Why artists need to market themselves? So that, you the artist, wouldn’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 this” filthy” world.
The truth is, it’s your job to market yourself. You are the artist, and you know 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.
So, here are eight essential marketing strategies photographers should consider implementing for a more successful business.
#1: Provide value and create trust
Providing value means continuously putting stuff out there. Blogging consistently, making videos, taking part in interactions on social media like answering questions, etc.
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. E.g., 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. Erik Kim, e.g., has also pointed out that most people who attend his workshops have been following his blog for 2-3 years before buying anything from him. The point is: if people don’t know who you are, they don’t trust you, and if they don’t trust you, they don’t want to spend their money on you (word of mouth and wedding photography, anyone?).
Another thing is that too 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.
As Tim O’Reilly puts it: “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” Therefore, your problem is not people stealing your work. Your problem is that nobody knows you.
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.
#2: Be authentic
There’s a story of Isaac Asimov having great admiration for Carl Sagan and his books. This is what Asimov had to say of Sagan: “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.”
And Asimov was the one who in his lifetime wrote and published hundreds of books and short stories!
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. Of course, content is important, but what’s more important than the “what” is the “how.” I.e., every story has probably already been told, but has it been told by you?
There’s a quite entertaining channel on Youtube called “Camera Conspiracies”. I haven’t been lately able to keep up with his videos, but when I did, I noticed that many people follow him even though they weren’t into film-making, vloging 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.” Same goes for all of the successful content creators.
Authenticity is what we all crave. In today’s world, there is so little authenticity, everyone trying to be someone they’re not, putting up a mask, filtering their words, and trying not to offend others.
If you hold yourself back, trying to be liked by everyone, you end up being boring. Either be hated or loved but not boring. Boring equals death. Boring is “meh.”
#3: The power of word of mouth
Forget about SEO and all the fancy optimization methods, word of mouth is probably the most powerful thing an artist or a business can ever have.
Word of mouth is not sharing through social media. People don’t generally trust anything that’s shared through social media, even if it’s done by a friend to 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.”
Marketing masterminds Seth Godin and Ryan Holiday agree. Godin, e.g., in his book This is Marketing, has written that he rather have people find his blog using a keyword “Seth” than by the keyword “blog.”
How to create word of mouth? Well, that’s another story. This is what everyone who knows how powerful it is, is trying to do. The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult.
However difficult, a successful word of mouth always starts with a single customer. As Seth Godin has written in his book Tribes: “Sell one.”
#4: Use your real name
One of the best ideas I got from Erik 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 something like that (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. We know there’s an actual person behind the work.
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 on the line. You take full responsibility for every word, sentence, and action.
It’s scary at first as whatever you say may be used against you. And that’s fine. We’re worried that we might get a bad rep and everyone finding out, but the truth is, becoming famous is very hard.
In any case, real names generate more trust and help to facilitate the word of mouth.
#5: Find your people (following)
Business geniuses Eric Ries and Peter Thiel talk about this false hope of” build it, and they will come” in their books The Lean Startup and Zero to One respectively. Just because you make something doesn’t mean people 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 discusses that although it might be true that nobody cares, it’s important to do work that matters.
I agree and would go even further. While it’s true that most people don’t care about your work, there are people who do. You need to find those people. Seth Godin calls it “finding the smallest viable audience.”
Stefan Zweig understood that ca 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 it, 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 follow 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 two days.
These people are your bread and butter. There might not be many of them, but they are your true fans.
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’s more profitable to have a few thousand true fans instead.
#6: Price is marketing
Every once in a while, there is an article or a story of a photographer who complains about clients lowballing 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 high price. 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 in 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: “Lowering your price doesn’t make you more trusted. It does the opposite.” This is because people rationalize spending a lot of money by making up a story 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, the more trust you need. Would you buy 500 dollar sneakers from an unknown brand? Would you buy a (cheaper) generic brand of Coke for a house party? Most people will not. Because they don’t trust these brands.
Over the years Erik Kim has given away a lot of value in terms of literally thousands of blog articles, videos and dozens of e-books for free. He also charges a lot of money for his workshops. He can do it because he has trust. Because he can offer an experience.
According to the 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 Erik has pointed out, he only needs a handful of students a year to make a decent living.
#7: Own your platform and your followers
Many photographers and artists don’t have their own website. They rely solely on Instagram or some other social media platform.
Erik Kim has long promoted the idea of owning your own platform and why it’s important.
Indeed, being dependent on someone else’s platform poses many problems. I 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 that all over again on a new whatever popular platform at that time.
We think it’s unlikely that Instagram disappears. True, it probably won’t fade in a way that e.g., Myspace did, but it might happen some other way. Everything is in constant change, and social media platforms come and go. Something else could quickly become more popular than Instagram at any moment. Flickr is an excellent example of something popular falling into obscurity.
Second, you are a guest. You don’t own the space; you rent it. And you pay rent. You pay with watching ads and providing data about yourself so that Facebook can sell it to advertisers.
Since you’re a guest on their platform, you can be thrown out, and you won’t even get a month’s notice. You have to be politically correct and behave nice, otherwise you might upset your landlord. That means if e.g., your art is to make erotic photos, you’re censored. 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, you choose what and how you curate it. It offers freedom and believe me, freedom is worth paying for.
Third, your customization is very limited. You can’t choose how you present your work. Once, a photo is uploaded, you can’t simply delete it, change it, and reupload it the way you can do it on your website.
Fourth, Instagram controls your photos and your followers. It can delete photos if it wants and ask you money if you want to reach your followers. There’s nothing you can do except to protest. Protest with the equivalent effect of yelling at a wall.
Fifth, your followers are not really your followers. They’re Instagram’s followers. There’s no real way to interact with your followers directly. You can post a story or a picture, but only a fraction will see it. So you have to beg for people to enable notifications.
Also, if Instagram disappears, blocks your account or restricts your access to your followers, you are done.
This doesn’t mean not to use social media. I believe social media is a very powerful marketing tool but a poor choice for your platform. It’s a good idea to spend your energy on your own platform.
#8: Email newsletter
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
One of the most powerful marketing tools available 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’s list you should be building instead.
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 gets 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, events. It serves you a lifetime.
Most people don’t change their email addresses very often, and there’s a much bigger chance of them seeing your email.
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
Ryan Holiday, before he published his first book, 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 about it in his email newsletter?
As Ryan Holiday puts 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 pushing his work. This means promoting your work is equally as important as doing your work. Books just like everything else, don’t sell themselves.
The reality is, there are too many great artists out there, many of them waiting to be discovered. It’s a notion of romanticism, as international street photographer Erik Kim puts it. You wait for some magic to happen.
The problem with this waiting is obvious: you’re waiting. Instead of taking charge and being at the cause of your life, you’re at the effect and depending on sheer luck. Sure, you might be discovered, but what if you won’t? Usually, if you don’t make things move forward, nothing happens. This is real-life experience.
Because there are so many exceptionally good artists out there, skills alone don’t make you stand out. In this world, excellent skills are assumed. You need to be more than that. To paraphrase Erik in this context: this is the reality, which you need to accept.
To market your work also means you value your work. You are essentially saying: “I have great confidence in my work being great work, so I have no shame telling you about it.”
About the Author
Kristjan Vingel is a street photographer based in Luxembourg, and you can check out his work on his website. He also enjoys writing, and you can read more of his thoughts on his blog. This article was also published here (in nine parts) and shared with permission.