Want More Assignments? Make the Buyer’s Job Easier

Young photographers ask for my help with a wide range of questions — from choosing the best equipment to buy, to deciding whether to study for a degree or spend three months shooting in Africa. But from full-time freelance photographers, I almost always get the same question: How can I find more editorial work?

Sure, I tell them about mailing out promotional postcards, making in-person visits to photo editors with a fresh portfolio, and signing up for online directory services such as the ASMP. But I also warn them that these activities, by themselves, put too much emphasis on the desire or goodwill of a potential customer to select you over the competition.

Making the Buyer Look Good

What they really need to do, I tell them, is to ask themselves two questions:

“Why should a customer buy from me?”

“Why should that customer buy from me right now?”

How do you answer those questions? Hint — here are some wrong answers:

“Because I am really good at shooting this subject”

“Because I really understand what the magazine (or whatever) is looking for”

“Because I am less expensive than the competition”

OK, now here are the correct answers:

“Because I will make the buyer’s job easier for them”

“Because I will make the buyer look really good”

Story Ideas for Editorial Clients

There are many ways of making your customer happy, and I am not going to give away all of my competitive secrets — but I will share one idea that I have used very successfully, and have shared with fellow photographers who have also had success with it.

Many stories featured in newspapers, magazines, Web sites, even books, relate to anniversaries. One year after 9/11. Five years after the start of the conflict in Iraq. The last 10 years of equal marriage rights. The possibilities are many. A great source for this is an almanac. I prefer the one printed by the New York Times.

What do you do with this anniversary trivia? I provide my past and prospective editorial clients with story ideas.

Specifically, I’ve put together a 12-month campaign of what I refer to as “calendar cards.” These are postcards printed on the front with the name of the next month coming up, some bullet points of what happened one year, five years, 10 years, and maybe 25 or 100 years ago (depending on what I found in the almanac), and one or more of my photographs that is in some way related to one or more of the anniversaries listed. On the back is a short paragraph reminding the reader that these anniversaries are coming up — together with a prompt to hire me to cover specific or general activities related to those stories.

Giving Something to Get Something

By taking this proactive, preemptive approach, and maintaining it for 12 months, I offered the photo editor not only ideas for new stories to cover in the next month or more, but also the resource to shoot those stories on assignment for them. Sure, there have been cases where an editor clearly took some of the ideas and gave them to other photojournalists -– that’s fine. There are other cases where I had to turn work away because I had multiple responses back on the same story idea.

In the past, I’ve sent out 500 postcards monthly at a cost of about $225 for printing and $200 for mailing. The average return per month was $8,000. The taxman was very happy with me.

One thing to keep in mind is that many publications plan several months in advance — so if you want to try this approach or something like it, be sure to send your mailings out early.

Of course, this is just one strategy. The point is that it puts the customer’s interests first. It gives them something of value, and ties you to that value. If you can present yourself as someone who can be useful to a customer, then you will be in a far stronger position to secure future work.

3 Responses to “Want More Assignments? Make the Buyer’s Job Easier”

  1. Very useful advice and the postcard idea is one I've never thought of - or seen as a newspaper editor. I've never tried to be a freelance photog b/c I know its super-competitive. I have photojournalism and reporting experience both. as well as editing - but when it came to photography outside of work it was just for fun. Perhaps also that's b/c having used the papers' cameras for the last 12 years I don't have a good camera of my own - a situation that will be changing this Christmas...

  2. Great article! It applies to virtually any service business. Whether you're a photog, web designer, illustrator, copywriter, researcher, etc., it's all about demonstrating your value and there's no better way than by making the buyer's life easier.

  3. Modeling agencies usually have postcards of their current models but I never thought I should put my own work on the cards so good point to that.

    BUT in regards to the first part of your posting, what advice do you usually give to those kids to who contact you seeking advice on how to start a career in photojournalism? Africa or a degree? I hear its the portfolio that matters then I hear, "its an industry standard to have a 4 year degree." The field seems very competitive at the moment especially when media agencies are cutting back on staff due to the current economic condition. I just feel overwhelmed in trying to figure out how to start a career as a photojournalist although I sent out my resume and portfolio to Corbis earlier today. Thank you.

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