Is Social Media a Waste of Time for Photographers?

I see a lot of skepticism about social media from photographers in various online forums. A recent comment on the business forum at NatureScapes.Net, for example, stated that there are “no clear examples of anyone ever having any success marketing in this fashion,” that social media has never helped sell “hundreds of units of anything,” and that, therefore, it is a waste of time.

The truth is, social networks can be a waste of time for photographers, if you don’t leverage them wisely. But dismissing their value out of hand is a huge mistake.

Social Media = Word of Mouth

Used well, social media is a highly effective form of word-of-mouth marketing. For example, I hear all the time that (insert name of wedding/commercial photographer here) doesn’t have to actively market his/her work anymore because he/she is getting so much referral business from (insert form of social media here).

It’s not difficult to understand why this is the case.

In the old days (that is, a few years ago), a bride who absolutely loved your work at her wedding might have gushed about you to a few people in her social circle — and shown the photos to an even smaller number. Today, she can put up the whole gallery on Facebook or e-mail the link to your blog post on her wedding to all the guests, reaching hundreds of people at once.

If one of that bride’s friends is considering hiring a wedding photographer, who is she more likely to call — someone out of the phone book or who places ads in wedding magazines, or someone who comes highly recommended from a person she trusts?

Buying In

Certainly, it’s smart to approach social media marketing with both eyes open — and to think about the reasons the naysayers cite for their skepticism.

Here are five:

  1. It can be a time sucker if you let it.
  2. It’s difficult to be heard over all the “noise.”
  3. Very few of the people you interact with are potential customers.
  4. There’s no tried and true methodology for success.
  5. Measuring effectiveness can be difficult.

To these arguments, I would counter with these five responses:

  1. It doesn’t have to disrupt your day. You can conduct your social media activities on your iPhone while on a subway commute.
  2. The cream tends to rise to the top, just as it does for traditional marketing.
  3. You can reach much larger audiences for less money than ever before.
  4. There are a lot of opportunities to make a name for yourself through innovation.
  5. Brand awareness has real value, even if it is hard to quantify.

Social media is not for everyone, nor every type of business out there. But if you want to take advantage of this little thing called the Internet to build your business, it is essential.

What the skeptics might not realize is that by posting a comment on NatureScapes.Net, or even by reading Black Star Rising, they are already buying in to social media — and adding to its marketing power.

30 Responses to “Is Social Media a Waste of Time for Photographers?”

  1. I find it interesting that for the last 10 years I had been "marketing" myself in my original career by meeting people and handing out my business card to whomever wanted to take it (before internet marketing was the rage or even a force in my business). I can recall very few jobs coming directly from the people I marketed to in this way. Almost all of my work in that field over the past 10 years has been via word of mouth by people I had developed relationships with over the previous 20 years who were happy to refer me.

    I do not see this as any different from the current social marketing scene. We can send out newsletters or write blogs until our fingers cramp up, but the work will come from referrals by people with whom we have some kind of relationship, in this case via the social networks. We need to take time to develop relationships with our fellow tweeters or facebookers or whomever we are interacting with. Answer questions, give helpful tips, or just being a regular person that people can get to know. That is the theory I am working under anyway.

    Good article.

  2. I do agree with you, but I'm skeptical of your response to point #2: "cream tends to rise to the top."

    Sure, cream CAN rise to the top; however, plenty of it also flops. Being good helps your chances, but I've seen tons of good photographers trying to market themselves online who just don't seem to get the eyeballs they deserve. I tend to chalk that up to the noise -- sometimes you just can't overcome the din of your niche.

    What differentiates the rising cream from the flopping cream?

  3. Totally agree, I think there are many great opportunities with Social Media for photographers. It has helped my business out in a few different ways

  4. Great read! You made some valid points and provided a few easy to understand real world examples. I agree with your views and with those suggested by Doug.

  5. Well written Richard. Personally I think the power of social media is in networked communities above and beyond forums and blogs. Word of mouth marketing (WOMM) via any medium is where the power of social media can best provide value.

    As I shared privately with another photographer tonight in response to his blog post putting social media in a negative light... social media is as much discovering who takes an interest in your work as it is about interacting with those people. In addition its about leveraging the interest of others to extend your marketing reach to their networks.

    I find those that look at Social Media in a negative light are often looking through a traditional marketing & web 1.0 lens... broadcasting while not listening is highly inefficient. Social Media marketing enhances broadcasting with the tools to listen and engage with those taking an interest in your work. Why would you not want a direct line to talk with those that are most interested in your work!?

  6. @Mattymatt the crowd determines the best content and will circulate online through social media networks to no end. This is what is meant by the "cream will rise to the top". Content that isn't worth reading won't be discussed and if it is... it will be to warn people to not waste their time with it. Think in terms of asking friends whether a movie is worth seeing. How many movies do you waste your time seeing that are bad? I would imagine a lot less if you talk to people you trust. Social Media operates in the same way. Friends or colleagues you trust provide recommendations or testimonials via their online activity.

  7. Thanks everyone.

    @Matt - Jim says exactly what I had in mind. I don't mean the best photographer as the cream rising to the top, what it means is that those who make good content, have great ideas and understand their audience will rise to the top regardless of how much name recognition they have going into it.

  8. I'd say it's essential for all journalists, including photo journalists, in terms of news dissemination and in terms of newsgathering.

  9. For those people who say "Social Media doesn't work", I would counter with "Well, what DOES work?" Then...take what does work and use social media to enhance your already working strategy. For example, if what works for you is emailing a targeted list, use social media to get more people on your list. If what works is showing your portfolio and talking about your work, use social media to find people to show it to. If what works is word of mouth -- well then, your answer is in the many comments above.

    Finally, the turning point for me came when I took the advice of people who said "Get out there and be helpful. If you're actually doing stuff that helps people, your reputation will always proceed you."

  10. My experience from blogging, Flickr and Twitter is that I would have had better bang for my hours if I had spent it on direct marketing and selling.

    But, for me, Social Media is more of creating my own Long Tail. Every photo I post to Flickr will stay there and increase my exposure to the world, the same for every post on my blog. Together with commenting on blogs like this, and forums, it will increase my chances of getting a good ranking on Google.

    I think you have to either do it, or skip it. A simple online portfolio won't sell itself today, but if you have a lot of visitors, you can use that traffic to sell (almost) anything you like.

  11. For me, social media networking and marketing is a no-brainer. As a freelance photo assistant in these economically challenged times, I don't have oodles of money to spend on marketing and social networking is the perfect way for me to expose my expertise while getting more involved with learning the new craft of writing. Since using different social media tools like twitter, Facebook, blogging, and professional website communities like LinkedIn and, I have been able to build a good following of photography-based professionals and enthusiast's who value the experience I share on my blog. It's led to more opportunities for me to write on other professional photo blogs and get published in PDN. While I've only gotten a couple jobs as a result, I feel that more will follow with time. The recognition I've received after just a one-year presence has been very encouraging.

    The process of creating some daily buzz is easy with sharing a tweet on-the-fly. I can write article post's from most anywhere, as ideas come to me, and post them when appropriate. Quick digital grabs can be uploaded almost immediately to express a thought, vision, or share a fun moment. Integrating all these different tools has become easier, so my audience has broadened even more with this utilization. What I really like is that I am 100% in charge and can do what I want, when I want.

  12. So in my short photography career one of the main issues I've had was finding my 'niche'. Was I a photojournalist, fashion, stock, commercial etc?? I wanted to be a jack of all trades, but that is really next to impossible. Living in Denver CO I've been watching a whole new industry blossom as it has in all the other states that have voted in favor. Yes, I'm talking MMJ (medical marijuana). For the sake of discussion, your political stance on the issues is just that, your political stance. This is to illustrate social marketing. I created an 'alter' identity so I could keep my main stream separate from the MMJ, created a logo with a 'leaf' on it and called it 'The Ganja Tog' ('Tog' being the term Jack Hollingsworth coined on Twitter for photog). Started a Facebook fan page and have entered 5 different photo galleries with shots. In a little less than a month and a decent amount of playing on FB, I've gotten nearly 850 fans, when I walk into a dispensary at least one person there has already heard of 'The Ganja Tog'. I sent inquires to some local publications for freelance photojournalism work and was on a shoot that week. Second shoot with them is being considered for the cover. Granted this is a small niche and it's only been a month, but with the expense of the domain name, time to set up site/pages, it's already paid for itself. I know I'm not going to get rich of this niche, but it sure looks like I've got a pretty decent 'brand-able' idea here. The social networking created a buzz on some scale, which is the key. If people have already heard the name when I come walking in, I'm that much closer to closing a sale. IMHO.

  13. That is a really interesting story, Russ. I'll have to check out your work.

  14. If you are selective about what and when you post, and use it as a true network, it can be very beneficial.

  15. There are lots of opportunities out there. I'm a semi-professional and all of my clients found me on a social networking site. It's nice, because people get an idea of your personality, enjoy you, and spread the word.

    The best part is that it's cheap, which is great for someone just starting out.

    The only problem I see, which you mentioned, is that it is difficult to be heard over the noise, so I try to post interesting things instead of just reposting jokes/games/etc. I get better feedback.

  16. One can't really lump social media into a "good" or "bad" bucket. Just like any other marketing activity, there are those that do it well and there are those that do it poorly (or to excess). Today on Social Photo Talk I wrote about the opportunities that broad social networking can offer for building your trust level which might lead to future business.

  17. Excellent post Richard. Well thought out and presented.

    Business is about people. My business has been built through word of mouth. Social media is a powerful extension of the foundation for business growth.


  18. yeah, I think you have to either do it, or skip it. A simple online portfolio won't sell itself today, but if you have a lot of visitors, you can use that traffic to sell anything you like.

  19. SN may be worthwhile for commercial (wedding, portrait) photogs and perhaps even for some coporate shooters. I doubt it's of much, if any, use to a stock photographer.

  20. Great!
    So what do you do if you're not a wedding photographer?
    Could you be kind enough to tell us how Facebook and other sites will help the photojournalist, the documentarist (documentarian), the stock photographer, the nature photographer, etc... etc...
    Social networking may be of use only if you are selling a commodity. Like wedding photographers selling their coverage of the events, prints, CDs, DVDs or whatever they sell.
    Your posting is just one more to add to the dozens already done on various blogs. As for the claim that the readers are already buying in social networking, this is a fallacy. You're writing for people who have an interest in reading a photography blog. It's a virtual photo club. Nobody buys anything here. Please give us some examples success stories, with names of people successful. It's getting tiring to read all over the net how social networking is soooo important for us, working photographers.

  21. Chase Jarvis is a photographer that uses social media very effectively in my opinion. He gives good talk called "The Consequences of Creativity" that outline some of his ideas / experiences.

  22. Great succinct article, Richard. I like the MMJ story too. Proof it can bring sales. Seems like it could work for other niches too. However, what about a photographer who is primarily interested not in stock or assignment photography, but whose primary business is in selling fine art prints. Is the Ansel Adams Gallery on all the social media sites? Or is it a waste of time for this type of photographer, the John Sextons, the Philip Hydes, the Jack Dykingas? If one of them does a blog or a social media profile, are they gearing most of their material to upcoming photographers, to teaching, and then making the blog big that way, then selling more prints because they are higher ranked and their true customers can more easily find them? Do they tweet to their large fan base? Do they need to visit every blogger who comments on their blog? Or tries to connect on social media sites? How does someone like Sting manage his MySpace account? He has a million friends who he has never talked to.

  23. Thanks David. The Ansel Adams Gallery is on Twitter so perhaps they would have an answer for you as to what they hope to achieve.

    As for someone like Sting, I'm pretty sure he hasn't even heard of MySpace but I would guess his management runs contests or in someway engages that large fan base without having to interact with every single person. I think the expectations are different for someone on that level whereas if it is a sole proprietorship type of business as most photographers are it is assumed that you should be more accessible if someone tries to contact you.

  24. Imho there are two major flaws of this fashion.
    1. I am a photographer not an essayist
    2. With the need to create written content everyone (including those like me that don't have the gift of "poetry") writes pages and pages of useless wording increasing the cacophonic babble and putting the customer one step FARTHER away from finding the proper photographer.

    In what way is my ability to write and draw attention to my blog a criteria for the quality of my work as a photographer?

    Fact is, this bad habit has been created by Google's crawler (and of course it's programmers) - not being able to index the contents of pictures, they initially relied on captions but since they cannot tell the captions from the rest of the text they give it equal weight.

    This leads to the absurd that if you have a highly grafic website with little to no text you just don't exist for Google.

    My personal webpage features my work as a corporate portrait photographer in Germany and Italy and the research via google for (eg) "corporate portrait photographer Germany" put me on place one or two for some years.

    I gave it little weight at that time but when they last changed their indexing algorythms my site visitor (and my clients) dropped to page 14 (!). Am I now a better writer than before, a worse photographer?

    Instead of trying to comply with insane standards and a way to theoretical approach to photography we should ask Google to change it's "formula".

    One way of doing this could be to have a google specific metatag that tell it's robot whether the contents of the page is about pictures or about text allowing for them to give higher value to captions and for us to do what we are best at: taking pictures.

  25. I'm just starting out on using the web as a marketing tool, so the jury's still out for me. But a few things seem obvious to me so far:

    1. Online marketing is much cheaper than print. I purchased four domains and web hosting for the cost of a quarter page ONE-TIME ad in a local weekly.

    2. Online media is on the rise, print is in decline.

    3. Online is indeed word-of-mouth.

    Falling into the time-suck aspects of social media and building a buzz is certainly the downside. But it's a front-end load proposition, IMO. I've spent about ten weeks solid doing almost no shooting and working on the web goodies, social media, etc. But I finally got my first call from a web search last week. So maybe it's starting to pay off?


  26. Thanks for the article. I often struggle with finding time get involved with social media but I do realize that it essential to a successful business. Times have changed and we must change our marketing styes to stay competitive.

  27. Great article! As photographers, we can't really afford to ignore good marketing possibilities, especially not the ones that are free. And social media doesn't have to take a lot of time, we decide ourselves how effectively we can handle it and how well we can make it work for ourselves. It takes time to learn, but it can be worth it.

    I find the argument "Very few of the people you interact with are potential customers" to be true about Twitter users, but not about Facebook users, in my case. In avarage, people who visited my website last year through Twitter spent less than one minute on the site before leaving, while Facebook users stayed for over two minutes in avarage (for obvious reasons, perhaps). What I find from this is that Twitter users does seem to have a busier mood and more critical approach towards what they're checking out. And even more so if they haven't even heard of me before.

    Conclusion. It takes time to build up a reputation in social media, just like anywhere else. Photographers shouldn't give up before giving it a real shot.

  28. I just saved a boatload of money on car insurance by switching to GEICO.

  29. I have come to the conclusion that the internet offers little for photographers in any way, shape or form. I'm slowly reducing the quantity of photography websites I own and am removing them from business cards and signage.

  30. I find that social media helps to just get the word out about my photography and my father's pioneering conservation work. I notice that social media works the best for those who also have a strong off-line name and strategy. Nothing substitutes for good old fashioned sales efforts, but social media seems to enhance my networking endeavors. If you rely on social media to bring you all sorts of business that you are too lazy to develop yourself in the real world, you will be disappointed. If you use social media to supplement your strong traditional efforts, both will succeed.

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