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3 Easy Tips for Starting a Senior Model Program

3 Easy Tips for Starting a Senior Model Program with Karen Stenseth

Have you heard that the high school senior photography market and model programs are dying? I have … many, many times! Even from a photographer-specific business coach I once paid—needless to say, that didn’t last long. Let me tell you, those rumors have been around for several years, and they’re still wrong. So if you’ve heard that before, I have great news! As long as there are teenagers graduating high school, parents seeing their babies growing into adults, and professional photographers willing to provide a phenomenal experience for the senior and parent, there will be a market for high school senior photography and model programs!

I started my business in 2009 with little league teams and quickly branched out into portrait sessions and weddings. A friend of mine asked me to photograph his son’s senior portraits, and then before I knew it, I had several people contacting me to photograph their seniors. I quickly fell in love with the fun I was having because of their personalities and willingness to be photographed.

Within a year or two, I started hearing a lot about how other photographers were running successful Senior Model Programs. I figured it couldn’t be that hard, so I started my own. I was excited about the idea of having models for my creative ideas and teenagers who were happy to share my pictures. After scouring the internet to read blogs and watch webinars about how to launch a Senior Model Program, it seemed that if I would provide them with pretty pictures, then they would bring in a load of referrals. Sounds easy enough, right? Well friends, if you’re just starting a model program, let me save you a few years of frustration, because that’s not how it works.

One thing I’d like to address is that there are just as many ways to run a Senior Model Program as there are photographers in the world, so just as you’ve found your shooting style, you have to find the path that is right for you when running a model program. If you’re like me, you’ll get bored easily, and your program will change from year to year to keep things fresh and unpredictable anyway.

My program revolves around community and fun—no matter what we’re doing! When juniors apply for my program, I tell them in the information on my website and on the application that I want them to invite their friends to apply because “it’s not a contest, it’s a party”! This is one easy way to put them at ease from the beginning—you want them to bring friends along for the fun, and it’s not about competing against each other.

Alright … let’s get to the tips!

1. Attract teenagers and parents

Word of mouth and your online presence are likely the top two reasons teenagers and parents would even know about your business. There are many keys to marketing that we don’t have space for here, but I can tell you the one thing that’s most important is that you’re showing up regularly and constantly working on your online existence. Most teens are on Instagram, and they actively use it to check out local businesses, whereas parents typically use Google and Facebook, so make sure your profiles and pages are inviting and engaging—but also make sure your work and information stay current. You’ll want to make sure your website, search engines and social media channels tell seniors and parents that you’re open for business and want to photograph teenagers.

So what if you don’t normally photograph teenagers? Well, the simple answer is that you need to get teenagers in front of your lens so you can show what you want to sell. If you don’t currently have teen clients, it may seem a little difficult to get going, so you’ll need to put on your thinking cap in order to have work to present to attract more.

Pro tip 1: Make a list of people you know who have teenagers—high school juniors and seniors to be more specific. Current seniors would be the obvious first choice, because not only are they already in the perfect position to be clients, but their social media accounts are being watched by other juniors and seniors who will see the photos. It’s your choice whether to shoot sessions for free or to charge a fee, but whatever you decide, make sure you communicate clearly about how it will work.

Pro tip 2: Something to keep in mind is that if they’ve already had their senior pictures taken or they’re a model for another photographer, don’t tread those waters. There are plenty of seniors out there, so use the Golden Rule and don’t step on the toes of your fellow photographers.

2. Plan a fantastic experience!

Let’s talk about some of the things that will keep your senior models excited about your program through graduation. I offer things for them to be involved in as individuals and as part of a small group or large group. My team is quite large, so I find it important to do things on a large and small scale throughout the year. These things are on the group calendar when they sign on, and then as the dates get closer, we plan the specifics.

Each senior receives their own personal session and is invited to take part in the group shoots and meet-ups throughout the year. Notice I said ‘invited’—their presence is hoped for, but not required in my program. I know it seems a bit backward compared to most model programs, but making things optional is one of the keys that I learned a few years ago. It makes having a large team less stressful and a lot easier to manage.

For the group shoots, I take the creative reins on outfits, hair & makeup, location, etc., but I also try hard to keep costs to a minimum and let them have input and opinions.

Meet-ups can be anything from a team meeting to plan something or just sitting around chatting. Community events are always rewarding and well-attended. This year, we collected food, medical items and clothing for the homeless, then took the donations as a group to the collection point. When we arrived, we realized they were struggling with dispersing the items to their places, so we all pitched in to help. My heart was beaming seeing how much they enjoyed helping out and serving others.

For the personal session, we work together to execute their perfect senior shoot. This is different for each kid, and I hear some wild ideas sometimes. Whether it’s showcasing their extra-curricular activities, their vehicle, or a cool location, or just simply wanting something different, I try hard to deliver images that the kids and their parents will love … plus create some things they don’t expect.

Pro tip: Let them help you plan! Whether it’s a group shoot, a meet-up, an event, or just their own session, they’ll take ownership and will be more excited about the outcome.

3. Put the icing on top

A photography session can be similar to baking a cake—bakers can vary a recipe to their liking and as long as the cake tastes good, their customer will be pleased. But should they stop there? Heck no! When the cake looks beautiful and tastes even better, that’s giving them something to talk about! Photography, like all art, is subjective so there will be clients for every style and level of expertise, but the one thing that should be present in every business is treating people right and providing them with great service and products. Those are simple business practices to start with, so don’t stop there.

I prefer to use in-person sales for my senior families, because it allows me to go the extra mile to hand-hold them when purchasing the products for their home and gifts. With each product order, I include a simple ‘thank you’ gift that is always unexpected and appreciated—and usually makes the mamas cry.

Pro tip: Constantly look for ways to improve, and don’t be afraid to change course mid-stream if something isn’t working.

I hope these tips help you to start your own successful Senior Model Program. Remember, this is an important time in your clients’ lives—senior year is a big deal for both the kids and the parents. The best compliment I hear year after year is that they are ready to graduate, but they’re not ready to leave Senior Crew. That’s the best compliment I could ever ask for from my seniors!

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To read the full article, launch the digital version of the March 2020 magazine.