Marketing Travel Photography: Four Essential Steps

Part I: Getting Started | Part II: Four Essential Steps

Easier than any other time in history, today you can circumnavigate the globe and take pictures. You can rent cameras, lights, studios, buy film and hire models just about anywhere. You are no longer tied down to real estate or staff. In your pocket, your Blackberry or iPhone will gather all the help you need. And it can all be done on credit. But who eventually pays the bills? The age old problem remains: how do we get our telephone to ring or email in our inbox?

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Once upon a time you picked up the phone, called an art director who actually answered. After a little awkward, conversational “foreplay”, you asked to come in and show your portfolio in the hopes of future assignments. The pitch was almost rhetorical and rarely discussed. Even though there was the proverbial “elephant in the middle of the room”, everyone in the loop knew it was a “sales call”. A well-worn, time-honored tradition. In the Golden Age of Advertising, so romantically characterized on the cable television show Mad Men (television drama about the advertising business in the 1960s aired on AMC), armed with a large Rolodex and depending on how aggressive you were, you could display your wares in front of just about anybody. This personal approach worked well. You met your clients and they met you. Relationships were forged and resulted in a very good return on investment. A few cups of very bad coffee and you had a career.

Today the travel market is global and times have certainly changed in the turbocharged world of computers, cell phones and databases but the reasons and motivations remain the same. “The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” (Dragnet. Prod. Jack Webb. NBC, Sndication, ABC. 1951-2004.) I have worked with a myriad of very smart assistants who, in very short order, “know” everything I do: my lighting techniques, my bag of tricks, even the stupid stories I tell subjects to get them to cooperate. Once they get that “lean and hungry look” in their eye, soon they are gone. We try to involve them in the discussions, the process and, of course, the execution of assignments. The time always comes, “What’s the big deal? I know everything that idiot knows.” However, very few learn how to make the phone ring.

Marketing travel photography is not a phone call. That is sales. The term marketing has permeated into our vocabulary, often without any serious reflection of its actual meaning. The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large” (www.marketingpower.com). But what does that clarify in the context of travel photography, which is considered highly disposable? In my first column for photo.net, Marketing Travel Photography: Getting Started, I gave an overview of the subject’s complicated nature. In the following text, I will discuss the four essential steps to marketing travel photography effectively: Identify, Differentiate, Advertise, Sell. Remember that marketing is never ending process.

I. Identify

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Marketing in its most basic form begins with information. The primary question that I ask at every meeting is who is your audience? It is difficult to determine what to do or say unless you know who you are addressing. Who buys photographs? What is their age? Gender? Nationality? Pedigree? What kinds of images interest them and how much are they willing to pay?

Unless you can identify your potential client you are basically “shot gunning” or in other words, casting a wide net and hoping to catch what you can amongst the flotsam and jetsam. My representative used to reiterate that you never know who, when or where you will interact with a customer. The most innocent encounters can result in new business but “shot gunning” is nonetheless usually inefficient and expensive.

Creating tailored mailing lists takes into account different clientele and allows you to concentrate on a particular groups’ needs. This is especially crucial if you are a small company or a freelance photographer who needs to find art directors and editors who give the travel assignments. You can also purchase mailing lists, harvest names and addresses from graphic design award books, join travel business networking groups and, of course, explore Google. Experiment to find methods that are personally effective in targeting your audience. At this developmental stage, it involves ongoing research.

The marketing of travel photography not only begins with information but also trades on information. We want the names and addresses of prospect clients and useful relationships, so that when the occasion arises, we will be privy to any kind of insider trade information such as which agency won a new account or which A/Ds are looking at new portfolios. Early in my career, I ran into a staff person who worked for Boston City Hall who mentioned that they were interviewing photographers for a major position. I ran home made several phone calls and eventually was hired for over a year in what became one of my seminal career jobs. You never know! Many aggressive salespeople believe that they have to pitch constantly, but I got the city job by letting someone else talk.

Remember that reciprocation is also critical and that you must also pass on information. Acquiring but also maintaining clients has a large part to do with how they perceive you as a resource for information they need, whether it is photographers’ names in other cities or the best public relations shooters. My former representative used to offer free estimates for jobs where we were not on the short list. She justified the time spent because my studio was eventually awarded several of those major campaigns. The art buyers trusted her and it paid off enormously.

By the same token, you are also responsible to keep your sources and information relevant. The old fashioned Rolodex, which is destined to become a museum artifact like glass plate negatives or black/white contact sheets, has morphed into computer databases. With these convenient programs, we can merge/purge and reconfigure our lists to keep them up-to-date and serve our particular needs. Like profiling suspects on those high tech, forensic TV shows, software has been developed for cataloguing regions, billings, circulations, and specialties. Even if you still use the backs of napkins, keep track of your information.

II. Differentiate

Vision

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Colleges, schools and institutions are graduating over a hundred thousand neophyte photographers yearly and that is only in the United States. What a staggering statistic! It has actually become respectable to be a photographer. So how do you rise above the fray?

Differentiation is one of the most critical steps in separating yourself from the abundance of competition. Besides technique skills or a facility for problem solving, the value of today’s photographer simplifies to his or her vision. This encompasses your approach to the subject and the emotion you attach and subsequently evoke in your photographs. If a publication plans to include an article on nightlife in Prague, they may select your pictures because they conjure a particular mood or make everyone feel part of the scene.

Portfolio

When forging an identity as a powerful photographer, you have to initially create a strong body of work and this is reflected in your portfolio. In the beginning we all cobble together what we think are our best pictures in a book with the objective of showing it to anyone who will look. This selection represents you as a photographer and professional and must instill enough trust to obtain the job. Today, portfolios come in variety of formats that can be loosely divided into hard copy and digital. Every portfolio must be comprised of outstanding images that are well edited, thoughtfully sequenced, and sleekly presented. The higher up the agency ladder, the shorter the art director or editor’s attention span.

The traditional hard copy version is a mainstay of the industry. For editorial clients it can be a fairly simple compilation of exemplary work that includes tear sheets from assignments up to experimental images. The general limit ranges from ten to twenty five images. Most photographers using this method of display will have their core pictures and then have the option to switch out other work to complement the style and content of the magazine. There is nothing worse than wasting an art director’s time by showing irrelevant work.

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In advertising, external packaging must befit the content and photographers often seek expert consultation for their portfolio development. A lot more effort is invested in the pure design when you are pursuing agency work. Keep in mind that advertising companies expend millions of dollars for focus research, media buys, production and implementation of an ad campaign. The physical portfolio passes under many critical eyes that must be convinced that you can perform under high pressure.

In both cases you should not be surprised if your portfolio comes back damaged. Busy executives and their minions treat them very cavalierly. After years of learning the hard way, I always fabricate my portfolio so that it is relatively easy to update or replace. The industry gives no quarter!

Despite initial resistance, art directors and editors are utilizing electronics as a resource to discover new talent. Your digital portfolio, otherwise known as your web site, is nowadays the first impression for a new prospect. Web sites of photographers range from simple to elaborate design depending on the pursued market. Following basic portfolio principles the sites should be constructed so that they can be easily navigated. Avoid superfluous tricks such as unnecessary sounds or add-ons that only distract from your work. Long downloads are anathema. Web sites should always be considered works-in-progress that are periodically updated and improved.

Selina Maitreya, a marketing consultant who founded Port Authority, (author of How to Succeed in Commercial Photography, Allworth Press) is a big proponent of web portals where you can purchase space to drive traffic to your web site. Organization portals such as American Society of Media Photographers and Canadian Association of Photographers and Illustrators in Communications , etc. are a good place to start. They tend to be inexpensive and often come with the membership fee.

Unfortunately abroad, the selection of images and photographers is still a hand carried process. It is a cultural difference. Overseas agencies and magazines are not as accepting of images on a computer screen. As a great deal of travel photography is published in Europe and Asia, you need to adjust to their demands.

III. Advertise

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Advertising is the public declaration of services. In order to survive we effectively tell the multitudes that we travel and take pictures. The portfolio is personal representation of yourself and, in turn, a subset of advertising but your approach must be more extensive and multifaceted to gain results. Ultimately the point is to attract new business.

Push versus Pull

Marketing travel photography is divided into two main promotional strategies: push and pull. After you profile and target a specific publication, you can approach them directly. You initiated contact. That is push. Usually for push-marketing to be effective you should sell a universally desired product such as wedding photography or have a unique style. If your rep takes the portfolio around or you send out tear sheets, that is push. In the past I have spent enough on postage annually to support a small South American dictatorship. Pull, on the other hand, is broad based and utilizes mass market outlets directed towards hypothetical populations. Examples of this are trade shows, viral marketing, the Yellow Pages and search engine optimization. The purpose is to build up a demand for your photography. Understanding which of push/pull is best suited for you should become the cornerstone of your advertising.

Virtual

With varying degrees of effectiveness, email, online newsletters, blogs and social networks have cultivated the photographer/creative’s landscape. In addition to the invaluable email address, other virtual formats offer a means of sharing your work without “invading their space”. All these formats can be extremely accommodating to the potential client’s schedule.

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Harvest email addresses. They are crucial information. An added benefit is that email addresses often follow people as they move around. For many years, I have made a point of sending emails while traveling, usually highly personal, composed of streams of consciousness, real time observations. On the road they go to friends, clients and potential clients with whom I have established a rapport or met recently. Although their writing can be time consuming, they have proved well worth the effort. It is a subtle, entertaining way for me to remind people of my exploits. I once figured out how to send several emails from my hotel room in Havana, Cuba. Imagine the art director opening up some cryptic message from an embargoed country first thing in the morning. It cost a fortune.

Newsletters and “visual emails” with an attached photo or link to your website are also invaluable as buyers can bookmark your website. But critical to this type of marketing is tracking software. It allows you to follow your websites’ click through rates, visitors, most popular pages, etc.

With fifty thousand new pictures coming online each day and the proliferation of Royalty Free Stock, the demand for assignments has been decimated. To combat the effects of RF, some photographers have been successful cutting through the fog with blogs about assignments, philosophy, even demonstrations of shots in progress. Big companies and institutions are exploiting the burgeoning social networks, such as Facebook, mySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. They are part of a new phenomenon called viral marketing, a virtual, “word-of-mouth” technique where your message is passed along from person to person to generate added exposure. Viral marketing has transformed advertising. So if you package your photography in such a way that it is useful, educational or entertaining enough to others, the Internet may “promote” it exponentially.

Branding

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A recent buzz word and form of pull advertising is branding. But what is branding? Branding is the descriptive attributes and concrete symbols that convey the essence of your company, product or service and in turn differentiates you from competition while establishing customer loyalty. To many, branding is as simple as a logo, a name, a trademark or a slogan. However a distinctive and recognizable photographic style, a collection of images and ideas also contribute in establishing a brand. Branding serves to create associations to you and your talent. A brand is the most valuable real estate in your world—that corner of the consumer’s mind.

Quite a while ago a musician colleague told me that every time he shook a fan’s hand was an opportunity for imprinting (his word). He wanted to leave such a strong positive impression that when the fans heard his songs on the radio they were compelled to continue following his music by purchasing a CD or a concert ticket. We have used this fitting analogy in the studio ever since.

Advertising is cumulative. Selina Maitreya suggests there should be four to five ways a buyer can encounter your work and that three to four years are necessary for the association to “live and breathe.” She also adheres to direct mail. In an interview she revealed, “we have twenty percent more brick and mortar addresses in our databases than email addresses. And I advise my photographers to send direct mail four to six times a year.”

IV. Sell

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Marketing, advertising and sales are not synonymous. The sequence is strategic development then tactical implementation. Marketing is indirect and has a longer acquisition curve. Marketing supports advertising and in turn promotes sales. In the end you have to make the sale, get someone to buy your pictures.

Once you have done all the prerequisites, your prospect may still not be able to make a decision. Are you reading your audience right? Do they need more information? Most often the biggest obstacle is that you are not talking to the actual decision maker. You cannot sell if you are not communicating with someone who can say yes or no. If you did not make the sale, never leave without determining what action comes next.

In the ninth inning of a baseball game with a one run lead, you need someone who can get the last three outs and shut the other team down. In sports this is called the closer and, in business, it is called closing the deal. Many photographers relish the “game” of designing promotional materials, schmoozing at cocktail parties, finding common ground and connecting with their constituency, but they are uncomfortable actually asking for work. You have to not only do it, but do it well.

Once upon a time I was just starting in this vocation, one mentor instructed me to call art directors and make appointments to ask for work. Like so many shooters before me, I whimpered that I found the task difficult. His advice was that I had to not only set aside time to make the calls on a regular basis, but I had to eventually learn to like it. If you are not proud enough of your work, clients will detect it.

Conclusion

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Identify. Differentiate. Advertize. Sell. Rinse and repeat. Making money with photography is an art in more ways than one. It is more than luck or shouting your message louder or with more pixels. When I first began I read everything I could about equipment, technique and business practices. After a while I convinced myself that I knew how to actually take good pictures, bill a job and protect my rights. However, until you actually go out and try—have a visual problem in front of you with an impending deadline or you stuff your book under your arm and knock on a skeptical prospect’s door—everything we have discussed is theoretical. You must try and, most importantly, you must follow up.

I get phone calls from new interns or students wanting to become assistants in my studio, I always insist that they call me back a week or month later. That hurdle eliminates ninety percent of the candidates. Only the truly motivated call back at which time I am glad to give them an appointment. Our clients know the same tactic all too well.

When my studio was attempting to convince maximum security wardens to let us do portraits of men and women on death rows all over the USA, they would always tell us to call back on some specific date. Lorie Savel Borges (my rep at the time) made those follow up calls religiously. Performing an absolutely impossible task she eventually got us into fourteen prisons. It took six years but resulted in my book Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row. We will deal with more of these marketing issues in the next article on Marketing Travel Photography.

Further Thoughts

The Internet has opened up such a vast practical, virtual library. So many people are willing to share information and brag about their experiences that we can investigate, through Google, youTube and webinars, worlds that were closed to us before.

Gaining practical insight into the selection or decision process is worth its weight in gold. There are several places on the World Wide Web to see how it is all done. Cary Wolinsky, a friend and long time contributor to National Geographic magazine, was asked so often how to approach the illustrious publication that he assembled “Anatomy of a Story” on his web site. It is as close as you can get to the complicated process without getting your own feet wet. Tune into Anatomy of a Story.

There is also a blog very popular with industry insiders www.aphotoeditor.com. It consistently peels off the veil of the often opaque editorial magazine maelstrom. Rob Haggart is/was a photo editor at a major consumer magazine and has taken it upon himself to reveal a lot of the behind the scenes secrets we all can use. One of the web sites he mentions in his blog is how a storyboard evolves at Wired magazine. See http://blog.wired.com/storyboard/.

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Lou Jones is one of Boston’s most diverse and inspiring commercial and fine art photographers, known for his courage, creative skill and humanity. He specializes in photo-illustration and location photography for corporate, advertising, and editorial clients like: IBM, Major League Baseball, Federal Express, Peugeot, Museum of Fine Arts, Paris Match, KLM, National Geographic, People Magazine, Nike, Price Waterhouse, and Aetna. Jones’ assignments have taken him often to Europe, South America, Africa, the Far East, and 47 of 50 of the United States. He has been on location at NASA, Boeing, Universal Studios, British Telecom, Mitsubishi, and Saab. Lou has two published books. His second book, Travel + Photography: Off the Charts, was published in 2006 and is now in its second printing.

Text ©2009 Lou Jones. Photos © Lou Jones.

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