Starting a Photography Business: Going Offline to Build a Client Base

If you’re new to the business of photography or new to a particular market with a client base of zero, getting connected offline is a big deal… and can give you an exceptional start to your client roster. If you’re a bit shy and thrive behind the computer, don’t tune out yet. Hear me out.

We’re living in a time where it feels like everyone is socially connected and opportunities to network are plentiful online. You can start a website in under 15 minutes and dive into a sea of online tools for photographers to help you find your next client. Simultaneously, you can SnapChat while double tapping photos on Instagram, giving a thumbs up to your neighbor, and pin your next dinner.

Here’s the thing, even with all these virtual connections nothing can touch the impact of face to face contact.

So why does networking offline make so much sense?

In real life, we size people up pretty quickly. You can have a real time conversation, letting you get to know someone, and feel their excitement + contagious energy right away.

Establishing a client base from scratch is a daunting task, but going offline to give people a first impression is a great opportunity to put your best foot forward. There is something to be said for the adage that 90% of communication is nonverbal. When you introduce yourself to someone in-person, there is a certain impact you can have that gets missed in between the lines of carefully curated words and images placed on the internet. Screens are two dimensional. When you go offline you’re in full 3D.

Does making connections offline take longer than online? Is it worth my time?

There is no black and white answer here and with either approach, building a reputation will take time. Sort of a catch 22 when you’re trying to get new business like yesterday, right? To decide which option is better for you to focus on first, consider your own habits and the marketing and conversion knowledge you bring to the table.

If you are a business-minded photographer and make it a priority to connect with X amount of people each day or week, you’ll see two things happen.

  1. You’re playing a numbers game. The more people you connect with, the closer you are to that next booking (or potentially that business ally that sends you referrals).
  2. You are reaping the benefits of a direct sales approach. When you work online, you’re getting rejected far more than you realize… but you rarely get to learn why. In real life, when someone doesn’t want to meet you for coffee to talk about photography or they tell you no to booking, you get to hear why straight from them. This can be fuel to add back into your marketing game moving forward. This is a HUGE benefit, because knowledge in what your potential clients are actually thinking & feeling is crucial.

The key is to make making connections a consistent thing and truly practicing listening to people. Going out to local businesses or meeting people once a month isn’t going to cut it.

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While it’s true you can reach more people at once online, there is much to learn to make online efforts worth your time. #1 is having an actual strategy or plan. It’s not about accumulating fans, likes, or sheer traffic. It’s about creating a killer online first impression (an experience for your potential clients) and being able to follow up with them.

Creating this experience from first impression to closing the booking online takes knowledge in marketing, copywriting, design, and more (unless you have funds to hire these tasks out) on top of doing what you love most: being the photographer. Then, once you have your strategy in place, it takes scaling that plan to continue to drive more traffic in and get in front of more people while simultaneously measuring what works and what isn’t working.

So how do you get started making connections and finding clients offline?

Knowing who you want to reach will save you time and money. Are you a maternity photographer? Look for maternity shops in town. Do you want to shoot small businesses? Make a list of small businesses in your area and check them out. A wedding photographer? Reach out to wedding venues in the city. Who can you talk to that can influence others in your target market? Sometimes connecting with one person with influence is easier than trying to get in touch with the masses.

Here is an example of how this works:

Newborn photography is a little bit of a specialty of mine. The other day I noticed a local yoga studio was having prenatal yoga classes. So I went and talked to the owner and handed her some promotional cards to distribute to her clients. I can’t think of a faster way of reaching my target market. Similarly, when I go to the hospital to photograph newborns I am sure to leave the nurses with a few flyers. Even if they can’t pass them out to patients, I know they will land in the hands of family and friends.

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Developing a list will help you maintain a focus when going to multiple sites. Time is super valuable resource and given my work/life commitments I might not be able to get out to all my targeted locations at once, but if I keep a list of places to connect with, I’ll be sure to drop in if I am visiting a particular area.

Tip: Always have a souvenir to leave behind. Even if it is just a business card, leaving behind a memento with a way to get in touch is critical. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should reflect what your business is about and have your contact information. This may sound like common sense, but if you’ve got a lot on your plate (and my guess is you do) you want to make sure you avoid simple errors.

Ok, so the connection has been made… then what?

The face to face connection is step number one. Then, make sure you follow up. Send a note in the mail or a jot an email to thank the person for listening to your pitch. It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate. In fact, it’s probably better if it is simple and to the point. You can develop a schedule for keeping in touch with those new contacts. Think about sending another note in 6 months or stop in again and stay current a few weeks later with a cup of coffee. At this point, it makes sense to go back online to stay connected with contacts through social media.

What exactly can I expect out of making real-life connections? Will I walk away with bookings?

Depending on how you hit it off maybe there will be referrals right away or maybe it will take months (sometimes years) before the referral happens. Maintaining a healthy expectation will keep you from getting frustrated. With the perception that there are “so many photographers out there” sometimes it is easy to start to feel irrelevant and lulled into believing that “everyone knows a photographer” and there isn’t space to establish a client base. I find this happens to me at times, but what I’ve discovered is if I approach people with the opposite assumption, that they really don’t know a photographer specializing in newborns or weddings, my attitude is going to improve and I am going to feel great about being able to solve a problem for them.

You know how exciting it is to have someone refer you? Do the same for the people you connect with. Networking is a two-way street. If I know a bride is looking for flowers and I know a good florist, you can be sure I’ll send business their way.

In addition to connecting with local influencers and businesses, it is also important to get connected with the photography community in your area. If there isn’t a community established yet, make one. I’m terrible at photographing seniors, but I know a photographer across town who is fantastic. Newborns really aren’t her thing, so I can send work her way and she can send work back my way. This would never have happened without our meeting face to face and understanding each other’s passions and photographic specialties.

It is good to know the competition too. Even within niches, there is a lot to be said for a healthy dose of competition to help spur you on to get better at your craft and understand what makes your photography distinct. Additionally, if there’s an emergency and you need a backup photographer on a moment’s notice, you’ll be thankful for those connections.

Homework:

Make a list  & hit the streets. Be brave and shake hands with people. It’s as simple as stopping in and saying, “Hi, I’m (insert name here) and I wanted to introduce you to my photography.” Take it from there. Cold calling can be scary and especially hard for those who are less outgoing, but when you believe in your product – your photography and how it can truly benefit your clients – you’ll find you’ll get the job done. The more you practice the better you’ll get. And with successes and time you’ll move from zero client’s to one, to two, to four. You get the idea.

Guest post writing and images are from Thor Rasmussen – THOR*tograpy

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About Thor Rasmussen: Thor Rasmussen is a photographer living with his wife and three (almost 4!) children. His specialties include newborn, family, and wedding photography. In addition to his role as a photographer, He also works as a speech-language pathologist at a local hospital. He can be found offline in Saginaw, MI.

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Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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