Monday, February 22, 2010

What Your Website is for ...

So What Good is a Website?

Well, my last posting stirred up some of the controversy I expected. I think it’s important to point out that when a lifelong marketing professional says something like, “your brand doesn’t matter,” he’s probably making a point. (At least I hope that’s the case because if it’s not, then I’ve wasted an awful lot of time over the years). The point I was making in that message is a pretty simple one really. If you’re spending all of your time in front of your computer wondering where your clients are, then you’re business is going to die. Your clients aren’t in your computer, they’re outside your front door.

So, if that’s really the case, than what good is a website? Why spend all the time and energy necessary to keep it up to date? Do you really need a blog? We’ll dig into that a little here.

Think of the website as the place someone goes to find out a little more about you. It’s a confirmation. A person has heard a recommendation from a friend (best), or read about you online (still good but nowhere near as powerful). Something they heard has them wondering if you’re the photographer they’re seeking, so they go to the first place they think of to find out, your website.

Now - take a second and look at that. I didn’t say your blog. I said your website. If you’re sitting there thinking, ‘well, all of my newest stuff is on my blog’ then you have a problem already. Note that when most of the outside world goes shopping the first place they go is www.whatI’ (no - that’s not a real URL). ‘But I want them to go to my blog.’ Yes, I know. The world is littered with marketing ideas that didn’t work because the marketplace didn’t do what the marketer wanted. Go figure. The fact is that people will go first to your site because that’s where they want to go. In the photography world we think of blogs as the most up to date -most vibrant content, but the outside world thinks of blogs as places where people diary their weight loss- cat exploit - rant about whatever - praise my shoes - happy - sad - mad - finally motivated - completely depressed stuff for only the most committed readers to see.

So your website matters. Now - what’s on it? Information. People who are coming to your site want to get to know you in one of two ways. They’re looking for a photographer. Some folks will be image centric. They’re going to want to see your stuff. Your galleries should be well organized, quick loading hierarchies of your most current, best, images. Your absolute best images need to be first. With the back button drawing the visitor’s cursor with every passing breath, you have only seconds to make an impression. Don’t save it for last - make it first. If there are certain kinds of people you especially like to shoot (and if these people make up a viable market) then make sure your galleries feature those kinds of people. When THEY come to the site you want them to connect. If you shoot different kinds of work, don’t be afraid to display it here.

There are differing points of view on whether you should have different sites for different sides of your business. Lots of gurus say yes. I’m not so sure. My view is that there is nothing wrong with showing your clients you have some breadth. There also seems to be a direct correlation between site stagnation and the number of sites a photographer has. So long as the information is arranged well and is clear, I think it makes sense to go ahead and aggregate it on a single, well planned site.

The only exception in my mind is Boudoir which I think can be linked to a primary site more effectively then simply occupying a gallery there. The sensuous nature of a well planned and executed Boudoir site will limit your ability to market other products. Those who visit it will also be reluctant to have their images (however unlikely) shown alongside images of dogs or wedding receptions. I think it works best for both clients and photographers to have separate sites for this purpose. There are numerous excellent examples to see how these can be executed.

I’m also a big believer in showing your personal work - within reason. If your personal work goes toward the avant-garde or if it may be disturbing to the kind of people whose events, portraits, etc., you want to shoot, than you might want to leave this work off of your commercial site. However, if your personal work is art in a form that the kind of people you want to shoot will like, then by all means have it on your site. This gives them another visual touchstone - another reason to like you.

I said there are two kinds of people who will come to your site and they’ll come for two reasons. The first group comes to see images. The second group wants to meet YOU. For this reason your “about me” section should be written in the first person. (That’s “I” for those who don’t know). Without getting too long, it should nevertheless convey your sensibilities regarding photography. Your goals in working with clients. Your style. I like sites best that really let this sing a little. Sites that celebrate what is different about you. I also like sites that arrest a reader immediately. “I dropped my camera and broke it halfway through my first wedding...” I’m going to want to continue reading it! (especially if it goes on to talk about how you had a backup, etc. the bride and groom were thrilled). Another good start I saw recently was, “Something always goes wrong!” People think these sections called “About me” are autobiographical tomes and they dread writing them. They’re not. They’re hooks. Think of them as speed dating on a page. What’s the thing you MOST want this person who you like to know about you. Start there.

Note that in all of this - and it’s getting long now so I’m going to stop - I have not once mentioned the design, colors, style, etc. That’s on purpose. (not a mistake). It’s not that these elements aren’t important. It’s that they become important AFTER you have figured out what you want to communicate and how - not before. These elements are backups, they come last - not first. I also think you’re artists and you’re pretty good at this stuff once you get started and that it’s in other places where I can more readily help you.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Are they Seeking You? Part 4 Your brand doesn't matter.

Time for a little controversy ... Ready? Here it comes. Your brand doesn’t matter. Did I get your attention? Is your blood warming for a fight? Good. I know what you’re thinking. This was just some cheap tool I’m using to get your attention. “Jim doesn’t really think that ... he’s just trying to stir the pot.” Actually, it’s not. I’m really saying your brand doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. At least no where near as much as you think it does.

I’ve been in the business of serving small business for pretty much my entire career. In all of these years I’ve never seen so much attention paid by my customers to things that will ultimately make very little difference in their personal success/failure equation. I was speaking to a photographer the other day, someone I met in NYC, and he sent me to his new site so I could see his new branding. I went and checked it out. It’s cool. I told him so. He sent me this long email ... essentially disappointed that that’s all I’d said. I called him up and asked him what he thought I was going to say.

He told me that he’d been working on it for months. That he’d paid a branding consultant (photographer come seminar leader) thousands of dollars to help him dig in to who he is and how to present that, and then spent thousands of dollars more having the site developed. He was banking on it changing the direction of his business. He was sure it would work. Just a few more changes and it would be online. “How did I feel about this color green?”

I wanted to tell him, but didn’t (so I guess, sort of am now), that his site and his brand matter very little in the grand scheme of things. Don’t get me wrong. They need to be creative, professional and 100% error free. The fact is that there is one common element that successful photographers share. It’s not a brand. It’s this: almost 100% of their business comes from referrals. Their site, and their brand by extension, are simply tools that reinforce those referrals. It’s not the other way around.

In an age where we can get almost everything we need online it seems counter-intuitive that we can’t do everything we need to do online. I need socks. I can get them online. I want a new lens. I can read reviews, check pricing and buy online. I can even date online. Or - well - at least those of you who are single can. Until it’s time to meet the guy - gal. And then you better hope that your branding and theirs are accurate. Right? See, here’s the thing. All of the SEO, SEM, site gizmos, flash (shudder), blogs, cute sayings, etc., don’t matter a hoot if you aren’t actually out there doing the business of photography. As much as we might want it to happen entirely on screen, it can’t and it won’t. It’s not on your screen, it’s outside the window. It’s not ether, it’s flesh.

My friend in NYC doesn’t seem to understand that it’s way more important that everyone he knows knows he’s a photographer - and a damn good one. (He is). He doesn’t seem to understand the importance of connections; with event planners and florists and venues. He doesn’t understand the criticality of reconnecting on a regular basis with the clients he’s worked for, constantly reminding them of the experience they had and in doing so reminding them to tell their friends about this great photographer they know. Missing out on these activities is going to have a much bigger negative impact than his cool new site can overcome.

I think a lot of times we look at the folks around us and wonder at their success. “Why is she successful after so short a time?” “She hasn’t earned her wings!” In these moments ‘experts’ come along and point at the stuff they do and say, if you do this you will succeed. Trouble is, they point at the wrong stuff. See, it’s not about the pink paisley site or the cool logo. It’s about the connection their enthusiasm drives with their customers. They may pack their deliverables in cool, branded boxes, but those are meaningless if the person behind the brand isn’t meaningful to the client. The “secret of their success” isn’t their graphic designer, it’s their effort, and most importantly it’s the effort they put out throughout the entire customer experience. From start to finish they kill themselves to make sure their customers are happy. There is no branding that can take the place of that effort, and it’s the principle driver of their success.

Sometimes I think the gurus just tell us what we want to here. What is easy to fix. What is easy to address. (What they can charge us lots of money to fix for us). They don’t tell us what we don’t want to hear. That we’re getting fat (and that appearance matters). That we’re lazy (but wait - I spend all day every day editing!). That our sloth and our laziness is showing up in our work product, and that we’ve lost our edge. Our work no longer displays the creativity it once did because this has become a job and not a passion. Want to have a more successful business? Hire a personal trainer.

Here’s my simple success formula:

  1. Master your craft.
  2. Make sure every customer you ever have is as happy as you can make them.
  3. Make sure every customer you ever have will recommend you wholeheartedly.
  4. Make sure you constantly work to improve yourself. (Your fitness and your appearance are an oft-overlooked part of your brand).
  5. Make sure your marketing materials professionally reflect your personality and your business.
  6. Never stop.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Are they Seeking You? Part 3

Are they seeking You, Part III

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve looked at a series of impersonal factors related to building a successful photography business. This week we’re going to get personal. For some of you, this will definitely be a “Big Boy Pants” conversation, at least if you’re taking it seriously. (those who’ve read my stuff for a while know that when I’m going to say something I know will hurt, I always preface it by asking you to put on your Big Boy Pants. This is not a sexist comment. It’s just that I think it’s improper for a CEO to tell his women clients to pull on their big girl panties. Though, I guess I just did. Whatever, you get the point. ...)

I talk to a lot of photographers. In an average week, whether via email, or in person at PUG meetings, or here in the office, I’ll talk to at least 20 different photographers and some weeks, many, many more than that! I love these conversations because they make me more effective. They also give me a sense of who will succeed and who will fail. Want to know what I’m finding? Here’s where you might want to take a minute to print this out, grab a cup of coffee, sit down somewhere away from your etherverse so when I ask you these questions you can give them some honest thought ...

Ready? OK. There is one question that will really make the difference. Only one. Ready. It’s a big one.

Are you generally excited about your business, or are you generally frustrated with your business? If you have to pick one answer, and you do, which one would you pick? Can’t pick? Here’s some indicators that you might be frustrated.

1). You sit in front of your computer all day wondering why no one is finding you on Google.

2). You dread the pricing conversation because you know it’s going to devolve into the clients chipping away at your pricing until it’s barely worth taking the business.

3). People who do workshops focused on the importance of (Pick any); branding, art, workflow, post-production, etc. make you want to throw up.

4). You put off editing events until your clients begin to grouse - unreasonably - that four months is long enough to wait. (for editing an event you can also read, designing an album or any number of other things that take lots of time and don’t seem to yield much result)...

5). On any given Saturday you roll out of bed, put on your comfortable ‘black,’ check the batteries, roll out the door and then do exactly the same things from the moment you meet your clients until the moment you get home, feet aching, back hurting, hungry because the bastards didn’t feed you, frustrated because you spent the last two hours of the reception shooting setups for the MOB. (Or if you primarily shoot portraits, any number of the same routine enforcing activities).

You get my point. Here’s the problem with being generally frustrated. Your clients can feel it. Whether they’re hiring you for a wedding or a portrait session, you have to remember that in most cases they’re starting in a place where they’re uncomfortable. Very few people actually like to have their picture taken. They have to believe that you’re going to make them comfortable and even more, that they’re going to be glad you’re there. Here’s a few things to think about.

1). Does your enthusiasm for your business come through everywhere it can? (How about in your avatar? Your “about me” pages.)

2). When you have meetings with potential clients are you prepared? Are you early? Do you have up to date materials to show? Do you have prints to show? (As an aside I always laugh when I hear that photographers are having trouble selling prints. Why? In the sales process did you show your clients any prints? Or did you only show them your stuff in slideshows or on your iPhone? If they never see a print, why would they think of you as a source for them?) Do you have a crisp, freshly printed, logical price list that makes your services clear?

3). Do you ever mention, even off-handedly, your frustrations with other clients? (they’ll wonder what you’re going to say about them).

4). Do you project an air of confident competence that makes them feel comfortable and even enthusiastic about hiring you?

5). When the meeting is over are you excited about the opportunity or do you immediately start preparing for failure by telling yourself that these people aren’t really good enough for you anyway?

If your business is struggling you need to dig in to these questions. If you don’t know whether your site is helping or hurting ask someone. (Heck - ask me. Pictage customer or not, I’m happy to take a look and tell you what I think). On some of these, frankly you know the answers and you know they’re not good. You’re late for meetings. You’re disorganized. You spent your last face to face talking about a frustrating situation with a previous, unreasonable client. Your defense against pricing discussions is complaining about pricing discussions (kind of a preemptive strike). You end the conversation by saying, “there’s a lot of photographers out there. You’ll find someone you like. I’m not sure I’d hire me either...” Every single one of these things matters.

Here’s the good news. Tomorrow is a new day. If you’re serious about success then get serious about reinvigorating your business. Make your next client meeting your best ever. Perseverance is the key to success in any small business. Even for those who have “made it” the marketplace changes so quickly that they must continue to grow and change or they will quickly be irrelevant. There is no judgement for falling behind. There is only judgement for staying there. That judgement is rendered when the market leaves you behind and your business fails.

For the rest of you, Onward! If you’re willing to do the work you can achieve your reward. I’m here to help. Literally. It’s my job.