The Value of Relationships in the Photography Business with Michael Anthony
Photography is an incredible hobby and profession. We get to visit amazing places, document memories for people, create art and even travel all over the world. But the business side is a different story. To finance this amazing hobby and turn it into a living, we have to charge livable wages. If you are in business, then your hobby is also your profession, which means you have to charge enough to not only finance that shiny new camera with eight lenses, but also pay for taxes, insurance, rent, utilities, employees and the many other costs that you never think about when you go into business.
In six years, our business has grown from hobby to profession to one of the leading wedding photography studios in the country, and we continue to see growth every year. What people don’t see is the rest of the iceberg: patience, risk and countless hours of testing marketing theories. In the end, your success is measured largely by the quality of your professional relationships.
Love for photography makes it a very desirable career—if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. With competition at an all-time high and thousands of new photographers entering the market every year (because they all see you on Instagram traveling the world taking photos of people), how are you going to build a solid foundation in business? The answer involves taking the time to focus on your professional relationships. There are two types of relationships in business: those with your clients and those with your peers.
Peer relationships mean working with local professionals who serve the same market you do. For a wedding photographer like me, that includes gown makers, DJ’s, planners, catering managers and wedding blog publishers. I know what you are thinking because I remember feeling the same way: As a new photographer just entering the market, how are you going to convince other pros of your professionalism and have them refer you to their clients? They require their own strategies, and I will tell you from experience how we went about it.
When I started my business, my wife, Jennifer, was studying to become a nurse. So, since she was a full-time student and I was a police officer, we struggled to find time to build the business and nurture relationships. We also needed to build a portfolio to market to new brides.
We started in our immediate area. Jennifer called a prop rental company, visited the store that she bought her own wedding gown from, and reached out to a makeup artist who was also starting her career, a florist that we hired for our wedding and a real couple that agreed to model in exchange for images.
Jennifer agreed to trade imagery with all of these vendors. She was successful in planning this shoot because she painted a clear vision and plan, which demonstrated professionalism, allowing clients to trust her. The images we made from that one shoot helped define our portfolio and get our foot in the door with local vendors.
Now we live in Santa Clarita, California, a large suburb north of Los Angeles. It’s not the most ideal place to market a wedding photography business because we live so close to the city and its exclusive high-dollar zip codes of Beverly Hills, Malibu and Santa Monica. I knew that starting close was essential to developing relationships with my peers.
I joined the local networking group Santa Clarita Wedding and Event Professionals, which I am still a part of. The group helped kickstart my relationships with many of my local vendors. The key isn’t just being present. The key to building quality relationships is giving without expecting reciprocation. There are many vendors that I refer to my couples without receiving a single referral in exchange.
So how do you adopt this strategy as a portrait photographer? If I were primarily a portrait photographer, I would target clothing manufacturers, shopping center store owners, local OBGYN’s for maternity photographers, gym and fitness center owners for boudoir or fitness photographers, etc. Where do these vendors congregate? Local business chambers are a great source, but more often than not, it will take legwork beating down doors and being turned down repeatedly. Every successful business owner has to understand how to hustle. At some point you will be able to hire people to do it for you, but in the beginning, it will be you breaking bread with business owners, and that is a good skill to learn.
How are you taking care of your vendors? Every year around the holidays, we invest up to $4,000 in gifts for local vendors. We ship a gift basket and a card to out-of-town vendors, and we hand-deliver gifts to local vendors. This year we hired an employee dedicated to building and nurturing relationships with local vendors. Her job is to connect clients with vendors that would be a great fit for us. That creates a great client experience and shows your vendors that you care about their success, which will often benefit your own success.
Here is a tip I know you will love. Create a questionnaire titled Wedding Worksheet that you send to your clients from your customer relationship management (CRM) system. This worksheet asks for their vendor information, email address, contact and phone number. Don’t know who to contact at a venue? Now you do. From there, you can market directly to those vendors and bring them prints and products after the wedding. You can also build a database of vendors to refer your clients to.
The same strategies will apply to your clients as well. Don’t allow your wedding clients to go to other photographers for portraits. That is one of the most frustrating things I see on social media. It means that we messed up somewhere in the retention process. It has taken me years to learn strategies for retention of that work, and I am still learning—but let me save you time with these ideas that work.
Spoil your clients. Wedding clients should be getting a gift three months and two weeks before the wedding.
Ask for their birthdays on your questionnaire and have your CRM send an automated birthday email to them.
Send your clients a physical thank-you card after a purchase or their shoot. Ask for referrals on it.
Offer clients an incentive to refer people to you. The offer has to be irresistible, like $500 to $1,000 in product if someone books a wedding with you. Sound like a lot? Make sure your margins can cover a large product credit, and trust me, it works.
Lastly, I want to stress that building relationships takes time. You don’t go from first date to marriage after one month. You need to foster relationships for a long time before you see results.
If you are selfish all the time or get offended that a vendor won’t refer you over someone they have been working with for years, you are kidding yourself and setting yourself up for disappointment. I have been working with some vendors for years without a referral back from them. One day they may come around, or they may not, but at least I have built a relationship that I can use to add value to our client experience.
Keep working hard, keep hustling and never give up. And when you see results, it will be so gratifying to know that your cherished hobby can also be a profitable business.