She was a business professional before she was a photographer, so Eden Bao naturally takes an analytical perspective on her career.
Primarily a maternity, newborn, and baby photographer based in Seattle, Bao turns the heads of pregnant women in the Pacific Northwest with her beauty style of portraiture. Mothers-to-be are draped in sweeping gowns and posed before dramatic landscapes or in elegant interiors. How she homed in on that style was a business decision in itself.
“Clients know what they want, but they can’t always see it,” she says. “They want to look beautiful and sexy, but they feel bloated and have ‘cankles’ [stout ankles]. They want to be goddesses—sexy but not be completely bare.”
What Bao recognized was the collective shift of the maternity portrait landscape from simply bare in the 1990s (à la Annie Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair portrait of an expectant Demi Moore) to a more elegant (and less nude) vision women wanted for themselves. She also saw the market trending away from clients wanting to purchase just small prints they could tuck into an album.
“My market was telling me something different,” she says. “My clients were not just documenting their maternity journey in the family album, they were putting it online. I saw this great need for social photos for the generation that loves to photograph everything and put everything out there.”
So she shifted her focus away from attempting to sell large wall portraits and canvases and tailored her pitch toward clients’ digital needs. This meant adjusting her pricing and positioning in the marketplace. She was the first in her area to offer glamour maternity portraiture, which meant she was in uncharted territory. That’s where her business savvy came in handy.
To determine her next steps, Bao employed a SWOT analysis, which would delve into the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats affecting her business. Analyzing each of these areas helps business owners define their branding and market strategies. What Bao uncovered through this exercise changed her business.
Bao considered her technical skills and ability to create beautiful images foremost among her strengths. And she needed to get that message in front of clients, starting with a portfolio that represented her capabilities and her new style. Since she didn’t want to experiment on clients, Bao put out model calls and designed her own sessions until she had a large enough body of work to represent her evolved brand cohesively.
Creating the work is the fun part; the struggle is getting the images in front of the right consumers. To do that, she became a quick study of search engine optimization (SEO) and learned what kind of content is useful to both clients and search engines.
“Good content becomes more valuable to Google and will raise you in the search engine ranking,” she says.
Toward that end, she created a “Why Hire Me” page on her site that breaks down the value of professional photography, with an interactive example showing the difference between a raw and retouched photograph. She included information on pricing and an abundance of detailed photographs showing her wide range of props and dresses.
“My aim is to reduce cognitive dissonance, which is the tension a prospective client might feel when they’re trying to book your services,” she says. “As marketers and business people, we want to ease that tension and build trust. You put that information out there and they know what they’re paying for, the quality of the images, and what to expect.”
Backing that up is a page full of client reviews, with links to Google and Yelp reviews, as well as a section of clients’ kudos paired with some of their session photos. Bao says about 25 percent of her web traffic is to client reviews.
Social media is fragmented, so building a strong online presence means you can’t put all your eggs into one network’s basket.
“You have to put yourself where your clients are,” says Bao. “Our generation expects interaction on social media, and they don’t want to be sold to. You can’t just put a commercial or ad out there. Everything works together: your website, social media, search engines, getting referrals, and working on word of mouth. They’re all elements of an overall marketing strategy.”
Bao discovered that some of her clients mainly paid attention to Instagram, others cruised Pinterest, some were on Facebook, and a few just relied on Google. She knew that to get a cohesive brand presence into the social ether, she’d need to coordinate her effort across multiple platforms.
“It’s quite an endeavor, and you only have so much time,” she says. “You either have to outsource your social media marketing or narrow down your focus on where to get the most traffic.”
Bao began focusing effort on learning more about video and building a YouTube channel. She was inspired by research published by Cisco in 2016 that predicts 75 percent of all global mobile traffic will consist of video content by 2020. Her videos are mainly behind-the-scenes shorts that help clients see what a session is like, which is another way she can help overcome consumers’ cognitive dissonance.
“To survive and be ahead, you have to put yourself out there,” she explains. “I chose to personalize and make my brand human. That’s the direction I’m going in with marketing.”
She’s also exploring the possibilities that video holds in general and what potential uses her clients might have for it. Given the predictions on video for mobile traffic, it’s an avenue she’s excited about.
Here’s where Bao was completely taken aback: when she discovered negative SEO.
“Competitors can go out and buy bad links to your website, which sink your ranking and tarnish your value in the eyes of Google,” she explains. “You want to make sure your business and your brand are protected.”
The solution is building positive relationships with competitors, says Bao. This is beneficial not only for the camaraderie but also for having a trusted resource to whom you’d feel comfortable outsourcing any overflow.
“I find times when I’m overbooked, and I want to rely on good buddies out there that can take the overflow. That relationship helps reduce the threat, and collaborations with other studios helps. It’s also just good to have friends in the industry.”
The other potential threat can be clients themselves. Bao emphasizes learning how to handle a challenging client with grace so that they don’t feel compelled to try to hurt your business with a bad review.
The biggest idea that Bao wants photographers to understand is that market analysis takes time. And then it will take additional time to refine your photographic style, define and target a market, and get the market to respond to your efforts.
“Put the work in and stay for the long haul,” she advises. “Business is tough. You want to have a staying career. Sometimes your clients are with you for life. It’s a long-term strategy.”
RELATED: A gallery of Bao's portraiture.
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.