Photo Darwinism: Things your mother never told you (Pt 4)

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Continuing my 2011 article on the business of photography:

At one time the Internet was going to be the “Great Leveler.” Small companies would be able to play on level playing fields with the large multinationals, thanks to smart web search engines like HotBot, Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos and later, Google. Unique photo stock libraries were going to suddenly be noticed thanks to the “long tail” of the Internet.  Then things changed and a new reality set in. Micro and free stock photos killed the resale of generic photo imagery and eventually started to erode the pricing of assignment photography. And we are in the midst of a two new revolutions. The Internet didn’t change the fact that large companies could consolidate and hinder the ability of small companies to be seen. And there’s the The Grand Convergence, which we will address later.

So how do the middle-of-the-pack photographers get their work shown, and more importantly, how do they get assignments? For years people told photographers not to view their work as commodities. And for the top 15% of the industry they were correct. The top shooters can “brand” their work and their reps can get a premium price. Unfortunately the middle-of-the-pack should have viewed their work as commodities and learned to market their work as such. None of us wants to think of our work as generic, but in reality, clients view most of us as interchangeable.  The sooner you learn how to deal with this, the better the chance you can succeed in this middle pack.

First learn how they sell soap.

“In this recession, we learned consumers are looking for value,” said a VP at Dial Soap “but ‘value’ doesn’t mean just low price.”

If you have to sell your photo services in the middle-of-the-pack (and most of us do have to SELL our services), your clients have to be shown that you are giving them a better value, meanwhile you have to create an income stream high enough to earn a living. That’s the key to survival in the middle-of-the-pack. “Proof of value” might mean more to the client than the quality of images.

You can pay a marketing adviser a lot of money to figure this out for you. Or you could learn to market yourself by talking with clients, people who did, and more importantly didn’t hire you, relatives and friends who can be objective about your work.

But still, how do you get your work see through all the noise?

Generalization, Segmentation and Specialization and Search Engine Optimization

I started out as a still-life product photographer. When more than half of my clients went out of business in a previous recession (Polaroid was my largest client), I realized it was time to re-market myself. I started to mail targeted mailers of editorial portraits to national magazines. I continued to send targeted product portfolio mailers to companies needing products shot. I didn’t let the magazine clients know that I was actually a generalist. They thought I specialized in editorial portraiture.

Meanwhile the Internet came along and I created specific sites that were aimed at targeted markets. The sites used search engine optimized techniques to turn up at the top of specific searches.

[Editor’s note: In the decades since I wrote this, things have changed. I no longer have current working individual web sites based on markets. The reason is a much longer story.]

For instance, a few years ago I started to realize that I was getting a lot of calls from attorneys to do their headshots. They were willing to pay premium fees because they had the money, and I showed them the value I added to a headshot.  The word of mouth grew and I thought I’d add a specialty of lawyer headshots to my portfolio. But I didn’t want it to dilute my normal portfolio. So I bought (now deleted) and had a designer do the pages aimed for their specific market.

Meanwhile I have an editorial portfolio at and a small product portfolio at (now deleted). It’s all about the marketing of soap and what they call “shelf space.” In my case the shelf space is on Google’s searches. Simple math states that only 10 people can fit in the top 10 for each listing. If I get 3 of them, that’s three fewer competitors on that first page.

So am I a specialist or a generalist? Yes, both, especially if it increases my income.

You should continue to use the time-honored mailers, and phone calling. But you should figure out how clients use search engines to find new talent, especially out-of-town clients. Type in your city followed by the word “photographer” and also test “photographers.” Then try a search with your specialty and those two words. For instance: “YourCity Corporate Photographers”

Are you on the first page? Who is? How did they get there? So go out and buy the URL “Yourcity-Corporate-Photographer” and stick a website on it already.

Another thing you might see is that some leads from Google are more about bargain price, than quality. Some of the leads that come from search engines and photo portfolio portals are capable of paying the higher prices. This is when your negotiating technique will be tested.

If for some reason you constantly get low price requests, try to analyze what search terms were used to get to your page. There are easy ways to track this by looking at the raw data in your “hit logs.”

Next, some predictions of the future in the final post of: Photo Darwinism: Things your mother never told you.

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