Adapting to Changes in the Wedding Photography Industry

Adapting to Changes in the Wedding Photography Industry

Adapting to Changes in the Wedding Photography Industry with Michael Anthony

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Change happens. Some of us love it and others hate it. Change can impact your business for the better or worse. Change can be something as small as new colors that are trending at weddings or something large, like the rapid transition from film to digital that occurred in the early 2000s.

Now, the thing about change is that it benefits some and is detrimental to others.
I don’t write about business a lot, but we have a very healthy photography business, shooting over 100 weddings a year. In business, I have learned one thing, no matter what: Change is inevitable. Those who learn to adapt to changes quickly are the ones who will have the most longevity in our industry. Think about businesses that failed to adapt to change, such as Kodak, Blockbuster and BlackBerry—the list goes on and on.

I had an ex-employee who used to complain about the number of changes I’d make to our studio policies. As a business owner, I keep my ear in tune to even the slightest shift in consumer behavior. If something seems off in your business, trust your instinct, because you’re probably right. That employee didn’t understand that the changes I made to our policies were in response to the consumer behavior I was sensing.

If something is broken, it needs to be fixed, and sometimes the fix is staring you right in the face but you fail to see it. My pet peeve is when a business takes too long to fix something that is obviously broken. I am guilty of violating my own pet peeve, and my business has suffered because of it.

After we started our associate program Studio 23 last year, there were glaring problems with the structure of the program that needed to be fixed, specifically regarding personnel. We had problematic employees who were causing our clients grief. I had already assigned these employees to shoot weddings, and didn’t want to switch them out on our clients. But waiting until it was too late to make a change could have severely damaged my company. In the end, it worked out, and we changed Studio 23’s structure, while at the same time cutting down our costs and providing a better-quality product. Had I held out replacing my bad staff, it could have caused irreversible harm to our business.

Changes in the wedding photography industry are happening swiftly, and those of us who are not ready for change could get left in the dust. I run a very active wedding studio and believe that anybody you learn business from should be running an active and profitable business, so understand that the trends I point out below are from my own experience.

  1. Wedding photography is getting more expensive for consumers.

This is a good change—for you—but you must understand that regardless of trends, when prices go up, so do client expectations. According to The Knot, the average price of wedding photography is up 8 percent this year, which is ahead of the rate of inflation. This is a good sign for photographers, and can be attributed to people like Sal teaching photographers how to run a profitable business, along with an exodus of people who are not running a profitable business.

While this is seemingly a good thing, let me explain why you need to be concerned. With anything in life, if the price goes up, the value needs to go up with it. Clients’ perceived value of your product can be objective to them, but you need to address their needs so that clients feel like they are getting a lot for their money.

When a client tells everyone you are expensive—and if you are charging a profitable rate, they probably will—it must be followed up by, “They were totally worth it.” If that is not the follow-up that you receive, those potential new clients won’t reach out to you. Nobody wants to pay too much for anything. It doesn’t matter if they are wealthy or not: Clients want to feel they are getting value for their money.

  1. Clients are becoming more demanding for a professional level of service.

Gone are the days when you could respond to your clients in two to three days. You have a life, maybe kids and a lot of other clients to deal with, but in your bride’s mind, she expects to be your only client. This may be a result of generational mentality, but I think it must have more to do with the fact that big businesses are providing value with exceptional service to justify increasing costs. This is good for the consumer, but a single photographer doesn’t normally have the resources to provide immediate service. When a big business like AT&T runs into customer service issues, they are often a result of a misunderstanding or mishap, and are sometimes the fault of the consumer or the business. AT&T understands that keeping a customer happy is a better option than having an upset customer (but keeping a $49 activation fee).
Today’s consumer knows this, and many push for a concession that is ultimately granted by a large company that benefits more from a happy customer than the small charge being disputed.

Bring that back to photography. If there is a misunderstanding on your pricelist or with a delivery time, most photographers aren’t in the position to give away a print or album for free, because we often work on low volume and high margins. You can’t simply say no to a client without offering a reason and a solution.

If that solution is not a form of concession, it is more difficult to maintain a happy client, regardless of whether you are right or wrong.
If I told you I didn’t run into customer service issues, I would be lying to you. You simply cannot always operate at 100 percent efficiency. Clients are less forgiving than they once were.

The answer isn’t simple. You must increase the efficiency in your business and be extremely responsive to clients. Many brides like to be contacted weekly, and if that means setting an auto reminder to shoot a client an email to check on them six months before their wedding, then so be it. Understanding this trend is the first step to getting ahead of it. Larger markets like New York City and Los Angeles see these trends before smaller markets, so keep that in mind if you are not seeing the same thing.

Here are a few things you can implement to bump up efficiency. First, get a solid CRM. 17Hats is amazing at helping you get the job done, and Ally, its lead management, will help with your responsiveness with prospective clients. Next, automate everything that you can. We use email templates for everything from initial inquiry, to follow ups, to upselling parent albums. We have some available on our website for photographers.

  1. Aesthetic preferences are changing.

The days of rustic and vintage weddings are dying—slowly, but still dying. The film-look craze that has replaced natural-light shooting is also on the way out. Clients are looking for more cinematic, romantic and artistic imagery that is technically well executed, well lit and with modern post-production. To be clear, I am not saying clients are looking for off-camera flash in the middle of an epic scene. I am saying their taste in photography is improving, and they are looking for photography that stands out. Vanessa Joy and Sal Cincotta both have completely different styles of photography, but they both produce images in line with all of these qualities.

Clients are more in tune with what makes a good photograph. They are not always correct, but they are paying more attention. “Fake it till you make it” doesn’t work anymore. You need to up your skillset and push yourself to try new things to stand out.

This means you need to practice, and if your portfolio from your paid shoots is not keeping up with aesthetic trends, you need to stylize shoots. We stylize bridal sessions bimonthly to make sure we are creating good content for our clients. Those sessions feature dresses, lighting and scenes all in line with the modern aesthetics.

Here lies the threat to your business. Other photographers are seeing the shift in clients’ preferences to be more in line with that of the photographic community, but that means increased competition.
Off-camera flash is getting easier and easier to learn, and simply underexposing a background and correctly exposing your subject with flash isn’t enough to make your work stand out. Like Sal says, innovate or die.

  1. An album is no longer an album.

Including a wedding album in your packages is no longer an add-on, it’s an expectation. I used to get inquiries from people who told me they did not require an album. In recent years, those inquiries have turned into people requesting an album. That means your competitors are all offering albums. If you are not offering albums, you are selling your clients an incomplete story, limiting your profitability and not standing out among your competitors.

Your albums must be different, just like your photography. I am talking paper options, larger than normal sizes, multiple cover choices, etc. Most important, your storytelling ability must be on point and able to evoke emotion in your clients.

Our studio uses a combination of Signature Collection Albums, Graphistudio Wedding Books and for our different levels of albums. All three offer unique albums with exceptional customer service.

  1. Traditional advertising is a turnoff to the modern bride.

I will get flack for writing this, but you need to modernize your marketing. The days of paying for a magazine ad are over. Your bride is not finding you on Channel 7 during Judge Judy, and you are certainly going to turn off a lot of people if your ads are pretentious (“We care about you, the bride, not like all those other photographers who only care about their portfolio”).

What works today? You need a well-rounded strategy based on (but not dependent on) multiple sources of lead generation. Let’s look at some popular ad methods.

Social Media and Google

Facebook was very successful for us in 2013 and 2014, but, as it became more popular to advertise on Facebook, users have become numb to it. This is an example of traditional advertising. The problem is that the same ads are displayed repeatedly to the wrong people, and that’s ineffective.
Where Facebook and other online ads do work well is in retargeting people who have visited your website. This can be done by installing Facebook Pixel on your site.

If you have a large following of other photographers or have nontargeted people visiting your website, this could be a difficult strategy, but there are workarounds you can explore to make sure you are showing ads to the right people, such as targeting visitors to a landing page.

Instagram ads are the way of the future. Organic reach is still high, but I have found that as of today, these ads are ineffective.

What’s more important than where you advertise is how you advertise. People want to get to know your brand and studio. Bombarding them with offers and discounts does not work like it used to because they see that all the time. Consider making a promo video offering free advice for wedding planning, and offer that to brides in exchange for their email. Once you have the email, you can use it to retarget your brides and send your offers and discounts. They will be more receptive this time because they already know you.

Referrals and Vendors

Word of mouth is your best friend, but vendor referrals can sometimes fall on deaf ears. You want your past clients talking about you. If you are like me, you don’t have time to go on a weekly tour of your community with cookies and gifts, hoping to get on a vendor list that more and more venues are charging to be on.

While it’s a good thing to work closely and be referred by vendors, if you invest too much of your time with that, once that catering manager is replaced, you must start all over. Instead, make sure you are talking with your good vendors once a month, but don’t expect anything from them in return. Sincerity goes a long way, and if you are friendly and helpful with your vendors and clients, they will be more likely to refer you. People base referrals on their experience with you, your brand and your team. It may seem like shop talk to bad-mouth that difficult client to a wedding vendor, but you are placing doubt in their mind as to whether you can handle their client.

Treat your clients like gold. Spoil them. Take care of their timeline and don’t let them have a single bad experience on the wedding day. If you do it right, they will refer you to their friends and family like clockwork. Referrals are by far our best source of new leads and bookings.

Paid Directories
Directories like WeddingWire and The Knot can work if your price point is lower than that of your competition and your quality is higher than average. These websites pit all vendors against one another in a free-for-all; without getting to know your brand, all they have is your imagery and your price, which both sites encourage their vendors to display because research shows that clients want to see price before shopping. The problem is that when price is a talking point, it will be highly considered in the decision process. Without showing value through your products and personality, it will be hard to charge an adequate amount for your services.

These websites work in conjunction with other marketing techniques to provide confidence in your brand and products. But they can be expensive, and shouldn’t be used for starting your ad campaigns.

Email Marketing

Email marketing can be incredibly effective, but first you need a quality list to send to. It takes a lot of time to build a list, and because of the nature of what we do, brides will need to be moved to a separate list after their wedding. Use free content to encourage brides to sign up for your list. Your content must be engaging. Brides who don’t care about what you are offering won’t sign up with you.

  1. The industry is becoming more competitive every day.

When I was the new kid on the block five years ago, I remember being dismissed by local photographers. We are now one of the largest Los Angeles wedding photography studios by volume and sales. This came from hard work, perseverance and making tough decisions. It also came though relentlessly adapting to changes in the market.

I see many competitors that have the same fire and determination that I did. The difference is that I do not dismiss them. I watch my competitors every day to make sure that wherever they are going, I am already there. It may sound harsh, but business is cutthroat.
In a first-season episode of House of Cards, Kevin Spacey’s character breaks the fourth wall and says, “The higher the mountain you climb, the more treacherous the path.” It’s great advice, and so true.

When Jen and I were starting MAPhoto, we looked to the larger businesses to see what they were doing, and went unnoticed by many of them. Today, we can’t make a move without every photographer in L.A. knowing about it. It has been harder and harder to get help or advice from local colleagues since we are seen by many as one of the targets to knock down. We have heard stories from vendors about other photographers badmouthing us (we make it a point to be in those venues with prints on the wall). We have had clients tell us that competitors and ex-employees were badmouthing us (we always book those clients).

Once you’re successful, others will try to tear you down. You must resist the urge to sink to their level. If you are reading this article, you care about the success of your business, and that means you must do everything to protect it, even if it means swallowing your pride when you run into these situations.

Hopefully these tips will help keep you in tune with today’s market and bride. Stay in tune with the market, and you will see continued success. Don’t be afraid to make changes when things aren’t working.

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the May issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

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