There were two photographers. Both from the same school, starting business the same year, shooting the same thing the same way: weddings in New York City.
But one had twice the bookings and twice the pay.
It sounds like one of those riddles that leaves you banging your head against the wall, because you can’t figure it out. Except it’s real life.
What makes the difference?
What a spectacularly overpriced burger tells us about value
This hamburger costs $175:
When I first heard about it, I couldn’t contain myself. “What? Who the hell pays $175 for a burger?!?!” The couple sitting at the table next to me looked over like I was a mumbling nut job.
Then I realized I was asking the wrong question.
The question isn’t who would spend that much. It’s why someone would spend that much. That’s the secret.
Taking a trip in the way back machine…
When I started out, everyone told me “You should charge more!” Now, I admit, I kind of thought I was big deal for raking in a whopping $975, when I started, but it didn’t take long to realize that you’re staring down starvation alley at those rates.
So, yeah, I knew I should charge more.
But some part of me didn’t believe it. I was riddled with doubt. What if I raise my price, and people don’t hire me? What if they don’t think I’m worth it? Do I even think I’m worth it?
Finally, after one of those a come to Jesus type talks, when a friend yanked me aside and told me I was an idiot if I didn’t start charging more, I decided to bite the bullet.
Time to man up. Take the bull by the horns. Become the master of my fate.
So I did it.
I celebrated by treating myself to an oversized pastrami on rye at Stage Deli, ready to make it rain.
Instead, business dried up.
The message in the $175 burger isn’t that charging more means making more. It’s true I needed to raise my rates, but pricing doesn’t always work like a pair of ruby red slippers.
My prices weren’t my real problem. They were just a symptom of other problems. It wasn’t that I needed to know to charge more. I needed to know how to be able to charge more.
Here’s the thing.
You don’t buy an insanely overpriced burger for the taste. I mean come on. Look at it. It has gold flakes. No one wants to chow down on gold flakes.
You buy it, because you can.
Or more to the point, you do it to show other people you can.
I’d hazard a guess and say not a whole lot of people eat this thing alone.
And this is everything, because what the burger tells us is that running an effective business isn’t about quality. It’s about needs.
People buy for one reason and one reason alone: needs. Always. And forever.
The Slipstream Strategy
Slipstreaming is a simple strategy to dominate a space in people’s minds, so you can get high value clients who love what you do.
A slipstream is a low pressure area right behind a moving object. Basically, when something is moving, it cuts through the wind for you, so if you trail right behind it, there’s less resistance.
What’s that have to do with marketing?
Whenever there’s a new trend, which is basically always, there’s going to be an underserved audience who wants it, but isn’t getting it.
These pockets are gold, because the desire is high, but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to appeal to them. You just need to provide what’s being offered elsewhere.
Think of Dennis Reggie. Photojournalism was commonplace in photography, so the need was established. But it wasn’t common in wedding photography at the time until he introduced it. Boom. Wedding photojournalism was born. In other words the entire wedding market was in the slipstream, so once the idea was introduced, it spread like wildfire.
There are two parts to slipstreaming. Start here:
Question 1: What need do you serve for your clients?
Before answering, let’s look at it a little differently than usual.
Most people pick the first thing that comes to mind. This is a disaster, because it’s also the first thing that comes to everyone else’s mind. Something like memories or preservation. Maybe some story comes to mind, where a bride teared up when she saw the picture of grandma.
It’s a great sentiment.
But it’s a problem.
Owning a spot in people’s minds means you’ll be at the top of their list and you’ll get to frame how they see your value. But you can’t do that, if your angle is the same as everyone else’s.
Let’s go back to burgers.
McDonald’s would be long dead if they competed on quality or ingredients. But you don’t go there for that. You go for convenience. Or because it’s the only place off the highway.
And while Five Guys and In N Out are good, there are a lot of great burgers out there. What they really excel at is value.
There are all sorts of angles. Kitsch. Fun. Indulgence. Simplicity. Esteem. Nostalgia. It’s like the Energizer bunny. The opportunities just keep going and going.
And this is no less true for photography. In fact, if there are that many opportunities for burgers, just think of the possibilities for pictures.
You just need to find the angle that separates you.
Aboutness is the Key
Start off by thinking about your pictures.
Cig Harvey said a great photograph needs to be about something, not of something.
What are your pictures about? Because that’s what you really bring to the table. It’s not grandma. It’s what you’re saying about grandma.
There are reasons you create pictures that are light or dark, horizontal or vertical, filled or shadowy, wide or tight. Everyone has a way of doing things, so scribble out a dozen words that come to mind about why you do what you do.
Now think about your business. Same thing. There must be a reason you do what you do. And, if there isn’t, then make sure to find one. Scribble some more words about what you do for people. Be creative.
Now, flip it around and try looking at it from the point of view of a client.
What do they see in you?
Finally, go back to where we started and answer the question.
What need do you serve?
You don’t have to cut it down to just one thing. But narrow the scope enough to get some focus on things that ring true.
Now let’s move on to part two.
Seeing the Market
“Aiiii!!! Open your eyes!!! It’s right in front of you!”
That was the sound of my childhood.
I must have been a very trying child to raise. I had a habit of constantly losing things around the house. So I did what any responsible, well-behaved child would do.
I’d whine and whine until my mom caved in and found it for me.
My mom was right, though. It always showed up right in front of my eyes (sorry Mom).
Turns out what’s true of my youth is just as true of the market. Usually, it’s right in front of your eyes.
Take a look at the picture below. Let’s pretend it’s the marketplace.
If you haven’t seen this before, it might be a shock to hear there’s a panda hidden in there. Embarrassingly, I spent 10 minutes trying to find it. My wife took all of 10 seconds. So much for my razor-sharp, photography-honed, super vision.
The reason we don’t see the opportunities in front of our eyes starts with the simple fact that most of us either don’t know where to look or don’t even know to look at all.
You’ve probably noticed there’s a gaggle of photographers chasing the same pictures and the same keywords and the same strategies.
Small little people holding hands in the hills.
Dresses in trees or hung on log cabins.
Backlit grooms kissing backlit foreheads next to the water or couples under umbrellas with strobes at their backs.
None of these things will save you. But there are photographers who succeed doing exactly these things, even when others fail.
Why? Because some photographers know exactly how to find the right audience, while others just throw it out there to see what sticks.
It’s not about how good the pictures are.
Quality has nothing to do with success. We all know a people who are incredibly talented, but just can’t get it together.
Quality is like sleep. If you don’t have enough, you can’t function. But getting more doesn’t mean you do better. After a certain point, in fact, quality is useless, if you don’t know what to do with it.
What you need is the right target.
Ad agency legend David Ogilvy said “I could have positioned Dove as a detergent bar for men with dirty hands, but chose instead to position it as a toilet bar for women with dry skin.”
Targeting is everything.
Now, traditionally, the tool of choice for this is the ideal client profile. You’re probably familiar with it. It’s a profile representing your perfect client, and it lets you know where to focus your marketing.
And it’s absolutely true that you need to focus on something.
The problem is most ideal client profiles suck.
For example, I might feel pretty proud to be able to say my ideal couple is independently wealthy from the empire they built creating artisanal pickles so they’re willing to pay when they see something that’s worth it. That this couple spends their time sipping lemonade and bourbon on their porch with craft chocolates and raw milk cheese during the summer months as they enjoy the company of close friends, while listening to First Aid Kit on vinyl. It all sounds great, but there are some serious flaws here.
First and foremost, such a couple probably doesn’t exist. It’s an idealized representation of what people want, and not what’s really out there.
Second, half of this information is useless.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m all for fleshing the profile out to let you know who you’re talking to with your marketing, but a lot of descriptions read more like ideal client porn than actual profiles.
If it’s not actionable, it’s not useful.
Let’s look at things a little differently. Try using the ideal client profile as a tool not to help you talk to the perfect client, but as a tool to find the perfect client.
Here are the three essential criteria to find the right target:
1. They want what you offer
2. You want what they offer
3. There is a need gap
Now, naturally, you’ll want people who need what you offer. And, of course, if indentured servanthood isn’t your thing, they’ll need to fit your needs, too—artistic, emotional, financial, and otherwise.
But it’s the last point that’s the big one. Not because it’s more important than the other two, but because most people skip it.
In the 2004 Olympics, marksman Matt Emmons had such a big lead that all he had to do to win gold was basically hit the target on his very last shot.
And he did.
Except he aimed at the wrong thing. He fired at the neighboring target instead of his own, earning himself no points and dropping from first place to eighth.
That’s exactly what a lot of businesses do. They pour all their resources down the wrong path, only to get nothing back.
More times than not, most of the market chases the same audience.
It’s human nature. You go after what you know, and what you know is what everyone else is doing. But it leaves you with heaps of competition, and it makes you disappear in the crowd.
That’s two strikes right there.
The slipstream is the underserved market where you’ll find a need gap. Which is to say, a place where need is high, but supply is low. That’s the sweet spot.
Think of Tesla. Before Tesla, electric cars meant economy vehicles at low cost. Tesla took the appeal of the electric car, but reworked it to service an affluent market looking for performance and luxury, giving Tesla free reign in an uncontested space.
We talked about Dennis Reggie, but it wasn’t just him. We saw the same thing again with Jose Villa. There was plenty of editorial work that looked that way before he hit the scene. But very little of it was in the wedding market.
And you don’t have to capture the entire industry.
Petronella Lugemwa of New York City does cultural weddings.
When she first asked me what I thought, I scratched my head and crinkled my forehead. “Umm…just what ARE cultural weddings?”
As it turns out, it’s just what it sounds like.
“Why can’t they just hire anyone? Why you?” I was skeptical.
I was also wrong.
She rocks that angle by creating a product and a service that makes her couples feel immensely understood and appreciated in a market segment with little competition.
Here’s Part 2 of the slipstream equation:
1. Take a look at the need you wrote down before.
2. Think about all the types of clients you’ve worked with (and those you haven’t), and write out the profiles for the different types of people who fit your work and who fit you.
This is where all the heavy lifting happens. Get as granular and varied as you can. At first, you can think about broad categories like age, profession, culture, personality types. But very often, the opportunities are within a specific group of people. For example, people in marketing might be too broad, but people in marketing who like fine art might nail it.
3. Finally, once you’ve identified your clients, write out the people who have the best combination of loving your stuff, fitting your needs, and being underserved. Sometimes it helps if you think up ways to go back and rethink the needs at this point or if you ask yourself “What people would like my stuff who are being ignored by photographers like me?”
But it’s everything.
Now you have a place to aim for your branding and marketing.
Odds are, you won’t hit it out of the ballpark right away. That’s alright.
But like all things, it’s getting started that counts. When you have the process down, you can just wash, rinse, and repeat, and each time you do, you’ll get better and better.
The further you go, the more business will improve, so you’ll get the clients you want along with the business you need.
And you’ll know you’re doing exactly what great businesses do. Examine the market and find opportunity. But to other people, it will look like magic.