Every year or so I run a similar spin to this story. It's something my good buddy Jim Morton found years ago when we were at Hasselblad "dealing with a tough economy". At least that's what we thought at the time. It's so relevant and it's become one of my favorite business anecdotes. So, as we wrap up the first quarter of the year and many photographers start to come out of hibernation, it'll definitely give you things to think about!
Challenges in technology and the economy are touching everybody. Just when we thought "Uncle Harry", who’s at every wedding with his high-end digital SLR, was under control, the economy threw us a curve ball, and now 20-year old scotch and 91 octane are the same price. (Actually, who even uses 91 octane anymore?) So what’s the key to surviving as a professional photographer in 2013?
At the risk of being overly anecdotal, there was a great story put in circulation by the advertising community in the early '90s. I’ll save you from the long, original version and summarize:
A very successful hot dog vendor is hitting record sales. He’s advertising, cross-promoting, staying open longer each day and business is fantastic. His son comes home from college for the summer and says, “Dad, don’t you know we’re in a recession? You need to watch your spending and be ready for business to slow down.”
The father, concerned, stays awake all that night worrying about what his son has said. The following day he pulls down a lot of his signs and puts the money he would have spent on advertising and promoting in the bank. By the end of the month, business is terrible and all he can say to himself is, “Wow, it’s a good thing I listened to my son. There really is a recession.”
I’m not minimizing the challenges of today’s economy, but I’m frustrated with hearing photographers cry the blues when they haven’t made an effort to evaluate and restructure their current business model. Those photographers whose businesses were solid last year did new things to reach their audience. Nobody is working any less, just smarter. Every photographer who has told me they're doing okay always follows with, "But I've NEVER worked so hard in my life!"
There is no secret to surviving as a professional photographer today—survival is all about marketing, promotion, hard work and utilizing every aspect of new technology. But there are some aspects of running a photography business that everyone needs to make a decision about...
Diversification: Are you hitting the same old target or developing new markets? If you’re a wedding photographer, how many of your brides in the last few years now have children? If they loved the wedding album you created, how about photographing their young family? If you really don't want to stray from your core business then at least develop a relationship with a children and family photographer and then cross-promote with each other.
Years ago—sorry I don’t remember where—there were statistics suggesting that 95% of brides under 30 have a baby within three years of their wedding date. Every bride you’ve ever photographed is a potential customer for family portraiture.
The demand for professional portraiture still runs in this order: brides, babies and then pets. So if business is down, take a look at your client database and find opportunities to create new clients or new applications.
Market and Promote: Our hot dog man, in an effort to stave off the recession, stopped reminding people he was there. What are you doing to promote yourself? Are you involved in the community? Are you advertising in local papers? Do people recognize your presence? Do you own your own zip code?
Years ago, one of the country's leading senior photographers, Larry Peters, told me about one of his best marketing tools. At the time, he was photographing a half dozen seniors each year at no charge. They, in turn, became his ambassadors and helped spread the word among the various high schools in his area. Today there are ambassador programs all over the place, because they work, but the concept doesn't have to be exclusive to senior photography.
Well known pro David Ziser, in a program also many years ago, talked about tracking anniversary dates of his clients and did a first anniversary sitting at no charge. Think about it...the younger the bride, the more friends she has who will soon be getting married—it’s a publicity manager’s dream!
The Internet and Social Media: You can’t be in business without a website, but how about the message you’re presenting? Look at blogs, for example. Everybody wants to have a blog, but only a handful of photographers are doing it the right way.
The key to a successful venture into social media has so many facets, but two that are critical are relevant content and consistency. Check out yesterday's post from Scott Bourne on ten tips for making blogging, podcasting and tweeting more effective. If you're going to do it, at least do it right.
Attitude: When was the last time you did an attitude check on yourself? I am reminded of the unspoken oath we all took when we fell in love with photography! That oath, we all share, is about quality, service and responsibility. It's everything I've been writing about since my first blog post almost four years ago. Your clients trust you to be their eyes at a wedding. At a portrait sitting they're trusting you to see them the way they see themselves. They're trusting you to deliver a product far better than Uncle Harry could ever dream of!
Think about how much you love the craft and all the excitement in our industry today. I’ll go anecdotal one last time—we’re living in our own version of Who Moved My Cheese? It’s a business parable that was on The New York Times Best Seller List in the late 1990s and well worth a two hour investment of time to read. If you’ve read it, you’ll understand that the only thing that’s changed in our industry is that the “cheese has been moved,” and we simply have to work harder to find it!
Photo Credit: © Julie Feinstein | Dreamstime.com