No matter how great you are as a photographer, you have to take certain steps to attract and maintain business. When I started photographing weddings five years ago as a sideline to my newspaper job, my marketing plan consisted of uploading photos to my Web site and waiting for the phone calls to roll in. Since then, I’ve learned enough about marketing to build a full-time business. Here are six tips for growing your business based on my experiences.
1. Get visible. Be sure to make it easy for people to find you online and locally. My second year in business, I posted my information (for free) on a few wedding search engines and had a listing on WeddingChannel.com  (which was sort of free because it came with my membership with the online lab Pictage.com ). I attracted 12 weddings that year, but most of the work did not come from the listings. In fact, I was getting brides who Googled “wedding photography, Virginia” and found me — and then proceeded to tell me how hard it was to find me in the first place.
Many wedding Web sites offer free listings because they want to have a lot of options for couples — and because they want you to upgrade your listing for different fees. To determine where to list yourself, try Googling the keywords people would use if they were searching for your services. See what the top 10 sites are that come up, and start your listings that way.
Start out with the free services and try a few that require an investment of $100 or less. The idea is to get your contact information and url on as many Web sites as you can so you can find out which ones work best for you. Try this for six months and be sure to ask people how they found you, so you can find out which sites your clients are visiting.
2. Spend money to make money. Although I had some success with free listings, I found I had to spend money to attract the volume of phone calls I wanted. I invested in online advertising on theknot.com , wedj.com , wpja.com  (which gives you a free listing as part of your membership) and upgraded to a couple of the paid listings (which usually means you can upload a small photo gallery or receive a direct link to your Web site).
I also invested in a Web site upgrade with foliolink.com , which has many templates designed with photographers in mind and allows you to input metadata to help your site rank higher in search engines. Your Web site is essential to attracting business, whether it’s weddings or editorial, because most clients will make the decision on whether or not to call you by the impression they get from your site.
When advertising, keep in mind that all outlets are not going to work for you and just because you invested hundreds of dollars, or even thousands of dollars, in an ad doesn’t mean you will get jobs from it.
My national ads drew a lot of calls from out-of-town couples, and few local couples, so I paid for ad space in a local wedding publication, put a listing in the Yellow Pages and paid for a listing on a very local Web site search engine. The local publication drew few bookings, the Web site only got me two calls in six months, and the Yellow Pages attracted the wrong clients — people looking for high school portraits for $100.
Look for advertising outlets that your target clients visit, so you can attract the kind of jobs you want. But don’t make any long-term commitments until you’ve tried an outlet long enough to determine if your clients are actually finding you there.
3. Keep track of what is working Getting contacted is the first step, but what really matters is who you end up working with. I noticed a lot of my clients were finding me on theknot.com and wpja.com, so I invested a little more in advertising on The Knot and saw a big increase in phone calls and e-mails from that source, and more jobs. But I rarely booked a wedding from someone who found me on weddingchannel.com or wedj.com, so I decreased the money I invested in them.
The popular sources vary depending on where you live and the clients you are seeking, but if you ask everyone where they remember finding you first, then you will get a better idea of where you should invest. And trends change so don’t assume everyone is looking in the same place year after year; keep asking and look back at the previous year to see where the work came from. The last thing you want to do is spend thousands of dollars and only book a couple of jobs, not even covering the expense of the ads.
4. Don’t be shy in seeking referrals. Referrals come from everywhere. Most people know that if you do a good job for your clients, they will mention you to their friends, but it doesn’t stop there. Florists, coordinators, DJs and the guests are all witnesses to how you work on the day of the event and often look at the finished product if you post it online. Other businesses frequently refer each other because it benefits both parties, so ask for cards from vendors that do a good job and they will most likely do the same.
I got to know a couple local wedding coordinators and we worked well together, so one has my work posted on her Web site (which I gave to her for free in exchange for a link) and the other has one of my albums displayed in the hotel where couples meet to reserve the venue. Both sources have produced several jobs, and there was very little money invested. I’ve even gotten freelance jobs from guests at weddings, as well as wedding referrals. So always be on your best behavior, do a great job for everyone, and you will be surprised at how many people start to talk about you.
5. Guard your reputation. Guard your reputation very closely because it will make you successful or ruin you in a very short period of time. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard about this or that photographer who didn’t act appropriately, took over a year to deliver the photos, was difficult to work with or didn’t dress appropriately. Word gets around quickly, so if you do a great job, a lot of people will hear about it.
If something unfortunate does happen with a client, then you have to provide good customer service and go out of your way to make your client happy again. But stay true to yourself, because the customer isn’t always right — and you want people to know the type of work you do all the time, not just for one person.
Many people will only hear about you from others and won’t talk to you directly, so you have to take a few preventative measures to protect your reputation. I am not a bossy person when it comes to group photos because I don’t want that reputation, so I always find someone in the family or bridal party who can be bossy for me if I run into trouble getting everyone organized. I don’t mail prints for a couple until they have released the photos so their family can see them, which helps to ensure that they see them in a timely fashion, and I have a three-month deadline on album decisions so no more than four months will pass before the bride gets her book.
Be mindful of what you do and how what others do affects you, and be sure to maintain your personal work ethic in every situation.
6. Exceed expectations. The single most important thing you can do to attract business is to exceed expectations. Give clients more photos than they expect, get them online a few days early, surprise them with a short slideshow or thank-you note, work harder than they expect you to, and do the best job you can every time. If it’s an editorial job, spend extra time making your captions great and send them a wider selection to choose from (for free). You don’t have to spend any additional money; just devote a little extra time and attention to the person or job.
By going further than your clients expect, you can grow your business faster than you might have imagined.
[tags]photography business, photography advice[/tags]