ex-agency professionals, people will offer their skills at very competitive prices. This means you can get critical foundational work done to help get your website or branding over the line for a very reasonable price.
Best talent on demand websites
Here’s my top five ToD websites to help you search for additional support with content and design.
Cheap and quick, you set the price and freelancers apply
Freelancers send you proposals with bids for how they will approach your task
Each freelancer on the platform has been vetted before registration
Over 30 million registered freelancers, you pay on task completion Toptal Strict freelancer approval, but higher cost per job.
No trade shows or networking opportunities… no problem
The death of the social and events calendar in 2020 removed one of my biggest means of meeting potential clients. Attending events was one of my main sources of attracting and winning new business, so how did I make it through 2020 with that avenue closed off? I’ve been fortunate to work in the creative industries for approaching two decades now. In that time I’ve built up a relatively broad network of people who are familiar with my work and reputation.
But being known to people isn’t enough to lean on. You need to keep in regular contact with your contacts in order to be front of mind when there’s work to be commissioned. This piece of advice may be less helpful to people only just making the leap into going full time, but the practices I’ve deployed to increase my booking frequency are applicable in a wide range of scenarios.
Like it or loathe it, people like to work with people they like. This is why it’s important to make an effort to check in with people who you have met or worked with in the past. As we all know, businesses have been stretched, with some pushed to the brink and unfortunately, beyond. But it’s not the business we should care about, it’s the people. People leave and rejoin or start up new businesses all the time, but especially during times like these. So the people should be your focus.
Here’s a recent example. Pre-pandemic, a contact of mine was a PR manager who had just won the account of a leading events business. We were in talks to do a potentially lucrative contract to shoot a series of live events. But unfortunately, the business had to downsize as events had been indefinitely postponed. The company lost the account and let my contact go. I only found out the bad news two weeks after they’d been made redundant.
But in the two weeks since I’d last checked in with them, they had already started a new role. This time with another large company, but in a different sector. Keen to make a strong positive impression, they’ve commissioned me to work on their first big project. What can we take away from that experience? I made a connection with someone who I could potentially work with. I cultivated a professional relationship with them by expressing genuine interest in their work and wellbeing. And through adversity, when the time arose, they thought of me when it was possible for us to collaborate.
It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to regularly reach out to contacts you’ve made and let them know that your support and services are available when needed. Of course, this approach will be more likely to yield positive benefits if you are genuinely interested in these people. But that’s the easy part, that’s the very reason you connected with them or exchanged business contact information with them in the first place, right?
Building and maintaining relationships isn’t just a professionally sensible practice, it’s also good for you.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s the importance of being part of an active community. I know this is a slight tangent, but maintaining positive mental health will also contribute to the success of your new venture – or renewed push to becoming a full-time creative potential. So community is key.
How do we go about building and maintaining a community in isolation? You guessed it: online. Facebook photography groups are a fantastic way to connect with like-minded people, particularly if they are local groups.
You may also want to search for and join groups based on your camera model, kit brand or photography genre. Not only will contributing and engaging with others around fields and the kit you use help you to improve your skills and provide inspiration, but it can also help you to build your profile among those communities.
The principal purpose here is similar to those I discussed previously around building a network of contacts. Other members of groups that you participate in are
also potential leads for new business. Being an active and reputable member of your community could help you to win commissions based on referrals. Research conducted by global marketing giants Nielsen and Edelman showed that 83% of people trust recommendations from their friends and family.
Word of mouth accounts for at least 70% of the business that I do, which is a huge opportunity for you if you’ve not yet explored the practices we’ve just discussed.
Do it yourself
Buy, borrow or rent products you’d like to shoot and create mock campaign images. Have you ever seen an advert in a magazine or on a billboard and thought to yourself, ‘I could’ve done that’? Or perhaps, like me you just wondered how they achieved that particular look.
Whichever your entry point, taking products you aspire to shoot professionally and experimenting with creating campaign quality image assets is a great way to sharpen your skills, but also build a commercially attractive portfolio for when you start pitching your services to businesses. I did exactly this with a limited-edition bottle of my favourite rum.
Free from the pressure of having to deliver for a paying client, I experimented with different lighting and background set-ups to create an image fit for marketing the bottle. And when I had an image I was happy with, I shared it online and tagged the brand’s social media account in my posts. Eventually the brand noticed my work and reached out to me. I now count that brand among my list of clients. This approach can be applied to all areas of photography, even when we can’t move around as freely as we did; especially if you’re shooting products.
But the same applies if you want to build a family portrait business. As long as social distancing rules still apply when you’re reading this, use your friends and family – with respect to the guidelines. Want to shoot cars or sports? Competitive sports are still taking place at various levels. Find some lower tier or amateur events and attend the ones that permit photography. Then use that time and access to create a professional portfolio, tailored to the field you want to work in.
After each event, if the opportunity arises, ask for a contact email address for the people, products or places you’ve photographed. And when you have some images you’re confident with, reach out and share those images. In addition or alternatively, you can share the images on your own social media and tag the relevant accounts as I did with the rum brand.
The biggest barriers to you taking the next steps towards becoming a full-time creative professional are the ones you place in your own way. We’ve never had greater access to affordable camera and lighting kit that can be used to deliver professional-quality images. Building an online presence and turning it into a business has never been easier. Sure, that means that competition is probably at its highest, but there are also more potential customers than ever before. If you took my advice in the intro and skipped to the end to get my hot tip – you’re ahead of the game.
My biggest and most valuable piece of advice for how to market yourself – pandemic or not – is to get out of your own way, stop making excuses and put yourself out there. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, ‘Success is a journey, not a destination.’ It doesn’t just mean we should stop focusing on becoming a success or the moment that we arrive at some undefined peak.
In essence, it is telling us that for us to travel a mile in any direction, we must first begin by taking a single step. You’ve already taken a couple just by picking up this week’s issue and by reading this article. Now, keep going! I look forward to seeing your work one day and being inspired to push myself further because of you. I may even get to collaborate with one of you – who knows? All the same, I implore you to keep taking steps towards your goals, lean into the things that scare you and thank me later.
Are online ads worth paying for?
Google receives approaching 4 billion search queries daily, and Facebook has almost 2 billion active users. If you’re going to invest money in online advertising then these are likely to be the best platforms to consider. Google advertising is split into two categories: display and search. You can choose to bid for search result prominence based on specific keywords and terms relevant to your business.
Alternatively, you can pay for advertising space that occupies banners and boxes on websites that are part of the Google Display Network, which spans almost 98% of the internet. Display ads are best for building brand recognition because they’re more visible. The big benefit of advertising with Facebook Ads is the extreme granularity that you can get into when targeting your advertising. You can segment your ads to very specific groups of people.
This means your approach can be slightly more hit and miss, but once you tap into an audience that responds well to your ads, you’ll be able to steadily increase traffic to your business over time. Both platforms require some experimentation and exploration, but were I in your position, I wouldn’t be focusing on ads at this early stage. You have a lot of other core things to focus on that you can do right now, for free.