April Building Blocks – Diversity with Skip Cohen
“If you want to catch more fish, use more hooks!” –George Allen
While many photographers find success in specializing, I’m a firm believer in diversity in your skill set and target audience. Diversity is one of the most important building blocks in helping you level out the peaks and valleys in your business.
In my Hasselblad days, there were several years when business for professional photographers virtually everywhere was simply bad. Whether commercial, wedding, children or family, business just wasn’t coming in. Hasselblad sales were down, and there wasn’t much we could do to create strong sell-through. Fortunately we had a little diversity in our owners base. Thirty-five percent were hobbyists and heaviest with professionals like doctors and lawyers. That diversity in our buyers saved us a number of times that year.
Here’s another example much closer to your business. Let’s assume you’re a wedding photographer and have been doing a great job for some years. You’ve built up a terrific reputation. Your clients love working with you, and your word-of-mouth endorsements are powerful.
Most brides and grooms at some point start families. In 1970, the average age was 21, but it’s been on the rise, and in 2013, it was 26 (according to BabyCenter.com). It continues to go up, and you know from experience what’s happening in your part of the world. My observation is most couples start a family within one to three years of their wedding.
Knowing that, why wouldn’t you want to be there when the first child is born? Why wouldn’t you want to work with your couples and become their family photographer? After all, you did a great job at their wedding. You’ve established trust. Even more important, they like working with you.
When the first baby comes along, it represents another milestone in a new family. If the wedding album is the first family heirloom, then baby pictures of the first new addition represent another opportunity. This is storytelling at its best, and nobody can do it better than you.
The couple who started with you during an engagement session got married. Then they started a family. Again, you were there capturing those intangible moments and turning them into tangible lifetime memories.
But babies are only one step along the way. Remember the hierarchy of why people hire photographers: brides, babies and pets, in that order. Well, families have pets. For many couples, the family dog or cat comes long before babies. Again, here’s an opportunity for you to be there and create another revenue stream through the diversity of your skill set.
Launching New Directions
You have to walk before you can run. Let’s talk about how to diversify.
- Build your skill set. Whether through conventions like ShutterFest, workshops, online education, books by your favorite authors or studying with the various icons, being successfully diverse means never compromising on your skill set.
- Utilize social media. A few articles back, I wrote about the difference between your website and your blog. Your website is about what you sell, while your blog is about what’s in your heart. Use your blog to share new directions you’re taking with your skill set. It’s the perfect forum for you to start a soft-sell campaign of any new subjects you’re starting to “focus” on (pun intended).
- Use community involvement to demonstrate your diversity. One of the easiest ways to get the word out about any new directions you want to take with your business is to be involved in programs and projects in the community that put your diversity in the spotlight. For example, if you were working to diversify into the children and family portrait market, you could volunteer at events involving children and families. Use the experience and images from these events for content on your blog.
- Direct mail is alive and well. Years ago, direct mail was the only way to communicate with large groups of people. Then along came email, and it became the snake oil of the 21st century, the cure-all for expanding reach. Suddenly every company in the world was hitting us with email, and the word spam became a regular part of our vocabulary.
Today, direct mail is back with a vengeance, and it offers an opportunity for you to hit your target audience with high-impact effective pieces to present special promotions and new products. Even better, there are so many companies that can help you design the perfect promotional mailer. Check out Marathon Press’s Family Marketing program, for one.
- Look for partners! Another great aspect of direct mail is your ability to bring in partners, and I’ve written a lot about this. Look for noncompeting partners to share in the cost of the design, production and mailing. You don’t have to carry the burden by yourself. A photographer wanting to step into the pet market should be looking at pet food suppliers, animal shelters, pet groomers, pet sitters and veterinarians to help share the cost.
Just remember: Don’t bring in any more than two partners. When you exceed three featured partners in any direct mail piece, you start looking like any of the cars in NASCAR. It’s important for each company to be visible and represented. Plus, each of you becomes an ambassador for the other companies involved.
- Don’t forget to advertise. Again, I’m back to the old days of conventional print advertising. Today, advertising can be everything from a fractional print ad to a link from another supplier’s website. The key is to look for companies that share a common target audience.
- Remember Mom. I write this in almost every article. Women make 98 percent of the decisions in hiring a professional photographer. Make sure whatever you’re doing in the portrait/social categories targets women.
- Added-value and continuity programs are a key to growing new business directions. In my old Polaroid days, we had data that supported loaner programs of Polaroid cameras in theme parks. We learned a person who had used a Polaroid camera was twice as likely to buy one.
Your clients are the same. If they’ve “used” your services and were happy, they’re also more likely to be a return client for another aspect of your skill set. A happy wedding client becomes the perfect family and children’s photography customer.
A high school senior having a great first experience with you for her senior session is immediately a fan. You may think this is too early to be planting the seeds for future portraiture, but it’s never too early.
Continuity programs bring clients back to your services, but you have to think through your promotional offers. I love the concept of image boxes because of their marketing potential and because they offer a client something unique.
Let’s say you’ve included an image box with 10 matted prints. Why not include several additional blank mattes? On the back of each one is a special offer for an anniversary sitting, first baby portrait, first haircut and the first day of school. The list goes on and on.
Under the continuity umbrella is an old marketing technique of David Ziser’s that I’ve written about before. As one of the top wedding photographers in the country, David completely understood the importance of word-of-mouth advertising. He also knew the younger the bride, the more friends she had who were getting married and needed a photographer.
On the first anniversary of any couple he had photographed within a reasonable driving distance, he’d contact them. He’d always start out purely social, wishing them a happy anniversary, but he’d close with offering to do a first-anniversary sitting as his thank you to them for allowing him to shoot their wedding. Now think about the reaction he’d get and how that bride was in awe of her photographer who remembered her wedding and offered to do a free family portrait.
Dean Collins used to do something similar with his corporate commercial clients. He’d contact the president of a company whose catalog or annual report he’d shot, and offer to do a free family portrait for their holiday card. Again, it’s about word of mouth and building the relationship.
Here’s the bottom line: It’s rare in today’s market for specialists to thrive. That doesn’t mean you have to do it all, but at least be diverse enough to never say to a client, “Sorry, I don’t photograph X.” Even if you don’t have the skill set developed yet, build relationships with other photographers who do. That gives you the ability to be helpful by answering, “I’m sorry, I don’t specialize in that kind of photography, but I’ll make a call for you right now and introduce you to one of my good friends who does.”
Build relationships, build your skill set, be diverse and do your best to never turn down business.