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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Previous comments
Iain Stanley's picture

All points well taken. I simply don't have the patience to watch cement grow. In the photography realm, it's very difficult to rank on Page 1 of Google or other search engines for photography related articles if you're an individual running a website. And if you're on Page 3, you may as well be on Page 23, coz you're not getting any organic traffic through searches.

If that's the case, you're simply not making sales because your products/services aren't in front of anyone's eyes.

Your last sentence touches on a point I've used a lot. But I've found that I make more sales directly through DMs on Instagram, and people actually seldom go to my site because the conversation largely takes place on Instagram.

At the end of the day, I want as much time as humanly possible away from the business side of things. I want to be out in nature shooting photos and enjoying this beautiful south Japan air. I emphatically understand that you need to focus on business if you want to make any sort of income, but I want that focus to be as minimal as possible.

By using social media I've found it's been far more successful and economical.

Dallas Dahms's picture

SEO takes time and I understand that not everybody has the time. But... eventually the Google machine will begin to work for you if you follow some honest SEO practices that will make your website rank higher than the next guys for search terms related to your business.

There is no silver bullet with marketing and sadly too many people buy into the silver bullet theory. For somebody starting up as a photographer now it would be way easier for them to build content and a network on their own platform and build it around good SEO than it would be to rely on something as transient as a social media network to get them 10,000 followers. How long did it take to build your following? I'm sure it wasn't overnight.

Iain Stanley's picture

10,000 followers took me just under a year. The difference, for me, was that I was making sales and seeing income as I grew my social media followings. They went together. With SEO and building out my websites and email lists, I saw barely anything for the first year, so it discouraged me.

Email marketing picked up, but......

Ironically, a number of my articles here on fstoppers rank on Page 1 for various keywords. As do my answers on Quora. So that could definitely be an option for getting yourself onto Page 1 and getting trickle down traffic that way.

Dallas Dahms's picture


But here's the burning question;

If you wanted to run a campaign to advise all of your 10k followers on instagram that you have created an online shop on your website, how would you do it? You don't have access to any of their email addresses and when you make a post you have no idea what sort of reach your message has other than what Zuckerberg tells you (and we know his personality, so have barrels of salt handy if he says it's X).

What would happen if you, or anyone else for that matter, posts something that the platform owner finds objectionable and they suspend your account? You see where I'm going with this? Owning the communication platform is way more important than what you get out of the platform that you don't own as far as sales is concerned.

My philosophy has always been to use social media to drive traffic to my own platform, not to engage potential customers on somebody else's platform. When they are registered with me I know that I can reach them when I need to.

jared polin's picture

If I did not have the ability to marketing something via e mail I don't think I would be in business. The email list is so powerful for sharing information, both educational and sales.

Iain Stanley's picture

Thanks for the comment Jared. If you are the Jared Polin of The FroKnowsPhoto Show then great to have your input. I am genuinely interested in your situation. You have 700,000 subscribers on YouTube, 111,000 followers on Instagram etc etc. With those kind of numbers, then it seems a no-brainer you'd have success with email marketing, just by sheer force of eyes seeing your emails (and the value that you offer).

But which came first for you? Building your immense social media presence, or building your email list to market to? Because that's at the heart of many of the comments here in this thread.

Look forward to your answer. Cheers.

Lucy Krewik's picture

Agree better try email automation with free services. If it goes well and your email list grows you can go to other paid services like for ex.