So, my second installment in The Photo Life is now up. Be sure to check it out. Power to the People – Put Your Clients First. In that vein, here’s a continuation on the theme, and how we can move ourselves forward:
I bought some antler-hook coat hangers on Etsy the other day. They were cutely packaged with a nice hand-written note. And you could tell the message was personal. And, yet, I was unmoved. Nice of them to do, mind you, but meh. I tossed the note aside into the sea of papers that never seems to subside around the office.
The King is dead, the world is new, and we are free at last. Free at last. And, yet, the anxiety resides. Why are we still running so hard to stay in the same place? The information may be unleashed, but in this world of hyper-connection, where authenticity is king and the bottom is the top, though we may not be climbing the same ladder, the race is still on. And we better be ready to run.
Except now, it’s a race to connect and collect, where we no longer find information. Instead, information finds us, and the stakes are higher than ever. If we’re not leaving a mark, we’re fading into obscurity. Whether you believe in purple cows, disruption, the long tail, or the authentic self, everyone is out there trying to make an impression. In other times and other places, I’d probably have kept the note I received, thrilled by such a simple, kind act. I’d probably have referred everyone I knew, and tried to convince them to buy antler-hook coat hangers. But not now. No longer. Because I’ve seen it too many times before, and I’ve become inured. Everyone has that playbook. Was it a waste of time? Possibly. Maybe not. But either way, it wasn’t enough. The times. They are a changin’.
Rules for the seek and share economy
1. Care deeply and put the client first
Information now moves from the bottom up, and it moves fast. The distribution of information is all about sharing and no one can now throttle its flow. We need others to spread the word, and only deep connections will sustain you. Real ones show who you are, put you on the line, and let people find connection.
2. Differentiate deeply
Ideas are everywhere. It’s harder than ever to be the first, the best, or the most distinct. Everyone has heard the story of something happening somewhere. Being a little different isn’t good enough. Being different on the surface won’t sustain you. It needs to be complete and enduring.
3. Embrace risk
Change is blistering, and it’s only getting faster. There is no safe. Don’t let yourself get anchored in the past. Be nimble and open to new things.
Think about these phrases. Made in America. Made in China. Made in Cupertino. Of course, the first two you know. One as a symbol of pride. Another of cost efficiency. And if you’ve owned an Apple product, then you know the third as well. What you might also know is that this is a common example of product and brand distinction that’s been picked up in several business books. And ever since, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the origin of more objects than I’d care to recall, including Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, and even Mexico City. Apparently, I’m not the only one reading these books. Except, of course, it doesn’t really it doesn’t work the same, does it? It doesn’t work the same, because we’ve seen it before. And it doesn’t work the same, because Cupertino is a quirky and unexpected locale. Apple’s marketing was both distinct and specific, while others were not.
Information travels. What was clever yesterday is common today and tired tomorrow. And there’s nothing new about that fact. What is new is the rate at which it takes place. Doing enough means more depth and sincerity. Enough means we are pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and we can settle into never settling. Enough means that a catchy tagline, a sticky slogan, or a charming logo aren’t enough. And, in reality, they never were. But the facade is wearing thin, now, and everyone can call bullshit when the king has no clothes.
It has always been a reality that most of what we think, do, and believe is already being done. What hasn’t always been a reality is that everyone knew about it. Who hasn’t had a bride who knew about this shot or that? Or where a bridal party member was more than eager to help suggest something she’d seen just last week on a blog? Our clients know the tricks. And if you want to be more than a hired gun or a to-do list with shots to be checked off the sheet, enough means we need to go deeper. If all of us are 99% the same, we need to define the 1% by which we are different. We need to ask the questions that push us further, that others aren’t answering, and that most are afraid to tackle. We have to move to the fringes. And we need to make those differences apparent in every part of every thing we do, from taking the pictures to shaking people’s hands. When we do that, we not only succeed, but we invest in the most important thing possible. Our own, best selves.
So let’s say you’re ready to go do some damage and make things happen. Here are three exercise to get you going:
1. Go talk with people
It would seem odd to suggest that you talk with your clients to find out about yourself. But go talk with your clients to find out about yourself. Odds are that they selected you for what stuck out, so why try to guess what the 1% is, when you can just ask? You’d be amazed about what you find about yourself. You’ll also be amazed how often it doesn’t quite match up with what you want. If it’s time for a mid-course correction, now is the time to find out. Pick up the phone. Send some emails. Find out the answers. Remember, your goal isn’t to take what they say and parrot it back to everyone. But it is to take what they say, and understand how you’re seen, and also figure out where your real strengths lie.
2. Answer what is unique about you in one sentence
Bet you haven’t heard that before, right? But what we’re after is a sentence so full of connotation and subtlety that only you can unpack it. And a set of connotations that are so unique, no one else will have them. So don’t let yourself off easy. Stay on the hook, and put it all on the line. Because saying you show love isn’t enough. Everyone does. Saying you have a vintage look won’t fly, either. What are you going to do when you stop shooting with a vintage look? Are you a different person because you changed your look? Probably not. What was the constant between the two looks that show you? How about capturing romance? No go. After all, who doesn’t? What about a documentary style? Nope. How is capturing something on the fly not documentary? And how many people don’t do that? Sure, some is good, some isn’t, but it’s not a point of distinction. Nor is being good and doing it right. Nor is being honest, being true, or any other one thing. These are just beginnings.
What you need a purpose. And you need to understand what makes your purpose different from everyone else. Everyone sees value in relationships. But what does a relationship mean to you? What does it do for you? What makes it work? What defines a good one? And what’s the best part of it? Get even more microscopic. How do your recognize those values externally in two people? What situations trigger aspects of it to emerge? And what camera techniques best illustrate those values? These are the questions most people aren’t answering. And these are the questions where your answer is going to diverge from everyone else. Dig, dig, and dig more. Dig until you’re splitting hairs so finely that the answers your produce could only be yours. Then go back and and answer the question again. What is unique about you in one sentence?
3. Look at your marketing materials and your communications. All of them. Now what do they say?
If the only answer is they say whatever the copy in them says, then it’s time to start looking harder. You want your communications to be full of suggestion. You want people to be able to read between the lines. And you want your marketing materials to communicate visually. A marketing campaign isn’t a bunch of individual actions that impress people. It’s a series of actions that collectively compel people to feel something. In every way possible. That means the design and visuals should walk the fine line between something that is stylistically recognizable, in order to draw in the right sub-cultures, and something that is stylistically distinct, to show your specific take. It means the language shouldn’t simply be functional. It should reflect your character, your philosophy, and your unique purpose. It’s a common thing that smaller businesses look at their marketing and think that if it looks like the materials the big boys put out, it’s professional. But professional isn’t enough. If it looks like the materials the big boys put out, it’s not as unique as it deserves to be. And that doesn’t mean it needs to be designed better (though it may), and it doesn’t mean it needs to look glossier. It means it needs to be more thoughtful, and more specifically true to you.