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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.
When I met up with David, I assumed we’d be talking about the “business” of social media. He is, after all, a very successful photographer, author, and eBook publisher because of his robust online community: the Pixelated Image blog and nearly 13,000 Twitter followers.
“Everything I’ve gotten professionally has come through my social media involvement — without exaggeration or exception, literally everything,” he says. But when I ask him about “metrics” and “ROI” he looks at me with a bit of exasperation.
“The most important thing I’ve learned about business,” he explains, “is that every opportunity is the result of a conversation.” The heart of social media engagement is that it allows you to have more conversations with people farther away — that’s it. Trying to sell something through social media, David says, “misses the point.”
“The last thing I want to do is be known as a salesman, because that sabotages the community and then people put up their walls and keep you at an arm’s distance,” he explains. Trying to “monetize” social media, using it to make the sale, means you decrease your conversations, and your opportunities.
So what’s the right way to engage with social media? Here are the five things you really need to know. After David’s top tips, you’ll find an edited version of our conversation, including insights into eBook publishing and why social media doesn’t have to be a time-suck.
1. Don’t forget, the online world is still the real world.
You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to hear about your latest greatest thing would you? Most of us will spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust before we try to sell them our AmWay products. Just because it’s technology, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches.
2. Use your strengths
We all have ways that we prefer to communicate. Give blogging or Facebook or Twitter a try, but if you don’t like it, don’t force yourself. Because that’s going to be obvious. Some people are not naturally writers; you’ve got to use your strengths. If writing is really truly not your thing, do a video blog or a podcast. Or maybe you don’t even need a blog. You can use Twitter as an ongoing microblog. It’s still a place that people will come to hear little bits and pieces and connect with you.
3. Be yourself
You’ve got to find your own voice. If that is crass and rude and foul-mouthed, then be that person. Because you want your audience to be authentic, one that comes to you because there’s a genuine connection. I don’t really believe in this distinction between work and play. What’s amazing about that is, if you’re not seeing the division between work and play, you’re also not dividing people into “friends” or “clients.” They’re just people.
4. Be a rebel
It’s so funny, because everyone gets into photography and they want to be free spirits and they would never consider shooting the same photograph as someone else — and then when it comes to the business side of things, everyone is looking for a template. Everyone wants to follow rules. I think building your photography business should be as much an act of creativity as your photography. And by implication, your communication about the stuff you do should be creative. It should be quirky. It should be unique to yourself.
5. Be vulnerable
In comedy, you can either screw up on stage and pretend it never happened — and totally lose your audience — or you can screw up on stage and call the moment. When a joke falls flat, the funniest thing you can do is just recognize that the joke fell flat. Because we all feel like we’ve been there. The same is true in social media: You screw up? You fess up, you make a joke about it, you apologize, you move on. And I think that draws people in. The more human we make ourselves, the deeper the connections we make. And even if none of this ever makes a penny for anyone, I think that’s the ultimate reward.
Miki: So what was life like before you got your first book deal three years ago?
David: I spent a lot of time doing mailing lists and creating post cards and following up with clients and working on improving my portfolio. All of those keystone pieces of marketing that everyone, including myself, advocates you do. Then all of a sudden I found my activities switched, and I was spending more of my time just engaging.
I’d been blogging for several years, since 2005 but I got into Twitter kicking and screaming. A friend convinced me to get into it finally and the learning curve was just easy. And there’s something about Twitter that’s less unilateral than a blog, more immediate. Little things fly back and forth, and it keeps people engaged in small bursts, which is more like real life. You know, you make a quick phone call to your buddy, you go have coffee, it’s much more episodic than it is like one massive post every week.
The most important thing I’ve learned, someone said to me a long time ago, David, every opportunity comes as a result of a conversation. Every good thing I’ve gotten in terms of my career has come as a result of my engagement in social media. I think that’s because social media is about having more conversations. More conversations, more opportunities. You don’t pursue it because of the opportunities, but they’re a happy byproduct.
My books also came in some sense from having a platform. When you go to a publisher and you say I have a great book idea, the first thing they say is not what’s your great book idea? The first thing they say is what’s your platform, who’s your audience?
I started to realize that the strength of my audience — because it’s large but it’s not gigantic — is that I’m kind of in it for the long haul. I’m not interested in just selling someone a $5 eBook when I could spend time connecting with them and making friends. And I don’t really believe in this distinction between work and play. What’s amazing about that is, if you’re not seeing the division between work and play, you’re also not seeing the division between people in terms of friends or clients.
I know one guy who was initially sort of a fan/follower, he came on a workshop, then he became a friend. Since then I hired his company to do a $10,000 website project. People become friends and they become part of your community and hopefully there’s an honest interchange. It becomes this small-town mentality people used to have. They knew the guy down the street and they’d hire him because they knew him.
Miki: Are there common mistakes people make when they’re first getting into social media?
David: I think the biggest mistake is treating social media like it’s not the real world. Just because it’s technology, don’t treat it like you have this carte blanche to abuse people with your sales pitches. You would never walk into a room and, without introducing yourself, assume that everyone wants to buy your latest greatest thing. Most of us will walk into a room and spend time actually listening to people, finding out who they are, and gaining their trust.
Everyone is talking about monetization, and I’m sure there are industries where that matters, but I think talking about monetization misses the point. If it’s social media, let it just be social. I mean, I advertise our eBooks, but it might be one in twenty tweets, MAYBE that. When a new eBook comes out I say, hey the new eBook is out, here’s the discount code. I might tweet that a second time. But other than that, it’s like, ok, it’s out there, now let’s go back to having a conversation.
When you start looking at people as a potential cash outlet, a potential client, you start kind of writing people off. Because you’re assuming you know how it’s going to pay off for you. The “pay off” might just be relational, it might just be a good friendship. Or you may assume they have nothing to offer you and miss out on an opportunity.
People are pretty savvy. When they feel like they’re being sold to, they tune out pretty quickly. And the last thing I want to do is be known as a salesman. Because I think that sabotages community. Then people put up their walls and they keep you at an arm’s distance.
I want to be the kind of person where people want to have a cup of coffee with me. Instead of being the guy everyone tries to avoid because he’s just going to pitch me something. “Thanks for meeting me for coffee, you want to buy an eBook? You want to go on a workshop?”
Pursuing community for the sake of community has this fantastic pragmatic spin-off. But the moment you try to pursue the money, it kind of short-circuits itself. It has this natural self-destruct built in that forces you to be real and authentic.
Miki: What did you first tweet about and has it changed?
David: I think I was a little more guarded than I am now. Then I was trying to come up with things to tweet about and trying to be clever. Now I’ve become more off-handed and quite willing to be a little more me. I’ve become more sarcastic, which I am by nature. But certainly the way I use Twitter has changed in terms of me feeling like I can be a little more casual with it. Not planning so much. When something comes up you just kind of throw it out there.
Again, conversation is spontaneous. It’s not, ok, I’m going to meet with Miki and I’m going to talk about these three things. That’s a meeting, it’s not conversation. Whereas if you have a friendship it’s like, oh, I wanted to tell you this! That’s the kind of stuff I’m more and more tweeting…and the stuff I like to read. When I’m reading people’s stuff, I like the stuff that’s a little spontaneous, a little goofy. It’s a small little window into someone’s life. I think that’s the kind of stuff that builds connections. It makes you feel a little closer to people and again, and pragmatically speaking, the closer we are, the tighter community is, the more we want to support each other.
Miki: Do you feel like your blog has gone through that same transition of you opening up more and being more yourself?
David: When I started blogging, I remember writing something like, “I don’t know if anyone’s ever going to read this, but it will be a nice place to document my journey as I come back to photography.” So right from the beginning, the goal was not to create some thing with an audience, the goal was just expression.
Communication, you need an audience for. Expression, you can be in an empty room. And I think that was kind of the point for me. Just to journal it, to get it out there. So it’s always been pretty open and I’ve never kept anything hidden except really personal stuff.
Being authentic creates connections. And it’s all relationships, it’s just in a different kind of world. It happens through the keyboard and on iPads and laptops, but it’s still relationships. It’s reciprocity, it’s trust, it’s openness, it’s vulnerability.
There was this great TED Talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability. It’s phenomenal. It’s nothing none of us knew, but she puts it into such a concrete sociological terms: vulnerability is a powerful thing. It’s just scary as hell sometimes.
I was in comedy for 12 years, and in comedy, you can either screw up on stage and pretend it never happened — and totally lose your audience — or you can screw up on stage and call the moment. When a joke falls flat, the funniest thing you can do is just recognize that the joke fell flat. Because we all feel like we’ve been there. The same is true in social media: You screw up? You fess up, you make a joke about it, you apologize, you move on. And I think that draws people in.
The more human we make ourselves, the deeper those connections can be. And I think, even if none of this ever makes a penny for anyone, that’s the ultimate reward. We have an opportunity to put our work in front of more people than ever would have seen Shakespeare’s plays in his lifetime. You share the work that you create, which is for most of us why we create it, and you build community and connections. What else is there?
Miki: The big thing I hear is, people are worried it will take a lot of time to be as engaged as they need to be. Do you think that’s true?
David: I don’t think it is. I think you can be very engaged, very high-touch, very warm, very human, without being the guy that sits across the dinner table and is always checking his email and twittering while you are trying to have a conversation.
If you’re comfortable with the technology, when you have a moment, you can just pop open Twitter on your iPhone and create a little tweet. I mean, it’s only 140 characters. It’s only when you think, “Oh my gosh, I have to blog today and I have to tweet today,” when you make it a big to-do items, that it becomes a little intimidating.
If you ask me, is it time-consuming to maintain a friendship with your best friend? No, it’s not time-consuming, because we want to fit it in. Now blogging, I do make sure to get it in a couple times a week if I can. But for me twittering, it’s quick. I sort of launch it to see what conversations are going on, I check in, type out a quick little reaction or retweet something. It’s more conversational. I don’t think most of us would say, oh, I don’t have time for conversations.
You’ve got to find your strengths. If you don’t want to blog and all you want to do is Twitter, then you look at Twitter as an ongoing microblog. It’s still a place that people will come to to hear little bits and pieces and connect with you. If writing’s not your thing, do a video blog or a podcast.
I have a friend Matt Brandon, who does a similar style of photography. I don’t think he’d mind me saying, he’s not a naturally talented writer. What he is good at is audio. So rather than force a square peg into a round hole, he’s just mostly doing video blogging. He also does these Depth of Field podcasts that are unbelievable. Or look at Gary Vaynerchuk, who sort of admits in his book Crush It that he can’t write, but his video podcasts are great.
Not everyone needs a blog or Twitter. It’s a powerful tool, so give it a try. But if you don’t like it, don’t force yourself. Because it’s going to come out. It’s like with me and Facebook. I hate Facebook, so as a result, I don’t post as often to it, I don’t respond as quickly. Anyone that’s watching would pick that up pretty quick. Twitter, on the other hand, I love. I just hate saying it. I hate saying I’m going to tweet you. But it’s better than saying I’m going to poke you.
Miki: Tell me about your eBooks and the Light & Vision online bookstore. Are eBooks profitable?
David: The eBooks are always $5 or less on my site, and last year we sold somewhere around 80,000 of them. Now, I have other authors, designers, a manager, so that’s not $400,000 in my pocket, but the numbers are certainly great.
The first book: I was in Thailand with my buddy Henry, who sells software, and he said, “David you’ve got to get some kind of eBook or something.” I said, I’ve seen eBooks; they’re white papers with lots of highlighting and underlining and they’re all written in courier and just shoot me now.
But he said, David, we’re sitting on this pier in Thailand eating Pad Thai, and I’m making money right now. When I go to sleep tonight, I’ll wake up in the morning and I will have made money. Because people are buying my code. But you have to BE somewhere to make money. If you want to make money on an assignment in Kenya, you have to go to Kenya. You always have to be there, so you’re limited.
I came home and I started thinking, if I could do eBooks my way … I also had intended to learn InDesign, so I gave myself an eBook as a project, because I don’t learn very well unless I have a deliverable. It took me about three days start-to-finish, and when it was done I thought, huh, I’ve got an eBook.
I found a way to sell it online, and I posted it on my blog, and damned if people didn’t start buying it. And then I thought, this is too good not to see if it can’t be done a second time. The first one was called Ten, the second one was called Ten More. I don’t think I’ve since become much more creative with my titles. But people kept buying it.
Soon I realized this is the reason people buy photography magazines, but without all the ads. It was great, big, glossy photographs that could be downloaded and shared. We don’t use any digital rights management, so you can print it, you can email it to someone, you can put it on five devices. And I found I really like putting them together. Then once a couple of them started doing well, I invited some others. My buddy Dave Delnea wrote one called Below The Horizon that did really well. And the whole thing has kind of steamrolled.
Editor’s note: Dan’s words of advice were featured in liveBooks latest report, “8 Blogging Truths for Creative Professionals.” More of Dan’s honest and heartfelt narratives can be found on his blog at http://smogranch.wordpress.com.
My earliest memory of writing is from elementary school. In a small, spiral bound notebook, I managed to compile hundreds of pages about a group of mushroom people.
I was convinced of its brilliance. Then I promptly lost the notebook. Note to us all: backup your work. I didn’t write for the next twenty years, but as I began my photography career, something changed in me and writing on a daily basis became a part of my life. But let me be painfully clear. This was not a choice I made. This was something I had to do.
There was something inside of me that needed to come out and photography was not enough, still isn’t enough. I remember my first, adult journal, or diary, or whatever you want to call it. One of those black and white speckled jobs from the supermarket, a “composition book,” I think they call it.
I began to fill them.
Miki Johnson: How did the idea for Photo Brigade come to you?
Robert Caplin: As a fairly new blogger myself, I’ve been learning the ins and outs of how to actually build a following and bring traffic to my personal blog. After months of research and good old trial and error, I found the best way to increase my traffic and find readers was by sharing my link by way of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and referring links or stories on other blogs, such as this one. I quickly realized that if I combined my Facebook and Twitter networks, I was suddenly reaching a much larger potential viewership, which only multiplied when someone else decided to share or re-tweet my link.
Suddenly, not only was I reaching thousands of people through my personal network, but I was also reaching the networks of those who were kind enough to share my link with their followers. The viral nature of social media can really work to the advantage of photographers to get their work seen by the masses. So it went to figure that if photographers as a whole worked together to build a vast shared network, all would benefit by the added traffic it would bring their websites and blogs…and that’s how the The Photo Brigade came to me.
MJ: How long did it take you to make it a reality?
RC: Not long actually. My original idea was to start a blog, but that would take a while to design (because I wanted to do it properly) and it would take time to actually build a following. It occurred to me that I could test the concept quite easily by simply making a Facebook Page where I could easily share direct links to the cool blogs I was reading and people could easily subscribe to the feed by becoming a fan.
I also started a Twitter account. Over the next week The Photo Brigade page gained hundreds of followers and within weeks had over a thousand. I should also mention that this happened completely unsolicited and 100% organically, proving how well social networking can get the word out. It was obvious that not only was there a desire for a service like this, but also a genuine need.
MJ: It seems like a lot of work for something you do on the side of your own photography business. What makes it worth it?
RC: Well, to be honest it has taken a good chunk of my time to build … but that was the hard part. I should also note that I worked with my wonderful designer Laia Prats to create the brand and build the blogs using custom templates she tediously tweaked and designed. I couldn’t have done it without her help!
Now that the blog has been designed and content has been uploaded, the rest is really quite simple. There’s no lack of amazing photography out there. Given that The Photo Brigade was built to promote the work of freelancers, those photographers have been happy to share their work. Also, with a number of shooters submitting work, it’s almost as though it’s running itself. As Photo Brigade grows, I’ll be implementing some really great tools and resources for photographers and editors alike … but you’ll have to stay tuned to see what those are!
MJ: What has the response been like so far, from contributors as well as viewers, especially editors?
RC: The response has been very positive! The website is receiving steady traffic and it’s growing by the day. The same goes for contributors. Everyday I’m receiving emails from photographers from around the world, some I know and others I’ve never heard of, sharing their latest blog posts of their work.
Editors are a little harder to track and gauge because they’re obviously not submitting work themselves, though I’ve received a number of emails from editors praising the blog. There are also editors and directors of photography from major media outlets who follow the Facebook feed.
MJ: How do you choose photographers to feature?
RC: The featured photographers have either submitted their work from the submissions page, or I’ve reached out to the them personally. Because we receive many submissions, not every submission is featured. The best way to be chosen is to have a blog, as our mission is to encourage blogging. In your blog post we’d like to see a number of strong images with a well written explanation about the photography. We will pull 2-3 images as well as take some of the copy and post it on Photo Brigade teasing the blog.
It’s also encouraged for the photographers to supply a Twitter account so we can plug their account when we tweet to our followers about the post. By doing so, we’ll raise awareness for the photographer, and also help build the photographer’s social network. Many are adverse to using Twitter, but it’s one hell of a marketing tool. It would be silly not to tap into the millions of Twitter users out there, many of whom are photo editors and image buyers. We’re all about viral marketing and social media — the more we link to other people, the more visibility our blog gets, which trickles down to the photographers we feature.
It’s important to note that photographers should not be discouraged a submission isn’t accepted. Please continue to submit whenever you have a post you feel is worthy!
MJ: You just added three university blogs. Why was that important and how do you see them growing?
RC: While I was answering these questions, we decided to start one more! My friend and fellow photographer Chip Litherland is helping me run the Colorado Photo Brigade, which will feature the University of Colorado at Boulder. I decided to branch out further and focus on universities because there are so many photography students producing amazing work on a daily basis. I figured I could use the same concept to create a community of students, alumni, and faculty to showcase the work coming from each school as well as former students.
Obviously I’m only a team of one, and don’t have time to moderate all these blogs and make a living myself, so I enlisted the help of eager students at each university who are closer to their classmates and can encourage them to blog. The regional branches also create a wonderful place for everyone to see the end product of what each institution is producing. Each post is tagged and categorized…so if you want to reference a particular class (photo 101) or search only for alumni work or just the class of 2002, you’ll be able to. Check out our regional blogs: Ohio, Missouri, and Rochester, all with their respective Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Many more to come!
Thank you for joining us for the inaugural IMPACT online exhibition, a new project exploring the blog medium as a venue for photographic work. RESOLVE is excited to be hosting this experimental new project.
By clicking on the links below the IMPACT logo, you can move through the exhibition, viewing galleries of images, all related to the idea of “Outside Looking In.” Each “gallery” will include a series of images a photographer has uploaded to their blog along with this same IMPACT logo.
At any time you can click on the IMPACT logo to be taken to back to this post, where all the participating photographers are listed. (The “next” button actually takes you to a random gallery, so keep clicking if you get a repeat.)
By allowing viewers to move between different photographer’s online galleries, we hope to gain exposure for their work while providing a multifaceted visual study of the chosen topic.
We also wanted to remind viewers of the important role photographers play around the world, so we asked participants to share images from a project where they had an impact or were impacted themselves. If inclined, they have also included a link to an organization that they believe is having a positive impact on the world. Please help us increase this project’s IMPACT by sharing it with your community.
Gazi Nafis Ahmed: Inner Face
Daniel Beltra: Tropical Deforestation
Fabiano Busdraghi: Physics, adventure, poetry and photography in Antarctica
Shiho Fukada: No Retirement Plan
Sean Gallagher: Desertification Unseen
Bill Hatcher: New Zealand Masters of Sport
Ed Kashi: A “Fady” in Madagascar
Michael Kircher: Adventure for Healing
Pete Marovich: A Look Inside the Old Order
Sara Mayti: The Sound of a 4.16
Thomas Peschak: Saving the Most Important Fish In the Sea
Ian Shive: American National Parks
Jeremy Wade Shockley: The Mountain Kingdom
Art Wolfe: The Ganges River
Rachel Wolfe: Jamaica
Apple’s release Wednesday of their new tablet computer, the iPad, had been eagerly anticipated in part for its potential to “save” the struggling publishing industry. Its impact on photography was mentioned several times in our cross-blog discussion about the future of photobooks and is being weighed across the photo blogosphere this week. Fred Ritchin at After Photography calls it a disappointment for content producers and Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor is reservedly excited about consuming magazines in this new way. Bastian Ehl at Black Star Rising takes a less cynical approach, arguing that the iPad’s annoying non-support of Flash is actually designed to force users to pay for content.
One of the first narrative movies shot entirely using DSLRs (Canon 5D Mark IIs in video mode) launched its trailer online on Tuesday. The Coming Soon page for Betrayed was big news when it went up in August, so we’re excited to bring you an exclusive first interview with director Joshua Grossberg on RESOLVE.
First up is Dan Lyons’ Newsweek post about Apple’s new tablet computer. The news is a few weeks old, but Dan’s reaction to it is a breath of fresh air. “Veteran editor Tina Brown, who now runs The Daily Beast, says we are about to enter ‘a golden age of journalism.’ I agree, and I think tablet devices will hurry that along.” Compare that to recent pieces like The Digital Journalist‘s “Revisiting The Death of Journalism: Ten Years Later,” or “Lament for a Dying Field: Photojournalism” from The Times and you’ll see why I’m excited.
Then I spotted this story about Vogue hiring Obama’s web strategists to help them “analyze the Conde Nast publication’s audience as part of a broader, revenue-generating push that ultimately will involve implementing paid subscriptions on Vogue.com.” Sentences like this make me so happy — “Vogue executives, keenly aware that the monthly magazine is just one of many ways people connect with the publication, had been looking for ways to capitalize on its influence” — because it means publications are finally starting to understand that it’s their name, their cache, the respect people have for them that is valuable in the online world, not just the content itself. This is a lesson many photographers could benefit from. And, of course, if magazines like Vogue actually figure out how to make money online, we can only hope that will trickle down to the photographers they employ.
Leave it to Fred Ritchin to put his finger right on the crux of this issue on his After Photography blog. He starts off by calling out Jonathan Worth, a photographer I’ve been following closely as he blogs about his endeavor to make money off of his photography by giving away the photograph itself (in this case a portrait of science fiction writer Cory Doctorow). Fred then moves on to the innovative approach the VII photo agency is taking to photo distribution, and wraps up with this little gem: “In a Boston Consulting Group poll published last week people in nine countries were surveyed asking if they would pay for online news: from 48 to 60 percent said they would, ranging from US$3 per month (Americans and Australians) to US$7 (Italians). Maybe we should take them at their word?”
And I’d like to leave you with this gem from Joe McNally, a letter he wrote to a young photographer trying to find their way. It’s an inspirational, well-written, wandering piece, as Joe’s usually are, that I think is brilliant advice not only for young creatives, but also for the media industry in general: “You are just beginning to write your pages, and the thing to remember about this early rough draft is that it hardly matters what you do exactly, as long as you continue to become something close to what you might imagine you want or need to become.”
I encourage anyone in any kind of decision-making position in the industry — from individual photographers to multi-national publishers — to embrace that notion and keep experimenting, keep innovating, keep striving for something better. You’ll know it when you find it.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of giving a presentation to members of the conservation, media, and photography communities as part of the WildSpeak program at The WILD Foundation‘s World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico. WildSpeak was created by the International League of Conservation Photographers, four days of presentations showing conservation organizations the power of visual storytelling and persuading them to make more room in their budgets for collaboration with conservation photographers.
The presentation I was part of, “New Media and Creating the Groundswell,” focused on using new online tools to disseminate conservation messages. The other speakers introduced me to several fascinating initiatives that I want to share with the RESOLVE community — by synthesizing photography, education, technology, and social action, they highlight trends that I believe will become increasingly important as the new media landscape evolves.
Collect and Contextualize
ARKive is an initiative by Wildscreen to create a digital library of text, photos, and video of a huge number of the world’s animal and plant species. In some ways, the vast number of images available online do not become truly useful and powerful until they are organized and searchable in a collection like this.
Frank Biasi, director of Conservation Projects for National Geographic Maps, demonstrated two projects he’s working on that are using maps as the main navigation tool for a site. The Global Action Atlas helps connect people with social action opportunities in specific areas of the world, and LandScope.org is a map-based resource for the land-protection community and the public. As geotagging becomes automatic and people interact more across all geographic barriers, information organized around a map structure will undoubtedly increase.
Mash Up Media
WildCoast is the perfect example of a non-profit taking their message far beyond the common trap of “preaching to the choir.” By signing up a sexy model and a Lucha Libre celebrity, this organization focused on saving coastal ecosystems won major victories for sea creatures. They also disseminate much of their information as comics and animated videos, something that Médecins Sans Frontières has also explored with their beautiful graphic novel, The Photographer.
Create Endless Collaboration
Matt Peters, the founder of Pandemic Labs, which ran social media strategy for the entire Wild9 congress, wrapped up with a wonderful presentation about the way online information tools can help keep people who connect at events like Wild9 connected and moving forward with their ideas long after the sessions end.
The Wild9 Live page collected blog posts in three languages, tweets about Wild9, live streams of many presenters, and Qik videos streamed from delegates’ cell phones, letting people from around the world (they received hits from around 80 countries) feel like they were part of the congress. And, possibly more important, now all that information is archived and available online. You can see the presentation videos at the Wild9 USTREAM page and even check out my presentation about creating clean, easy-to-navigate websites that drive visitors to act, not just look.
After two years of research by members Richard Anderson and Peter Krogh, ASMP announced the launch of its dpBestflow.org website at FotoWeekDC earlier this week. Shorthand for “Digital Photography Best Practices and Workflow,” the website, part of the three-tier project that includes a book and a traveling seminar series, aims to offer definitive guidelines for digital photography best practices and workflow.
Forbes Media announced yesterday that it has acquired digital magazine FlipGloss and its Digital Glossy Insert photo publishing platform. Launched about 8 months ago, FlipGloss combines search engine capabilities with the experience of flipping through photo content of a magazine, and users can click on objects in the photos to find out where to purchase an item or even be led to an advertiser’s website.
Wes Anderson’s new movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which opens in selected theaters today, is a stop-motion picture shot entirely using a Nikon D3 – over 600,000 stills that generate 18.5 terrabytes of data. According to movie review website IMDb, the beautifully art-directed adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic used Nikon D3 because it “offers a significantly higher resolution than even that of full High Definition.” Wired.com has a great “Making of” the movie here.
Google has cut the price for extra storage on its photo sharing site Picasa to about one eighth of what it used to cost. For $5 a year, now you can have 20GB photo storage on the site. “Since most people have less than 10GB of photos, chances are you can now save all your memories online for a year for the cost of a triple mocha,” according to the official Google Photos Blog.