What I Wish I Knew: Social Media Popularity Doesn't Always Translate Into Earning A Living

We're excited to continue our "What I Wish I Knew" series and feature some of our amazing contributors. This series chronicles the mistakes and revelations creatives made during their first years in business. Today Dana Pugh shares her lessons learned in her own practice.
I started my photography business back in 2007. At times, that seems like a million years ago. Blogs were a really big deal back then. When I would tell people that I had a blog, no one knew what that was. There was one family and children’s photography forum that was popular. If you wanted to know how to do something, you either had to go to one of the very few (almost nonexistent) workshops that were out there, or you had to summon all of your courage to email a photographer you admired. Flickr allows you a glimpse into the people behind the camera so you could gauge pretty well who would or would not answer your emailed questions. It was a very different time for photographers, making it hard for me to answer the ‘what I wish I knew’ question…Things are so different now that it would most likely not be relevant. I do know that many of the newer photographers who I mentor would benefit from knowing what it was like to market yourself back in those days.
If you wanted to have your work truly noticed, you had to get out into the world and show people your work. Today, social media has, for many people, removed the need to leave your office to do that, but what I would like to tell new photographers is that you shouldn’t put all of your marketing eggs into the social media basket. There is more to marketing than having a cool Instagram account...
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that a great Instagram account or Facebook page can do a number of awesome things for your business. It is free marketing. I mean, you can’t beat that for your business's bottom line.
Social media allows you to truly show people who the person is behind your brand. This is an awesome way to let people connect with you on an entirely different level than simply through your imagery. You can create a brand where people want to work with you…the person and the photographer. Which makes it easier to charge enough to make a living. Social media also makes it easier for you to connect with other people in the industry—photographers, yes, but also vendors and publications. This can be a solitary career, so it is nice to create a support system of people who are in the same boat as you.
High numbers of followers gives you a certain amount of street credit. Potential clients may gauge whether or not they want to work with you based on the number of other people who think that you are worth hiring.
That said, there are some things that I think aren’t that great about social media.
  • Most my followers are other photographers. Don’t get me wrong, I love connecting with other photographers, but most of them are not going to hire me to photograph their family. And, some of them, will…well…how do I put this nicely? They’ll copy my creative ideas—whether that be in marketing or in actual image taking. It’s hard to be a creative marketer on social media when lots of other photographers see what you are doing and start doing it as well.
  • Posting your work to social media (in particular Instagram) has become one of the easiest ways for a photographer to have their work noticed by industry outlets. And, there is a perceived notion that being featured on multiple industry feeds is going to get you more work. I’m not sure that is true (see next point), but it has helped the industry feel more homogenized. Many of these industry feeds are extremely curated and looking for a very specific look. In order to raise our chances of being featured, many photographers have begun curating their own looks to fit into these brands. So, everyone is starting to look the same. And, that is NOT a good thing. Difference needs to be celebrated not condemned. Clients, after all, will notice difference more than sameness. And, if we are no longer competing on our differences, there is only one thing to compete on and that is price.
  • Analytics for social media is kind of limited. It exists (Iconosquare for example), but it’s sometimes difficult to know how viewers are finding your Instagram or Facebook account. And, you have no control over the changes the platforms make via algorithms. How do you know if your work is getting in front of the right people when you put it out to the webosphere?
So, while social media is a great tool, it is important to remember that it isn’t the only tool. I would go even further and suggest that it isn’t even the best tool you have at your disposal. Some other marketing ideas to consider:
  1. Get out in your community and meet people. For me, hands down, word of mouth has always been my best source of new business. But how do you create more buzz if you are just beginning? Volunteer in your community. Go to community events. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. You know those business cards you had made? Hand them out! Prepare what I like to call your ‘elevator pitch’. Come up with a short blurb about what you do that takes you about 30 seconds to say. Make sure it is interesting and unique. Telling people that you are a wedding photographer or a family photographer won’t capture their attention. Come up with an authentic and awesome way of describing what you do to make people stop in their tracks and ask you a question.
  2. Have you enjoyed connecting with other small businesses in your area on social media? Well, bring those relationships into real time. Grab a coffee with one of those businesses and talk about how you could collaborate on something awesome. Better yet, create a network of small businesses in your own community that can support and promote each other. I think we all believe that our best referrals are going to come from other photographers or our current clients, but, for me, they come from other businesses and my current clients.
  3. If you spend money on advertising, why not put it back into your local community? Why not take out an advertisement in a local hockey team’s program? Or the local theatre company? Is baseball big in your community? Can you sponsor a program at the high school? Be creative and use the money you do spend for good. Instead of constantly asking ‘what am I getting out of this?’ start asking ‘what can I give?’ Make sure you have boundaries in place so that you are not giving too much, but giving back to your community is always a good thing.
  4.  And, lastly, create an email list. At some point in your process, ask your clients permission to be a part of your email list. I’m not saying to spam people, but, a few times a year, send out special offers, fancy newsletters or studio updates. Send whatever works with your brand. Encourage your client to refer you and to keep coming back. If you are feeling like you have a little money to burn, create an snail mail address list and send something physical their way. An investment like that gets way more notice than a fancy Instagram or Facebook post, I promise you.
The most important thing, both in your work and your marketing, is to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to get creative in how you market and spread the word about your business. Instead of just mirroring what everyone else is doing, come up with your own plan. You’ll be better off for it.  

Dana Pugh is a family photographer with a studio in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. In 2010, she was named the first ever International Child Photographer of the Year by the NAPCP(National Association of Professional Children's Photographers). Her work is quirky, emotional and authentic which has lead to many features in industry blogs and publications, but she is most happiest seeing her work hanging in the homes of her clients across North America. 

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