How to stand out in a crowded high school senior portrait market is a tough nut for many a photographer to crack. It sounds straightforward enough—market to the clients you want to attract—but it can be challenging to define who those clients are, to attract them, and then to convince them to invest. For Sean Brown of Vancouver, Washington, the answer to differentiation was to become perfectly attuned to his target market so he could set the appropriate tone for his brand.
Brown quickly established that for each senior session he wanted to book, he needed to appeal to two very different clients: the teen and the parent, usually the mother. Two different mindsets, two different agendas, two very different sets of needs.
“The headspace of a mom is much different than that of the senior,” he explains. “And vice versa. So, you have to market to both and have a very specific, direct message to both.”
Brown, who came from a marketing background before jumping full-time into senior photography in 2014, focused on the two personas that would be walking through his door. He put himself in the shoes of both to understand their wants and needs, even the ones they don’t vocalize. For example, seniors are often excited and ready to break away for college, or they’re trepidatious and a little sad about leaving. But most often, they’re a mix of both because they know that life after high school won’t be the same, but they don’t know what to expect. On the opposite side, senior moms seek to freeze the moment in time, preserve the last milestone of childhood. They’re thinking about the end product of the photo session, its quality and longevity.
“My job is to find a way to focus on the commonalities between both of these personas,” says Brown. “The senior wants to be pampered, and mom wants something to help her remember the sound of her daughter’s laugh when she looks at an album or passes a portrait in the hallway. In my marketing, rather than pointing out how I’m doing something better than everyone else, I’m focusing on the opposite: Here’s what I’m doing different and, further, how that difference appeals to the mom and the senior.”
Toward that goal, Brown doesn’t just say that he offers hair and makeup, he focuses on the benefits of that offering: “Look like your best un-Photoshopped version of yourself.” To appeal to moms, he highlights the archival quality of his product line, pointing out that it will last for generations. It’s these tiny tweaks, woven throughout all of his messaging, that nudge the needle ever so slightly.
Knowing who you’re talking to is one part of the equation; finding the right tool to amplify your message is another. That’s why finding out who’s using which social media network is crucial. Rather than spray the same messaging across all platforms, Brown targets seniors through Instagram and moms through Facebook. Brown’s website is where everything comes together, with a balance of information on both session experience and products to appeal to both personas.
“The website is meant to be really comprehensive,” he says. “It’s all about what it’s like to work with me, what I can offer, lots of testimonials. I wanted my site to have a lot of information so that they would focus on the experience before talking about pricing.”
Brown thinks many photographers bring up price too early in the process, which, in his experience, hurts the endgame. “The quicker you introduce price, the quicker it becomes more about finding the cheapest way they can get the digital photos,” he says. “I’m not saying you should hide price, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Give them the most on your brand prior to them reaching out on price.”
Brown also pays attention to what other luxury brands are doing outside of the photography space. For example, it takes about 5 to 6 seconds to open an iPhone box, a process strategically designed to satisfy consumers’ senses and elevate their perception of the product and brand.
“The Apple store follows the same thinking,” he says. “The sales experience starts the minute you step in and look around. The layout of the store is designed to focus on those first impressions. I asked myself how that translates to the world of photography and how I could welcome clients into my experience.”
To that end, Brown sends out beautifully packaged welcome packets to each new client to channel a feeling of exclusivity, luxury, and anticipation. A PDF delivered by email could impart the same information, but Brown believes a tangible object conveys elegance and quality through both touch and sight so he’s willing to invest $10 to $12 per client for the mailed packets.
“I want that first interaction to be all about quality,” he says. “I’m not just sending junk snail mail, I want it to feel like a million dollars.”
Senior rep programs have been the industry norm for decades, and for good reason. Recruiting a small army of young spokesmodels to go forth and spread the word about your studio to their friends is valuable marketing. But Brown wanted to rethink the model so it felt less like an obligation and more like a perk.
“In the beginning, I thought the more I gave them, the more they would put into the team, so I incentivized everything,” he says. “I would have them post on social and get a print credit, or bring in five referrals and they would get something else. But it turned too salesy. Rather than being a genuine want, it turned into an obligation that was too sales-forward. I wanted them to talk openly and naturally and organically.”
Putting seniors into potentially awkward situations via a rigid, high-pressure rep program was not the ticket to a sustainable business, explains Brown. So now he runs what he calls the senior team, which is more about what he can do for them than what they can do for him.
“It’s less about strict requirements and more focused on my connection with them as individuals,” he says. “I went from a photography-first to now a connection-first mentality, and that was a pivotal piece of how my business grew.”
Like most senior rep programs, Brown’s includes events throughout the year, but attendance isn’t mandatory, and posting about the sessions on social media is completely voluntary. He guarantees team participants at least three planned shoots: in the studio at the beginning of the season, a spring shoot, and a cap-and-gown finale. He also incorporates fun themed team events along the way, including VIP events, team socials like laser tag and go-karting, and the option to participate in a destination team shoot. Though he provides perks for referrals, these events are completely optional.
“I make it clear from the beginning that even though they’re a part of the program, it’s not that traditional old-school program,” he says. “I tell them if they want to participate in the referrals or events, it’s not required. Their sole requirement is to be supportive and engaged with each other, so it’s as much or as little as they make it. I’ve found that with this approach, the decreased pressure allows them to actually buy in a lot more.”
Knowing his clients, finding their spaces, and designing a session structure and program that works for them has been a game-changer for Brown. He notes that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to making it in the senior market, and his process might not work for other photographers. But if something isn’t working, keep trying until you find the right approach for your business and your clients, he emphasizes.
“The biggest thing I see is photographers getting in their own way,” he says. “Remember the scientific method? You test and test and test and change the variables along the way. Don’t be afraid to test. It was the only way I got to where I am, it’s where the breakthroughs come from. Don’t hold yourself back.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.