If you’re like me, you’re constantly looking to improve and expand your referral base. Once you’ve got a good number of weddings under your belt your base will be made up of (mostly) previous couples.
Every wedding you shoot is another set of potential clients down the road. Members of the wedding party, their family members, friends and guests of the couple… these are the people who will hopefully come to you in the future when they themselves are looking for a wedding photographer.
So how do you get it all going? For a lot of photographers, getting work in the beginning is like the chicken or the egg. You need weddings to get weddings. So where’s the break in the loop?
It’s important to understand the order of the referral tree. This is where “gravity” comes into play. It’s also where photographers who are just starting out are at a bit of a disadvantage.
While it can certainly vary couple-to-couple, the booking order usually goes something like this:
2. Venue / Date
4. DJ / Band
5. Catering (if not provided by the venue)
8. Dress shop
9. Justice of Peace (if necessary)
10. Videographer (I don’t agree with the tendency to book video late, but it seems to be the trend)
11. Misc vendors (drapery, lighting, candy buffets, photo booth, cocktail hour trios, etc)
Wedding referrals flow down. It’s just gravity.
So if you’re looking to become a Justice of the Peace, my advice would be to take every single wedding vendor you can find out to lunch. Make friends with everyone, because any vendor is a potential lead generator for you down the line.
For photographers, it’s not as easy. Typically, we’re second in line after the venue. That means two things. One, as you advance in your career, you will find more and more vendors start to reach out to you in hopes of being one of your recommended vendors. And two, it means that your relationships with your area wedding venues are the key to opening up the valve on your referral faucet.
Ok, great. You’ve shot a couple of weddings. They came out nice. Now what? Do you just take those nice images, throw them into an album that you pay for out of your own pocket, and show up at the venue confidently brandishing a stack of business cards, an album, and a nice tucked in polo shirt?
Yes. That’s exactly what you do.
Take those fantastic images, make a gorgeous album, and bring it to the venue. The odds are you had a chance to meet the general manager, site coordinator or Director of Weddings when you were there. Hopefully you made a good impression (or hopefully not a bad one). Bring an album — they will take it.
Remember, the venues have to sell themselves too. There are hundreds of wedding venues out there, and most of them are serving the same chicken, fish or beef. They have to find ways to separate themselves from the pack, just like you. You took some beautiful images of your wedding there? Give them the photos!
Don’t cheap out either. Make a nice album. Spend a few dollars. Give them digital images too. High resolution images that they can actually use. Be the photographer who was willing to walk in there, and make their business stronger. That will leave quite the impression on them when you do.
Will it always work? Nope. It won’t. I’m a numbers guy, and I track a lot in my business. So far in my career I’ve given out 16 albums to various venues in the New England area. I don’t have 16 venues happily handing out my business cards to all of their couples. However, I do have five doing so. And that’s not bad.
Here are some numbers from one of the venues that refers me. Think spending $400 on an album and handing over your digital images isn’t worth it? Here are some numbers that prove it is.
I made this venue two albums. One cost me $276, the other $410. That’s a total of $686 out-of-pocket. It’s a decent amount of money. But here’s how it paid off over a 4 year period:
That’s a 11,000% Return on Investment!
Ok, ok. I know what you’re thinking. This is obviously a very unusual and exceptional example. Well that’s true.
Remember those 4 other venues that refer me? Here’s the combined numbers of the past 4 years for those venues.
(I may be over-simplifying because all four venues didn’t start referring me four years ago. One was last year, one was five years ago, but this should illustrate the point I’m making)
So what’s the bottom line? It means you shouldn’t be fighting gravity as a wedding photographer. Don’t get bogged down trying to make strong relationships with DJs, bands, caterers, JPs, bridal shops, or florists. While those can technically lead to referrals (rarely) your best bet, pound-for-pound, and penny-for-penny is to look above you to the venues.
Start there. Be patient and be eager. It will pay off, even if it takes a little time.
So the next time you’re at a venue shooting a wedding (even as a second shooter). Take a look around at some of the details and shoot, shoot, shoot. Go outside, take photos of the exteriors at night. If your contract is over at 10:30pm, hang around until 11pm and snap some photos of the new uplighting the venue just installed, or the courtyard out back in the evening.
Take some photos for the venue that will help sell their room to their potential couples. If you do that, they will start referring you — I promise!
About the author: Eric Brushett is a wedding photographer, husband, lover of black cats and all things New York Jets based in Hamden, Connecticut. You can see some of his work and connect with him through his website, Facebook, and Instagram.