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Before Jason Aten gave himself completely to photography, he worked in sales and marketing for a “little company called FedEx.” It’s no surprise, then, that he has built his own workshop series teaching business principles to photographers, as well as a thriving wedding and portrait photography business. Social Media has been an important tool in keeping both businesses strong and growing. During our conversation Jason shared many important insights, including why you need to get to know your funnel and how to tell if you and your blog “need to talk.”
Miki Johnson: Tell me about your Starting Out Right business classes for photographers, which you launched recently with an independent website and blog. What has been your strategy for social media, starting basically from the ground up?
Jason Aten: It was completely predicated on putting up a blog with a bunch of free resources and figuring out how to drive traffic to it through communities that already existed, like forums, Facebook, and especially Twitter.
The first thing I knew was that no one would read the blog or care about it if there wasn’t valuable content there. Most people have a hard time putting up valuable content if no one’s reading it — but no one will read it if there’s not valuable content there.
Even the first person who comes to your blog is going to want to feel like it’s been there for a while. I probably posted 10 posts, one a day, before I told anyone the Starting Out Right blog existed. If they come and just see a post that says, welcome to my new blog, they’ll never come back. Because if they don’t get engaged the first time they come, they’re not going to bookmark it or subscribe to your feed.
Then I knew, doing the kind of workshop I was doing, it wasn’t like some famous person finally deciding to do a workshop; most of the people who needed this wouldn’t know who I was. So the blog also provided credibility.
From a business standpoint, where we really make money is when we do a workshop, or when someone purchases a book or eBook. But to get anyone to consider coming to a workshop or buying a resource, they had to feel like I know what I’m talking about and I’ve already shared a lot of valuable content.
I posted consistently for two months before ever saying we were doing a workshop. We had people reading on a regular basis, and then suddenly it was almost as if they asked, hey, do you have more? It was the perfect time to say, yes, I have more!
MJ: How does the online strategy differ for your wedding business?
JA: For Facebook and Twitter, I had to decide, what’s my objective? I decided I was going to use them to do two things: 1) drive people to articles on the blog to look at their friends’ wedding photos, and, 2) while they’re there, we want them to make some sort of decision, either going to the online gallery to buy a print or contacting us because they want us to shoot something for them.
On one side, Twitter and Facebook are a portal to drive people towards where we wanted them to engage. And then the other side is, both Twitter and Facebook allow you to continue the conversation with a large number of people on an almost no-risk basis. You use Twitter to drive people to come to the blog and read something, and then they have question that you answer on Twitter. It helps them get in the funnel, and then helps them stay, because it is the easiest way to engage with people.
MJ: Tell us more about “the marketing funnel” and how it applies specifically to social media.
JA: The top of our funnel is Twitter or Facebook. That’s probably where we engage with the largest number of people. It’s interesting that of 1,100 Twitter followers and 1,100 Facebook friends, there’s only about 250 of those that are the same. Which I like, and it’s why we think of them as two different audiences.
Then we give that group free stuff: the blog. You don’t really make any money off that level of people, except you have the opportunity to convert them to the next level of the funnel where you have the five- to ten-page white paper on business or marketing or some topic. Maybe those cost $10. For us those are easy because I can sell a billion of them and it’s no more work than selling one. That’s the number one transaction we have in terms of volume because it’s inexpensive and it’s easy for us to scale.
The next level from that would be the book. That was more work on our part, so it’s more expensive, and fewer people are going to buy it. After that you have a lot fewer people who will pay to come to a workshop, for example, but they’re paying a lot more money. Then at the very bottom of the funnel would be one-on-one consulting where we spend 2-3 days with a business. So you use the top of the funnel to get people in and then you get people to move down the funnel.
It’s the same with our photography business. Our blog and Facebook is the top of the funnel, where all the guests from the wedding come and look at those images. Then some of them will click on the gallery and purchase something. And then some of those people will actually contact us and book us to shoot something.
There may be fewer layers with weddings, but it’s the same idea. You want to attract as many people as you can to the top, because if you need 50 people to come out the bottom, you have to get 1,000 in the top. That’s just the way it works. Most of us think, I need 50 workshop attendees, so I need 50 people. Well, no. Part of knowing how the funnel works is understanding how many people you need at the top to get 50 people out the bottom.
MJ: Let’s talk about weddings. How do you use social media there?
JA: When we market to clients we focus mostly on Facebook since Twitter tends to be more industry people. The goal for Facebook is to get them to the blog, and to engage when they get there. We really wanted the blog to be a place they could share their friend’s story, and then make a decision about going deeper, either going to the gallery and looking at all the images, or contacting us to get more information for their own photography.
We also wanted the blog to be a place where people felt like they could get to know me, personally. About half of my weddings, I don’t meet the client until I do their engagement session or I show up at their wedding, so there had to be a way for people to reduce that barrier. On Facebook, I post pictures of my kids more than pictures from clients, mostly because, as a guy, having two cute little girls let’s people know I’m harmless and helps me relate to brides. And I want to make it as easy for them to feel comfortable with me as possible.
MJ: How about using Facebook specifically?
JA: We post a gallery, normally 10-15 images on the blog and 20-30 on Facebook. On Facebook we post images we would never post on our blog. We want to include a bridesmaid shot because I can tag every bridesmaid, or one with all the guys smoking cigars. Maybe it’s not something I would ever put in my portfolio, but it’s an opportunity to tag people.
So we tag the bride and groom, who we’re hopefully friends with, and send them an email that says, you’ll notice we’ve tagged you in some images. Please feel free to tag anyone else you think would like to see them. We kind of put the ball in their court and let them run with it.
I used to wonder how other wedding photographers got so many comments on their blogs. I don’t know why I cared except if people weren’t leaving comments, it’s hard to know they were there. Some friends of mine said, we offer the client something for free if they get a certain number of comments.
We might offer the client a free print, which is pretty low-cost for us, and it makes the client the evangelist. Suddenly our clients are posting on Facebook saying, please go to this link and tell us how much you love the photos. Then some of those friends who might never have made it past Facebook, they see not only their friend’s wedding, and comment, but then most of those people go and look at other events and offerings. It brings them deeper into the funnel.
MJ: You also talked about being part of a private photographers Facebook group and using forums to drive traffic to your blog. Do you feel like you get a payback when you put effort into those kinds of groups?
JA: My philosophy in a forum or group, is I want to earn credibility by adding value with no strings attached. Then when you have something that has strings attached, people are much more receptive.
A forum I spend a lot of time in is the Pictage Forum; I call it the “friendly forum.” I have a lot of genuine friends I’ve met there, and as a result I work really hard to try to help people there. I know if I post something about a workshop there, people will go, we like this person, we trust this person, he’s shown he’s an expert on this, and they respond accordingly. Same thing is true with the group on Facebook. If you spend some time helping people or answering questions, it’s really an easy way to establish credibility.
MJ: Can we talk a little about your book and eBook and how you’re promoting it on social media?
JA: The book was originally written as a workbook that goes along with our workshop. I spent some time filling in the blanks because, obviously, if you come to the workshop you get a lot of information as dialogue. The idea was always that it would be available as a physical product. Then, it was probably Seth Godin who inspired me, I thought, why not also make it available electronically? That requires no extra work for me.
I try to position the book as, you can have all of it for free, but have to do all the work on your own. Or you can pay for the book. When I speak publicly, at the end of my talk I say, all this information is on the blog for free. If you want it more organized, with a bunch of resources and worksheets, here’s the book. It’s reasonably priced and provides all the content from a two-day workshop. Or you can come to the workshop if you want to talk about it. I haven’t pushed it a lot on social media, but we did run a $39 special eBook deal on Twitter and it was huge. Once we are done with workshop season, it will be easier for me to spend more time promoting the book.
You can spam people on Twitter and Facebook just like with email, and I definitely don’t want to do that. If I post something about a workshop, I can almost guarantee it would be a week before I would post about our book. When we send out an email to our database of 2,500 photographers, every time I send something out, I am heartbroken when someone unsubscribes. Not because I didn’t sell something to them, but because it wasn’t relevant to them, so I no longer get to send them anything. It’s the same thing when I send something on Facebook or Twitter it’s the same. If this is irrelevant, they might stop following, and I’ll never know about it, but I’ve now lost the opportunity to have any conversation with them.
MJ: What do you do to assess and measure the success of your social media strategy?
JA: I’m an economics guy, so I’m a huge measuring guy, that matters to me a ton. If I’m looking at my website, I want to know how someone got here, what they did when they got here, where they live, etc.
For instance, I posted on our blog the other day and views spikes. Let’s say 45% came from Facebook and 55% came from Twitter. I’m trying to figure out why. Turns out Facebook actually imported the whole post into a note, so readers didn’t have a reason to click over to the blog. Which makes me think, I don’t want my blog posts to import to Facebook, because I can’t track it. Tracking helps me understand my different audiences. For example, when we announced an upcoming workshop in Michigan, I posted it on Facebook, because I knew I was connected to more people in Michigan there than on Twitter.
MJ: Could you give me some details on the difference you perceive between your Facebook and Twitter audiences?
JA: For me, Facebook is mostly people I know in the real world and clients or people who might be looking for photography. The interesting thing is, we do have a business Facebook page, but I don’t spend any effort on it, because, if my goal is to show people images and let them get to know me, what better place to do that than my personal Facebook page?
I know a lot of people struggle with, well, I wouldn’t want potential clients to know this about me; it’s like, then maybe that shouldn’t be true about you. So the Facebook appeal is it’s authentic and transparent. If you’re constantly worried about filtering that, it loses the authenticity.
Twitter was more where I was interacting with other industry people, like wedding planners, or other photographers I didn’t necessarily know and I wanted to engage about our business offerings. I’ve noticed people will become a Twitter follower first, and then later will become a friend on Facebook after we’ve gotten to know them.
Twitter helped me expand my sphere of influence. For instance, I went to Imaging USA in San Antonio, and a photographer I really respected but didn’t know was going to be there. Twitter made it really easy to say, great, I’ll be there too, let’s get coffee. But I never would have called that person.
When I moved back to Michigan in 2007, I started following planners on Twitter. It really easy to say, hey, great to see that wedding you did that was featured in some magazine. I’d love to buy you lunch and learn more about your business.
People start to trust you when there is consistency and time. Twitter is a way to have conversations over time. It’s much less threatening than picking up the phone. If I just want to send someone a casual note, I’ll send them a Twitter message; if it’s a little more important, I’ll send them an email. You have to know someone to call them.
MJ: You mentioned that you had too many blogs at one point, and ended up breaking your own rule of always posting regularly. Can you share any lessons you learned from that?
JA: The reason we ended up with four or five blogs was that we were intentionally segmenting our audience. So our signature wedding, the ones I shoot, the only thing I wanted on that blog would be the wedding I shoot and then personal stuff about me and my family. I didn’t want what my associates’ shots there and I didn’t want high school seniors, for example.
So we moved all our associates stuff and lifestyle sessions to a completely different website, brand, blog, everything. But then we shot 110 seniors! I couldn’t blog all of them, are you kidding me? And with high-school students, if you blog more than three photos, you won’t make any sales. We just didn’t have a good strategy.
Then for the Starting Out Right, we were very intentional about putting it somewhere else, because I did not want my wedding clients to feel like I was selling their secrets or anything like that. It’s good for them to know their photographer is considered an expert on something, but I did not want them worried I’d talk about them in workshops.
And I wanted people who came to the business side to understand, this is a place where you learn about running the business of photography. I didn’t want those posts mixed with one on album design. I wanted to be judged on business not the photos there.
If the whole point of a blog is to engage people, it’s kind of like if you have a marriage but you never come home. I was dating too many blogs, and I didn’t have a good relationship with them any more. Now we’re moving toward all our blogs being managed within the same interface and space to make everything a lot easier. We want to maintain the individuality of the brands, but also make it sustainable.