Let’s say you went out to lunch with a wise, aging artist whose paintings you admire. Over steaming Italian food, eager to learn from this artist’s years of experience, you ask him or her how one really creates an impactful, valuable painting. What is the process like? I’m guessing the artist’s answer will not be something like this:
- Get a canvas.
- Get some high-quality paint and a few brushes.
- Dip the brushes in the paint and apply it to the canvas.
- Repeat until the canvas is full.
- Hang it up for people to see.
Rather, the conversation would probably center around discovering the answers to questions like: What ideas do you want the painting to express? What emotions do you want the viewer to feel, and what techniques will create that impact?
Of course, at some point, creating a painting requires getting some paint and applying it to a surface. But even decisions about tools and techniques are made simpler when you know exactly what goals you are trying to accomplish.
Similarly, when people ask, “How do I make a good photography website?” my answer is not going to be something like this:
- Register a domain name.
- Get a web host.
- Choose a template.
- Upload photos and add text.
- Launch and invite people to look at it.
Yes, these steps are important eventualities. Yet many photography websites that stick closely to these five misguided steps will fail right out of the gate. The real questions that need to be examined in detail — what the website needs to express, and what specific emotions it needs to elicit often are merely guessed at or skipped altogether.
Unlike a painting (or your photography), which may be enjoyed for purely aesthetic reasons, your website has a clear, actionable goal: to turn viewers into clients. Visitors need to not just enjoy the site, they need to do something (i.e., book you) afterward. Therefore, much ground needs to be covered before you start talking about color schemes and logos.
Before you jump into the world of templates and web hosts, there are three major, well-researched decisions you should make. The answers may change over time, but skipping these steps is the surest way to end up with a confused, underperforming web presence.
#1: Who exactly are you talking to?
How many sessions can you photograph in one week? Multiply that by 52, and that’s how many portrait clients you can possibly serve in one year. For most photographers, this number will be 100 or less. Whatever yours is, I’m guessing this number is far lower than the number of people who live in your town.
Don’t build your website as if you’re trying to attract everyone in the tri-state area. Build it for the 100 people who you would most love to work with.
Drill down and speak, with exquisite precision, to their exact questions, concerns and fears. If you do that, your website will convert visitors into clients at a much faster rate.
To actually do that, you need to know exactly who those 100 people are.
If you’re giving a speech at a physics convention, you might start by telling a joke that starts: “So a quark and a neutron walk into a bar … .” and the audience will respond with hearty guffaws, and then settle in with rapt attention.
Try that same joke at a high school assembly? Crickets. Followed by boredom.
Your website is essentially giving a speech on your behalf, but you don’t have a captive audience. If someone feels bored or uninspired, they can click away in a flash. You need to capture their attention by showing them immediately that you understand who they are and why they came to you.
As you get ready to build your site, don’t waste time looking at other photographers’ websites and don’t copy what you see them doing. Create a profile of your target client:
- Where do they hang out?
- What books do they read?
- Where do they want to be five years from now?
- What are they pinning on Pinterest?
Refer to someone who represents the 100 people you most want to hire you, and get to know them extremely well. No detail is unimportant.
Lululemon clothing company places employee stations strategically next to fitting rooms so they can eavesdrop for customer preferences.
If you understand who you’re working with, overhear what they like and what they don’t like, and know how they respond and what language they use with their friends, it enables you to present products and services that are exactly what they’re looking for — using language they understand, in a way that solves their problems. That combination is irresistible. When applied correctly, it results in better profits and happier clients.
If you need help creating your own target client profile, keep reading. There’s a great resource I recommend at the end of this post.
#2: What are that target client’s needs, and …
#3: How can you describe what you’re selling in terms of those needs?
Don’t sell yourself short by simply thinking, “Clients need beautiful pictures.” Nope, that’s why you need them. Take a step back and look at the wider picture of their life.
Let’s say you complete your target client profile, and find that she’s a 36-year-old woman named Lynda. She has a corporate job and two kids she feels like she doesn’t get to see enough of. Lynda drives to work and picks her kids up in a Prius, does all her holiday shopping on Amazon (she pays them to handle the gift wrap), and subscribes to Atlantic Monthly.
Or maybe your target client is Suzanne, a 27-year-old graphic designer who left her job last year to stay at home with two kids. Suzanne gets a lot of time with her kids and regularly posts blog updates for their grandparents. But she also craves peace, quiet and adult interaction. She spends her spare time trying out DIY home decor crafts she pulled from Pinterest, subscribes to Real Simple magazine, and feels slightly guilty about how much time she spends on Facebook.
Even though both women are loving mothers who want pictures of their two children, you can tell from just a handful of facts that they’re going to express their immediate needs and pressing concerns differently. And you could attract one or the other simply by shifting how you describe your services.
Lynda craves downtime with her kids (see: corporate job); Suzanne needs a chance to get in front of the camera instead of always being the one holding the camera (see: mommy blogger).
Lynda needs you to handle all the session details (see: paying Amazon for gift wrap), while Suzanne would eagerly discuss every aspect of the shoot with you (see: looks forward to adult interaction, loves Pinterest).
Lynda wants to align her spending with her values, and will spend extra money on a photographer who uses sustainably sourced paper and eco-friendly packaging (see: Prius), whereas Suzanne is frugal, but will start making plans immediately when she sees a list of crafty ways she can use your images as she decorates her home (see: DIY crafts).
Even the exact same product can be framed differently depending on who you’re targeting. If you offer metal prints, you could showcase them to Lynda as a tasteful, subtle way to display her images at the office. Suzanne, on the other hand, might be more excited if you showed her a picture of metal prints hanging in the bathroom above each kid’s towel hook both decorating the bathroom and eliminating arguments about whose hook is whose.
Clients’ reactions to your website should be “this person totally gets me” rather than “oh look, another photographer.”
If clients see that you understand their life, anticipate their worries, share the same interests, and serve other people just like them, you’re going to immediately stand apart from everyone else. By presenting your services in their words and addressing their exact needs, in one fell swoop you will increase excitement and eliminate barriers to booking.
As you create a profile of a target client and tailor your website to them, don’t worry about excluding anyone. Chances are, if you create a photography experience just for Lynda that is time-efficient, family-focused, and eco-friendly, this will also appeal to a lot of other people. But focusing in and exploring the life of just one person gives you access to the kind of detail that helps you craft a stronger marketing message.
Think of it this way: The TV show The Office exaggerates all the loony, exasperating, funny things that happen when you work in an office. By narrowing down and exploring that universe, the creators were able to find gems of humor. But the audience they attracted wasn’t just people who worked in offices; the characters were popular among all kinds of people. In the specific, you will find the universal. Zero in and study the exact person you most want to work with, and in the process you’ll naturally attract a wider circle.
So whether you’re grabbing a canvas and paintbrush, or a domain name and WordPress, take some time and think about what you’re trying to say with your work, and to whom you want your work to speak to. Answering the three questions above will make downstream decisions about your website much easier, with the result speaking directly and powerfully to your ideal client.
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