I’m constantly in my Gmail account, reading and writing emails for the majority of my working day and <confession> most of my personal time as well.
I don’t enjoy email. In fact, I think my goal — everyone’s goal — is to get out of email as quickly as possible. Why? Because I can’t really hang out in email (despite Google’s push for “hangouts”) or browse it indefinitely like Pinterest.leg
Yet email effectively communicates brand messages to me. That means there’s opportunity in email for your photography business.
In my 10+ years of web marketing, email continues to be the most consistent and reliable source of new business and web traffic for me. I hope this post clearly outlines the importance of email marketing and best practices for email, and encourages you to either create an email list for the first time or grow your existing one.
Your business needs an email marketing strategy now
Email marketing finds new customer prospects and converts them into customers. Other forms of marketing such as search engine optimization (SEO), Facebook, websites, and RSS do this too, but are less effective overall. Here’s why email is more important than these other options.
Email vs. search and social marketing
Google and Facebook can deliver new prospects and customers, but you don’t own the profiles or the contacts.
If Google or Facebook blacklist you or change the rules (which seems to happen daily) you risk losing your customer stream.
For example, take Facebook’s demotion of business pages on people’s walls. You’ve worked hard to build a network where a select number of people will be exposed to your messages. Are you going to trust your entire customer acquisition process to another company? I hope not.
Email vs. website marketing
Maybe you rely on your website to drive new business.
Your website is like a business card. You give it to a potential customer, and they look at it once and never call you.
A better strategy is for you to collect the potential customer’s business card (email address) so you are in control. Asking for that contact information is much easier than asking for a sale. It’s why guys ask for a woman’s phone number initially and avoid proposing marriage straight away!
Another imperfection of a website is you can’t easily control traffic when you need it most. On the other hand, when I have a new product or limited-time offer, I can simply email my contacts and get immediate response without hoping the right people see it on my website.
Email vs. RSS
I see some photographers using RSS — a feed — as a substitute for an email subscription. I don’t like RSS for a number of reasons:
- Some people don’t know how to use RSS, so you lose subscribers when that is your only offer.
- RSS can’t customize the message to promote something important.
- RSS sends everything you post, often burning out subscribers with unimportant messages.
- Messages are sent when posts are published, which may not be ideal times for the highest visibility.
Another advantage of email is it’s perfect communication mechanism for “lead nurturing,” which means creating many small touch points with your customers over time — even if they are not ready to hire you yet. I’m thinking of the woman who recently got engaged or became pregnant, who’s browsing the web for a future photographer 3, 6 or 9 months down the line. Some of my consulting clients received my emails for years before they eventually hired me.
Building an email list for your studio
Hopefully you agree that email is a great opportunity for sales. Your primary goal is to build your network of potential clients as large as possible. If you ran a special today, like a weekend mini session or winter discount, how long would it take you to completely sell out? With email, quick sales become easier.
The number of subscribers you have is directly related to how many sales you can get instantly.
I want to share a few ways that can help you get more people on an email list.
Tell people what to expect from your emails
Email addresses are becoming more sacred. People don’t want to hand them over without knowing what they’re going to get in return. A box that says “Newsletter Signup” is not enough. Tell people what they will get by signing up and include as much detail as you can about frequency and subject matter. Here’s a great example from Design Aglow.
Never sell or rent your list
Some people fear that signing up for your email list will start a firehose of unwanted email that can never be turned off. People dislike spam, plain and simple. Tell your customers, with a simple message next to the email signup form, that you will not share their information. Here’s what I wrote on my email signup page (a little bit cute): “I’m anti-spam. Your email address is like a blueberry muffin to me. I’m going to savor it and not share with anyone.”
Include a special offer at signup
Nobody needs yet another email newsletter, so give them something in return for their email address. Here are a few great examples from my affiliates that offer a free download when you sign up for emails.
- Studio Success eGuide by Design Aglow
- Legal Lens Ebook by The Law Tog
- I Heart Photography Poster Pack by Photography Concentrate
See a trend here? Companies that market to photographers know the first step in the sales cycle should offer great information in order to establish trust and expertise. When customers like the information in the free product, they are more likely to buy. Here are some ideas for free products you can offer:
- A list of resources – wedding vendors or venues
- A guide – posing guide, wall hanging guide, what to wear guide
- Document of tips or ideas – trendy hairstyles or clothing combinations
- Exclusive content – access to a private Facebook group or Pinterest board
I recommend collaborating with partners. For example, a wedding photographer can ask 5 vendors (planner, florist, DJ, etc.) to each write one page of tips. Compile everything into a single document you can give away to users who sign up for your email list. By collaborating you can create a cool resource without much effort and reap the benefits of exposure to your partner’s subscribers.
Make your sign-up process very noticeable
Growing an email list is your top priority and deserves top placement on your website. I promote my email list in the following locations:
- Popup box on my website
- Link in the top navigation of my website
- Box/widget in the footer of my website (bottom of every page)
- Box/widget in the right sidebar of my blog
- Facebook tab
- Email signature
For the popup functionality I use WP Subscribers (affiliate) WordPress plug-on. The email offer pops up to users after they have been on my page for 20 seconds and shows only once every 60 days. A reasonable expectation is for between 1 and 10% of new visitors to signup via the popup.
Email newsletter strategy
Now you have a bunch of people on your email list. No need to get nervous. We’ll outline a plan for what to send them, and when.
Frequency and best send times
The day and time your email is received by the user plays a big role in how many people open the message or click in it. The Science of Social Timing infographic concludes that emails are most opened and clicked on during early mornings and weekends. But don’t take their word for it. Experiment a little and see what works best for your audience.
Industry best practice suggests a maximum width of 600 pixels for email. Any wider and the email will be cut off in email preview panes and mobile phones.
Beware of using photography heavily in your email because most email clients like Gmail turn off images by default. If you send out your emails as one huge image, these might appear blank or simply get ignored. Consider a good balance of text and imagery; your email should communicate a solid message and look great even when images aren’t visible. Hint: use the alternate text field in your email marketing software to show text in place of the image when it is turned off.
Choose a layout that’s mobile friendly. This infographic by Kiss Metrics says people are likely to delete or unsubscribe from emails that don’t look good on their mobile device.
Be careful not to blindly mimic the style of someone else’s emails. I’ve noticed many businesses, including very successful and well known ones, don’t follow common best practices when it comes to email design.
What to include in emails
If you have no clue what to email your prospective client list, you’re not alone. Let’s start from scratch and consider the types of content your existing and future customers want before making a purchase decision.
- Examples of your work. Emails should showcase your best work (not simply your most recent work) in a wide variety of themes that appeal to a broad audience.
- Personality. When it comes to services, customers want to work with people who are a lot like themselves. In an industry with countless competitors, use your unique personality to attract the types of customers you want the most. Be conversational, be personal and show your headshot as often as possible.
- Expertise. Your photography skills set you apart amid fierce competition. Talk about accolades, tout awards and give customers information they can’t get anywhere else.
- Educational information. People don’t care about “Zach and Amber’s wedding photos” that you shot last week. They do want to know tips and ideas for posing, what to wear, and see displays of photography in a home like theirs.
- Ways to connect. Each email should have a call to action. A call to action leads the reader toward something you want them to do, such as visit your website or call you to book a session. Make it easy for people to hire you by including a clear contact and social media information.
Put these ingredients in every email you send. Today’s email may be forwarded by a friend and reach a prospective client for the first time.
What about video? Email is still in the dark ages when it comes to moving parts. Email clients like Hotmail typically block anything that moves from appearing in an email, like an embedded video, Flash or animated image. To work around this issue, take a screenshot image of the video, put that in the email, and link it to another place where the video will play (like YouTube).
MailChimp reports about 48% of photography-related emails will be opened. This figure will vary widely depending on your reputation for sending informative emails, the “From” name on your emails, and subject lines. Like a book title, the subject of your email message can make or break its success. Boring subjects get deleted. Spammy subjects get filtered out.
Here are some best practices when writing email subject lines. The best email subject lines are short, descriptive and provide the reader with a reason to explore your message further.
- Limit subjects to 50 characters.
- Make it stand out among the dozens of emails people get every day. Here’s an example that works: “Don’t miss the top wedding photos of the year.”
- Tell what users will get in the email, like “Cool ideas for organizing photos on your wall.”
- Phrase the subject as a question (use sparingly), like “Looking for cool ideas to organize photos?”
- Avoid “free” in the subject, which can trigger spam filters
As you can see from the examples above, strong subject lines require strong email content.
Shift the focus of your emails from what’s important to you (your recent sessions) to what’s important to your customer (helpful tips, ideas, trends).
Email newsletters have their downsides. They add time and stress to an already busy schedule. Also, the stuff you send this week may not be relevant to someone who just signed up. Consequently, I like autoresponders (not to be confused with an auto-reply). An autoresponder is an email series that automatically sends to users at selected time intervals after the user signs up. A wedding photographer could create an autoresponder with 5 emails (one per week) that guides the future bride through a series of helpful tips about wedding preparation.
Email marketing software
Businesses need a professional system to manage contact lists. How else could you manage hundreds of subscribers who are opting in and out when they fill out sign-up forms on your website and Facebook page?
If you’re sending mass emails via the BCC line in a program like Gmail or Entourage, expect most of those to be blocked on the receiving end. The primary benefit of an email system is it’s deliverability — it reaches your customers’ inboxes — and you don’t want to lose that. An email marketing system can alert you when a draft email appears to have spam triggers, or when too many people mark your emails as spam.
An important secondary benefit is list management. Can-Spam law, which sets the rules for commercial email, requires mass emails have the ability for the customer to unsubscribe. Email systems take care of this automatically.
I currently use AWeber, but I’ve used MailChimp in the past and recommend it to all photographers. MailChimp is used by everyone (more than 1 million users to be precise), has tons of one-click apps like Facebook integration, is easy to use for users who aren’t as tech-oriented, and has a wide range of attractive templates.
Responding to customer emails
You want customers to contact you because it leads to sales. Put your email address conspicuously across your social media accounts and on your website. Don’t forget Google+, which is often used in local search results.
How you respond and and how quickly you respond can greatly improve customer satisfaction. This e-mail relationship often begins before the email is sent, starting with the contact form.
Your contact form should be easy to find and easy to use.
The more questions on a form, the fewer people will complete it. So remove mandatory fields like “Event Date” and “How Did You Hear About Us” that aren’t relevant to all people. Make sure your contact form works in multiple environments, from mobile phones to the latest version of Internet Explorer.
Don’t be afraid to clarify who you want to use the contact form. As an example, you might place a message above the form that reads “Use this form to enquire about wedding packages starting at $5,000.” The wording alone will save time by weeding out budget shopper requests from your inbox.
For those who don’t want to fill out a form, include other means of contact, such as email address, phone, physical address and social media links.
Don’t use an autoreply
I don’t know why, but automated replies really bother me. Especially when I email someone I already know (no autoreply needed) or someone I email often (multiple autoreplies not necessary). I think autoreplies are only essential if you will be out of office with no email connection, and I think smartphones have eliminated that as a possibility. I prefer a quick, personal response rather than a canned message. Let me know your opinion in the comments.
How to handle customer questions
Handle customer inquiries immediately! Every minute spent waiting gives potential customers more time to shop around. I strive to respond within 4 hours and I do that by checking email when I wake up, at lunch, before dinner and at bedtime. You can reply even faster by turning on email notifications on your smartphone, but I don’t do this since I’d get alarms all day long. I love hearing from customers who tell me, “Wow, thanks for the quick response.”
For difficult questions that come through email, I recommend the Go-to-Guide for Client Emails (affiliate). It has more than 100 email templates, so you don’t have to spend hours agonizing over what to say. Simply copy and paste responses about pricing, digital files, advanced editing, etc.
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone. Many times email responses can be misunderstood.
Take advantage of your email signature as promotional real estate for your website and social media information. WiseStamp has an automated way to create dynamic signatures at the end of every email.
Next steps for email strategy
I’ve demonstrated the need for collecting email addresses as a valuable prospecting tool for growing new business.
- Build an email list.
- Create a special offer to encourage sign-ups.
- Tell subscribers what they will get and why they need to sign up.
- Heavily promote your email subscription option across your web properties.
- Focus on emailing content important to the customer.
- Design for mobile.
- Use an email software program to manage your lists and email campaigns.
- Respond quickly.
- Check out the Go-to-Guide for Client Emails – 100+ email response templates.
If you want to see how I communicate to my audience, sign up for my emails (and get a free bonus).
Let me know in the comments how you have used email, or what you plan to change now that you have this new knowledge!