When portrait and conceptual art photographer Aly Elliott, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, delivers educational sessions on marketing to fellow photographers around the country, she always asks attendees the same question: Do you have a marketing plan? Inevitably, in a room of 100 people, only one or two will raise their hands. “Then I ask if they follow it, and they stop making eye contact and pull their hand down,” she laughs. “I think people are overwhelmed by the idea of a marketing plan.”
But you’re missing out on opportunities when you don’t have a plan, says Elliott, who will deliver the session “Marketing to Grab Attention and Loyalty” at Imaging USA 2023 in January. “Not having a marketing plan makes it easy to just throw something up on Facebook or Instagram and feel like you’ve marketed,” she says. People think that if they’ve posted something on the internet, everyone will see it. But they’re not necessarily reaching their audience. “To help your reach online, you have to be able to reach people in person,” Elliott argues. “They have to be able to know who you are and put a face with your logo.”
In Elliott’s 15 years of marketing her business, she knows one thing for sure: “Word of mouth is still the age-old, No. 1 thing to grow your business.” Elliott offers advice on how to leverage marketing to grow those referrals.
“Right now, everybody wants to do everything online because it’s quick and free for the most part, and easy, and people have gotten really comfortable just being home,” Elliott says. But it takes a lot more time to make a personal connection with someone virtually than through real-life conversations where you can exchange eye contact, read body language, and share a laugh, she says. To get clients talking to one another about her brand, she turns to tangibles like postcards and magazines.
“Magazines are one of my top marketing priorities right now,” she says. “We are not getting mail like we used to; people like things they can flip through and show their friends.” She publishes a biannual magazine that showcases client portraits as well as her fine art exhibition work, in addition to any awards and competition wins she’s received. Many times, clients ask for extra copies to forward along to the grandparents. “There is no marketing in the world like a grandma who is proud of her grandkids,” she laughs. The magazines also allow clients to see examples of her conceptual art and inspire them to reach out if they have a story they’d like to tell.
Another way Elliott markets her business and puts herself face-to-face with potential clients is by donating gift certificates or free sessions at gala fundraisers for her favorite local charities. This puts her in the presence of likeminded people who might appreciate her work and pass on her name.
Bloomington, Indiana, where Elliott is based, is a college town, and several years ago a sorority asked if it could include her studio in a rush week scavenger hunt. Her logo, a bright pink bird that is prominently displayed on her window, was included in the search. Sorority girls took selfies with her pink bird, which they posted on social media. That’s when she realized what an amazing marketing opportunity this was for her brand. Now she makes sure she’s on the list for the scavenger hunt every year.
Elliott has had the same pink bird logo, which she acquired from an artist on Etsy, for 15 years, she says. It’s become more recognizable than the name of her studio. In fact, one client commented that she “couldn’t get away from this bird,” because it’s become ubiquitous in Bloomington. “It’s my McDonald’s arches,” Elliott says.
The biggest mistakes Elliott sees photographers make with marketing is that they give up too quickly. According to the marketing rule of seven, consumers must encounter your brand an average of seven times before they make a purchase. “Marketing isn’t necessarily an immediate return,” she says; it’s playing the long game. People tend to try something once and then give up when it doesn’t immediately attract attention. “That is not the way marketing works,” Elliott contends. “We need to see the same logos and branded materials over and over again to be able to feel like everybody has that, I want that, I want to be a part of that.”
Putting together a marketing plan is as easy as using a blank calendar to broadly define your marketing strategies over the course of a quarter or a year. At what points in the year or quarter will you send out newsletters, mail postcards or magazines, or get involved in a charity event? “I create a broad pattern showing what I would like my brand to look like,” she says, setting the mood for seasons and holidays that are important to her business.
She also slots in times when she might deviate slightly from her brand identity to get clients’ attention. If your brand is serious, romantic, and surreal, then you should plan for a social media post that’s humorous and lighthearted 10 percent of the time to grab followers’ attention. By planning her social media posts by the month, she can slot in those kinds of posts as well as set an overall mood that denotes consistency.
Organizing clients into several tiers enables Elliott to focus marketing resources where they’re needed most. Tier one clients have infants or small children and will likely want more portrait sessions—perhaps several a year—because their children are changing so quickly. She keeps in close contact with this set of clients, using tangibles like postcards and her magazine to remind them regularly of her work and encourage more sessions. Tier two clients are families with older children who have sessions less frequently, and tier three is reserved for families whose children have grown and may be starting their own families. “I have a lot of clients that I see every year where I just contact them for their session date and make it really easy,” she says. She moves tier one clients into tier two as their families grow and change.
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.