Unconventional Marketing for Senior Portraits with Phillip Blume
One morning I was on the phone with Rob. Rob is a close friend and former groom whose wedding my wife Eileen and I photographed soon after we began Blume Photography in 2008. Building friendships with our clients has been one of our favorite perks as wedding photographers.
That morning, Rob and I were mostly just geeking out over recent updates to video editing software. Nerdy stuff. As the new media director at a nearby high school, he’d been given a pretty high-tech studio, the kind where kids get to sit in front of a green screen and role-play like they’re news anchors for a live student body audience. It sounded fun.
Then it hit me: Rob was my “in” to the senior market.
At the time, I’d never marketed to senior portrait clients, but we had photographed a handful of seniors who’d come to us by word of mouth. The experience was far less stressful than weddings. There was no planning timelines, giving up our weekends or mediating family drama in front of a hundred guests.
It was just us and the client on an easy weekday afternoon. More like a fashion shoot. Plus print sales were great. I liked shooting seniors.
So how was Rob going to help me?
High School Career Fairs
Our studio’s senior marketing has been unconventional. It’s easy to shower your market in direct mail or buy sponsor banners on the varsity football field. Those tactics are not necessarily bad, but everybody’s doing it. So how are you going to stand out to your target audience?
As I started talking more with Rob, I learned he was busy recruiting volunteers for an upcoming career fair. Not an easy task in today, when very few professionals have time to spare.
“I’m in,” I said before I was even invited. “I’ll host a table at the career fair. No problem.”
Why did I want in so badly? From the faculty’s point of view, I’m doing them a huge favor. I’m helping their event succeed, representing the arts and business ownership to their students. They feed me, set up my table, get me anything I need and thank me profusely afterward. I’m starting to wonder if I should actually charge them to let me advertise.
I’ve just been given a free booth at a trade show targeted at my ideal audience: students and their parents. The fairs I’ve attended are never boring, like bridal shows where the brides avoid your eye contact. No, these students—accompanied by their parents, the keepers of the purse strings—are required to come up and talk with me. They have questionnaires in hand, ready to interview me for their assignment.
Take advantage of this common high school event. Do you know a teacher on the inside? Easy in. If not, just visit the office and say someone sent you to ask about volunteering. They’ll love you for it. All you have to do is make photography sound like the coolest job ever, which it is.
You don’t have to hard sell, and you probably don’t want to if your plan is to return annually. But don’t be afraid to share your info via handouts, or even offer a personal promo. As long as you’re there to offer a service and get kids excited about a profession, they will think you’re awesome. And that is the only excuse they need to hire you when portrait time comes.
I never would have graduated college if it weren’t for scholarships. Most people don’t realize just how many privately funded scholarships are available out there.
My family was struggling financially when my high school graduation came. There was no college fund. So I found out about all the scholarships. Most of them weren’t huge amounts, but they weren’t hard to get. All you really had to do was apply.
So today we love being able to pay it forward and give small scholarships to deserving graduates. It doesn’t have to be much, maybe $500 for a student’s first-semester books. Just think of it as a strategic marketing expense. And how better to communicate to parents that you share their values?
In the same way a parent’s eyes light up when she hears me preaching “work ethic,” “dedication” and “passion” to her child on the career fair floor, they also light up when she hears me reinforcing her desire to see her child continue his education. Remember, most parents will be paying out of pocket for both their child’s photos and college education. They’ll appreciate that you give back.
How do you make the connection with senior students’ parents? Why not put together a scholarship application? Make it professional but not too lengthy or intimidating. You could ask a couple essay questions: What are your ambitions as you pursue higher education? Describe an extracurricular activity you enjoy, and explain why you’re passionate about it. Leave the application with every school guidance counselor you can, and they can start putting it in the hands of rising juniors at the perfect time to reach them. When the applications return to you, you will both congratulate the winners and send a promotion for your services to families now familiar with your brand.
Do you still have a connection to your old high school? Conveniently, I live just miles from mine.
As a result, I ate a very sad chicken dinner on a red cafeteria tray last week. My alma mater had messaged me on Facebook just a few days earlier, inviting me to an alumni event before the big rivalry game. I was hoping to see a few familiar faces; so I dressed our three kids in school colors and showed up early.
Sadly, we were the only people who showed up for the event. On the other hand, I received a lot of extra attention from the faculty who were there to foster alumni relations. And that was lucky, because it gave me the chance to pitch them an idea.
“Hey, this chicken dinner is so great and I feel really connected to the school at these events. What would you think if we could get a lot more alumni here?” Excited nodding. “I think we can do it. As a business owner, I’ve learned a lot about marketing, and I’d like to help. We could make this really exciting.”
Now, make sure you know what you’re doing, because you have to show results. For me, the project seemed simple enough, and the potential benefits looked great on both sides.
At the next strategic event, we would get an earlier jump on things. And we would send a series of three emails both to the school’s list of alumni as well as to current high school parents—not just Facebook Messenger this time, which doesn’t reach anyone.
In those emails, which of course include Blume Photography info, we’d announce valuable door prizes for attendees. For example, our studio would give away a free family mini session plus a small print package. Other alumni and parents with small businesses would want to do the same thing, helping to promote their companies to the larger school body while drawing a crowd. Basically everyone would get a few raffle tickets at the door (helping the school), and it would be really enticing to attend, win and see old friends. Making events like that successful is about building excitement and repeating the message.
We promised to donate our photo booth to make the event interactive and memorable. It really isn’t as impressive as it sounds. A simple white backdrop and a flash will do the trick. Yet people love it. We often use it as a marketing tool. Event attendees wear funny hats while I take snapshots and get to know them. They pop their emails in my ShootProof iPad app in exchange for free downloads, and they also get a promo for future portrait sessions. It works.
Now we’ve built a great contact list. We have brand recognition among school families. New raffle-winning clients are already booking their sessions with us. And the school loves us. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll hear us out when we come back with a request to promote our senior sessions more directly to students.
This year, I’m excited to offer senior travel sessions for the first time. I’ve seen senior photographers like C.J. Bryant do this with great success, and now we’re devising our own plan to make it work in our market.
Travel is an amazing educational opportunity for young people—it broadens their minds and horizons. It’s great for building your portfolio, and you have enthusiastic and inexpensive models to work with, even if they’re not pros.
This year, we’ll be watching for ridiculously cheap last-minute airfares to scenic cities around the globe. And I bet whenever we find one, a senior and her parent will be ready and willing to board the plane with us. I invite you to watch my embedded video in this month’s issue, where I explain more about how it works.