The Best Marketing Tactic You Aren't Doing: Cold Calling

The Best Marketing Tactic You Aren't Doing: Cold Calling

For many of us, marketing ourselves to potential art buyers, publications, and agencies is the stuff of nightmares. Cold calling is certainly one of the most feared.

The thought of making another email campaign or putting together an expensive mailer is daunting and, potentially, very expensive. Instagram is a handy tool, but it's easy to get lost in the ocean of images or cast aside by a ruthless algorithm. We crave new and innovative ways to market ourselves that will get us noticed without feeling like we are tossing coins in a wishing well! Ironically, one of the best ways to contact new clients is one that is so often overlooked: pick up the damn phone!

Fear is a Beast

Making a phone call can be terrifying, especially when you're not used to doing it. I'm definitely guilty of hemming and hawing for days, weeks, and months, doing everything I can to avoid actual contact with a human being, hoping against hope that someone will notice me on social media and blow up my email. We can handle being told "no" just fine when it's passive. The email box stays empty. The phone doesn't ring. We blame Instagram or Facebook for changing their algorithms and now we aren't getting the exposure we used to have. I've done it all.

When it comes down to it, what's really stopping us from making that call? Fear. We don't want to be told no in a concrete way. I can offer you some solace here. It gets easier. Every time I make a call, I'm less anxious about it. The human spirit is resilient. You can get used to anything with enough repetition.

Strategies for a Smooth Call

For me, much of the anxiety of calling someone directly comes from not wanting to sound like an idiot on the phone. I think that by sounding less than professional on the phone, I'll ruin any chance I had to work with that client. Well, you're right. A disastrous phone call could end any chance you had. I know, I'm supposed to be uplifting and inspiring here, but if you're going to be a professional, you need to work on your phone presence. Here are some ideas on how to up your phone game.

Know Who You're Calling

This sounds simple, but this is where 99% of people go wrong. They call the wrong people. Say you're calling up a magazine to get on their radar. You first need to know who to ask for when you get through. Many times, the only contact info you can find for a company is a general number that connects to a switchboard or receptionist. When you get through, you need to know who to ask for. For magazines or ad agencies, you can usually find that information on their website. Usually, it's "Art Director" or "Creative Director." Sometimes it's the "Photo Editor." Whoever it is, do your research and write down the name of the person you're trying to reach. That lessens your chance of being routed to a general voicemail box that gets checked once a week. Sometimes it's hard to figure out who to talk to from the website. So how do you find out? Call! The receptionist will know the appropriate contact. Just be direct and ask! Something like: "Hi, my name is 'Insert name here.' I'm a photographer in the area and I'm looking to introduce myself to local publications. May I ask who heads your art department?" More than likely, one of two things will happen here. Either they will answer you with a name, or they will answer you with a name and then ask if you want to be transferred. Whichever happens, you need to be prepared with what you want to say to this individual.

Your Website: The Key to Keeping That Connection

When you do get connected to the appropriate party, preparation is everything. 9 times out of 10, this call is going to last all of 45 seconds. They're going to tell you how they handle submissions and usually give you an email address to send over your website so they can have a look at your work. What does that mean? You better have a good website! Instagram isn't going to cut it here, folks. When you don't have a web presence, you simply aren't marketing yourself as a professional. It's like having a Gmail account for your email address. I know, it's petty. But people look at these things when sizing you up. These creatives are so incredibly busy and get so many inquiries, they want to weed out those that don't cut the mustard.

By getting through and actually getting a person on the other line, you've managed to do something that people pay a lot of money for through Google or Facebook ads: You've gotten the exact eyes you want to look at your work! You need to make sure that work is presented in a form that screams "professional." Get an actual, non-Instagram website. Get a professional domain name in your email address. Get a second and third opinion about the images on your website. Better yet, if you happen to know any editors, have them look at it. You need to take out the filler images and only leave the cream of the crop. Make sure they all work together. Constantly curate your work. Be brutal.

Make a Short Script

Until you're comfortable enough to wing it, print out your opening statement. It can literally be exactly what you asked the receptionist, but I don't want you fumbling over your words when you've got the client of your dreams on the phone. All you need is a brief statement that identifies who you are, what you do, and what you want from the person you're talking to. From there, it's all a crap shoot. As I said earlier, you'll probably get a request to send over an email with your website. But...and this is a big "but", sometimes they are actively looking for fresh people. In that case, be ready to talk to them about yourself. They'll likely ask about your experience. Have you been published before? Where? What do you shoot? The art of talking up yourself in a natural way without sounding like you're bragging is one that takes time and practice, and I can't say I'm amazing at it, but having some of your publications, achievements, and such in front of you while you're on the phone can help you organize your thoughts. If it's a small publication, they may ask you about your pricing. Have that ready. I've called up magazines and been on assignment with them a week later. You never know. 

What's the Point?

Now, wait a minute! You may be saying what's the point in calling if they're just going to ask me to email them anyway? I could have just done that in the first place. True! Except for one big difference. Now, they're looking for you. The subject line of an email is key. If you can put, "Hi, I just spoke to you on the phone," or something similar in your subject line, your target is much more likely to give you the time of day. Also, by talking to them on the phone, you've made yourself human. Hopefully, you've endeared yourself to them and wowed them with your friendly personality and professional phone presence. They like you. You're no longer a face in the crowd. You're an acquaintance that they want to succeed. When they click on your website link, they want you to be good. They want to work with you. 

Following Up

One call usually isn't enough to seal the deal with a client. Hopefully, once they get a chance to click on your email they'll respond right away and want to speak further with you. Sometimes, they like your work and want to keep you on file for future work. Great! Now you can gleefully add them to your email list or newsletter, keeping them abreast of your latest work and accomplishments. Reach out with a personal email once a month or so, reminding them you exist. Sometimes, you're not what they're looking for. That's ok, too. You can still put them on your list and as you evolve, get better, maybe something will change.

So what if you don't hear anything back? As stated before, these people are very busy. Maybe you called them in the middle of a deadline week and they just plain forgot about you. If I haven't heard from someone, I usually make a follow-up call a week later. After all, you know exactly who to ask for now. If you get sent to voicemail and they don't call or email after that, it's probably a safe bet that they're not interested right now. Try again in six months! Call again and say, "Hi Joe! There have been some awesome changes in my work and I'd love for you to have a look when you get a moment." It's ok to fail. But, remember that failure doesn't last forever, and there is such a thing as second and third chances.

Cold calling isn't fun. It's not glamorous. You will be told "thanks but no thanks" many, many times. But, by putting yourself out there, good things will happen. People are social animals. They like interaction. Your smartphone has other functions besides checking how many likes your last post got. It's also a phone. Use it.

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20 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

LOL! I had a job cold calling for a real estate company and I do not miss it at all. Making 400 dials a day wears on you pretty quickly. All in all, I found cold calling to be a pretty soul crushing experience.

That having been said, where are you getting your list of names and numbers?

Anete Lusina's picture

What I do sometimes is just literally google businesses around my area, from interior design businesses, to catering, etc and then sort of keep expanding the area to nearby towns. You can type in simply X near me in Google and it'll throw out a bunch of options.

Anete Lusina's picture

I haven't quite levelled up to dare to cold call over telephone just yet though! Haha.

Matthew Odom's picture

I agree with 90% of what you said but definitely not on the email. Having a gmail account doesn't disqualify you. I reroute my emails from my site to my gmail because it allows me to respond quickly and if I need to put something on the calendar, I can do it all in one single swoop. Clients usually flip out because I get back to them so quickly. Cold calling works locally the last thing a photo editor wants is a photographer calling them (if they have no clue who you are out of the blue). They are more receptive if you cold email.

Other than that nice piece 👌

Julian Wood's picture

I've sold Advertising and Life Assurance by cold calling back in the days before the internet, its main purpose was to raise awareness, as it would be unusual to get a first call sale (false close). I'm not sure how effective cold calling would be nowadays and whether it really is the best or even a worthwhile method for promoting a professional service. I guess if all other avenues have dried up or you are looking to create a contact/mailing/target list it may be worth it. But at my best and I was one of the top performers I would be looking at 10 calls for an answer, from which I would get passed the gate keeper 1 in 3 times and then a 1 in 15 sale somewhere down the line, 450 cold calls for a sale of a relatively low value unemotional product. With my current professional (not photographic) business, I spend a lot of time researching target organisations and individuals and then I create an email matching either their current or what I forecast will be their future needs, in the email I say I'm going to call and when I'm going to call and I ensure I call exactly when I said I would. Aim of first call: minimum get a second call best case get a meeting. Conversion rate 1:3 same amount of time spent but more aligned to the professional service and image I am charging a premium for. However, at the end of the day nothing beats a referral and my bet is that nobody asks for them, my referral conversion rate is 1:1.

Michael Jin's picture

Having done cold calling fairly recently (within the past 5 years) I can say that it's an extremely inefficient method of gaining business. It might make sense for real estate where you get a $50,000 check for selling a single home, but for something as low value as photo services, it's difficult to justify sitting there and putting in dials when you might be lucky to get a 1% conversion rate with a very refined pitch.

Hans Rosemond's picture

It really depends on the service you're offering. If i were attempting to cold call someone for, say, a wedding booking...yeah that wouldnt work out so well. But for the initial contact for editorial or commercial work, ive found it to be rewarding, if nerve wracking. In photography, an immediate conversion isnt always the goal. Just getting on their radar is a level of success.

Michael Jin's picture

YMMV, I guess. I haven't gotten a whole lot of "Thanks, but no thanks.", but I've gotten my share of death threats during my time cold calling.

Deacon Blues's picture

Cold calling me is the absolute best, 100% surefire way to make sure I will never do business with you, no matter what you have to offer.

Ahh, the dreaded cold call. I hate them at work, and I hate them at home. It's a bulletproof way to get me turned off of your product/service. I like talking to people where there's a mutual benefit, like friendship, for instance. But mainly, it comes down to this: if I want to buy something, I'll look into it. If I have a need for something, I'll act on that need. I don't need someone to offer me something I wasn't looking for. There's a reason I wasn't looking for it; I didn't need it at that point in time. Yeah, maybe it's a good deal, and maybe one day I'll need it; but I may also not need it in the future. What's the solution? Look into it when I need it.

As an interesting point to this article seems 9/10 people in the comments don’t want cold calls. But the 1/10 that doesn’t mind.. It’s a grind. It’s beyond frustrating when you know you flubbed it and lost the opportunity because you get so few. But I believe it in. - disclaimer i don’t do it for photography, I’ve done it for IT sales.

Lots of talk about wanting to be different and/or stand out in your business. Seems if 9/10 people aren’t using cold calling this could be how you stand out?

Great article IMHO. Covers the entire process really well. Thanks

Michael Jin's picture

The issue with cold calling is the low return rate. There's a reason that call centers will employ minimum wage workers or cheap overseas labor. There's a huge opportunity cost that you're paying by sitting at the phone and dialing numbers (that's not counting the resources to research and build a list).

You will definitely eventually reach people that you otherwise might not have, but at a certain point you have to ask yourself how much your time is actually worth and whether cold calling is a productive use of it.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Oh totally. That's where the research part comes in. Cold doesn't equal blind calling. There are only so many publications and ad agencies. I think framing the call as an introduction rather than a direct sales pitch is more productive in photography.

I would add calling the right people/companies. Carpet bombing the phone book for anyone vaguely interested in photography services is not going to get you anywhere. Learn about your local businesses. What they do, what are the people there like. Most importantly if the quality of the photography on their website/social media is not up to snuff. Then you can call the specific companies you think are going to be a fit and have an actual conversation rather than a sales pitch.

Hans Rosemond's picture

yes, exactly this. A cold all doesn't have to be a sales pitch. It's about introducing yourself and your work and making a personal connection.

Alex Reiff's picture

I think the trick that most people here are missing is robodialing. Also, having a prerecorded spiel so that way, you don't wear yourself out saying the same thing over and over again. I prefer to start out with something attention grabbing like "Hello, we've been trying to reach you about your car's extended warranty!"

Cold calling used to be a great way to get a meeting with people but those days are gone. I used to make a few calls daily and get a meeting maybe every 20th call or so. The last few years or so though I can call 50 people and not one will answer the phone it's straight to VM. It's a total waste of time, nobody wants to get the calls and nobody wants to make the calls.

I don't even pick up the phone if it's not a number I don't recognize, and I hang up pretty quickly with a "no thanks, not interested" if I accidentally do let a call through. With cell phones, cold calling is pretty useless. Back in ye olden days when people still had landlines and couldn't screen calls, it was a different story. Emails? I am drowing in emails. I don't even open most of them. Let me look for you if I need your business.

this is a joke of an article - where do they find this folks writing this stuff - what is this : 1985 ? when we communicated via Rotary Phone and had Telex Machines ?! None of my clients from the WaPo to Hennessy to Saatchi & Saatchi ever would pick up their phones when called from a # which is not in their Contact list already - further more - who will lilsten to a so called Sales Pitch one leaves on a VM - simply Idiotc ! There are so much better and more effecttice ways of attracting new Clientel than leaving VM's ! " Just getting on the radar is a level of success " really - Hans that is silly - since there is NO proofe - no analytics - for somebody to find out if the VM one leaves, was actually listend to ... what a bunch of Amateur BS

Anita Zvonar's picture

I agree with many points here....tried and true, and yes...still makes me nervous picking up phone, and I don't do it enough. But you will stand out in an Editors or Art Director's mind.... it works if done properly.