Is Email Marketing Profitable for Photographers?

Is Email Marketing Profitable for Photographers?

If you're trying to build a profitable business, you've probably heard people say you need to build an email list and do email marketing. But is that really so? And what kind of time and resources does it take to actually create an email list? Let’s go through it all and see why I don’t think email marketing is really worth it.  

Firstly, what is email marketing? It’s when you send an email to a group of people on your email list that contains some kind of offer or promotion, or in some way tries to create business for you. Typically, it involves using emails to send ads, ask for business, or request purchases from the people you’re sending emails to. On top of that, it’s designed to build trust, awareness of your brand, and to a certain extent, customer loyalty. You can either send your emails to your own list, which you’ve built yourself, or to someone else’s list, which you’ll have to pay to access. We'll talk about sending to your own list.  

Which Email Marketing Service?

Before you can even build a list, you first need to think about the email marketing service you’re going to use that will keep and store that list. That's a headache in itself, not just because of the options, but also because of prices and services.  

There are a number of free plans out there such as Mailchimp or Constant Contact. Mailchimp, for example, offers you 2,000 subscribers free and up to 12,000 emails a month. It’s a good deal when you’re first starting out and it’s pretty good to use when you’re testing the waters of email marketing. But once you go over 2,000 subscribers, you need to pay, and companies such as Mailchimp don’t offer anywhere near as good a service as other paid email marketing companies such as Get Response, AWeber, or Infusion Soft.  However, these companies cost a significant amount more. I currently have about 12,000 subscribers and have to pay $149 a month with AWeber.  

So therein lies your dilemma. Do you go with the free one first up even though it doesn’t offer anywhere near as professional a service? Or do you go for the higher-priced options straight up, meaning you’re spending money from the get-go without really knowing what you’re doing as you start on your email marketing journey? It seems like a no-brainer to go the free option, but once your list starts growing, you can soon become frustrated with the obvious limitations on the free/cheaper plans.

Building Your List 

Once you've decided on the email marketing service you want to use, the next problem you have is actually building a list of people to send emails and offers to. How do you even start getting email addresses from people? There are a number of ways, but in my experience, the easiest way to do it is through something called a lead magnet. This is just a fancy marketing buzzword so don't be put off if you don't know what it means.

It’s when you offer something free to someone in exchange for their email address. You come across these every day on websites where they ask you to sign up or subscribe in order to get a free PDF or a free how-to guide. So, if someone wants a free giveaway of some kind from you, they give you their email address in exchange for the freebie. Once you've got that email address, it's added to your list and you can start automatically sending them offers however often you like.

But that brings us to your next dilemma. You have to create a lead magnet in the first place. Not only that, you have to create a lead magnet that people actually want. It has to be something of value that entices people enough to happily give you their email address. So, as photographers, it could be something along the lines of “How to Learn Manual Settings in Under Three Hours” or “10 Ways You Can Get Sharper Photos.” You get the drift.  

The problem is you have to create the lead magnet. Then you have to edit it, format it, and test it. Then you have to set things up so that your freebie is downloadable. All that takes a lot of time and effort and mental endurance.

And what if your lead magnet doesn't work and you're not collecting any email addresses or building any kind of list? You have to go back to the drawing board. More time and effort wasted. And in the bigger picture, this is all taking away time from you doing what you love, getting out there and taking photos.

The Emailing Process

Image by Pixabay user rawpixel, used under Creative Commons.

But let's just assume you've created a great lead magnet and it's pulling in dozens of subscribers a day to your burgeoning email list. The next problem you have is what to actually write to your list. And how often should you write and what should your content be? If you write the wrong things, then they’ll never open your emails again and you’ll never make any sales from them.  

I'm sure you get lots of emails every day from people pushing and pushing you to buy stuff without offering you any value at all. How quickly can you click "unsubscribe" from those people? Do you want to be that person as you learn your copywriting skills? Make no mistake, you will make a lot of mistakes and lose a lot of subscribers as you perfect and hone your craft. Copywriting is an art form in itself, and learning takes time, more time you could be out taking photos!  

Do You Have Enough Items to Sell?

Another issue you need to carefully consider is what you're actually selling. You have to be honest and ask yourself whether you have enough offers on your website or in your photography business that can sustain an ongoing email marketing campaign. I mean, if you're only selling prints, there're only so many ways you can keep promoting the same thing, aren't there?

You need to have a variety of things you're selling. This could be in the form of specials on canvas, metal, acrylic, if you're dealing in prints only. Or you could sell photography-related gear through affiliate marketing and then email your list about the reviews or posts you're writing. But rest assured, there’s absolutely no point building an email list and doing email marketing if you don’t actually have a number of things to sell.

The Problem of Email Deliverability 

The last problem is email deliverability. What's that exactly? It's the ability of your email marketing service (like Mailchimp) to ensure that the emails you send to your list actually end up where they're supposed to be: in their primary inbox, not in the catch-all "Promotions" inbox, not the other catch-all-but-never-looked-at "Social" inbox, and especially not the dreaded spam box.  

Don't be suckered. All the best email marketing services out there insist their email deliverability is top-notch. Whether it's Get Response, Mailchimp, AWeber, or Infusion Soft, they will all talk up their email deliverability capabilities. For most of them, it's absolute poppycock. Trust me, I've been on the end of an email marketing company that hasn't given good email deliverability. It sucked. I wasted time, money, and energy.

Without reliable deliverability, everything becomes irrelevant. Your design, the quality of your emails, your lead magnets, your list loyalty, your autoresponder sequences: none of them matter in the slightest if your emails aren't getting delivered into someone's primary inbox, because if that's the case, they're not getting seen or opened. It's that simple. And if they're not opened, there's no point in anything.

And the worst part is, email deliverability is mostly beyond your control. I mean, there are lots of steps you can take to give yourself the best chance possible of getting to the primary Inbox, but it's never a guarantee. And again, all these things take time, patience, practice, and mistakes, all things that further eat into your time out in the field.

I currently average about 40 percent open rates, which is pretty darn high. But that still means that 60 percent of people on my list aren't opening, seeing, or reading my emails. And I'm paying for them to be there. How dumb! No wonder I'm giving up email marketing soon.  

The Conclusion: The Money Doesn't Add Up

I've been doing email marketing for a couple of years now, and it simply isn't worth the time or the effort. I wrote last week that Instagram has been far, far better for my business. And from here on, I'll be paying for targeted ads on places like Facebook instead of continuing with email marketing.

I've learned as much as I possibly could and I simply don't think the cost/benefit analysis works in your favor. Not by a long shot. It just sucks up so much of your time learning, and really, who wants to spend what little precious time we have on something as boring as email marketing when in my experience, it just isn't worth your while? The reality is that you have to spend money to make money in any business, but I really don't think your money is well spent on email marketing.  

What have your experiences been with email marketing? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.  

Lead Image by Pixabay user Mohamed Hassan, used under Creative Commons.

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37 Comments

Scott Weaver's picture

All of us are inundated every day with email and other notifications we'd rather do without. I'm more concerned with annoying clients by sending email newsletters, so I don't. I also agree with the author that Instagram is much more effective for showing your contacts what you've been up to.

Iain Stanley's picture

It's definitely a balancing act Scott. If you never email people or notify them of sales or new products you have, then you'll never make any sales. But if you do email them such stuff, it often gets lost in the dozens of others we get every day from everyone else out there doing the same thing. Grabbing peoples' attention in a unique, soft sell kind of way is the Utopia we're all searching for....

If your only sales channel is e-mail then you are absolutely right.

John Sammonds's picture

The new EU Data Protection Act is in force soon and if you do Email lists and marketing you better have a good read first.

Iain Stanley's picture

Very salient point John. Thanks for pointing that out.

Color Thief's picture

The question in the title is: "Is Email Marketing Profitable?" That should simply be whether (newBusiness - cost) > 0? Unfortunately, after wading through this article, neither how to determine the cost nor how to measure the profitability was ever mentioned. Yet the article concluded that the cost/benefit analysis doesn't work in your favor. Please…if you're going to take the time to write an article like this, give it some meat. How do you measure the effectiveness of a campaign? How do you measure the actual costs including your time? If you can't do those two things accurately, you can't answer the question this article proposes and you're wasting everyone's time.

Iain Stanley's picture

If you give yourself an hourly worth (let’s say $50/hour) then the process and time spent on email marketing is nowhere near worth it. I doubt you’ll ever recover your money.

In terms of hard stats and data, and ROI, that will depend on how much you charge for any given product/service. Do you take the approach of charging less and hope to sell higher quantities? Or charge more and sell fewer?

I have tried both and ended up pretty even.

As the article says, I pay $149/mo with AWeber for an email list that sits at about 13,500 in total right now. I typically email twice a week and try to provide help and value in each email, as well as link to offers I have. But if I look at the time and effort and resources I have to put in to maintain and curate that list, it just isn’t worth it for me (in the time = money stakes as well as pure sales results)

Especially so when I consider Instagram does far more business for me, which I linked to inside the article. There are many, many things to take into account when you’re analyzing “profitable”.

Cheers

Is it profitable or not depends completely on what you're offering. If you're a photographer trying to sell prints to random people that have signed up for a list, probably not. However if you're trying to sell your photography services to people or companies who've expressed interest in the past but didn't have a need at that time, it can be invaluable. I booked 3 months of work with my last email blast because it wasn't a sales pitch, it was a quick update on what I'd been up to and why I started my own company.

Iain Stanley's picture

Excellent info and yes I agree completely. When people take on the challenging task of trying to build their own photography business, "building a list" "email marketing" is always thrown in there as must-do things. As you said, if you can develop relationships with people on your list and let them know of specific things that might be of benefit to them at particular times, then you're onto a winner.

If you're just building a list because "you're supposed to" then it's not worth the time or the effort, in my experiences dealing with many, many small business operators. Like everything, there are positives and negatives. For people contemplating whether they should go down the route of email marketing, I wanted to alert them to the things they need to consider.

But as your experiences show, email marketing can also be profitable if done well. Personally I think other avenues are far more profitable but it's great to see counter-arguments to add balance. Thanks.

One of the problems with the lead magnet approach is that you tend to create something you have knowledge about, but that also won’t attract your ideal clients. My clients aren’t interested in photography tips; only other photographers would be curious. So I would need to create something that appeals to my clients, and figuring that out is tough.

Iain Stanley's picture

That's exactly right Eric. I used the lead magnet examples in this article just to make it relevant for fstoppers readers, but in reality your lead magnet could be anything, depending on your target market. But the figuring out part is where the problems begin. So much time and testing and tweaking to get through just to get an email address. That's all before you've even started emailing people your actual products or services.

There's room for everything when it comes to business, but email marketing is definitely a tough nut to crack.

Paul Adshead's picture

Excellent point Eric, I came here to say the same thing. In regards to a lead magnet for clients, I would personally go down the discount code route. By signing up they will be given a code to use or informed of future discount promotions.

I don't know what area of the photo industry you are in, but EVERYONE loves a discount...

Iain Stanley's picture

They do indeed. Free is better than a discount though is it not? If you're giving something away free, such as a guide, or an ebook, or whatever whatever whatever, then surely free trumps a discount in the lead magnet stakes, regardless of industry?

Paul Adshead's picture

Us photographers sure do love freebies! but not everyone will jump through that hoop. Some may even be suspicious of it.

I can only speak about the industries that I've worked in, but I've found that the people who do the hiring or the purchasing respond better to discounts. If they are time sensitive discounts you may even motivate them to actually spend money sooner...

Great article by the way Iain. Always refreshing to see an honest take on the business side of the industry on here. :)

Iain Stanley's picture

Who doesn't love a freebie! To be honest with you, I don't have too many problems with the lead magnets. My conversion rates on landing pages are about 17% currently so not too bad. My email open rates hover between 30-40% which again isn't too bad. CTR not too bad and sales.......enough to turn a small profit each month.

But that has taken A LOT of time and effort and testing. And for someone just starting out now contemplating whether to do it or not, I just don't think it's worth the time or effort that I've spent.

Now I'm not saying it isn't profitable at all, because I am turning a small profit each month. I just think you can make your money more easily, more quickly, and more efficiently elsewhere and through other channels. And if you convert your time into a monetary value, then you might struggle to turn a profit.

Others in this reply thread disagree wholeheartedly but I love that - educated and empirical debate.

Thanks for your kind words.

Paul Adshead's picture

As much as I enjoyed the article all the comments have been a great read too! There really isn't enough articles out there with people divulging numbers. I hope everyone appreciates them as much as I do.

A rising tide lifts all the boats.

Look forward to reading more!

Iain Stanley's picture

It does make for great reading. Unfortunately, the general community out there doesn't seem to enjoy business related articles as much as we do, as the number of views for business related things is always way, way down on photography tips or photography reviews type articles.

I'd love to write about the business side of things all day, but.......

Paul Adshead's picture

I hear you Iain, it sure can be hit & miss but hang on in there as I've had some big numbers from business articles in the past.

Funnily enough the day you published your article I had just finished an article praising email marketing. Going to sit on it for a few weeks, but it will be interesting to see how that goes...

Paul Adshead's picture

So I had a look at your work to see what industry you was in & I love your Christmas cards!

If that is the area where you are trying to create a lead magnet then maybe a "10 Posing Ideas for Family Photos at Christmas/Any Holiday" could be a handy PDF? Not only will you grab some emails but the actual ones which hire you will have done their homework by reading your guide & should hopefully be easier to work with!

Something like that would be a soft sell while at the same time showcasing your cool work. I could see something like that being shared in mom/pop friend circles. Throw your details at the back with a little discount code too...

Thanks for checking it out, Paul! Yea that work pretty much takes over from August on. Great idea on the lead magnet for that- I’ll see if I can put together something for this season (which I think is my 10th year of shooting these cards :) ).

Andy Barnham's picture

I’ve found the complete reverse; I don’t generate any leads from Instagram while work comes my way every month after my e- shots. No matter what I’ve done on Inst, it’s never generated anything for me and I believe spending money on social media to be a waste of money. It’s impossible to gauge ROI when you can buy followers/ likes/ engagement.

I appreciate that a clean mailing list takes a lot of time; to compile and to maintain and I have different lists for different targeted (potential) clients. For me it’s the best way to connect.

I’m in the same camp as C E; I don’t offer prints, I’m offering my services and e- shots work for me. At the risk of labouring the point handing over money and photos (and all the accompanying meta/ data) to Zuckerberg has never generated anything for me and I worry about it. I believe we’re giving Big Brother the tools to control us.

Iain Stanley's picture

Not labouring the point at all Andy. It's good to have different perspectives. But I think you reiterate the need for more than just prints to sell if you're going to maintain a healthy list that offers decent returns.

One important point you make is that a "clean mailing list takes a lot of time to compile and maintain". I'm glad to hear it's working for you. I think from a money perspective I come out a little in front each month from my email marketing campaigns, but from a time lost perspective I think I'm way way down.

Automating things with autoresponders and list segmenting is a job in itself and I've found after a couple years I really just want to spend that time out in nature shooting photos, or at my PC editing them.

Andy Barnham's picture

Going off topic; ultimately, as you allude to in your final point, photographers want to shoot. A lucky few are able to have producers/ colleagues/ agent help prospect and manage the business side of life for them. For the rest of us, this isn’t our natural environment but something we have to do in order to do what we love; ie to photograph. I’d also add legal in addition to business.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yes you're right. It's a constant time battle. Battling for hours in the day to do what you want versus what you must in order to survive. Very few photographers "thrive" in the current climate and marketing is what it is - an absolutely necessary part of business.

Some people take to certain things more than others and they seem to work more effectively with certain platforms. Learning and perfecting advertising on social media platforms has been far, far easier and more efficient for me than email marketing.

In a perfect world we'd have to spend a minimal amount of time on any of it....

Dallas Dahms's picture

I haven't logged in here for months but after reading this I feel that I need to point out a few things to those reading the comments about direct marketing.

Want to know why you get so much spam? Because email marketing works. This is marketing 101. This is what they teach in 1st year marketing degrees. It's based on a simple truth; given a certain sample size, as a marketer you can expect a certain percentage response to your direct marketing effort. Generally it's 2%, but this can vary from one field to another. So for example if you send out 10,000 emails you can expect 200 responses. That can translate into a significant amount for your sales.

To the author; there are much better, cheaper ways to send out email to large lists. SparkPost will give you up to 20,000 free emails a month. If you need to send more their plans start at $9 a month for up to 50,000 emails. Whoever you're paying $149 a month to must be laughing all the way to the bank every time they hit your credit card.

The next thing I want to talk about is this Instagram / Facebook marketing scam. If you honestly think that you are getting value from Zuckerberg when you give him money to promote your brand to his league of fake accounts and bots you are being had. You may be better off buying the title deeds to bridges across the Hudson River.

When it comes to social media advertising you have absolutely no control over who is seeing your material. They purport to give you all these wonderful analytics, but trust me, those numbers are so badly warped that I wouldn't trust them with a barge pole. How can I say this? Trust me, after several attempts at marketing my safari business to a very specific market segment I saw exactly ZERO demographically linked landing page arrivals on my website. What I did see was a lot of people coming from countries that have never historically been interested in my website (ie, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Russia).

Zuckerberg is a con man. A very good one, but honestly you'd get better online exposure making a video of yourself setting fire to the currency you might have paid him than you will had you actually paid him for advertising.

Iain Stanley's picture

Points well made but I have to disagree with you on some of them. I'm not saying you're wrong, and I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just politely disagreeing.

You cited SparkPost and quoted 20,000 free emails a month. I have a list of 13,500. I send 2-3 emails a week. That equals about 35,000 a week, or 140,000 a month. SparkPost's pricing for that amount equals $49/mo which is interesting. Thanks for that but their pricing involves only sending emails by the looks of it. I can't see anything about automation, list segmentation, autoresponders, retargeting etc. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Just to clarify, I turn a small profit each month from email marketing, but I don't think it's anywhere near worth my time or effort or maintenance. That's just me and my experiences I'm passing on. And those of many other small business owners I speak with.

And as for the '"Facebook / Instagram marketing scam" you talk about, well you're plain wrong there for me. 90% of my revenue comes from Instagram. It forms the whole basis of my desire to give email marketing away. And to suggest you have no control over who sees your advertising....sorry but again that's not right. Your analytics and pixels show you exactly who's being targeted (and retargeted).

There are many ways to do business and you seem to be firmly in the email marketing camp. I'm not and I'll have no regrets when I walk away.

Dallas Dahms's picture

You need to clarify to us readers why you are sending out so much email and what your sales strategy is. This article doesn't even touch on what your business is. What exactly are you selling on Instagram? Photography services? Prints? Education? Equipment?

SparkPost integrates with other software. For my site (fotozones.com) it manages via API all the emailing, including thread subscriptions, newsletters, e-commerce receipts, etc. That site runs on Invision software, which admittedly doesn't provide quite the level of email management that the likes of your MailChimps and ElasticMail do, but for that website it works well and so far with a site that also has exactly 13500 registered members (for now), it doesn't cost me anything.

Regarding Instagram; I will say that this platform holds zero appeal for me because I simply just don't get it. I have tried using it a couple of times and I saw nothing happen on my sites traffic wise. Just remember, you can't take the analytics that they give you at face value without comparing them to your own server analytics. When I was advertising on Facebook for the safaris I was seeing these enormous figures (on Facebook) of how many people I had reached, yet when I looked at the AWStats traffic on my server, it didn't match up. Not even close. As I said, I started getting traffic from places I hadn't targeted. The people I had targeted simply didn't show up. That can only say one thing to me - Facebook are lying about their reach and given the propensity of their CEO to act unethically on a consistent basis I have to believe that his advertising business model is equally corrupt. Contemptible, actually.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and so far nothing I have ever done on social media has had any positive impact on any business I have tried to market on there. I'm glad it works for you but you have not shown us how. That's a missing link you need to provide.

Iain Stanley's picture

Typically my brief is to write articles around 1,000 words or so that appeal to a wide audience here at fstoppers. Drilling down so specifically on my business strategy is something I have no problem being transparent about, but that would be another 3 or 4 articles in itself.

Generally my emails consist of photography news, print deals in different areas of the world depending on my printer relationships, ebook sales, and articles I've written, among other things.

Most of my Instagram sales come from inquiries over DM regarding prints.

Regarding 'reach' on Facebook, it's not a metric I pay much attention to. I look more at CTR (click through rate). It also depends on what type of ad you're running. FB ads is an education in itself and I freely admit I have taken a few courses on learning more about it.

Dallas Dahms's picture

I've just gone and read your linked article about Instagram and honestly, I don't believe that any wise person would try and build a business foundation on shifting sands, which is what any social media platform is.

You wrote of spending time and effort on your website only for it to be a ghost town. How much time and effort did you spend on promoting your website instead of your work on Instagram? Man, you just can't build anything on social media because you simply don't own it at the end of the day. You can spend so much time and effort on building a following that can literally be taken away from you with the push of a button by a faceless person on the other side of the world.

Any smart businessman will build his house on a solid foundation, one that he owns and that will withstand the pressures of the environment in which it exists. Email lists and creating an engaged audience on a website that you actually own are things that you can always fall back on. Discarding them in favour of the bubble of social media is foolish. Sorry, I can not put it any other way.

If you can, use social media to drive traffic to your own platform and engage with your customers there. Just remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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