In a world where the opportunities to share our work with a growing audience have never been so vast, it’s easy to get paralyzed and to approach that audience less than intentionally. Over the past 12 years I’ve found an incredible audience for my work – both images and words – and in this last of three episodes exploring the subject, I want to tell you how I got here and what I’d do differently now. This is an edited transcript of my YouTube show, Vision is Better, Episode 70, which you can watch here, or if you’d rather, can download as an MP3 here. If you missed them, you might want to read/watch/or listen to Part One and Part Two of this series about sharing our work and getting the word out there.
Twelve years ago I left a 12 year career in comedy and came back to my first creative love – photography. At the time I knew two things – I wanted to do humanitarian photography and I wanted to teach. Those two desires became my north star and both of them required an audience. In the one case that audience was people who would follow my humanitarian photography and work with me – giving me opportunities to do what I considered – and still consider – a calling, and in the other it was people who would listen to me and invest their time and eventually their money, learning from me. Knowing that made it easy. I already had a blog that gave me an outlet to discuss my re-immersion in photography. So I started there.
I started posting my work and telling stories about my travels on self-funded assignments, and talking about the lessons I was learning as a photographer new to digital photography and humanitarian work. I blogged consistently and my blog grew. Very. Slowly. I commented on other people’s blogs, I interacted. I guest-blogged. I submitted images to places I thought I might get a feature. And my blog continued to grow.
I did podcast interviews. (The secret: you find podcasts you like, and you email the hosts and introduce yourself. You offer them something of value – usually, you know, an interview) And more readers came. But I wanted more – I wanted to do this as a career and I felt like I was off to a late start. So on the strength of a small but growing platform I connected – through other photographers I’d met – with industry leaders – companies like LowePro and Lexar and Gitzo and I asked for sponsorships which mostly meant I got some free stuff in exchange for writing articles for them which they then published and linked to my blog. It was a Win/Win and their audience became my audience.
You gain credibility one step at a time and with that comes exposure and slow growth. All this time I was relentlessly learning, and sharing my work. And I was connecting with everyone I could find that was either in the humanitarian / travel / documentary space or the teaching space. As a sidebar, if I don’t mention this I know someone’s going to leave a comment that says, sure, but how do you get a sponsorship? Like I said last episode – you figure that out. You find the right person by a series of emails. You introduce yourself, you tell them what value you believe you can offer them, and you have conversations until you come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Every deal is different and while I don’t do sponsorships these days, they’re just like any other collaboration with other human beings. You have something they can use (or you don’t) and they have something you can use – often it’s an exchange of audiences – I introduce the camera bag maker to my audience and share their excellent camera bags, and they introduce me to theirs and share articles about making better photographs. And your audience grows as people connect with what you share.
At the beginning maybe your audience is small but if your work is good these potential sponsors or partners might still want to be associated with it in which case what they get out of this is the ability to say “look at the talented photographers using our gear” implying there must be a connection between the two, a reason you chose their stuff over another. In my case I was also giving them a way to connect to the good that I was doing through my humanitarian projects. That’s valuable.
Every opportunity in my life has come from a conversation at some point. So I had a lot of conversations. They often started with comments on blogs. But they grew. And once in a while I found the courage to reach out a little more. One of those was with Scott Kelby. We’d interacted a couple times on the back-end of our blogs and I liked him and sensed he was pretty open with “little people” like me, so I emailed him and asked if he’d let me buy him lunch and pick his brain about a book idea I had. He said yes, a friend bought me a plane ticket to Florida because things were super-tight and I couldn’t afford to do it on my own, and Scott graciously listened to my ideas and eventually introduced me to his editor. 10 books later, some of them best-sellers, and here I am.
(A sidenote: this all still seems so surreal to me. Many of you know me because of the books, so to you I’m a known author and of course I have books. But to me, I’m still just a little guy doing what he loves, who worked hard, failed a lot, and lucked out. And that can be your story too. Of course it can. So don’t write this whole thing off as “well of course it works for him – he’s made it.” Not true. This is how I got here.)
Each of my books has helped me grow my audience. Each one opened new doors to me and gave me new chances to share not only my writing but my photography. In that 10 years things have changed, blogs readerships across the board have declined significantly, while other media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have grown dramatically. Each new media brings with it a chance to interact with your existing audience, and to grow a new one. Some won’t fit you or your goals – like Snapchat for me: not at all a fit. But others will. I continue to learn and to experiment with new media and see if there’s a way to use it to introduce new people to what I do. Some work. Some fail. That’s life.
Here are a couple of the mistakes I’ve made and they’re the same ones I see others making.
Don’t mistake consistent broadcasting as interaction. Engagement is a two way street. I’m still learning this because I’m not naturally a super-social person but if I had to choose between doing three posts a week with no real effort and no time spent on interaction, and one post a week but leaving time to reply to emails, send happy birthday wishes to followers on Facebook, or replying to comments and questions on Instagram or YouTube, I’d choose the latter, for sure. Engagement is key to keeping people’s attention. Remember it’s about connection. And I don’t mean pretending to care. I mean genuine caring. Genuine connection. If you can’t do that, don’t try, because you can’t fake this kind of thing. There are so few people out there that truly give a shit so the more you care, and show you care, the more connections and the deeper the engagement.
Don’t lose focus. Even knowing what I really wanted to accomplish I was a little bit all over the map at times and it’s only in the last couple years that I have begin to understand the real value of not only sharing but sharing with real focus: focus on the kind of work I am sharing, and the kind of messaging I’m putting out there. Related to this I also allowed myself to get too comfortable and to take my audience for granted. That’s not a good thing. There was a point a couple years ago where I just got so busy with other things and I think I just expected my audience to be there when I got back.
On a day to day scale I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this. I drop off for a while every now and then because I need it and the world’s not out there wringing its hands waiting for me to post again. But I wish I’d been less flippant about it. And when I stopped mailing it in, I found my engagements were more meaningful AND my work got better. I found that because suddenly I cared much more about my audience, that my desire to really serve them – really create strong stuff for them – went through the roof and I think out of that came my best books – A Beautiful Anarchy and The Soul of the Camera. With better work, more authentic work – as well as getting off your ass and promoting that work – comes more exposure and a growing audience.
Don’t Neglect Making, and Connecting with, Your Mailing List. The third thing I paid attention to later than I wish I had was a mailing list. This is not just for people that want to do this professionally, or “sell” something, though it’ll seem more immediately applicable. When you post to social media you rely on that platform and on FB serving your content to your audience. It’s passive. And there’s nothing wrong with that but it leaves the control in their hands not yours and God help us, if FB or Instagram or YouTube went under or got hacked or changed their terms of service – that could leave you disconnected from your audience.
Email is still one of the best ways to stay in touch with your audience and while not everyone will read what you send them, the engagement can be really high, and in your control. I didn’t get intentional enough about this fast enough. Find a way to connect with your audience and give them some reason – remember, it’s all about value – give them some reason to trust you with their email address. I let this slide for a couple years too and my emails got less personal and very corporate and full of slick marketing stuff and “buy my ebook” and that’s fine because I believe in the resources I create, and this is part of how I make my living. There’s nothing wrong with that. But lately I’ve gone back to sending much more personal emails, articles that exist just to serve, to teach, and to make people’s lives richer. And yes, once in a while I offer one of my books or tell them about a new resource, but that renewed engagement is way more human, way more concerned about the people on the other end of things, and my engagement is going way up. I’m getting thank you emails in reply to my bi-weekly emails to my audience. People are copy-pasting and sharing them on Facebook.
This kind of reaction leads to the most fundamental marketing “tactic” of all – word of mouth. We all talk about word of mouth but we don’t really believe it. If you get really intentional about the kind of work you want to make, and allow that work to find it’s best audience and then you serve that audience relentlessly, people will tell people. Why? Because social media can be very un-social and the people that actually give a damn are pretty rare. And when you’re rare and you stand out and you give more than you take, people take notice. They open your emails. They engage and share and like and comment and subscribe. Forget the tactics – connect. Serve. Be intentional about the value you bring to this world. Then be creative and persistent.
I hope this series has been helpful and has given you some ideas. This week I’m heading north toward the Alaskan border to spend a week with spirit bears and whales and some friends – all of whom, by the way, I met in some way through my blog or social media and a willingness to use those media to connect with others. I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, if you’re not already getting my emails, go to MyContactSheet.com and the first email I’ll send you will have links to four of my best-selling ebooks, yours free and with my gratitude. Thanks so much for being part of what I do. Now get out there and make something beautiful.