Last summer, my friend Andy and I, and his six year-old son, were out location scouting. As we drove around, the three of us were playing a very intense game of word association. One of us would say a word, and the others would quickly say the first word that came to mind. As we neared a potential location, Andy called out, “Key West” to which I mindlessly responded, “Jimmy Buffett…” In that instant, I realized that everything I thought I knew about marketing myself as a photographer was completely and utterly wrong.
What Makes an Experience?
Ask a hundred people about their experience at an theme park, and you’ll most likely get a hundred different answers, each telling you about the same place, yet each experience colored by the teller’s perspective, by their point of view, each pointing out different things that are specific to their own experience; the sights, the sounds, the smells, the laughter, etc. Each of their individual experiences painting a picture of the larger image - the overall experience of a day spent at the park. If you were take those hundred experiences and average them, you would get a pretty decent picture of what the experience would be like for you - or for anyone - who plans on attending that particular park.
Now, imagine that one day you decide to go and to experience the park yourself. Excited with all the different stories in mind, you get there and as the day comes to a close, you’re disappointed to find that your experience was only technically correct. The rides worked properly, but weren’t fun, the food was edible, but not delicious and/or overly exotic, the characters were dressed up, but just sort of meandered lifelessly through the crowd. You got the experience of having gone to the park, but you missed out the anything that made it special to you.
“So, how does this relate to photography?”
It’s simple. A successful photographer is often one who clients feel they not only want to work with, but is someone with whom they NEED to work with. They want excellent photos, of course, but more than that, MUCH more than that, they want to feel as though that in hiring a particular person, they're getting the experience of working with that particular person. To illustrate; when you look at some of the most well-known (a.k.a Rockstar) photographers in the industry, the one thing that stands out to you might be the technical aspect of their work, the creativity of each concept, and/or the gear that the photographer uses. And that’s fine, paying attention to that stuff is what we do. But back away from your camera for a moment and think, what stands out about each successful photographer…to their clients? What does the person in charge of buying the photographer’s services see in that particular photographer that makes them loosen the purse strings? Technical aspect, sure. Ability to bring about a concept, of course. But, I’m willing to bet that the larger part of what’s bringing in the clients is becoming part of the photographer's community, and participating in the photographer's lifestyle.
The Jimmy Buffett Theory, BMW, and Rap Music
Many years ago (I’m assuming), the musician Jimmy Buffett merged his life force with the life force of the island of Key West, Florida (bear with me here). He has so thoroughly intertwined himself with the tropical getaway that one cannot be separated from the other. When most people think of Key West, they, like I did during the game of word association, immediately think of boats, beaches, bars, and the Margarita Lifestyle Jimmy Buffett crafted together over the better part of four decades. Listening to his music, it's nearly impossible not to visualize yourself on a beach, drink in hand, all your cares thrown gently to the wind.
That's the basis of the theory: Making people feel as though that by hiring you (or buying your product) they've got the in, they've become part of a selective group, that they're halfway toward living lifestyle. It becomes an "us and them" mindset. This obviously isn’t a new concept. Jimmy Buffett does it. BMW does it. Country Music does it. Rap music does it. Alcohol and tobacco companies do it. It’s been done and will continue to be done long after each of us is gone. It’s brilliant in it’s simplicity and effectiveness and it can be rounded down to this: Make them want to be you.
Don’t give your clients the experience they want, give them the experience they need.
Jasmine Star, love her or hate her, is perhaps one of the best, and most related examples of this. Her marketing strategy is brilliant: clients become best friends. Her portrayal of the overly romantic, hip, fashionable, hopelessly in love ‘everywoman’ makes her, whether consciously or not, the version of themselves her clients aspire to (a quick reading trip through the comment section of her blog further proves this point). In addition, by hiring her, (which seems like almost an aside) they’re made to feel as though getting a side of her usually reserved for those closest to her - they’ve made the inner circle, getting an experience above and beyond that of any other client so that when all is said and done, despite the fact that they all went to the same "theme park," the experience feels so individualized and so real that clients would swear it was tailored specifically for them.
Like I said, it’s brilliant and quite honestly, despite the recent dust up, JStar is fantastic place to look for a marketing blueprint on selling yourself (even her website is about her - her clients are secondary). Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to her marketing plan, the one thing that should stand out to you is how people respond to being included and made to feel special. We’re social animals. If you give your clients the standard, run-of-the-mill treatment, it’s pretty much a guarantee that the next time they’re looking for someone, they’ll go elsewhere. Make them want you because you’re going to allow them something of much more value than well-posed, technically correct photos at a decent price. they want you because in hiring you, they’re becoming part of the select community to which your name "happens" to be attached. They want in. Give it to them.
It's no secret that photography is an easy industry to break into. You go buy a camera and boom, you’re a photographer. You go and set up a website, and boom, you’re a professional (I'm kidding...mostly). To be a successful photographer, however, it’s imperative that you visualize yourself as the brand - live the lifestyle, embody the spirit of what you’re selling, then bottle it up and include it in your package. Step back and do a bit a business-related soul-searching and I'm certain you'll find something unique about you/your work that'll allow you to stand out against your competition. And whatever that is, whatever you find, as long as it's legal, offer it.