Skip Cohen The Next Big Building Block: An Effective Network
This year in each issue of Shutter Magazine, we’re focusing on a building block for your business. Your site and blog, together with your skill set, make up the foundation of what can become a thriving business. Now it’s time to head into marketing, starting with building a great network.
Right now I’m betting a few of you are rolling your eyes, dying to tell me that networking isn’t really marketing. Of course it is. What good is working to create the greatest images of your life if nobody knows who you are? Even more important, when you’ve got a challenge that’s beyond your skill set, who are you going to call to help find a solution? While marketing and self-promotion are a big part of the effort, it all starts with a strong network.
Defining Your Network
Let’s start with defining a good network. It’s more than pockets of business cards you’ve collected while shaking hands at conventions and workshops. A really effective network is about people you know, and, more importantly, people who know you.
I like to think of a network like a target, with you being the bull’s-eye. In the first circle out, you’ve got those people you’re closest to. Often they’re best friends, family members, associates you regularly work with, along with employees or business partners. Those in the next circle out are slightly more removed; this group would be people who have a strong, direct impact on your business. These are people you’d feel comfortable calling in a crisis, be it serious or just a short-term challenge you need help with.
The next circle is all the vendors you work with. For every product or service involved in your business, you should have one person at each company whom you know and have met, either through a phone call or preferably in person at a trade show or convention. This is an incredibly helpful group, because they talk to other photographers all over the country.
Think about what would make a rep at your lab so important. Right off the bat, she talks to hundreds of photographers every week. She’s not only an expert on her company’s products and services, she’s also like the town crier. She knows what’s going on and is part of the grapevine. She may have just talked with a photographer in one part of the country who’s experiencing the same challenge you are in another.
The last circle is your broadest, and is equally important. It’s the biggest because it represents your target audience. Your reach to them is going to be a combination of actually getting to know them, as well as getting them to know you through publicity, self-promotion and community involvement.
Your database is part of your network. And, while everybody is always worried about finding new customers, just about everybody forgets about past clients. Even with past bridal clients, the younger they were when you photographed their wedding, the more friends they have who will someday be getting married. Being in your network doesn’t mean they’re just a placeholder for a position, but a key client to maintain a relationship with. It can be as easy as sending a card on their anniversary, or calling or emailing just to check in with them.
The Building Blocks for Your Network
Local Associations, Camera Clubs, Camera Guilds and Online Forums
While ideally it starts with actually meeting somebody, you’ve got to make the effort. This is where it becomes so important to get involved in the local guild, camera club or professional association in your community. The people you’re going to meet all share the same passion in building a business, as well as the same frustrations. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll learn just by talking to your competitors.
Forums and online groups are another terrific resource. Let’s use the ShutterFest forum on Facebook as a prime example. Every day there are questions from photographers needing help, and almost instantly, somebody will answer. It’s a community with a never-ending passion for helping one another.
Own Your Zip Code
I first heard the expression from my good buddy Scott Bourne, and it’s so important to the growth of your brand and business.
Think about one circle in your network being made up of all the businesses within a 10-mile radius of your location. The key is meeting every one of them. This is all about pounding the pavement and introducing yourself to each one and leaving your business card or brochure.
What so many of you don’t get is the thought process. You’re stuck thinking that because your specialty is wedding or children’s portraiture, you have nothing in common with meeting the manager of the local Re/Max office. Well, who do you think is getting married or making those babies who are going to be part of a family portrait down the line?
Plus, this is your chance to introduce yourself:
“My specialty is wedding photography, but I love everything about imaging. If you ever need help with anything, give me a call. I might not always have the answer for you, but I have an amazing network of photographers and manufacturers in the photo industry.”
All you have to do is offer to be helpful.
Community Business Groups
Get yourself into any one of the service groups in your community. That means Kiwanis, Rotary, Exchange Club, the Chamber of Commerce and dozens of others. This is about the community getting to know you as well as you getting to know them.
There’s no reason for you not to establish your own networking luncheon. Let’s use a wedding photographer as an example, simply because it’s so easy to understand the other vendors.
Find a small restaurant with a private room and an inexpensive menu. Nothing fancy, just a good private room. We’re not out to set a culinary standard, just to have lunch and talk business.
Now, invite every vendor in the community that has anything to do with weddings. Everybody pays for their own lunch, and you can work it out in advance with the restaurant so paying the bill goes smoothly. Whom you invite is up to you, but think about the power around the table if suddenly you got to know a bakery or two, travel agent, bridal salon, wedding planner, florist, spa, salon, tux shop, music promoter, limo service, etc. And don’t forget venues and caterers. Over time, you might even get a venue or caterer to provide lunch.
The agenda is simple. Introduce yourself and thank them for coming. Next, go around the room and let everybody introduce themselves and their products/services. Then, just state your purpose: By all of you getting to know each other, there might be opportunities to work together, or maybe to share the cost of direct mail campaigns or sponsorship of something in the community.
All of you have the same target audience: bridal clients. Getting to know each other and building relationships is key to you building your brand.
Being involved in charitable work in your community is a great way to build your reputation. It’s another part of your network, working with people who share a passion for a cause or project. Again, it’s about getting your name out there. The fun is that it’s just about being involved, and may not require your skills as a photographer at all. Be generous with your time and build a reputation as somebody who gives back to the community. The point is that you’re looking for your community to be good to you, so you’ve got to be good to your community.
Keeping in Touch: The Care and Feeding of Your Network
A great network entails regular interaction between you and the people in it. That means you’ve got to stay in touch. It might be with a phone call now and then, an email or a blog post. Even better, it might be grabbing lunch with a key network member.
I’ve referred to myself jokingly over the years as the “biggest lunch slut” in photography. In all honesty, I really am. I love having lunch with anybody who has anything to do with imaging. There are few better ways to get to know somebody than a great conversation over lunch.
When I first moved back to Ohio in 2009, I knew virtually nobody in photography. On Facebook, I had gotten to know a photographer named Brian Palmer before moving there. Within a month of moving to Akron, I called Brian and we grabbed lunch. He and his family have since become great friends. While he might be living in Japan at the moment, nothing changes the friendship that grew out of that first lunch, and in turn the help he gave me over the years when we needed an image or two for a book project or magazine article.
Having a great network isn’t about collecting names and business cards. It’s about building relationships. You can’t just meet somebody and then walk away until you need some help down the road. If you keep in touch and build relationships, when you need help the most, you won’t have to call anybody. They’ll already be there for you.