Online Marketing for Photographers: The Lessons I Paid For

Online Marketing for Photographers: The Lessons I Paid For


A Guest Post By Kristen Simental

Image by Stian Eikeland

When I decided to get serious about marketing, I did some research and felt that online marketing was the way to go. All right, I saw that everyone else was doing it. In the course of a year, I thought I was paying for advertising, but I was actually buying an education.

I quickly put my business listing on every photographer and wedding directory out there; from the big names to dozens of little guys. I paid to be listed on The Knot, Wedding Wire, WedPlan, and SnapKnot. I also paid for advertising on Facebook. I uploaded photos and wrote a cute bio. I was on every social network you can think of and made an honest attempt to keep them all updated. I felt like I was finally doing something right. I was serious, organized, and I was spending money. What could go wrong?

Months passed and my interest in these sites began to wane because nothing was happening. If you build it they will come, right? Well, I built it, but they didn’t come.

My biggest mistake was thinking I knew how to market. I didn’t go to school for it and frankly, I’d never done it before. I was just copying what I saw others doing. How could it fail? Wouldn’t someone accidentally land on my profile page, see my work, freak out with excitement, and call me immediately? Turns out, it doesn’t work that way.

I began reading books on selling myself and everyone was saying the same thing: Your best business comes from referrals, your best clients are your current clients. I’d heard this before, but I wasn’t living it. However, when I thought about it, it was true: My best business did always come from referrals and while I was great at customer service, I wasn’t exactly making my clients feel like the rockstars they are. I was so focused on looking for new clients, I wasn’t taking care of the ones I had…at least, not as well as I could have.

My second biggest mistake was thinking clients would come to me. If you visit these directory sites, you’ll find them as overwhelming as I did. Thousands of photographers all hoping the same thing you’re hoping: Bride sees your page, loves you instantly, picks up the phone, you’re hired, all is right with the world. The problem is, vendor directories work for those that can afford to place their profiles at the top of the list. If you’re just starting out, you’re anxious to get working which means you’re willing to make a few financial sacrifices, convinced that since everyone else is doing it, it must be working. In any other case your work will absolutely speak for itself, but when it’s jumbled up with 10,000 other photographers frenzied for the same potential customers, it becomes eat or be eaten. It’s an over-saturated market and you become the proverbial needle in a haystack.

It became crystal clear that these directory sites make their money through advertising, selling higher tier plans to vendors, and getting you to buy more of their services. It stands to reason that if you’re hovering at the bottom rung, you’ll get less attention from potential clients – if they can find you. Furthermore, if you’re able to buy top tier plans, it kind of means you’re already making the money to afford it. And when you do finally pay for the top tier…guess what? You’re not alone. So what do the rest of us do? Cross our fingers?

The online marketing system seems to be feeding itself on rookies like me who are offering themselves willingly into a massive, dark sea of obscurity. It ended up costing me thousands of dollars I could have put back into my business in the form of new equipment or hey…how about new shoes?

Does this mean these sites are worthless? Just because they didn’t work for me doesn’t mean they won’t work for you, but I don’t recommend spreading yourself thin the way I did. Pick one or two directories you respect and do your research. I particularly like the ones created for and by photographers. You must also realize, you can’t just upload a few pics, write a cute bio, and walk away. You get what you put into it. Keep it updated, tell your network about it, offer deals, give it your all. At the same time, if you’re just starting out, you can’t expect to compete with XYZ Photographers who’ve been in business for 10 years, have a massive portfolio, and have the cash to put into advertising. While you’re building your way up to that point, treat your clients like Kings and Queens, but don’t do it because you want more business from them. Do it because, as paying clients who chose you out of thousands, they deserve it.

Whenever I try something and fail, I ask myself:What could I have done better? In this case, I put all my faith into online advertising and less faith in myself. Never forget, this is a service industry and the best form of advertising is the kind you don’t pay cash for.

Kristen Simental is a Los Angeles based wedding and portrait photographer. You can follow her on Twitter @ksphotos and Facebook

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Some Older Comments

  • Paul N. Solomon September 23, 2012 09:42 pm

    Hi Kristen found your article really informative and thanks to all of you who have commented as well.

  • Lara White March 3, 2012 05:09 pm

    I have found this to be true as well-as a wedding photographer about 75% of my business comes from referrals actually. It's a lot of marketing, but marketing to venues and event professionals. You have to go to networking events, make connections and build relationships with people. It takes time and effort, but it's the best marketing available for a wedding photographer.

    If you are interested in understanding how to build a solid referral system for your photography businessGet Connectedis an ebook that I wrote that basically breaks down the entire process from networking to getting on a referral list, making sample albums, and how to create the type of relationship that leads to referrals.

    Now we dont spend any money on advertising and marketing other than building and maintaining our referrals from event professionals.

  • Darren March 3, 2012 12:41 am

    I can only assume that things will just get worse as the worlds population continues to escalate at an alarming rate, EVERY industry is saturated with Talent. I am VERY new to photography (i work full time) and would love to make it a full time career but this fact is a is a real hurdle. interesting article though.

  • Karl March 2, 2012 08:56 pm

    I only list in one directory now that has given me good returns in the past, but like most, I too have been stung a few times!

    Now, when I get the numerous phone calls offering me "a special price for an enhanced listing that will definitely bring you x amount of weddings" is say to them "that sounds fantastic, rather than pay £100 listing fee I'll give you £50 for every wedding I get from you, you'll make much more from me that way", the conversation usually ends pretty quickly! If anyone were to accept my offer I'd be more than happy to take them up on it!

  • Paulo Navarra March 2, 2012 07:01 pm

    one of the best articles i've read here. Straight to the point, practical and very helpful! Thank you so much!

  • Photographer Aspen CO March 2, 2012 03:23 pm

    I have many clients who have told me that they tell all their friends about my photography business and that they should call me, but I've never had a single new client tell me they were referred by someone.

  • Kayla Illies March 2, 2012 12:38 pm

    What should I be doing with current clients to get them to refer me. I'm good at customer service but it seems that people don't want to spread the word.

    What else can I do that is free marketing to get started? Tips?

  • PB March 2, 2012 11:07 am

    Kristen, I feel your pain regarding the hacking issue. Don't know if it's particularly rampant for WordPress sites, but I've been through the hacked/cleaned/still getting warning notices a couple of times despite some kick-ass security measures over the last year. Great post, by the way. Struggling with the marketing aspect.

  • biggleshorton March 2, 2012 05:41 am

    I've just attended a seminar at Birmingham Chamber of Commerce showing how to use social media to get going at no cost, well worth it but good advice you give

  • Photobycate March 2, 2012 03:35 am

    This has to be the best post on marketing advice that I have ever read since I decided to become a photographer five years ago. I too spread myself thin with online marketing and have learned that you still have to "pound the pavement" to get the customers or jobs that you want. And no matter how big or small the client I treat them with the same respect and give them the best service I can. Word of mouth advertising still works.

  • Average Joe March 1, 2012 08:36 am

    wow! What a great article! I haven't thought about advertising (nor should I probably for awhile since I'm just starting out) but I learned greatly from this. Happy clients make for good business for sure!
    Thank you!

  • Jocelyn Harrold February 29, 2012 03:05 pm

    Starting slowly and building through referrals. We use FaceBook and Blogspot. It is tough to get going, but we believe in the memories we create.

  • Iris February 29, 2012 11:08 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. I agree, the market is totally saturated with awesome photographers, so it is really hard to start out.

    I have a few clients that book me every time they need family photos. It is good though that I have another full-time job, because I wouldn't know where to start to get my name out there.

  • Mark Eric February 29, 2012 10:14 am

    While "paid" advertising on Facebook may not be effective, Facebook itself can be extremely rewarding. We've found it extremely productive in our referral engine- without paying a dime.

  • Andreas February 29, 2012 09:48 am

    I dont get it, what precisley she is advising us to do?

  • Hanna February 29, 2012 12:30 am

    Hey, thank you for the reminder. It's always good to hear this especially when your out there trying to keep up with everything new.. I agree it's good to focus on fewer forums but with more presence.

  • Steve Dunham February 28, 2012 10:40 pm

    This article resonates very strongly with me. I recently heard the phrase "50% of all advertising is wasted money, you just don't know which 50%". It made me chuckle, but clearly with smart advertising and following up the people who do respond its possible to work out what works and what doesn't.

    Part of the benefit of listings in directories etc is to add some Google juice to your site - getting up in Google rankings is clearly something we all want to achieve!

  • Anita Broda February 28, 2012 09:24 pm

    Your best business comes from referrals, your best clients are your current clients.

    I couldn't agree more, thanks for reminding :)

  • THE aSTIG @ February 28, 2012 08:35 pm

    I also had to go through the same dilemma when I was putting up my website.

    I'm an automotive and motorsports photographer, and my site is

    I've managed to build quite a large fanbase, and in my part of the globe, if I'm not mistaken my site is already the 2nd most followed car blog of them all, the 1st of which is Top Gear! To think I've only been doing this for a little over 2 years.

    But my path to successful online marketing was not easy. Much of my time was spent doing research and finding out what works and what doesn't. I didnt' have any marketing budget, so had to find the options that are free of charge. It took a lot of trial and error to get it right, but all my efforts paid off so far. Just remember that 80% of the work must be done at the start. Once you put your efforts, through, it will pay off and you'll just be sailing on with 20% of the efforts. Now, clients approach me to get their events covered, or gettheir photos of their cars taken, printed, or what have you. And I believe this is just the beginning of an even more successfu future. But I couldn't have done it without efforts in online marketing.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer February 28, 2012 03:00 pm

    Thank you for reminding everyone Kristen that having a huge online marketing budget does not necessarily lead to more bookings and for especially reminding us that past clients and referrals are the best source of new business. Past clients already like you and that referral to a friend is very powerful and will most likely lead to a booking.

  • raghavendra February 28, 2012 02:52 pm

    This website provides traffic like no other website :)
    Since you already tried this. you can go for youtube!

  • Kristen Simental February 28, 2012 01:52 pm

    My Wordpress blog was hacked a few months ago and it's been CLEARED entirely. There is no actual threat, but I suspect that Google (or CA Security Center...what's that??) may not have put me back on the OK list. Just so you know, you won't catch anything at my site, but thank you for telling me. If anyone has any tips on how to clear my site's good name, I welcome them. Again, the site is completely safe. And thanks for all your great comments!

  • Erin @ Pixel Tips February 28, 2012 12:22 pm

    As part of a major re-brand of my studio this year, I did away with over $6,000 (per year) of print and online marketing. Funny thing? The interest in the service I'm not longer focusing on has not waned one bit. That was a serious reality check to how much money I was wasting.

  • ccting February 28, 2012 10:50 am

    Well, that is to say, it is very hard to survive for a new photographer.. many challenges that you need to go through especially the financial / marketing factor..

  • Woody February 28, 2012 10:13 am

    Some good tips, thank you. But CA Security Centre says your web site is suspect. So please make sure potential customers can see what you have to offer. Bad mistake.

  • jim February 28, 2012 09:41 am

    Yep, I've tried a couple things to and neither one has generated a single thing.

  • bryan February 28, 2012 09:11 am

    Avast goes crazy when you click her website, trojan detected! so just be careful guys!

  • Kristen Simental February 28, 2012 08:22 am

    John: Thanks!!
    Yacko: That's a great idea. I've been thinking about something like that for a while - do you have one? I'd love to check it out.

  • Yacko February 28, 2012 07:24 am

    You Tube is free. Do a 5 minute "how I photograph a wedding" video and do an out and out 2 minute ad video. Both with your contact info. Tag them as wedding photography. You never know. Someone might casually find you. At the very least you have two spiffy videos you can also show anyone anytime. If you get a hesitant potential client or planner, point them to the videos. All you are out is a bit of time and almost no money. I assume you have a still DSLR that can do HD video and a decent sense of style in making a video.

  • John February 28, 2012 06:53 am

    Some great pointers here Kristen - It's extremely easy to get overwhelmed with trying to grow a business and completely forget about what little business you do have. Taking care of your current customers, readers, followers, whom ever already knows you exist first is definitely the best form of marketing you can do.

    For in my opinion you can't pay for the power that is good solid word of mouth marketing.