Start Brushing the Sharks Teeth: Get More Clients with the Pilot Fish Strategy


To bring another fresh perspective to our blog, and to be able to offer great revenue-generating advice for all photographers out there, we have teamed up with Lisa Edwards of Lisa Wareham Photography. A graduate of our Career Training program, Lisa lives and works in Butte, Montana. She runs the Photo Bacon blog, where she writes articles geared toward helping other photographers build their bottom lines.


Pilot fish munch on ooey, gooey shark plaque parasites.

And in turn?

Sharks don’t eat them.

They protect the pilot fish from other predatory fish. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, really. Instead of merely surviving, the pilot fish thrive.

As photographers, we can start being like the pilot fish and find a shark we can help, that can also help us. The technical term for this is “co-marketing.”

We can get more clients by helping other businesses and organizations who have what we want: a client who has disposable income and values photography. And we can do it without being like the unibrow used car salesman with chest hair jumping out of his bright blue button-up shirt.

I have personally used this strategy in one instance to generate 5 new paying clients with above my average portrait order. Wanna give it a try? I promise, your hot pink piggy bank will thank you.


Step 1: Make More Moolah with Mutually Beneficial Relationships

Freaking brilliant. Mind Blown.

I picked up my $40 Boppy Pillow and read, “60 Free Days of Daily Burn.” For those of you who don’t have kids or do have kids and are living under a rock, the Boppy PiIlow is a nursing pillow for moms and their babies.

Finding a company with clients you want

What’s so brilliant about the Boppy/Daily Burn co-marketing partnership is that new moms are eager to shed the pounds they put on for the past 9 months. The big belly and double chin are no longer “cute pregnant” weight.

Daily Burn, in a nutshell, is an app that helps you lose weight by tracking calories, exercise, and setting up accountability through friends and complete strangers that also have the app.

Daily Burn figured it out. Instead of targeting all women (because most women probably want to lose some weight), they targeted women who recently gave birth and virtually all of them would want to lose weight.

The Boppy Pillow gets to give their customers an extra free gift (and hopefully this gives women an extra incentive to buy), and Daily Burn gets access to a continuous flow of potential monthly paying members.

It’s a win-win for both Daily Burn and Boppy Pillow.

A key concept that is vital here: price point.

The Boppy Pillow isn’t a cheap pillow. It’s forty freaking dollars for a pillow that’s used for about 6-12 months, and extra slipcovers are $15. So Daily Burn knows this is their target market, if someone is willing to spend likely $55 on something that isn’t a necessity.


Step 2: Figure out who has the clients you want.

There’s nothing new about hanging photos in dental offices and maternity wards. And there’s nothing wrong with it, either. But it isn’t necessarily right.

The problem is, there has to be a reason you are trying to hang photos to display in these offices and make them these specific offices your co-marketing partners.

Plus, many photographers in your area probably already have set up displays in these offices. And even if they haven’t, I’m going to urge you to be more creative and come up with new ideas that make more sense to your photography and work to help you build a higher end clientele.

Exercise: how to figure out new people/places/organizations, aka “sharks,” to co-marketing partner with.

You can download this in a pdf worksheet format along with 27 done-for-you ideas here.

Step A:

Pick a niche to target (only one):

(Even if you don’t specifically have a niche, you need to target one for this exercise. Is it newborn photos? Family photos? Senior portraits? And who buys this type of photography? New moms? Grandmothers?)

Answer the following questions (list 5-20 answers per category):

What does the buyer do on a daily basis? For fun? Because they have to? (Examples: take their kids to the library, go to the dentist, go on vacation, go to the park, go to church, go out to eat, donate to charity, go to the movies, go to events in your city)

What do they buy? (Example: groceries, gas, school clothes, diapers, school supplies)

What high ticket items do they already have, or want? (Example: boat, furniture, jewelry, new car, camper)

What monthly/yearly services do they or might they pay for? (Examples: house cleaning, daycare, private school tuition, netflix, cell phone)

Step B: Make your potential list of 10-20 specific “sharks” you could co-marketing partner with.

For each question you answered, you need to go through each answer and figure out

  1. Which businesses/people/organizations apply to your answer. (Example: specific grocery stores in your city such as Super Wal-Mart, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, The Natural Food Store.)
  2. Which specific answer deals with a client with a disposable income. (Trader Joe’s or an organic fruit and vegetable stand at the farmers market both certainly serve more clients with a disposable income than your average Super Wal-Mart or Safeway.)


Step 3:  Decide the best way to team up with your potential sharks

Displaying photos in a storefront or office

This is a very passive way of getting potential clients to see your work.

It’s a great “foot in the door,” into a business you want to co-marketing partner with.

You likely won’t be getting a flock of new clients from doing something like this, but it’s still good to have people seeing your work in different formats (social media, displays in businesses, their friends homes, etc.)

Gift their best customers:

You can help your co-marketing partner look good by giving them gift certificates they can gift their best customers. I like to give a dollar amount that equals a session fee + about $50 (for me that is $200-$250).

Make sure there is a deadline on this to be used in the next 1-3 months so they don’t let it sit in the midst of their pile of junk mail and bills.

Your co-marketing partner business can give/mail these to their best customers. An insurance agent might mail these certificates out in December as a Holiday gift, an Interior Designer could mail these to a customer that has them on a yearly retainer, and a clothing store owner could mail these to clients who come in monthly to purchase the latest trends.

Gift cards to customers who spend a certain amount:

During a certain week or month, your co-marketing partner will be able to give customers who spend a certain dollar amount a gift certificate to your studio. Again, I like to give a dollar amount that equals a session fee + about $50 (for me that is $200-$250).

Talk with your co-marketing partner to decide what amount their customers need to spend to get the incentive. You want it to be above their average sale, so that your gift certificates can help your co-marketing partner pull in more revenue.

For example, if it’s a clothing store and their average sale is $175, make it $200 so that people are likely to add on an extra pair of earrings to get your gift certificate. This brings your co-marketing partner more revenue, and gets top spenders to come in to your studio.

Instead of having your co-marketing partner give gift certificates on the spot, I have a form the customers fill out in the store. I then mail the gift certificate to the customer and follow up with a phone call 1-2 weeks later to get the session on the calendar.

Charity session drive:

If you are teaming up with a charity, you can donate all session fees purchased during a specific month to their charity. Be sure they will promote this event using email and/or physical mail. The goal here is to get new clients you wouldn’t have otherwise had while also raising money.


Step 4: The “what’s in it for them” approach

If you’re like me, you absolutely hate asking people for anything unless it’s your mother or your best friend.

It’s awkward.

You stutter a little bit.

Your palms get sweaty.

Your heart rate peaks.


But you aren’t trying to scam them.

You are in fact helping them.

You want them to make more money because of what you’re offering them.


So lead with that. Lead with what they are going to get out of this.

For a charity drive:

Start by telling them you are looking to give back more to the community, and you had an idea that could help them raise funds and wouldn’t take any volunteer man hours away from their other fundraising.

For a business:

Start by telling them how much you love their business and why. Haven’t been to their shop? You better head down there, take a look, and ACTUALLY love it.

Then tell the owner what it is that you can do for them, what benefits you can give them. You could help them market their business and get new clients in the door by emailing your list about a promotion you two could do together, and by posting it to your social media. This gets them new clients, and you new clients as well because you will be exposed to their customer list.


Always think of the benefits you can give your “sharks” first. Once you think about how you can benefit them, contacting them should be easy.

Step 1: Understand price point and mutually beneficial relationships

Step 2: Brainstorm potential sharks

Step 3: Decide the best way to team up with your shark

Step 4: Make the co-marketing partnership happen with the “What’s in it for them” approach


What to do next:

Right now, I want you to brainstorm 10-20 potential sharks to work with using Step 2 as your guide.

Download the free worksheet + 50 done-for-you ideas here.


Boppy Pillow:
Daily Burn:
Pilot Fish:
Download the Pilot Fish Strategy Worksheet + 27 Ideas: