Why do photographers need to market themselves? In a phrase: so that you don’t starve to death. No, but seriously. Otherwise, you risk ending up like Vincent van Gogh who (in the words of Steven Pressfield) “produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer in his whole life.”
A lot of artists have this notion that they’re the creative person, and marketing belongs to the business world. Some even think it’s evil or dirty to promote themselves, and they don’t want to have anything to do with the grimy world of self-promotion.
But the truth is, it’s your job to market yourself. You are the artist, and you know best how to spread the word about your work. After all, you created it. You can’t rest after creating your art; you need to start marketing it.
To that end, here are 8 invaluable lessons from the masters of marketing that every photographer should consider implementing.
Lesson #1: Provide Value and Create Trust
Providing value means continuously putting work out into the world—blogging consistently, making videos, taking part in interactions on social media, etc.
Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk talks a lot about providing massive value without asking anything in return, and he’s a big proponent of having a social media presence. In his latest book Crushing It, you can read a story about a dentist who massively grew her business by building a presence on Snapchat. All the kids in the area wanted to go to her.
Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto is another great example of a photographer who provides massive amounts of value through his YouTube channel. His efforts have paid off. According to Jared, he can nowadays generate seven figures a year.
Putting out content is marketing. It creates trust as people get to know you, and that’s the point. If people don’t know who you are, they don’t trust you; if they don’t trust you, they don’t want to spend their money on you.
One common hurdle is that many artists, photographers included, are worried about people stealing their work. They watermark their images and spend a lot of energy trying to protect their work. They are afraid of giving out their secrets and ideas. But as Tim O’Reilly puts it: “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”
Ask yourself: is my problem that people are stealing my work, or that nobody knows about it in the first place?
It’s an unfortunate reality, but free spreads quicker than something that costs money. If Facebook had charged you money every month when it started, it wouldn’t be so popular as it is now. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to provide value and create trust.
Lesson #2: Be Authentic
Isaac Asimov once said of Carl Sagan, whose work he admired greatly: “You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.”
This from Asimov, who was the one who wrote and published hundreds of books and short stories over the course of his life!
I believe that people don’t follow blogs, they follow people. What do I mean by that? I think it’s not so much the content, but the unique voice that people are drawn to. Content is important, but the “how” is more important than the “what.” In other words: every story has probably already been told, but has it been told by you?
There’s an entertaining channel on YouTube called “Camera Conspiracies.” I haven’t been able to keep up with his videos lately, but when I did, I noticed that many people followed him even though they weren’t into film-making, vlogging or the video aspect of cameras in general (which is what he mostly talks about). They follow him because he’s unique. He doesn’t have filters. He’s just him.
Whether people like him or not is probably none of his concern. He puts himself out there, saying “this is me, like it or not.”
The same goes for most successful creators online. We all crave authenticity. In a world where everyone is trying to be someone they’re not, putting up a mask, filtering their words, and trying not to offend others, the ability to be authentic is a key asset.
If you hold yourself back, trying to be liked by everyone else, you end up boring. Be hated or loved, but don’t be boring. Boring is “meh.” Boring equals the death of your creative career.
Lesson #3: The Power of Word of Mouth
Forget about SEO and all the fancy optimization methods, word of mouth is probably the most powerful form of marketing an artist or a business can double down on.
Word of mouth is not sharing through social media. People don’t generally trust much of what’s shared through social media, even if it comes from a friend. Word of mouth is real life sharing. According to a study by McKinsey, word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.
“[Companies] live or die by word of mouth.”
– Jonah Berger
Marketing masterminds Seth Godin and Ryan Holiday agree. In his book This is Marketing, Godin has written that he’d rather have people find his blog using the keyword “Seth” than the keyword “blog.”
So how do you create word of mouth? Well, that’s another story, and it can be incredibly difficult. Just remember: word of mouth always starts with a single customer. As Seth Godin has wrote in his book Tribes: “Sell one.”
Lesson #4: Use Your Real Name
One of the best ideas I got from Eric Kim (besides owning your platform) is to use your real name. If you’re an artist, using your real name might seem trivial at first, but there are at least two convincing reasons for it.
First, using your real name makes it easier to be authentic, which would be a bit harder to do when you’re operating under some abstract name such as “Picture Perfect Photos” or some-such (I just made that name up on the spot, any connection to real brands or companies is coincidental).
Second, using your real name helps to spread the word because people tend to remember real names better than abstract names, because we know there’s an actual person behind the work.
When I started out, I was always trying to be this anonymous person because it allowed me to hide behind a pseudonym in case I might need it. Using your real name doesn’t give you that possibility. You put yourself and your reputation on the line. You take full responsibility for every word you say, sentence you write, and action you take.
It might be scary at first, but the fact remains: real names generate more trust and, because they stick easier, they also help to facilitate that word of mouth mentioned above.
Lesson #5: Find Your People (Following)
Business geniuses Eric Ries and Peter Thiel talk about the false hope that if you “build it, they will come” in their books The Lean Startup and Zero to One, respectively. Just because you make something that you care about, doesn’t mean other people wil care.
“Customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen, and it’s harder than it looks.”
– Peter Thiel, Zero to One
A few years ago, photographer and filmmaker Ted Forbes made a video called “Nobody Cares About Your Photography” where he discussed why it’s important to do work that matters, even if nobody cares. I agree and would go even further.
While it’s true that most people don’t care about your work, if you do work that matters, there will be people out there who will. You just need to find them. Seth Godin calls it, “finding the smallest viable audience.”
Novelist Stefan Zweig understood this 80 years ago:
“I had acquired what, to my mind, is the most valuable kind of success a writer can have—a faithful following, a reliable group of readers who looked forward to every new book and bought it, who trusted me, and whose trust I must not disappoint.”
– Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday: Memoirs of a European
To be clear, social media “following” is not a following. These are just people who often don’t even see your stuff. They’re fine with that, and you should be too. You can’t expect someone who follows hundreds or thousands of other people to see your work, let alone buy from you.
True followers are people who actually seek out your work. They visit your website religiously; read your newsletters; watch your videos without any bell notifications and wonder what has happened to you if you haven’t posted anything for a few days.
These people are your bread and butter. There might not be many of them, but they are your true fans and you should do everything you can to foster this kind of following.
As Seth Godin puts it in his book This is Marketing: “The goal isn’t to maximize your social media numbers. The goal is to be known to the smallest viable audience.”
Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of WIRED, found out that a thousand true fans might be sufficient to live a better-than-decent life. So, instead of dreaming of hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, it might just be more profitable to have a few thousand true fans instead.
Lesson #6: Price is Marketing
Every once in a while, an article or story is published about a photographer who complains that clients are low-balling them or that photographers don’t get paid fairly.
This is a marketing problem.
“Marketing changes your pricing. Pricing changes your marketing.”
– Seth Godin, This is Marketing
This means that the price you ask depends on what you offer (and the other way around). What is the story you tell?
If you offer high-quality luxury service, then your prices should reflect that. It’s not just the physical or digital pictures you take or your years of experience that make the price high. It’s everything: your emotional labour, your respect, your caring about the customer, all the way to the packaging and paper you use. Essentially, you are offering more than a service—you provide an experience.
It’s okay to charge a lot of money if you’re able to provide a “change” in your client. We’re all on a journey of transformation. We seek transformation. If you can give that to someone, you’re golden.
“Low price is the last refuge of a marketer who has run out of generous ideas.”
– Seth Godin, This is Marketing
According to Godin, lowering the price has further implications, making it harder for people to trust you. This is because people rationalize spending a lot of money by making up a story about the value they will receive, and a low price takes that story away.
Obviously, before you can charge a lot of money, you need trust. The more money you ask for, the more trust you need. Would you buy $500 sneakers from an unknown brand that you’ve never heard about? Would you buy a (cheaper) generic brand of Coke for a house party? Most people won’t, because they don’t trust these brands.
Over the years, photographer Eric Kim has given away a lot of value in terms of literally thousands of blog posts, videos and dozens of e-books. As a result, he’s built enough trust and a loyal enough following that he can charge a lot of money for his workshops. He’s offering more than a product, he can offer an experience.
According to the definition of a Veblen good, the more something costs, the more people want it. Of course, not everyone can afford what they want, but that’s not even necessary. As Kim has pointed out, he only needs a handful of students a year to make a decent living.
Lesson #7: Own Your Platform
Many photographers and artists don’t have their own website. Instead, they rely solely on Instagram or some other social media platform. But Kim has long promoted the idea of owning your own platform and why it’s important.
Being dependent on someone else’s platform poses many problems. I’ll use Instagram as an example here, but it applies to any social media platform.
First, imagine that Instagram disappears one day. If you have spent years building your following on that platform, then you would have to start all over again on a new platform, without any way to contact or inform your following on IG.
True, Instagram probably won’t disappear suddenly, but it happened to Myspace. Everything is in constant change; social media platforms come and go. Something else could become more popular than Instagram at any moment. Flickr is an excellent example of something that was once very popular falling into near-obscurity.
Second, you are a guest. You don’t own the space; you rent it. Which also means you pay rent by watching ads and providing data about yourself so that Facebook can sell it to advertisers.
You can also be thrown out, and you won’t even get a month’s notice. You have to be politically correct and behave nicely, lest you upset your landlord. You can’t express yourself freely. Instagram has the final say so, what is allowed and what is not.
On your own platform, you can do whatever you want. It’s your little corner on the Internet. You own it, you control it, and you choose how you curate it. It offers freedom and, believe me, freedom is worth paying for.
ThirdFourth, Instagram controls your photos and your followers. It can delete photos if it wants and ask you for money so you can actually reach all of your followers. There’s nothing you can do except to protest; which is basically the equivalent effect of yelling at a wall. Even when protests reach a fever pitch, companies rarely listen.
Fifth, your followers are not really your followers. They’re Instagram’s followers. There’s no real way to interact with them directly. You can post a story or a picture, but only a fraction will see it, so you often have to beg for people to enable notifications.
None of this means you should avoid social media entirely. I believe social media is a very powerful marketing tool if used correctly, but it’s a poor choice for your platform. Spend some energy on your own platform, where nobody else gets to call the shots.
Lesson #8: Set Up an Email Newsletter ASAP
“As is true for so many things, the best time to have built your network was yesterday. The second best time is right now.”
– Ryan Holiday, The Perennial Seller
Even in the age of social media, one of the most powerful marketing tools available today is the email list. There’s a reason everyone uses it. It has stood the test of time, and it works.
Your email list is the follower list you should be building. You will own this list. It enables you to communicate with your followers directly, and you can take this list with you—it’s platform-independent.
Even if your website is taken down for some reason, you can still communicate with your people. You can keep them updated, share your thoughts, and tell them about your new products, exhibitions, and events. It serves you for a lifetime. No expiration date.
Most people don’t change their email addresses very often, and there’s a much bigger chance of them seeing your email (and therefore being reminded of your existence) even if they don’t ultimately read it.
“If you want people to consume your work and to know what you do next, you have to make it possible for them to hear about it as easily and regularly as possible.”
– Ryan Holiday, The Perennial Seller
Before he published his first book, Ryan Holiday started an email newsletter where he gave monthly book recommendations. By the time he was about to publish his book, the list had grown significantly.
Do you think there were people who bought his new book because he told them about it in his email newsletter? You bet.
As Ryan Holiday put it: “The idea that you won’t have to work to sell your product is more than entitled.” It presupposes that everyone will flock to your work and that they care.
“If you don’t see any salespeople, you’re the salesperson.”
– Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Ryan Holiday describes how the road to creative success feels like in his book The Perennial Seller:
Art is the kind of marathon where you cross the finish line and instead of getting a medal placed around your neck, the volunteers roughly grab you by the shoulders and walk you over the starting line of another marathon.
By that “another marathon,” he means marketing his work. This means promoting your work is equally important as doing your work. Books, just like everything else, don’t sell themselves.
There are too many great artists out there, many of them waiting to be discovered. It’s a notion of romanticism-sitting around waiting for magic to happen.
The problem with this waiting is obvious: you’re waiting. Instead of taking charge and being the engine of your own life and success, you’re at the mercy of sheer luck. Sure, you might be discovered, but what if you aren’t? Much more often than not, if you don’t make things move forward, nothing happens. This is real-life.
Because there are so many exceptionally good artists out there, skills alone won’t make you stand out. Excellent skills are assumed—baseline. You need to be more than that.
Ultimately, marketing your work means valuing your work. You are essentially saying: “I’m confident that my work is great, and I have no shame telling you about it.”
About the author: Kristjan Vingel is a street photographer based in Luxembourg. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Vingel’s work on his website and Twitter. This article was also published in 9 parts here.