Some in the high school senior portrait niche might call her crazy, but Nicki Hufford made a bold move last year and dropped her model program. Long heralded as the tried-and-true bastion of a thriving senior business, model or ambassador programs have granted studio brands coveted access to high school hallways through the lips and Instagram accounts of small armies of free marketers. But a couple of years ago, Hufford sensed change on the wind in what she calls her “big small town” of Warren, Ohio.
Situated between the larger cities of Cleveland, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Warren is replete with picturesque old storefronts and surrounded by miles of rich green farmland. Hufford also enjoys the small pockets of modernity that have grown with the town, providing a happy mix of old and new. Like many photographers in smaller American cities, Hufford describes a senior market at the confluence of longstanding high school traditions (like letter jackets) and the shiny appeal of the now (like social media influencers).
“We treat every one of our seniors like a mini celebrity,” she says, “because nowadays, that’s what they’re looking for.”
Hufford successfully ran a senior model program for years, basing it on a series of creative, heavily themed shoots with each year’s chosen team of reps. Then she caught on to a growing trend: Teens would begin enthusiastically, then gradually lose their excitement for the program over the season as other priorities began to dominate their lives.
“Our senior model program did very well for us for a long time,” Hufford says. “But these kids just don’t have the time anymore. They all still feel like it’s something they want to be a part of in the beginning, but they just stop participating about halfway through.”
Excitement is crucial for sparking interest among teen groups. When participation becomes a chore and excitement becomes obligation, the benefits of the program wither. Hoping to stay on top of the trends, Hufford polled local seniors for feedback. She found that their interests had evolved. The model program was no longer the best avenue for her marketing. She found that each successive year of seniors seemed busier than the previous one, which was a strike against the rigidity of the program. Kids wanted to participate in the themed shoots, but they didn’t want to be locked in.
“I realized that I had to become not just a photographer but a content creator for my seniors. I had to switch my mindset. These kids want to be the next Instagram star.”Nicki Hufford
Hufford devised a new plan: Open up those creative, themed shoots to all seniors but limit the number of spots available. “Instead of saying only these 50 models can do this creative shoot, I say the first 15 that sign up can do it,” she says. So far, the response has been positive.
Teen response to the model program wasn’t the only thing that was changing. There was a growing divide between the products seniors wanted and what their parents wanted to take home and display or share with the rest of the family.
“I realized that I had to become not just a photographer but a content creator for my seniors,” says Hufford. “I had to switch my mindset. These kids want to be the next Instagram star.”
That inspired her to rethink her session strategy and also to start offering digital files. There was no question that her style would remain—clean, high-key lighting with a modern, editorial flair. But to appeal to both mindsets in one session, Hufford made a concentrated effort to create images that would be both Instagram-worthy and grab the hearts of parents and grandparents.
She also rethought her product offerings. Previously, seniors had the option to build wall collections and albums, but most were purchasing only about 20 images. When she asked them why, they admitted they didn’t want giant portraits of themselves staring back from their walls at home. What they craved was a digital collection of images they could use throughout social media.
“In my market, wall art is more for families,” says Hufford. “Seniors are fine with sending awful selfies to each other, but they get embarrassed by these big pictures hanging on the wall.”
She came up with a compromise that allows clients to purchase beautifully crafted prints and digital files. Her most popular package is what she calls a digital box, a collection of 20 mounted prints and as many digital files as the client desires.
“First of all, I make sure I charge enough for digital files,” she says, underscoring that she doesn’t give anything away. “And second, when you educate your clients about quality, they come back for reprints. You really have to show them and explain the difference.”
It comes down to knowing what your clients want, says Hufford. She asks families to photograph their walls at home so she can see their personal style and the kind of artwork they already have. If she doesn’t see large wall portraits or any other large-scale photography, she knows they probably won’t want that kind of product. Instead, she guides them toward something else that’s just as profitable but perhaps a better fit for their family.
“I am absolutely still selling wall art,” she emphasizes, “but I basically have products that I can sell to those clients who just don’t do wall art. If they only want something to sit on a shelf, I’ll push a metal composite image, for example. It really is a matter of figuring out who your client is and steering them in the right direction.”
“With seniors, you need to be authentic to who you are,” says Hufford. “They’ll notice right away if you’re not. They’re buying into your brand. Seniors don’t all understand the technical side of photography; they just see cool pictures. They’re going to pick a photographer based on style first, then budget.”
That’s where Hufford has benefitted from finding the route to making images that clients want to buy while producing work that also makes her happy. Having played softball in college, Hufford is a huge sports enthusiast and has worked that passion into her business. Her studio handles a large amount of volume sports photography throughout the region, and she’s well-connected in that market. In fact, the majority of her senior clients are sporty.
“Half of our seniors come through our door because of team sports,” she says. “It’s perfect for me because I’m still so heavily involved in softball in Ohio, and I know this area in terms of softball like the back of my hand.”
That tie between her volume sports and seniors clients also influenced her decision to drop the senior model program. With so many kids between the ages of 10 and 15 crossing over her studio threshold for sports, Hufford realized she didn’t need the model program to lift her senior business.
“I still believe word of mouth is where the best marketing is,” she says, “and that’s what you’re really looking for with a model program. We get that through our volume sports.”
By listening to clients and her gut instincts, Hufford has created a business that caters to her own creative interests while cultivating a strong following in her market. For seniors, that means listening to parents and teens, then creating sessions and product lines that appeal to both. Navigating those sometimes divergent interests and doing it well is what has garnered Hufford accolades from clients and industry peers alike. It’s also what keeps her in the sweet spot in a market that’s always changing.
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.