When I first launched my photography business, of all the challenges I faced, the idea of finding clients was the thing that most intimidated me. What types of companies hire photographers? Which people do I approach at those companies? How do I get their contact information? Boy, was I relieved to discover that there were actually firms that tracked that information and sold it to photographers. There are a number of list services that research and organize contact information on ad agency art buyers, magazine photo editors, and corporate communications directors who hire professional photographers. Prospect list services gather, filter, and organize vast amounts of data much more efficiently than any individual photographer or agent can.
However, that doesn’t mean you can simply sign up and send a mass email to everyone on that list and wait for the assignments to pour in. In a world where anyone can send an email, everyone does. Now more than ever, in order to cut through the noise, photographers need to carefully research and target a small number of prospects that are appropriate for them and reach out to them personally.
Each company is a bit different. Agency Access is the biggest of them all. They’re based in the U.S. and they have international partners that supplement their domestic data. Bikini Lists is based in Scotland. They’re experts on the U.K. and European markets, and they’ve also recently begun offering U.S. data. Bikini Lists schedules their photographers’ email blasts so that they can control the frequency and volume of emails clients get. Yodelist started as the research arm of Workbook (a source book and photographer directory) and they’ve been licensing data to photographers for several years now. Yodelist has fewer names and fewer companies than Agency Access, and they primarily focus on U.S.-based clients. They’ve positioned themselves as emphasizing quality of data over quantity. And like Bikini Lists, they limit the number of emails their photographers can send out. In addition, because thousands of creatives get printed copies of their source book, they say that they have a better relationship with clients, and as a result they have an easier time updating their information. All of those companies offer their subscribing photographers a searchable database to browse through, as well as built-in email fulfillment capability. With about 10,000 prospects in their database, Wonderful Machine offers the fewest names, the fewest number of companies, no ability to browse their data, and no email fulfillment capability.
Instead, Wonderful Machine’s marketing consultants work with each photographer to build a custom list of prospects (often with specialized research) that reconcile their interests and skills with the opportunities in the marketplace. Unlike Agency Access, Bikini Lists and Yodelist, who grant a temporary license to use their data, Wonderful Machine grants their photographers the ability to add those names to their own database and keep them forever.
Branding before marketing. Even with the best client data, no amount of marketing is going to help if you don’t first have your branding firmly established. Every photographer needs at least a basic tool kit of marketing materials in order to share their photography with clients – including a website, blog, social media, emailer template, print promo, and stationery. And before you make your brand tangible through those marketing materials, it’s crucial to be clear about the idea of your brand. A simple way to think about that is to ask the question: what kinds of pictures do you take and for what kinds of clients? This is not a trivial question. Many photographers go through their entire careers never really addressing that question head-on, and as a result, they find themselves going wherever the wind blows them. Instead, by clearly identifying the direction that’s right for you, you can edit your pictures and present them in a way that resonates with the right clients. Once you’ve expressed your core brand throughout your marketing materials, you’ll be ready to start sharing your message.
How do I narrow down a giant list of prospects to just the ones that are appropriate for me? In order to be profitable, prospect list services need to offer client data that will appeal to not only photographers, but also illustrators, designers, production companies, stock libraries, and others. So you’ll still need to separate the prospects that are right for you from the ones that aren’t. The main ways to filter clients are by territory (city, state, country), type (publication, agency, brand), specialty (automotive, business, fashion, lifestyle), and job title. Using these filters will allow you to narrow the field dramatically. Then it’s a matter of looking at companies one by one, evaluating their websites, and looking for hints about whether they’re likely to match up well with what you have to offer.
Territory. If you’re just getting started in the business, I recommend that you begin by promoting to companies that are within driving distance. Clients are more likely to hire you if they’ve met you in person, so it makes sense to meet with all of the viable clients in your area before venturing further afield. As your portfolio becomes stronger, you’ll be able to attract clients based on your uniqueness more than your convenience or price.
Client type. Different types of clients often need different levels of production. With some exceptions of course, publications tend to need low-production-value photos, which make them a good target for photographers just beginning their careers. Brands need medium-production-value, and agencies tend to need high-production-value photographs which require photographers to demonstrate their ability to transform a concept into a photograph using stylists, props, wardrobe, locations, sets, lighting, retouching, and more. If you don’t have a portfolio that shows you can handle a high level of shoot production, you’ll find promoting to agencies an uphill battle. Conversely, if you’re showing a portfolio of high-production-value photographs, you might be wasting your time showing it to most publications.
Specialty. There’s no sense promoting your food photographs to a car company, but photographers do it all the time. Some clients hire photographers in a wide range of specialties, but most have fairly specific needs. Make sure that the specialties that you’re showing match up appropriately to the clients on your list.
Job title. Just because someone works at an ad agency doesn’t mean they hire photographers. Sometimes a job title is a good indication of whether they’re likely to hire photographers or not. For example, most Art Buyers hire photographers but most Copywriters don’t. Other job titles are more ambiguous, and furthermore each company is going to have their own naming system. Over time, you’ll start to recognize patterns based on the type and size of the company. But even with a lot of experience, you’ll have to do some detective work to track down the best prospects at any particular company.
How big should my list be? If you’re doing the research yourself, I recommend that you build your list one client at a time, making sure that each client you add to your list is a good match for you. Create a routine for yourself where you do some research, send out some promos, then follow up. Repeat, building your list as you go (and also deleting when you find that a client isn’t appropriate for you). Build up your list to a level where you can still reach out to each client (by individual email or phone call) at least once a year. (For most photographers, that will be fewer than 500 people.) If your list is so large that you can’t check in with those people at least once a year, your list is probably too large. I understand the impulse to send out mass emails or post cards to thousands of people hoping that something will stick. But our experience is that more energy spent on fewer clients yields better results than less energy on more clients.
How do I juggle sending out mass emails, individual emails, print mailers and phone calls? A good marketing plan will probably incorporate all of these things in a way that methodically cycles through your list so you evaluate your prospects, then reach out to learn more about their needs so you can better evaluate whether they’re a good prospect for you. Every art buyer will have their own preference for how they like to hear from photographers. And every photographer will be able to express him or herself better in some ways than others. Some clients like emails so they can easily bookmark your website. Others like to keep files of print mailers so they can categorize photographers by specialty or location. Some love to get phone calls; others hate the interruption. Naturally, clients get fewer print mailers than emailers, so there’s no doubt that a print mailer will stand out more. But it’s also a lot easier to reply to an email or click through to a website from an email than from a postcard. And of course, if you’re just beginning to get serious about marketing, emails will allow you to cover a lot more ground more quickly and cheaply than print mailers. If you can afford to do both, we recommend sending out a combination of emailers and print mailers. Whatever you do, make sure that what you send out is beautifully written, photographed, designed, and that it clearly communicates your brand.
What should I write in the promo? Not everything you send out needs to be personalized. There’s no harm in sending out a mass email to your carefully selected list of a few hundred clients every few months to remind people that you exist. But interspersed, it’s important to reach out to people in a more personalized way to really get their attention and to start a conversation. The more you can personalize your correspondence, the more likely a client is going to pay attention to it. For starters, you have to address the recipient by name. But if you can go a step further by relating something about their company and the work they do back to you and your work, you’re much more likely to make a good impression. Can you point to any of their projects and explain how you might be a good fit for them? They’ll appreciate that you understand their concerns and that you’re interested in helping them find solutions to their needs. Naturally, all this takes time, so you have to choose your battles. The better a prospect is suited to you, the more time and energy you can justify connecting with them.
What should I say when following up? Whenever possible, your objective when following up should be to get a meeting. Unless you have two heads, a client is much more likely to hire you if they’ve met you. (All things being equal, you will be much more memorable than all the photographers they haven’t met. And everyone wants to work with people who really want to work with them – which you will if you’re going to spend the time to see them.) The problem is that art buyers are inundated with photographers. Every client will have a different philosophy about talking to or seeing photographers. Some just want to deal with reps. Some want to hear directly from photographers. Some will have a portfolio “drop-off” policy. Others will be more willing to see you and your portfolio in person. And of course, any of these policies are subject to a sliding scale of who you are, who you know, how good your work is, and how persuasive you are. Timing is critical too. If an art director is really busy, forget about it. But if they happen to have a project coming up that fits your skills, you’re going to have a lot easier time getting your foot in the door.
If a client is too far away to meet with in person, you’re going to have to walk the fine line of showing an interest in them without pestering them. Your individual charm (assuming your work is appropriate) will determine how successful your emails and phone calls will be at getting a conversation or correspondence going. In all cases, be respectful of people’s time and understand that you’re not the only one trying to reach them. And keep in mind that no matter how perfect you are for a particular client, there are many factors beyond your control which will affect who that client hires. In fact, the odds of connecting on any given occasion are quite slim for the vast majority of us. But with a little finesse, and by learning from your experiences, the process will work enough to be worthwhile. (As one practical matter, don’t put people on the spot by asking if they remember your mailer. It’s not reasonable to expect them to remember it even if they just saw it that morning. And it makes an awkward start to a conversation.)
What information should I track? Some of the prospect list services have an online interface that allows you to keep notes on your interaction with specific clients (as long as you’re subscribing to their list). But since that information is so important, it’s a good idea to maintain your own internal contact database of prospects and a history of your interaction with them. We use a CRM (customer relationship management) called Daylite which is made by Market Circle. It’s good to keep a record of your outreach so you don’t send the same person the same mailer twice. And it’s good to keep track of conversations, meetings or other client-specific information that might come in handy the next time you talk with them (like where they grew up or what their son’s name is).
Wonderful Machine helps photographers with every aspect of their branding and marketing, including custom client lists. If you’d like to hear more about how they can help you, check out their consulting page.