Expert Advice: How to Build Your Web Presence
By: Alex Rudinski
Years ago, simply having a good website was enough for a photographer. Updating your site once every year was okay, and it basically existed as a digital version of your print portfolio. It was not the primary way that potential clients evaluated you.
Today, it’s a vastly different landscape. You’re no longer limited to just having a website—or at least you don’t have to be. The web offers savvy and ambitious photographers dozens of possible avenues to make themselves known to potential clients. To take advantage of them, you need to build an online presence. Self-promotion is essential to creating an online presence—increasing your visibility and establishing yourself as an authority, expert, ninja or whatever. After all this time, you finally get to tell the world how great you are!
One point that bears mentioning—a lot of people dread self-promotion. It can feel arrogant, or tasteless to some folks, and others just have no clue how to do it. Maybe this is not you, maybe you’ve never feared public speaking, had stage fright or dreaded cocktail parties. But if this is you, resist the impulse to simply wait for the clients to appear. Promoting yourself is a core part of any modern freelancer’s business. There is no one in the world who can do it quite as well as you, and if you don’t do it, you are handicapping your business significantly.
You can politely and tactfully promote yourself online by sharing content that’s interesting or useful to your audience, and avoiding over-the-top self-promotion. Don’t try to be an orchestra, but if you don’t blow your horn a little, no one will know you have one.
What’s Your Story?
You’re competing against thousands of other people who want the same connections and the same jobs. So what makes you different? There’s a lot to be said for just showing up, but that’s not quite enough. You need an intelligent strategy for building your online presence, or you’ll risk being lost in the great heap of mediocrity—and you’re not mediocre, right?
The key is to make stuff that people find useful, insightful, interesting or funny and then share it with everyone you can. By establishing yourself as someone worth listening to, you drive traffic to your main site and hopefully increase the number of leads that your website produces. Your topic or strategy doesn’t need to be unique, but you do need to make something you’re excited about.
At the end of the day, you are the person most interested in who you are and what you think, and the responsibility for promoting yourself rests on your shoulders. You’ll be creating something out of nothing, but there will be a pay-off and it may help target certain clients without any direct effort.
Thinking Outside The Book
Every photographer has a website showing what he or she feels is their best work. As much work as that is, it just isn’t enough to create a superior business. Even if you follow our recommendations and consistently update your site with new, high-quality work, people are unlikely to become repeat visitors. For this, visitors need content that’s valuable and useful.
So, what can you give people in addition to your portfolio? In virtually every case, the first step is a solid blog.
It takes a lot of work to have a good blog. Lots of photographers heaped in the middle of the pack have a blog they update once or twice a month with a few behind-the-scenes photos from their most recent shoot and a quick blurb about how much fun it was to shoot with so-and-so and such-and-such. This is better than nothing, but the possibilities available to you are exponentially greater.
For inspiration, here’s some top photographer blogs:
Blogging For The Non-Blogger
A blog can be many things—you’re not limited to text posts. Write in the style that suits you best—or write very little and post mainly videos (Google loves videos). Or make your blog a collection of the best snowboarding/fashion/beer photography. Write about trends, personal experiences and industry events. Figure out what you’re excited about, what you enjoy talking about, and tell people about it. If you try and write about things you don’t care about, you’ll find a thousand ways to avoid it.
Publish substantial posts at least once every two weeks, but preferably more frequently. Unless you decide to become a full-time blogger, don’t post more than once a day. Make sure your content is useful, insightful or interesting—both to you and your readers.
Ideally, your site’s navigation or visual language should not change too much when the user visits your blog, this can be confusing. The page layout may need to change a little, since a portfolio site and a blog need to perform different functions, but make sure key elements like the logo, navigation, background and font stay consistent.
Be certain to include a link in your navigation bar to your portfolio. It is still your primary tool for sharing your work with potential clients, so don’t neglect it. Make significant updates to your site several times a year, and once a year reconsider the website as a whole, including your site format and organizational structure. Don’t forget that the reason you have a blog is to get visitors to your portfolio, so make sure that when they do arrive, you’re showcasing professional, marketable work.
The best way to get visitors to your blog is to share great stuff frequently and make sure people see it. Create quality content that people want, update it frequently, engage with your followers and blow your horn as loud as you can—without being a jerk. Seth Godin, a great source of inspiration worldwide, sums up your mission well:
“Connect, create meaning, make a difference, matter, be missed.”
Writing For The Reader
When it comes to creating content, a lot of fledgling bloggers focus on writing about their own lives and experiences. This is okay when you’re still trying to find a voice or theme, but it’s a mistake to devote your entire blog to your own photography projects or awards you’ve won. It provides little benefit to readers, and doesn’t compel visitors to share your content.
If you’re not a great writer, don’t stress out. You’re not writing literature, or a school assignment. Do your best, and have a more skilled associate edit your work. Play to your strengths and if you don’t like to write, don’t make it your goal to produce 1,000 word posts. But if you think you have a novel inside of you, now’s your time to shine.
Take a break from selling yourself when you’re writing your blog. Readers dislike content that’s really self-promotion in disguise, and they won’t come back for more of that. Instead, establish your identity as an expert and leader on the web, with a voice and tone that reflects your personality. Don’t try to imitate anyone else, just let your potential clients see who you are. People want to work with people they like, and no one has ever been best friends with someone who has no opinions, passions or expertise.
If you’re short on ideas, here are some possibilities:
- aggregating top content (photographs, photographers, articles on photography, gear)
- how-to posts or videos
- smart lists
- self-assigned projects that aren’t appropriate for your main portfolio
- traveling posts
- industry news
- analysis of industry happenings
- photographs or photographers that you appreciate
Every working professional has something unique to contribute. Don’t be afraid to (politely) express strongly held opinions; people love to argue and debate topics in their own profession. Even better, pick one or two very niche topics and become a de facto expert in them. It will help increase your visibility to search engines and provide an indispensable resource to those who are interested in the same things.
If you’re having a hard time getting started, read this great guide from KISSmetrics on the foundational aspects of writing exactly the kind of posts you’ll want to create: https://blog.kissmetrics.com/non-writers-business-blogs/
The Gears of Google
Writing alone is only half of the circle. To be complete, writing must be read. And the grimy truth is that getting your work in front of an audience requires a basic understanding of SEO, or search engine optomization.
While things are slowly changing, let’s be honest—Google is still the most important search engine. It’s also the one we know the most about, and the one that other companies try to emulate. So, here’s a rudimentary introduction to Google’s functioning.
A search engine keeps its users happy by returning the best content for search terms. But how? It keeps track of what users search for, and then what link they click on. If 80% of users searching for “Best Mac & Cheese” click on the fourth link rather than the first, the fourth link will soon be at the top of the macaroni heap. This means that the way to get yourself higher in those search rankings is to make your website worth visiting and relevant to those searching for content like yours.
User visits aren’t the only thing that we care about, though. Sophisticated machine that it is, Google also has a team of robots crawling the web, looking for new and updated content. When it finds this content, the robot reads it, evaluates how it fits into the trillions of other indexed pages, and uses that information to adjust search rankings accordingly.
When the robots read, they are on watch for posts filled with spammy characteristics. If the robot finds none of that, then it will use the words in your article to decide what it’s about, and attach it to the appropriate search results. This updated content refines Google’s understanding of what your site is about, but it also gives your page rank a bump—the more often you update, the better. Frequent updates alone will not get you to the top, but they are part of a good strategy. Other parts of a good strategy include accurate titles, clear URL text, proper META tags and a host of other details. You can get more info on how to optimize your site for Google from Google itself—get it from the horse’s mouth here.
Addressing the Crowd
Generally, we’ve found that people either love social media or they hate it. Regardless of how you feel, it’s another vital tool for online marketing.
At minimum, you’ll want to share your new blog posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. WordPress and other blogging platforms offer this sort of cross-promotional tool built in, so it’s not hard to set up. But going beyond the bare minimum, you should engage with your audience of followers.
Try to have status updates just for Facebook and Twitter, you don’t want all of your channels to host identical content. For example, you might share a quick snap on Instagram, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be on the blog. Having unique content in various channels encourages people to keep tabs on all of your digital personas. This stuff doesn’t have to be brilliant, but if you don’t keep up with it, you’re potentially leaving your internet storefront dark and abandoned. We generally recommend interacting with your social media accounts at least two to three times a week.
Make sure you’re engaging with other users. Follow other photographers, like and share and retweet and favorite and comment. No man is an island.
Being at the top of your game requires doing some hard work. By staying on point with social media, you’re standing out from the pack, making yourself better known and easier to hire than those less visible. As much as talent matters, art buyers want to work with photographers they can get along with on set. If they feel like they already know you and like you through your blog and social media presence, you’re going to be the first pick in that triple-bid.
Buffer, a smartphone app, browser extension and website, can make this all a little easier. It allows you to post to all your social media accounts from one place, saving you the trouble of recreating the same post on all your social media sites.
Shoot first, ask questions later
Don’t delay. Even if you don’t have the perfect marketing plan, and even if you’re not sure how to approach your web presence, starting now is better than starting tomorrow. Follow your mediocre ideas until you get a great one, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. You may even find that you can polish your less-than-perfect idea into something truly incredible, or gain inspiration for your next project.
At its core, building your web presence is about putting yourself out there. Establish your personality and voice, then speak with it. The web is a place of little bureaucracy and incredible depth. The barrier to entry has never been lower, but that also means there’s more noise than ever before. When starting out, you might be part of the noise yourself, but the more you work at it, the more attention you’ll get and the more rewarding your hard work will be. As Dale Carnegie, the original social media maven, wrote:
”Flaming enthusiasm, backed up by horse sense and persistence, is the quality that most frequently makes for success.”
While we’ve tried to lay out some general guidelines, this is far from a definitive marketing handbook. There are nuances that haven’t been addressed and whole channels we’ve skipped over. Regardless of the channels you choose for promoting yourself, inventiveness and dogged determination are always your ticket to the top. And remember to focus on what you care about—enthusiasm is infectious.