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Your Photography Business Plan for 2011

What will your photography business look like by January 2012? If you’re like many photographers I know, you’ve got a general sense that thing...

What will your photography business look like by January 2012?

If you’re like many photographers I know, you’ve got a general sense that things will continue to turn out ok as long as you keep doing what you’re doing. That’s no business plan. Let’s make a deal – if you momentarily part with your aversion to business planning, I’ll promise you some clarity about how to make this year a real success. Sound too lofty? OK, let’s just settle for a smarter approach to navigate the road that lies ahead.

A3 in telluride.jpgWhere will you take your photography business in 2011?                                      Photo: Andrew Fingerman

Disclaimer: what follows is not your traditional business plan. You won’t find this framework in some downloadable software you buy at Staples. Let’s call this an “exercise” that can be completed in a few hours, or a few days. Think of each bolded section below as a new section of your 2011 plan, and let’s get started…

Clearly define your target customer. 
Who is the ideal customer for your services? If you’re having trouble with this, hurry up and buy some potential customers a cup of coffee. Whether you’re talking to an art director, photo editor, a bride, or a fan of Florida manatees…you’ve got to really listen and get to know the customer. Are you clear on their most critical needs? How do they make decisions? Are their needs being sufficiently met or is there a hole in the market that you can fill? What problems are they suffering from?

If you stop reading from here on, please do this one first step. What you arrive at will inform everything else you do this year – how you describe your service, the top content you feature on your website, where you choose to spend your scarce marketing time and dollars, etc.

Marketplace scan: what trends and limitations are impacting the marketplace?
Think about how your marketplace is changing. What trends will positively create demand? What are the limitations facing both the customer and/or your competitors that lead to a less ideal customer experience? Can you deliver something better?

Write your opportunity statement.
After the above two exercises, this should be fairly clear. Every business needs to be chasing an opportunity. If you’re not clear on what the opportunity is, or you’re not sure if even there is one, your time is probably better spent doing something else (as in, something else to make money). A real opportunity materializes when demand exists for a product or service (people need something), that demand is strong and growing, and few providers (besides you) are able to meet that demand.

Know what success looks like.
What is your 2011 goal? Quantify it. For example, do you have a revenue goal, or simply a target number of new clients, or new assignments? Write it down. Now you’ll have something to chase.

What are the steps you plan to take to get there? Personally I find that breaking down these steps helps me see the path clearer. Create a few check-in milestones when you’ll sit down and assess if you’re tracking well to hit this goal. If not, you may need to test a new approach (i.e. more/different marketing).

While you’re at it, please take some time to envision your dream project. Do you have a plan to go after it this year?

Get clarity around what you offer.
You’ve spent some time thinking about your target customer and their most critical needs. So, what are you providing to meet those needs in a unique or more effective way than your competitors? (Please don’t just answer “photography.”) Think through the details of your product and service. What are the key features of how you work, your approach or special process that distinguishes what you’re delivering. What is the value to the customer? This will inform how you position the offering. Are you simply selling “Milwaukee Wedding Photography” or are you helping capture a bride’s most special moment with loved ones in a way that they’ll all remember forever…or are you enabling her to share photos with college pals via Facebook before the wedding is even over? That’s how you position your service based on your knowledge of the customer’s special needs. For more help on positioning your service, check out our interview with Marketing Mentor Ilise Benun.

You need a marketing plan. 
Let’s keep this really simple and address the elements of your marketing mix. Get very clear on the money and time you intend to dedicate to marketing. What worked in 2010? What didn’t work? Now let’s commit to cut or significantly decrease at least one marketing tactic you feel is no longer working for you. In its place, let’s test out one new tactic and commit to measuring results for at least 3 months. (Write it down.)

Break out your marketing mix according to these three categories: brand, awareness, and engagement.
–    Brand: How will you communicate your differentiators, and how will that differentiation pervade everything you do (from answering the phone to delivering the final product)? Do you have a brand identity? Might be a good time to step up and create a wordmark or logo – it simply looks more professional.
–    Awareness: What will you do to create awareness among your target customers, ensure you are top-of-mind as need arises?
–    Engagement: What activities will help you engage your current and past clients?

Now it’s time to bust out the calendar and plan the activities you’ll undertake. You should be able to tie these activities to specific, expected results that help you reach your business goals.

A challenge to you: for the marketing tactics you plan to continue… you need to get more mileage out of every marketing activity, every shoot, every job. If you’re giving a talk at an industry gathering, video it and put it on Vimeo and your blog and encourage people to share it. If you do an editorial shoot of a restaurant for a local paper, shoot some additional marketing photos or wall prints for the restaurant (provided you have the rights).

Practice good hygiene, for your website.
We talk about this stuff a ton, so I won’t belabor the point, but now is a great time to do a few really smart things with your website, and promise to schedule at least 3 more occasions this year you’ll attend to website updates, if not monthly. In my book, here are three basic “good hygiene” tactics you should check off your list immediately:

–    Install/check Google Analytics. If you don’t have analytics installed, do it now so you can start making better decisions based on how people interact with your website. If you do have analytics, revisit the data. Identify your top sources of traffic (Traffic Sources tab), and coddle those sources as you see fit. Have a look at the keywords driving search engine traffic to your site – any surprises? Consider using these keywords more in your SEO efforts going forward. Know what content is most compelling for your visitors (Content tab) and feature it more prominently. Deprecate content that has grown stale or is leading to visitor exits. We’ve got a guide on Google Analytics that can help.

–    Integrate social sharing tools. Goldman Sachs now has $450 million bet on a horse called Facebook. So it’s safe to say that social media is officially for real and not just a fad. So if you haven’t done so, it’s time to embrace social media and its power to drive traffic to your website. The first step is installing simple “share this” tools, or the Facebook “Like” button, on your site so visitors can share/promote your content with their social community.

–    Help visitors become clients. You’re working hard to attract visitors to your website, so you’d better make it easy as pie to convert into a customer. We’re obviously big proponents of adding e-commerce for selling prints and products, licensing stock or personal use downloads. Give people a reason to give you their money. But if making money online is just not your thing, please at least integrate a newsletter signup form so random visitors can indicate their interest in hearing from you and becoming your client in the future.

Please don’t decide that in 2011 you’ll compete by being the cheapest photographer on the block. There will always be some chump willing to feed at the bottom, and that’s typically an unsustainable way to compete. Instead, I’d like to see you focus on competing on the value you deliver to the customer. Once again, it all goes back to understanding their needs. You can charge a premium and be confident about it if you know the reasons why you justify that premium, and back it up with execution. Is 2011 the time to test your customer’s sensitivity to higher prices? Package it with new value you’re adding to the relationship and it makes your “ask” much more credible.

Assess the competition and keep them out.
Evaluate the competitive landscape. What competitive advantages do you have and how can you make potential clients aware of these? How can you create barriers to other competitors eating your lunch? For example, I’ve noticed a handful of PhotoShelter photographers who establish separate accounts to manage a corporate photo library/archive on behalf of longstanding clients. Smart move. When you’re managing the client’s library, there is a deeper “switching cost” to the client associated with moving on to a different photographer. Spend some time thinking of other ways you can create lock in with your clients, and keep competitors out.

Identify your key challenges.

What big challenges have you already thought about and how do you plan to overcome them?

There it is. If you’ve been scribbling along with each exercise, you should have put some solid thought into your 2011 business plan. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you see things a bit clearer now and you’re excited to tackle 2011. One more thing to add to the calendar – please come on back in December and let me know if this helped.

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