I’ve been a photographer for almost 20 years now, and have tried just about every form of promotion to get my work in front of potential clients. We are talking printed mailers, ads in sourcebooks, email lists and campaigns… even just personal letters and phone calls. But lately, one of the cheapest things you can do… an Instagram profile… seems to be outperforming just about every other type of promotion at our disposal.
When I first started, every professional photographer at least did the printed mailers once or twice a year, and a combination of various sourcebook advertising. It was the go to standard, and if you had a photography rep it was mandatory.
The printed mailers could be very simple, for instance a basic post card sent out to 500 hundred potential clients that would cost you in the neighborhood of $2,000. Generally it was recommended to do that 6 times a year. And generally 99.9% of those mailers ended up in the potential client’s trash.
Or they could be extremely ambitions (and expensive)… entire 40 page magazines of a single photographer’s work, or giant gallery quality prints. This was a once a year promo at the most and I saw photographers spend over $30,000 on just one mailing! It’s a huge investment not just in money but also the time to put it together. But I suppose if that photographer got one big advertising job from it, well then it was totally worth it.
But if you didn’t think it through, it could be a disaster. Like the photographer that sent out a stainless steel saw blade with his logo and contact information printed on it, buried underneath sawdust inside a raw wood box… a nice presentation and it fit his construction product advertising niche. Sounded like a great idea…. until art directors all around the country dug their hand into the sawdust only to rip open the tips of their fingers on the extremely sharp saw blade!
Sourcebooks were another expensive but ubiquitous option. Every fashion photographer advertised in LeBook, from the most established and successful to the brand new and ambitious. For a young photographer it felt almost prestigious to be in it…. even though you were paying a hefty fee for the privilege at around $5,000 for a two page spread. And if you weren’t Meisel or ripped by the biggest agencies you could pretty much be guaranteed that they would bury you in the very back of the book.
Later in my career the next big thing was email promos. It’s from around $150 to $450 a month for an email list service like Agency Access depending on which client lists you sign up for and how many emails you send. One of the nice things about the service is that you can see who clicked through your emails… but the numbers were abysmal and have only been getting worse and worse through the years. If you sent 1,000 emails and 10 people clicked through to your website that was considered a success! But we all know how much we love getting spam and I guess art director’s are no different..
I put a profile on Instagram around 2012 and really didn’t do much with it… some behind the scenes photos, lots of vacation pics.. I didn’t really know what it was all about so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. It seemed like it was more a social place to share with your friends and I just didn’t want to put any time into it… I was busy shooting, and retouching and doing all the other things photographers have to devote their limited time to.
But then things changed… it started to become an important outlet for discovery, and the whole influencer thing took off… nothing has been the same since.
I saw that clients more and more were talking about Instagram constantly… how they discovered new models, or photographers, talent of every kind… even locations, and props… everything!
About this time I removed the vacation snapshots, all the superfluous crap that had migrated there over the years, and just concentrated on displaying my latest fashion work.
Quickly my profile went from a couple thousand followers to 10,000. And then I got a booking directly from a client that found me through Instagram… a 3 day catalog on a beach in Mexico!
I wanted more jobs like that so I started to invest more time and effort into Instagram. I tried a couple apps that allowed you to more easily search and follow people that had an interest in photography, and my following grew a bit more. I researched other techniques to grow my following, and it grew even more.
But when I signed up for a social media growth service, things really caught on fire. It wasn’t buying fake followers or likes, and it wasn’t magic or some super secret sauce. It was just hiring someone that really knew how Instagram worked, how to research the right audience, and then could make my account active 24 hours a day.
My following went from 15,000 to 80,000 in less than a year! And more importantly, I was getting regular bookings from clients that never heard of me until they saw my work on Instagram. Those jobs took me all around the world… Moscow, London, Armenia. And all from a $100 a month investment..
The service I recommend is called Liked Lab. They have a great promotional and research system, and they are more involved in the process than any other service I have seen… they provide me with analytics so I know the best days and times to post, and what kind of posts work best, what are the strongest hashtags to use. They even give me advice on the look of my profile. It’s been a big help, saved me time, and really helped my career.
So at the beginning of 2017 I wanted to try an experiment… I stopped all other forms of promotion and only used Liked Lab for Instagram. No emails, no sourcebooks or printed promos. What happened? I didn’t see any drop off in activity. In fact, just the opposite. Not only was I getting more work from client’s noticing me on Instagram, now my following and engagement on Instagram was getting so strong that I was getting offers to promote products as an influencer. Ok, that’s not something I am interested in now, I am still busy shooting. But it’s definitely something I can think about for the future or as a side hustle.
So what does it mean? I think the entire photography industry is changing, and the old ways of getting noticed don’t work anymore. You don’t need to spend $5,000 on a sourcebook ad, or $400 a month on emails, or $12,000 on printed promos. I haven’t cracked open a sourcebook in years, all the spam emails I get go automatically to the trash. I think the best thing you can do as a photographer now is just shoot as often as possible, get your work in every magazine or website you can, and then promote promote promote on social media.
What do you think? I’m still experimenting with the best promotion methods so I want to hear what works for you!