Photo Marketing 101

Photo marketing - email marketing and promotion for photographers

When it comes to photo marketing for the professional photographer, there are few photo marketing vehicles that will give a higher return on investment than the photographer’s emailer.  Email marketing for both commercial and wedding photographers is a way of reaching potential clients while incurring few, if any costs.  Photo marketing via email is not something that takes a great deal of time either.  Just press the "send" button on your computer and your photo marketing piece will land in the inboxes of hundreds, if not thousands of potential and interested clients.  Read more about what it takes to create a successful email photo marketing campaign.

photo marketing email promotion

Here's an example of a recent emailer of mine

Introduction to Photo marketing via E-mail

If you’ve every sent an email to a photography client or potential photography client in order to have them hire you for a job, set up an appointment to show your portfolio, have them look at your web page, or for any other reason having to do with marketing your photography business, you’ve already participated in email marketing. 

And I'm willing to bet that you're been on the receiving end of other people's email marketing campaigns too. Some of those emails were welcome, and many were not.  Either way, all those emails were also examples of email marketing.

In this article, I will share with you what I know about the art of email marketing for photographers, and commercial photographers, in particular.  While I don’t consider myself an expert on the subject, I’ve been sending out emails for many years now and I’ve investigated the subject through various forums, books, and practical experience.  So if you’re interested in email marketing, feel free to read on and take from these articles what you want and leave the rest.  Hey, it’s free!  (and ya get what ya pay for... :+)

The cost of email marketing

Photo marketing - cost of email vs. direct mail

In the old days, we photographers would depend on source book ads, face-to-face portfolio interviews and direct mail as a means of marketing ourselves and finding new clients.  Now, in the era of the Internet, the main way of “photo marketing” to potential clients is through web pages, portfolio drop-offs and also through email marketing.   Email marketing has arguably become the most efficient, cost effective way of marketing and drumming up business for the photographer. 

Cost of sending out an email, verses sending out a direct mail piece for a photographer

The cost of sending out an email, verses sending out a direct mail piece, is the difference between night and day.  Printing, envelopes and postage costs us a heck of a lot more than pressing the “send” button on our computers.  The savings are immense and allow us photo-marketing professionals to afford to reach many more potential photography clients, for almost no cost at all.

Here’s the cost difference between a year’s photography email promotion campaign and a direct mail campaign:

  • Mailing list (created by you or purchased $X.00 / year subscription $900.00?)
  • Design ($Y.00)
  • Printing ($120.00 / 500 at the very least)
  • Envelopes ( $.05-.10 each, if not more if you want something fancy, which many photographers do)
  • Assembly (labor – more than you think)
  • Bulk sorting (labor – more than you think)
  • Postage (what the heck is it now $.45 a PIECE?)


  • Mailing list (created by you or purchased $X.00 / year subscription $900.00?)
  • Design ($Y.00)
  • Bulk e-mailing software ($45.00 one time purchase)
  • Email account (you already have one, I’m sure)

So add it up.  If you send out four promotions of 500 pieces per promotion a year, (which is a reasonable amount), and I’m figuring a total of $500 for design for each promotion type.

  • Direct snail mail promotion
    Mailing list   900
    Design   500
    Printing 480
    Envelopes 150
    Assembly / Addressing
    (photo assistant day rate x 4)
    Postage 900
    Total $ 3930 / year

    Email Promotion
    Mailing list  900
    Design  500
    Bulk email program 45
    $ 1445 / year

    Spam filter vs. circular file for photography promotions

    Some people would argue that many of the promotional emails would be filtered out as spam and never seen by the intended target.  That is definitely true, but you have to ask yourself just how many postcards or other promotions you think end up in the circular file unopened.  From what I hear from Art and Creative Directors, the number is staggering.  It’s a fact of life that many of your promotions will not be seen by the Art Directors and Photography buyer no mater what medium you use to reach them.  Having said that, I think most photographers would agree that it’s a numbers game and it’s all about “return on investment”.  Promotions bring in work.  The more you promote, the more work that will come in.  Yes, there is a point of diminishing return, but I personally don’t know of any photographer that’s reached that point.  Even if you get a lesser “return” from an email campaign as opposed to a direct mail campaign, you’ve spend less money and therefore your return on investment may make the email campaign the more productive promotion.  Personally, I think the key is to do both types of promotion.  Some people may respond to one type of promotion whereas another may respond differently.

  • Email Marketing's place in your marketing plan

    It’s not that those old ways of marketing are totally obsolete, because they’re not.  It’s just that the advancement of technology as added more and more modern weapons to our photo-marketing arsenal.  Now-a-days, almost every professional photographer has a beautiful web page that we’ve designed to show off our work that we think represents our unique photographic style.  The challenge we photographers face it to get this on-line portfolio (web page) in front of potential photography buyers to see if there might be a match between our photographic style and the Art Buyers needs.  There are many ways to get the news out about a our photography style and/or web page, including placing source book ads, web portfolio portals, portfolio interviews, portfolio drop-offs, and direct mail, but none of these methods are as inexpensive and cost-effective as e-mail marketing.   But just because some marketing methods vary in cost effectiveness, doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea to include in your overall marketing plan.

    Photography email promotions are not the only tools in our photo-marketing toolbox

    Even though the cost of sending out emails make it the one of the most cost effective means of photo marketing, I would strongly recommend that a photo marketer not forget all the other photo marketing weapons.  There are some potential clients that can’t be reached via email, for various reasons.  Especially in this day of spam and spam filters, it’s always a good idea to create a comprehensive marketing plan that includes and budgets for various methods of reaching and informing our potential and existing clients about our photographic abilities.  While e-mail photo marketing is a great tool, it’s not the only tool you need to reach all the potential clients that may need you as a photographer.

    Email marketing’s place in your marketing mix

    Passive marketing tools

    In the world of photographic marketing, there are different ways of getting the word out about what we do.  I’ll break these activities down into two categories, I’ll call one of these categories “active” marketing and the other “passive” marketing.

    I consider “passive” marketing to be the type of marketing that sort of reminds me of planting seeds.  Making a web page and placing it out on the web is sort of like planting a seed.  Besides the initial “search engine optimization” in the design of the web page, it’s sort of out there in cyberspace waiting for someone to find it.  It’s lying there waiting for someone to find it, ready to entice the potential client into giving you a shot at their next relevant photo shoot.  It’s a passive marketing tool.  Other examples of passive marketing tools might be trade journal ad placement, source book advertising, portfolio web portals, banner advertising on various web pages, and pay per click advertising.

    Email marketing is not, by any means a passive form of marketing.  It requires direct interaction with prospective photo clients.  It’s much like a portfolio interview because you, as a photographer are communicating on-on-on with the prospect.  There are really no excuses to be contacting them with the broadly targeted sales pitch of a passive marketing tool.  You’re not waiting for “anyone” to find your marketing tool, you’re contacting them.  You know who they are and you know what they do.  You should even know who their clients are.  You’re contacting them because you think that they may very well need exactly what you’re selling.  That’s another great advantage to email marketing. Ability to qualify the people you’re contacting through the research of others.  More on that later.

    What’s the function of email marketing?

    I guess you’re here at this web site because you’re considering sending out an email promotion for probably the first time ever, and you want to pick up a few pointers.  The first thing you have to ask yourself is why am I sending these emails in the first place…  The answer is probably that you want to get more business.  But you need to take a step back and take a look at what you can actually accomplish with an e-mailer.  The recipient is going to get this email and if your lucky it will get past their spam filter and they’ll open it.  If you’re really really lucky, they’ll like it, and if you’re really really really lucky, they’ll click on the link to your web site, and if you’re really really really really they’ll file it away for when they think someone like you might be appropriate for a future project.  If you’re really really really really really lucky…  They’ll have a project that just landed on their desk that’s perfect for your style of photography, and they’ll contact you in some way to talk to you about that job.

    Obviously, we’d all like to get a job from every single e-mailer we send out, but that’s just not practical expectation.  So we’ll have to settle for getting as far along up that “really really” scale as possible. Here are the basic goals, in order of priority, of an e-mailer.


    1.    Get past the spam filter

    2.    Get opened by the recipient

    3.    Impress the recipient

    4.    Have the recipient take some form of positive action toward hiring you for a photography project.

    Target a market           


    Acquire the e-mailing list


    Hopefully, before this point in you marketing career, you’ve determined exactly whom you want to direct your marketing efforts toward.  If you’re a “generalist” commercial photographer, maybe you’ve selected ad agencies and graphic design firms in your area as your target market.  If that’s the case, you’ll need to build a list of email addresses of those potential clients.   There are basically two ways to go about attaining a list of whatever target market you may want to pursue.  You can either build your own list or purchase a list. 


    When I first started out in the business I was quick to realize that building a mailing list was a good idea.  I spent a lot of time gathering up the names and addresses of potential clients so that I could send out direct mail pieces and hopefully build my business.  Now, too many years later, not much has changes except for the fact that I now also gather email addresses and send out more emails than I do direct mail pieces.  Every photographer should have a client database of names, addressed, and email addresses and if you don’t have one, start one today.  You can either start one yourself or pay someone else to gather the info you need (maybe and intern).  You may even consider combining lists with others in similar fields such as illustrators or printers.  The key is to share the expense with others that feed and the same trough but yet don’t compete directly with what you do.


    Another option is to purchase, or I should say “rent” a list.  There are companies out there that specialize in building marketing lists for photographers.  I subscribe to Agency Access, but there are a few others including “Fresh lists” and, “Adbase”, among others.  I’m not sure why I choose Agency access in the beginning, but I’ve been happy with their service.  They have list of photo buyers around the use that include advertising agencies, graphic design firms, magazines, music companies, misc. corporations, and others.  They have thousands and thousands of photography buyers on their list and they also have this really cool web page where you can go in and select buyers from tons of different criteria.  They also have a lit of company specific data on the buyers.  For example, they list who the ad agency’s clients are, the annual billing of the agency and all kinds of other useful information. 


    Each of these list houses has different fees for their lists and different packages of various other services.  They even offer design, delivery, and tracking services for both direct mail and e-mailers.  So for pricing information, you’ll need to visit each of their web sites to determine which one would be right for you.


    I’d like to take a moment to talk a little bit about market targeting.  Before the advent of e-mailers, local marketing for photographers was the norm, while marketing nationally was left to the very elite of our profession.  That is not the case today.  Even shlubs like myself have been quite successful in marketing on a national level.  It seems that more and more clients are willing to travel out of their area to hire quality “specialist” photographers.  It also seems to me that clients are more comfortable hiring photographers in other cities to do work in order to save on the expense of flying their “familiar” photographers to a distant city.  I think that the reason for this is because it’s so easy to research and become comfortable with the quality of distant photographers through their web sites. For these two reasons, I think that marketing on a national level has become more realistic for the “average” photographer.  And if you combine the fact that photo buyers are buying more and more from out of town photographers, with the fact that it’s so inexpensive for photographers to market (via email and web sites) to these photo buyers, there’s really no reason for the average photographer NOT to expand his geographic target market.


    If you’ve decided to purchase a list, probably the first thing you’ll notice is how poor the list is in your local area.  If you’ve developed your own local list, you’ll see that the large list houses have actually done a very poor job of compiling information about photo buyers in your area.  From that fact, you can assume that they’ve missed a ton of photo buyers in every other city too.  Having said that, it’s still better than anything else you can come up with.  And it’s a good reason to maintain your own list of local buyers.

    To blast or not to blast


    So, if you’ve taken my advice, you’ve bitten the bullet and subscribed to a list rental place.  Probably the first question you need to answer is “how many people on that list should I send to?”  You’ve paid for all those names and since you’re emailing them yourself and it wouldn’t cost anymore, why shouldn’t you just send out emails to 12,000 of them?  I’ll give you one good reason…  You’re not an asshole.  Maybe you are, but you don’t want to be perceived by potential clients as one. 


    Even if you’re a generalist and you shoot pretty much everything, there are people on that list that obviously wouldn’t be interested in what you’re selling.  A travel magazine of an Alaska based pipe manufacturer would probably never hire most generalists.  Maybe, but probably not.  You hate spam right?  So does everyone else.  So put yourself in the shoes of the recipient of your e-mailer.  Is he or she going to be remotely interested in what you have to offer?  If you think not, don’t send the email.  You have to figure that since the photo buyer is on this list in the first place, he probably gets a lit of emails.  Probably more than he wants to get.  In fact, he’s probably at the point where he considers many of them to be spam.  The more of these spammed he gets, the less effective the relevant emails appear.  Think of this in reverse.  Think of all the relevant Photo buyers that you’re reaching that get spammed everyday from irrelevant photographers.  All these irrelevant e-mailer make your email less effective.  If we all just blast all the buyers on the list, we do all of us a disservice.


    And the same goes with job titles…  All these list houses show the employee’s job title.  A production artist at a large agency has now say as to whom they’re going to hire as a photographer.  You don’t need to send your e-mailer to that job title.  You’re wasting they’re time and probably leaving a bad taste in they’re mouth that might just get shared with others in their agency. Just don’t spam the whole industry and make it harder for everyone else trying to get new photography work too.



    I’ve talked about mail lists and database in general.  I’d now lit to talk in more detail abut database specifics.  I recommend that you actually start five databases.  One is for local targets, one is for nation targets, one if for current clients, one is for positive respondents, and one is for TMOYML respondents.  Of course, if you’re familiar with database programs like Filemaker-pro, you can combine them all into one database and separate them with some type of field.  The reason for having all these different databases is that you’ll have different function for each of them.

    The national target database that you get from a list house will be updated on a continuous basis.  You’ll just want to down load the list right before you’re ready to send out a mailing to insure that the list is as up to date as possible.  The reason that I import the list into a database is so that I can sort the data for various reasons.  We’ll talk about this more later, but I sort the mailings into time zones so that I can deliver the national emailing at what I consider the optimum time of day.  I also usually delete out from the national list any past of current clients to that I don’t contact them twice with the same mailer.

    My local target database contains all local prospects and is a list that I maintain.  When it comes to the actual mailing, I may or may not send out the emailing with the national emailing, depending on the degree of personalization I decide to incorporate into the copy of the emailing.  Either way, I prefer to keep the local target list a separate entity.  I may incorporate some of the names from the national list into my local list, just to keep the list growing and up to date.

    I have a database of past and current clients or familiar prospects.  The idea here is that I have made contact and I can personalize these emails to a far greater extent than with the “strangers” on my other lists.  It sounds funny getting a blast email from a friend and also getting an email that sounds like you’re someone’s buddy, from a stranger.

    I make it a point to respond to all people that respond to my e-mailer, good or bad.  I keep a list of people that send me an “I liked your stuff” email so that when I contact them again, I can act as though we’ve at least had some previous contact and hopefully they’ll remember me from the last time…

    I also keep a database of people that have responded to the “Take me off your mailing list” link that I put on every mailing list.  Before every emailing, I compare my current list with the TMOYML list and do as they asked.  It’s a

    pain in the butt, because I get a new list each time from the list house before every mailing, but that’s what I do.