We're only human. I'm only human. We tend to look at information coming in from all sides and then...panic. Over the course of the last year I've read that many bloggers have seen their readership and incomes drop precipitously over the last few years. I've read over and over again that interchangeable lens camera sales are plunging ever lower. I read that everyone (meaning potential clients) is more than happy enough with photographs that spring from the latest iPhones. I hear from photographers (about whose marketing and skill sets I know very little) announce that all commissioned work is drying up and Armageddon is approaching our industry like a cyclone bomb of economic doom.
What's a person trying to reconcile data points to do?
I'm falling back on anecdotal evidence. Business in my little geographic niche seems to have picked up quite well after the holidays and future dates are being booked for events and advertising projects. Local friends are back at work after a lackluster Fall season.
I have a suspicion that a partial explanation for the business wobbles has to do with the nature of advertising and marketing. It seems that everyone wants to get advertising for free. Photographers seem to think that exposure on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter is all that's required to grow a business and generate queries that lead to jobs. For many social media is their total marketing strategy.
Being older, and old school, I have a different point of view. While I think one needs to select social media that is appropriate for them (and constantly test it) it's business suicide to abandon all the traditional media. Targeted traditional media has a strong place in the overall combination of customer facing communications and the fact is that businesses still need to spend money for physical direct mail and placed advertising to be successful in regional and smaller markets.
"Free" social media is saturated. Amazingly oversaturated. There are millions (billions) of people vying for attention across the platforms and even if one builds an impressive list of followers (quantity) the eyes on your material are not necessarily the target market that wants to buy any photography at all (quality). They may visit a platform like Instagram just to see what other people are producing and how it stacks up to their own work. They may be there for entertainment but a tiny, tiny percentage of them are qualified buyers of creative content.
I write this blog (God only knows why.....) and it's been up for over ten years. It's got thousands of posts to read and at least ten thousand images to look through, but I can quickly point out that no client or client type has ever landed on the blog site, evaluated the work, and proffered either a job or even a chance to bid. No, the constituency I seem to be writing for is other photographers. Competitors, hobbyists, enthusiasts and, of course, the trolls. By the logic of the web, with tens of millions of page views and high Google recognition numbers, I should at least be rolling in job offers or invitations to submit bids. The reality is that what I gain is an audience of peers who, if anything, are absolutely the worst potential customers for the actual work we produce = original photography.
100 written blog posts generate fewer inquiries and action than one, single, direct mailing of a great postcard to 250 targeted, potential and existing clients. Pretty amazing.
I've learned a lot about the real buying habits of the customers I am interested in because I have friends and former co-workers in the advertising industry, and also the corporate event industry. I'm also lucky to have two family members who are well versed in advertising and public relations by dint of having worked for large agencies. From all the conversations I have with friends and family concerning how agencies and corporations use photography and video I've been able to see a "real world" pattern that's different from the assumptions that bounce and echo around the web.
While very young advertising people at very big agencies in several really big cities might spend part of their days surfing through sites like Instagram searching for new talent I was surprised to hear that in the "real world" of advertising, with it's fast paced production schedules and shorter and shorter deadlines, the folks who work at agencies servicing international technology companies are focused on finding "rights managed" stock photography on one of three or four venerable stock agency sites. Rights managed images give the client company a bit of control so the images used in marketing don't show up at trade shows, or run in advertising campaigns that use the same images as their competitors, in the same time frame.
Word on the street is that art buyers and art directors find new photographers from a small subset of photographers who happen to be proactive; who reach out to targeted art buyers and show samples: self-published magazines of images, collections of targeted post cards, etc. Or even enticing e-mail promotions that direct buyers to creative websites, curated with images that target specific industries.
After direct contacts with these art buyers the creative (and marketing savvy) photographers might then garner the art buyers as new followers on sites like Instagram but it would take sheer luck to have an art buyer hit a random creative spirit by chance. Another route to the intersection of a photographer's work and an art buyer on the web is a link provided as a recommendation from one of the art buyer's trusted friends or co-workers.
When Instagram was nascent and posts were less overwhelming in sheer numbers it's possible that some standout people really did get discovered that way which probably led to the groupthink that now permeates the very idea of social marketing but that changed when image postings went from millions to billions. A corollary thought is: How many inhabited planets have we discovered in our galaxy from the billions of planets out there...?
While an active Instagram (or other) account is a net good thing it's probably a lot more valuable as a place to share new work with people you are already acquainted with than as a forward operating base for attracting new and qualified potential clients. It's not the totality of good marketing, just a smaller adjunct of a larger marketing plan. You need more focused vehicles that drive people to these "free" repositories of your work.
It's the same as it was in the 1970's, 1980's, 1990's and the earlier 2000's; what works to drive businesses forward is a mix of advertising materials that all make contributions to an overall strategy. For photographers it can be as easy as highly targeted post cards that are the initial opening gambit. Even mega-super tech companies like Apple and Dell still depend on print advertising, traditional television, and direct mail for a large segment of their marketing. And, if the traditional media didn't pull as well as their percentage of the overall spend, you can rest assured that the experts in data analysis at each of the companies would pull the dollars from those budgets and immediately put them somewhere else.
I hate to say it but you need to think like a major consumer tech company such as Apple to maximize your outreach to potential buyers. You target the customers with needs that correspond to the features of your products, invite them to investigate, make compelling ads, commercials and direct mail. Bring them into your advertising ecosystem and then work to keep their interest. Only when they have "discovered you" through your hard work in trad. media will the free social media because viable.
When I go through periods in which I'm indifferent to the prospect of work I tend to shy away from spending real $$$ on critical ad stuff and convince myself that a daily post on Instagram, a brilliantly conceived and written blog post, and some sharing on LinkedIn is all it's going to take to get the work pouring in. When it doesn't I, like everyone else, start to blame the horrifying decline of our wonderful industry. But strangely, when I go back to the tenets of traditional marketing (an organic mix of media) the work seems to crawl right back up to at least the baseline we've become comfortable with.
When I am amazingly motivated; enough to go out to some advertising happy hour functions and meet new people face to face, I am immediately struck at how effectively I can promote my work to a new cohort of potential clients. Beats the hell out of getting a few dozen "likes" for my photo of my lunch on Instagram.
A reminder that there really is NO FREE LUNCH to be had. You have to work for your clients---if you want to work for your clients. (See what I did in that last sentence? Cute huh?).
Hope you are having a nice, warm, happy, sunny Sunday out there. It's a beautiful day here in Austin.