client acquisition in a digital world: finding your people without social media

Nightmare on Van Ness - Photographed for SF Events

The ultimate question when it comes to running any business is: where the hell do I find my clients?

Better yet, how do I find clients and keep them coming back for more?

If you have an extensive portfolio but still struggle to secure consistent work, this post is for you.

Now let's get into some of the details.

Social media is not always the answer

Personally, I understand that I have a polarizing personality that does not readily translate to social media. "Attract and repel" is my go-to mantra, if only to make myself feel better for not being Highly Relatable.

I also accept that I do not have the brain for showing up consistently, and expecting this to change is setting myself up for failure.

Instead, I leverage my website and search engine optimization (SEO) for the bulk of my digital marketing. Almost all of my non-touring clients are word-of-mouth or cold inquiries--that is people who email me because they found my website by searching for a photographer on Google.

Superorganism in San Francisco - Photographed for Eventbrite

Client acquisition is an exercise in the long game.

Accepting that you will pretty much need to eat shit for 10 years before you feel like your career is taking off is part of the creative journey. Nobody wants to hear this, but it's 100% the truth.

Most people don't blow up on TikTok and see life-changing progress overnight--and even if this does happen to you, you most likely would not be able to handle it. Trust me: going viral breaks your brain.

Slow and steady progress > overnight success.

Remember that people still use Google

Using your website is the epitome of working smarter, not harder. You could update your portfolio once every five years and nobody would know the difference. I'm not saying to do this, but it is a massive benefit of using a system that is detached from specific dates, a la every social media platform.

Your website is the only place online where you can choose exactly what you want every visitor to see when they first discover you. Social media is constantly changing, yet your website is the only chance to showcase a consistent side of yourself and tell people why to hire you.

I use my website to lay out my entire personality: if you vibe with my weirdness here, we'll probably get along in real life, negating a lot of awkwardness from the get go. This has been life changing for me. I want someone to read my 'about' page and be excited to work together, so I make it hyper-specific and probably off-putting to a large number of people. Attract and repel, baby.

Gaining perfect-fit clients

A client-creative relationship goes two ways: you want clients who love your work, but you also want work that best aligns with what you love to create. Working only for money can only make you so happy.

Make sure to only showcase the work you want to make more of so you are excited for every inquiry. A consistent portfolio also looks more professional and leads to less confusion. This will translate to equally-excited clients who hire you again (and again) and more word-of-mouth referrals.

What's better than perfect-fit clients? Repeat perfect-fit clients who tell their perfect-fit friends to hire you too.

Be willing to say yes to everything so you can eventually say no to anything

This is exactly the opposite of my last tip. If you are still building your career and portfolio, I absolutely recommend dipping your toes into as many areas of photography as possible. Try new things. Become comfortable with your own discomfort and remember that it's the fastest way to grow.

Being a wedding photographer for a handful of years was the only reason I legitimized many facets of my business and started making a real living off my photography. I also worked a series of gigs for Sundance, including the film festival, after meeting one of their videographers while assisting another wedding photographer. Anything is possible if talking too much (i.e. networking) is engrained in your DNA.

I stopped booking weddings in 2019 to focus on music and events, and then the world went to shit. 2022 was my best year financially of my entire career, and for the first time in my life I loved every single project.

Kota Kira by Kelly Mason
Kota Kira at Lands End in San Francisco

Tell people exactly what to hire you for

The biggest mistake I see photographers make is using their website to showcase a portfolio with very limited context. You need to paint a picture of exactly what problem you can solve for your client. Are you an event photographer? Do you excel in low-light settings? Are you great with people? Talk about it. Put yourself in the shoes of whoever might be hiring you and figure out what people need so they don't have to email you to ask you. Don't tell your life story; sell your skillset. Adding some personal details to humanize yourself also works wonders.

Embrace SEO

Search Engine Optimization basically means you use the same words over and over to make the Google bots happy. Figure out a list of keywords that people might use to find you on Google and embed them into your site as much as possible. In your site title and description, in your blogs, on your about page, and anywhere else you can tell people that you're a Seattle Music, Band, Event, and Portrait Photographer or whatever.

Have your processes in place

*incoming affiliate link alert*

Never underestimate the power of having tools that make your life--and your clients' lives--easier. This means sending invoices that can be paid online (I use 17hats for all project management but QuickBooks also works), using a gallery system like Pixieset* where people can choose from proofs then have images delivered under the same link, and making sure your expectations are outlined and communicated from the very beginning.

Pixieset also has an invoicing and session booking system, although I haven't explored these features yet.

"Analmosh" - Photographed for the Sundance Film Festival

Don't forget people look you up on social media

Do you use Twitter to air your grievances? Think about who might be reading your tweets or instagram posts and choosing not to work with you because you share too much personal information. Simply put: the more personal info you share, the less professional your public perception. (Do as I say not as I do ok?)

Many years ago, I consciously decided to stop tweeting about bad drivers and whatever else made me mad at the time to share more photography and music, and within two weeks I had an offer from Skype to go to a festival for free and represent their brand. They must not have scrolled too far back, but their sentiment was something along the lines of "clearly you love talking about music, so you're gonna be an influencer for us." That was a major eye-opening moment for me.

Bands usually only want to hire their friends

I realize I do not mention music photography at all in this post. Tour photography is a little trickier because most bands would rather work with their friends than a random person. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but my personal experience all stems from very specific moments where I met bands like The Wonder Years and PUP through work, then other bands like PVRIS and Neck Deep through running merch on Warped Tour then being referred to tour with them by other photographer friends. Maybe I'll dive more into the complexities of this topic later. It's very much an "all about who you know" world.

PUP at Terminal 5 in New York - 2022

Concluding thoughts

This is by no means an exhaustive list. In the end, if you are doing something you are passionate about and taking small steps to make yourself (and your business) better, you are on the right track. Life is a constant learning process. Don't let yourself become stagnant or give up because there's too much competition. This is where the "slow and steady" thing comes in and prevents you from burning out before you see results.

Network as much as possible, tell everyone who will listen about what you do, take marketing classes, shadow another person in your industry, sign up for coaching, read blogs, watch YouTube videos, always try new things and take risks, and most importantly: DO THE WORK. It will pay off eventually.

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