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Marketing In Tough Economic Times

Notes from Sondra Ayers and Jerry Deck

Is there a recession? Is the economy tough? Sondra Ayers and Jerry Deck began their seminar at WPPI in Las Vegas in February with a testimonial from a photographer who has engaged them as business coaches.

"I don't know about the recession, but the last four months have been the best ever for me."

Admittedly the testimonial was from a photographer with a new, growing business, but the point was well made.
Sondra and Jerry run Power Consulting in the USA, a business which has been helping photographers for the past 19 years to grow and market their studios. You can visit their website for more information at I sat in on Sondra and Jerry's presentation and took the following notes.

5 Steps For Marketing

Power Consulting has three rules for living life:
1. Get up every morning and love what you do;
2. Support yourself and your family with the means they need - in other words, earn a good living from what you do; and
3. Create friends in clients for life. Many (but obviously not all) of Sondra and Jerry's clients have become lifelong friends and this is a good way to approach your client base.

Jerry acknowledged that the industry is scared at the moment. Weddings are down and people don't want their portrait taken right now, yet he still believes this is the best opportunity we have had in a lifetime for building a strong photography business.

"Things can only get better from here and the reason is because your competition is scared. They are in a shell and worried, but you're at a convention attending a seminar to help grow your business - and that's the difference."

I love the positive attitude of American marketers! And yet Jerry made a very salient observation.

"Even if you don't have a lot of work on, you can't spend your time sitting on forums or playing in Photoshop, you need to practice your photography. Musicians spend most of their spare time practicing. A sketch artist spends much of their time making drawings. Photographers should be no different as creating different and saleable photographs is the best way to stand apart from your competition in a competitive market.
"Today is the best time ever to be in business because you've never been able to reach your clients as quickly or cheaply before. However, before you do any marketing or advertising, there are five steps you need to put in place to ensure it works. If your marketing isn't working as you think it should, perhaps it's because these five steps haven't been put in place first."

The following notes are from Jerry and Sondra speaking in tandem.

Step 1: The End Result

Anything you do with marketing and advertising has to start with an end result. I want you to write down what the victory looks like - what will your life and business look like in 12 months time?

What does this have to do with marketing? Everything! Before you market or advertise your business, you need to know exactly what you want to accomplish. If you don't define what you want to happen, you won't know if you achieved it. Write it down. Be detailed.

For instance, you should know how many portrait clients you want for the next 12 months, say 142 clients spending an average of $980, or 40 weddings with an average of $4000 and a cost of sales of 12 percent. This is information you need to know.

Step 2: Identify Your Target Market

Who are your clients? Where do they live? How old are they, where do they shop, what is their occupation? Who is your perfect client, what is their story, who are their friends? Where do they buy children's clothing, what are their hobbies and pastimes...

The reason we need this information is so we know what messages to write and how to touch the hearts of our clients. Simplistically speaking, there's no point sending out senior photos to a baby client. We need to identify our target market.

Step 3: Be Prepared For Inquiries

It is amazing how many businesses send out a mailing piece but aren't prepared for the inquiries that result!. We know of a photographer who sent out an expensive marketing piece with a deadline to respond and they were going to be away on holidays! This was very bad planning, but it happens more often than people care to admit.

So, when your marketing piece is successful, what are you going to do? You need to be prepared for when the phone rings. What do you want to happen? Do you want the people calling to book a session, or to book and pay for it up front? Be specific.

Some photographers think that booking a session is all that matters and the client can just pay them the following Tuesday when they turn up. This isn't a good booking at all. Many people simply won't turn up unless they are committed. If they pay for the session when you speak to them on the telephone, then they are committed.

Of course, what we want and what our clients want can be quite different, so if I were a studio owner, I would have a series of goals.

My first goal would be to book a session with full payment, but my second goal would be to book a session with a cheque being posted to me. The third goal would be to make an appointment for the prospect to visit my studio to look at my work, while the fourth goal might be to get the prospect's address or email address so I can send them a more detailed marketing piece - perhaps a full-colour brochure with beautiful photos and very little text.

The fifth goal is to make the prospect feel happy they have called, even if they have said no to my first four goals. At the very least you want them to think you're a nice person and a friendly studio - you never know when they may need a photographer in the future.

It's also important to have a telephone inquiry sheet and a pen near your phone. It gives you somewhere to write down your prospect's information, plus it can prompt you to ask the necessary questions to reach your goals.

When the phone rings, make sure the only people who ever answer are trained to do so! It is so important when a prospect takes the time to call that you acknowledge this in the way you treat them. Many studios have people answering the phone who simply shouldn't! These people act as though it is an inconvenience to answer the phone and the result can be your marketing efforts are wasted because the prospect feels they are not wanted.

Step 4: Plan For The Long Term

A single marketing campaign won't fill your appointment book for the rest of the year. You need to plan your marketing as an ongoing process. So, if your current campaign has an expiry date in two weeks time, plan to send out a reminder piece a week before it expires.

Step 5: Have Everything In Place First

Following on from Step 4, what this means is you need to have the follow-up pieces planned even before you send out the initial piece.

It takes 9 to 13 exposures before people will take notice of you. This can be by email, voice, or newsletter, but the good news is that you can touch people so much easier these days. The bad news is so can everyone else. This is why it's important to have a similar feeling and design with all your marketing and communication so that people associate it with you.

As is the case with many American presentations, the presenters were also looking for more business, hoping that attendees would appreciate their advice so much they would engage Power Consulting to help them. I imagine their assistance is also available for Australian businesses and, even though there are market differences between the two countries, the basis that Sondra and Jerry put forward apply equally to all businesses in a capitalist society. And for Photo Business readers on the internet, I am sure Sondra and Jerry are able to help no matter where you live!

Sondra and Jerry followed on with nine foundations a studio needs to be successful and although they are targeted towards a portrait or wedding studio, they apply equally to all types of photography studio.

Foundation 1

You need to know how many sittings/jobs and the average sale you need each year. In other words, you need to know your numbers - what you did last year and what your projections are for this year. Without these numbers you are drifting aimlessly.

You also need to know your cost of goods sold and your hard costs (your overheads). Costs of goods sold will tell you what's coming out of your pocket to pay for what your client has taken away. We think that anything below 20% is a good cost of goods sold figure.

Foundation 2

Establish policies for the studio and explain them in ways that benefit your clients. For instance, your studio might not refund a sitting fee if the session is cancelled less than 24 hours in advance, so explain it as a benefit that allows you to ensure other clients can be properly accommodated and that helps you reschedule a client's appointment. You can always overrule your own policies and make exceptions, but having policies in place, correctly explained to your clients, will help your studio run more efficiently.

Foundation 3

You need the correct creation (sitting) fees and pricing to induce your target audience to hire you. If you know your numbers (see Foundation 1), you can figure out the pricing you need for the number of jobs you want to shoot, but in addition to this, think how your customers will respond. Some studios price things that create a brick wall for their clients. For instance, they might decide they need an average of $1000 a job, so they create a price list with a minimum purchase of $1000, but clients are buying something they haven't yet seen and few are prepared to commit up front to such a large fee. There's no minimum purchase when you visit a clothing store, why should photographers have a minimum purchase?

Photographers generally do two types of price lists. One is a base price list which is afraid that if the prices are too high you won't get any customers, yet sometimes pricing yourself this way means you will never cover your costs, let alone make a profit. Then there is the ego price list which says if you don't want to spend $2000 or $4000, then go away! Yet these photographers wonder why they don't get much business! Lots of clients might be very happy to spend $2000 or $4000, but they don't want to be told ahead of time.

Foundation 4

You need a system of controls that run your business. Controls are often forms (paperwork) that you use to define the system. They include a client order form, a model release, a wedding contract, a studio policy document - anything that a client sees or signs. He with the signature wins, so if there's a problem (someone is not happy with the work or doesn't want to pay the balance), if you have their signature on an order then you will (probably) be the winner in court.

Foundation 5

In addition to paper controls you need to have a good production system so you can handle your workload.

Foundation 6

You need a distinctive product. Photographers don't spend enough time practising. If you want to be distinctive, you need to be out there photographing. Pick up your camera, walk outside and practise your craft. You can't just show up once and do it, rather you must come through time after time. You have to be great at what you do. And while we know the distinctive images that win competitions mightn't be what we do on a daily basis, it is often what our clients are judging us by.

Foundation 7

You need to have purposeful branding for your studio. Create a persona, determine the colours, texture and feel of your brand. There are many great brands out there as examples to draw inspiration from.

Foundation 8

Create a sales system. Just like telephone inquiries, you need goals for your sales sessions. Of course, you don't tell your clients this is what you are doing, but you can write out your sales approach and what your goals are. However, the goal shouldn't be a $1000 sale, rather it should be something like, ‘I am here to ensure my clients love the photos and get what they need from the portrait session'. The sales session is not about how much money you need to make, at least it isn't while you're in the middle of the sale process.

You are probably well advised to fire your sales people and rehire them as portrait décor designers or décor experts. Take the ‘sale' out of the process. A designer or an expert knows what looks best, what will make the wife teary every time she sees you and the kids on the wall, and this will lead to good sales.

If you don't see yourself as warm and squishy, as not particularly good at sales, then find someone else to do the portrait presentation.

Foundation 9

Finally, you need to have a database. Fewer than half of photography studios use a database, yet keeping a record of every conversation and purchase is so useful. We use Goldmine software, but there are lots of packages that will do the job. The best database program is one that you find easy to use.

Do you want more? While the American approach to sales and business needs to be adapted for the Australian market, there's no doubt that once adapted the concepts generally work remarkably well. There is a lot we can learn from the Americans.

10 Secrets for a Successful Studio

Jerry and Sondra finished off with their ten secrets of a successful studio.

1. Never ignore your prospects, If someone doesn't book you up front, still ask if you can send them something that shows them what you do. You never know when a prospect might need a photographer in the future and you want them to think of you.

2. Develop systems to acquire leads and, once acquired, to convert them into customers. It's a two step process.

3. Build and invest in meaningful relationships - with clients and with other businesses who have a similar target audience. You are selling yourself every time you meet someone.

4. Know that your studio's most valuable assets are its client list and its prospect list. A good database helps manage both.

5. A successful photographer ‘shows up' over and over. We have a philosophy that anyone can show up once. Anyone can do a $2000 portrait sale once, but it's making a $2000 sale seven times out of ten that makes you successful. This applies to every aspect of your business.

6, Always sell to the buyers. Make sure you're talking to the decision makers when selling portraiture, weddings, event, commercial or any type of professional photography.

7. Always tell your prospects what you want them to do. For instance, if you want them to pay up front, say so! Prepare your clients so they know what to expect. This process begins from the first time you talk to them on the telephone.

8. Never ignore the five reasons our customers get mad and upset:

  1. Inattentiveness - don't ignore them
  2. Ignorance - if you don't know, admit it and then get back to them with the answer
  3. Incompetence - don't be a bumbler or blame your staff because your client's time is valuable and you must respect this.
  4. Bad attitude - no matter what people say, be nice. And remember, if they question you, it's not something personal against you, rather they just don't know the answer.
  5. Don't send up red flags - in other words, don't do the wrong thing by your clients. If you shoot 15 weddings in a year, your aim should be to get 15 referrals and this won't happen if you've been raising red flags while working for your clients

9. Know that clients will pay more for loving attention, a great product, and a distinctive product. Under promise and over deliver and continue to give attention after the money has changed hands. You have to love your clients.

10. Become the artist. Successful photographers realize they are the artist in their community.

Jerry and Sondra have a weekly email called 52 Power Tips and it's free. Visit to sign up.

Peter Eastway Uses

Peter Uses

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