The Newsletter As A Marketing Tool

When I give my Social Media Marketing talk to photographers I like to break up all the talk about blogging and tweeting with an example of a good old fashion newsletter. Because, as much as things change they remain the same… meaning, a blog or series of tweets or concerted effort to post things on facebook is no different than producing a newsletter to attract potential customers and win fans for your work. I use Michael Clark as my example, because in this soured economy his success continues to grow and he churns out a good old fashioned newsletter as part of his marketing efforts.

APE: Give me a history of the Newsletter: How did it start, how has it evolved and where is it now?

Michael: I created the “Michael Clark Photography” Newsletter over ten years ago in the Fall of 2000. In its early form it was a one-page, front and back sheet that was printed and sent out to a select group of photo buyers and art directors.  I printed about 200 copies and sent them out quarterly to photo editors that I worked with or wanted to work with. The newsletter included updates on recent clients and assignments, equipment reviews, an editorial or two and, of course, samples of my latest work. At that point in my career a lot of the photo editors I worked with were also avid photographers so I decided the equipment reviews might entice them to actually read the newsletter. Looking back, I will say that those early issues of the newsletter were pretty rough looking compared to how it looks now.

I created the newsletter initially as a marketing tool. I was looking for another way to keep my name in front of photo editors and art buyers in addition to my other marketing efforts. I got the idea of the newsletter from the Bulletin sent out by the ASMP. At that time lots of businesses sent out Newsletters and it seemed like a good way to offer something more than just a postcard. And the response was great from the get-go. I had editors calling me every time they got the newsletter asking for certain images or just calling to talk about my latest gear review. Either way, it allowed me to create a relationship with a lot of photo editors.

In the fall of 2004, I started playing around with Adobe InDesign and realized that it would allow me to expand the newsletter and send it out as a PDF via email with no printing costs. And because it was a PDF I could send it out to a much larger audience without any additional expense. This new PDF version still had the same types of articles as the printed version but I was able to expand and enhance those articles because with the PDF, I pretty much had unlimited space. The PDF version of the newsletter includes editorials, updates on recent clients and assignments, greatly expanded equipment reviews, a portfolio section, digital post-processing tips, feature articles on recent assignments and a lot of images. It is basically a PDF magazine that runs anywhere from 15 to 30 pages depending on the content – and how much time I have to put it together.

After I started sending out the first few copies of the new PDF version, I realized that I should offer it for free on my website and let people subscribe to the newsletter via a mailing list. Little did I know then that so many people would be interested in what I had to say. I suppose a big part of the draw for the newsletter was the equipment reviews. Early on, I got a lot of emails with questions about gear and I thought I could nip those in the bud by giving an unbiased professional opinion on the gear that I use and abuse. It proved to be quite popular, especially among amateur photographers, and it has led to a number of sponsorships with distributors of imaging software and photo equipment.

It takes a lot of work to put together. At a minimum, it takes about four days of solid work to lay it out and write the articles. I certainly wouldn’t say I am a great writer but I can get the point across and I am efficient.

One of the other great things about the newsletter is that it is unique – and that counts for a lot. I have seen a few other photographers try to copy it but they usually give up on the concept after a few issues when they realize how much work it takes. I don’t know of any other photographer out there producing anything like this. I also realized a few years ago that creating a following for my work was very valuable – and the newsletter allows me to create that following and tap into it as well. I can advertise e-books, workshops and market my work to would-be clients all at the same time. And since the newsletters are linked to my website they are great for SEO (search engine optimization) because they all show up in searches on Google.

The newsletter now goes out to over 6,000 photo editors, art buyers and both amateur and professional photographers around the world. It has led to numerous assignments, sponsorship deals and other great career opportunities. My first big break, a major assignment with Adobe, was a direct result of the newsletter, as was my first published book. The editors at Lark Books got a great sense of my writing style via the newsletter and approached me to write a book for them. That book, Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports, was published in December 2009. I am currently working on a third book which closely resembles the newsletter in style and content. In fact, I’d say if it wasn’t for the fact that the newsletter gets me work pretty much every time I send it out, I would have stopped producing it years ago. It is an insane amount of work.

The newsletter has been and continues to be the best form of marketing I have ever done. I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career without it.

A PDF newsletter seems so old fashioned. I’m sure you have your reasons for continuing the format, can you tell us why?

These days the PDF newsletter is old fashioned. I’ll give you that. Back when I started sending out the PDF version in 2004 it was a pretty wild idea and people sat up and took notice. Maybe it isn’t the most cutting edge publication now, but the reason I stick with the PDF format is that it allows me to control how the viewer sees my work and the content. I can control the layout, the fonts, how the images are presented and their resolution. It looks like a magazine and even though it is a simple PDF document, I think it is well laid out and graphically pleasing. It is something people will remember and that is half the battle when it comes to a marketing tool.

You told me you are having your busiest year ever, can you attribute this directly to the Newsletter? Can you help us understand why clients respond to this over traditional marketing?

Yes, I am having my busiest year ever right now. And before this year, last year was my busiest year ever. It just keeps getting better and better. I’m not sure I can say this year’s or last year’s success is a direct result of the newsletter. The newsletter is just one piece of my overall marketing strategy. I think my success this year is a result of 15 years of really hard work, having a book published last year, making an effort to show my portfolio around and continuing to reinforce all of my other marketing with the newsletter. However it has come together, I feel really blessed because there are still so many people struggling out there in this economy.

I think clients respond to the newsletter because they remember it, and as a result, they remember my work. I once wrote an editorial about “Finding Inspiration” and one of the people I worked with at a major software company told me he quit his job after reading that article to go do what he really wanted to do. I strive to discuss and talk about current events in the industry that are timely and relevant. And, as in the case with my editorial on “Finding Inspiration,” every once in a while I really connect with a reader.

Do you do traditional marketing in addition to the newsletter?

Yes, I do a lot of traditional marketing. I send out e-promos every six weeks or so and postcards every now and then (but not as often as I should). I have a blog. I go in and meet with clients as often as possible and set up portfolio reviews. And I send out the newsletter four times a year. I also write for two other blog sites: Pixiq and Outdoor Photographer Magazine.

This is still a tough profession to make a living in so I think we have to do everything we can to get our name out there and market ourselves and our work. After all, it isn’t just our work we are marketing, it is ourselves. We are the product just as much as our work is. Are we easy to deal with? Can we come through with the goods? Are we professional? Those are all part of the equation, and the newsletter serves as a good reminder to clients that I am professional and will come through with the goods when they give me an assignment because they can read about my latest assignments and see the images I produced.

I see you’ve got some instructional e-books and you are leading workshops. Is education a significant part of your business model? Do you think it should be a part of most pro photographers business models?

Education makes up about 20% of my income these days. I teach anywhere from four to six workshops each year. The workshops range from two-day Lightroom workshops to week-long Adventure Photography workshops at the Santa Fe Workshops and the Maine Media Workshops (I’ll be teaching in Maine later this month). I also do a few workshops in tandem with other photographers like the Surfing Photography workshop I’ll be teaching in January 2012 with my good buddy Brian Bielmann, who is one of the world’s top surfing photographers. Teaching workshops is rewarding, tough and exhausting but I always learn from them and it is a burgeoning business for photographers.

I’m not sure I would say teaching or education should be a part of every photographer’s business model. It depends if you enjoy it and are good at it. I will admit that teaching workshops can be quite draining. It isn’t for everyone. These days there is a lot of competition in the photography workshop business. It seems like everybody and their dog is teaching a workshop and rightly so, because there are thousands of amateur photographers out there craving knowledge and yearning to further their skills. And there is a lot of money to be made in workshops, especially if you are a big name photographer who enjoys teaching and can attract students on a regular basis.

My  e-book,  Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow, lays out my entire digital workflow from in the camera to delivering the final images to the client. It has been wildly popular and I don’t think there is any other book like it on the market. I wrote it after working on assignment with Adobe. I am still a beta tester for them (and teach workshops on Lightroom) and that really helps me to keep my workflow dialed. I got the idea for the e-book from my newsletter and through teaching workshops. In a workshop, it is nice to be able to give the students some materials, and early on I simply outlined my digital workflow and handed it out as a Microsoft Word file. The e-book grew out of that and is in its fourth edition. Each edition was massively expanded and adapted to the new software and post-processing techniques and for $24.95, it is heck of a lot cheaper than a workshop.

As you can see, my business model is very diversified. I think this is also a big reason things have been going so well the last few years. I learned early on not to trust any one single source of income. Hence, I do a little bit of everything: commercial assignments, editorial assignments, stock photography, books, e-books, fine art prints and whatever else comes my way. I am still predominantly an assignment photographer but all of the other income streams ad up significantly .

Do you have any advice for photographers looking to create unique ways to market themselves?

I did a presentation for the ASMP New Mexico chapter here earlier this year about “Staying Relevant in the Current Economy.” In that presentation I spoke about a number of topics that I think are key to marketing yourself effectively including creating unique images, perfecting your craft, being professional and making sure your marketing and branding are up to snuff. None of those topics are revolutionary by any means, but I do think that we greatly underestimate just how important it is to create unique images right now. If you have something different from the rest of the pack then you’ll go far in this industry. As a photographer I realize it is easy enough to say, “Just go out there and create unique images,” but the reality is that creating something unique and different is really hard.

In that presentation, I also spoke about building a following. This idea isn’t new but it also isn’t obvious. In this world of social media we can now connect with people around the world and share our work, get feedback and talk about the work via a blog, Flickr or any number of avenues. Right now, I think it is very important for professional photographers to build up a group of people that follow your work. Doing so helps when you need to fill up a workshop, market an e-book or a regular book, or even for an assignment. The workshops idea is pretty obvious. If you have a following of amateur or pro photographers that want to learn from you and you have a means of connecting with them and marketing to them then you’ll be able to fill up workshops easily. A good example of this is Joe McNally. The guy is killing it on the workshops front. Another good example, perhaps less well known, is Andy Biggs. He fills his very expensive safari-style workshops routinely and his clients come back thrilled with the experience.

Having 6,000 people on my mailing list is helpful when I need to market an updated version of my e-book. It also comes in handy when a publisher approaches me to write a book because they know that I have a following that might be interested in the end product and I have a marketing vehicle (the newsletter) to get the word out – and it doesn’t cost them anything. By choosing a photographer with a following, the client already has built in marketing. This is what Chase Jarvis has done so well. Some clients come to him because they want to tap into the huge number of photo enthusiasts that follow his blog. He has even done the marketing for the companies while he is on assignment by posting the behind the scenes details of a multi-day shoot as it is happening. How much is that worth to a client? If you have a following like Chase does then that is obviously huge.

Of course, having a group of people follow your work isn’t a guarantee of any kind. People make up their own minds if they are interested in something or not. You have to provide something that is interesting and valuable to them. Marketing to this group and offering them quality information and services that they want is the key. They get valuable information; you get to make a little extra money. Amazingly, once you create a following, doors start to open and new marketing opportunities will pop up that never would have or could have otherwise – and this is the real reason to create that following.

Now, the reality is this is a long-term process. You don’t just go out and build a following. You have to offer up solid information or something that people want for a few years or more.

In the end, I don’t think there are any real secrets in this business. There is no magic bullet. It all comes down to hard work and really, really wanting to “make it” happen. I still think one of the best forms of marketing these days is meeting with art buyers and photo editors in person for a portfolio review – if you can get a meeting set up. I think I got very lucky with the newsletter. I didn’t know it would become such a great marketing tool when I started it. Early on I just had more time than money and it was a good way to promote my work. Now, I have to make time for it. Because the newsletter is a very ‘unique’ marketing tool it not only gets me work but it also helps me to get in and set up meetings with art buyers that I want to work with. It is just one part of my marketing effort that helps support the rest of the effort.

……

If you would like to check out the newsletter you can download the latest issue at:

http://www.michaelclarkphoto.com/summer_2011.pdf

Also, if you are interested in reading more you can download back issues of the newsletter at:

http://www.michaelclarkphoto.com/#/NEWSLETTER/BACK%20ISSUES/

And finally if you would like to subscribe to the newsletter please send an email to Michael at info@michaelclarkphoto.com.

There Are 13 Comments On This Article.

  1. I’d be interested to hear from some people on the receiving end of these. I looked through the PDF; while beautifully laid out, it’s quite long. I wonder if it gets fully read, or just skimmed.

  2. Is that four days a month or a quarter? Since it is published on a quarterly basis. It is a lot of time but I would think based on the dividends, it is a valuable four days where the effort is compulsory.

    Thanks Rob & Michael!

  3. Newsletters are a great means of communication, but as Michael says they’re a ton of work. My list is much smaller than his, and targeted more toward editorial and portrait clients, but the folks on my list tell me they appreciate receiving it. And it brings in work. I’ve dropped doing a PDF version in favor of a Constant Contact e-mail linking to a web-based newsletter (produced in WordPress on my own site). Analytics showed that very few people were downloading the PDF. I was creating all three versions. I spend at least two days writing, selecting images, and putting together my newsletter. It started out to be a monthly but then reality caught up to me and it’s now sporadic. My most-read article is a digital photo tip.

  4. Michael’s first e-book on Lightroom allowed me to add LR as an important part of my work flow. The Adobe guide was confusing and worthless and Michael’s was written so a photographer could follow his guide and make the learning process seamless. Then he sent me version 2 for the updated version and it was of additional help. For version 3, I could have saved a small tree by not printing the first 100 pages, but the rest of the book added to my knowledge and cut my image processing time even more. Thanks, Michael.

      • Michael –

        The e-book is still up to date because none of the updates for Lightroom, 3.2, 3.4 and 3.4.1 have changed anything in the interface save for adding the ability to upload images to Facebook and Smug Mug. And because that was already covered in the e-book it is just as current now as it was when Lightroom 3.0 was released. All of the other updates have been bug fixes in the software and updates for new cameras. Hope this helps. When Lightroom 4 is released I will update the e-book again.

        Cheers, Michael