Marketing Photography and the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

There are two reasons why photography businesses fail.

The first is photographers don’t know their numbers and how to price profitably. Being under-priced is one of the biggest reasons for poor sales and failing to attract a targeted client.

The second is photographers have no idea how to get clients. They put up a website and a Facebook Page and wait for customers to be dazzled by their photography skills and call to book a session.

Especially when photographers are new to the business. Unsure of how to get clients they will often times look around to see what others are doing and adopt a “me too” approach. Some will even just blindly copy a competitor’s or well known photographer’s approach because it seems successful. As is often the case, once a well known industry photographer starts using a marketing channel, idea or strategy that grabs everyone’s attention, soon masses of photographers follow.

This isn’t unique to the photography industry. Good products and popular ideas always get copied.

Think back to when Facebook was new. The early adopters to Facebook were booking clients left and right just from posting a few images there. It was new and not many photographers were using it so competition there was low. Especially if you were targeting high school seniors – it was the place to be. Then when other photographers saw how effective it was they followed. Soon after everyone was on Facebook, news feeds were flooded with images and it seemed like everyone was claiming to be a photographer.

Photographers that were late adopters to Facebook marketing were not seeing the big returns that early adopters did.

Welcome to the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs

[quote]Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates.[/quote]

Andrew Chen coined the phrase “Law of Shitty Clickthroughs” to describe the result from website visitors who quickly respond to novelty but then become desensitized or “blind” to  marketing tactics.

The opposite of course is that if you are “first-in-your-market,” or  “first-to-marketing-channel”, you can get strong returns and conversion rates because of novelty and lack of competition.

The example he used in the article referred to website banner ads, and how the effectiveness of those ads eroded when the web became saturated with them. There are some parallels there that explain why a few photographers have a lot of success while the majority does not.

Through my work with Seniors Ignite, we get a lot of feedback from photographers on what’s successful for them and where they are struggling in their business. Some of the most common things we hear are:

  • “There’s too many people in my area selling photography on the cheap”
  • “Marketing that works for other photographer’s isn’t working for me”
  • “Facebook no longer works for booking seniors”
  • “Everyone is my area is copying me and doing the same thing”
  • “Nothing seems to work anymore because everyone is a photographer”

Those are a few of the most common, or some variation.

According to Chen there are a couple of key things that drive the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs.

Customers respond to novelty which inevitably fades

It’s really not surprising that people respond to a shiny new object. This is most likely why you will see a new photographer in an area get a lot of clients quickly, simply because they are new.

There was a time when outdoor senior portraits used to be a novelty and now everyone does them.

Being a professional photographer used to be considered unique and to be somewhat of an aspirational and sexy career. There weren’t a lot of people who were willing to make the investment in equipment and the training needed, so finding a professional was a necessity for things like weddings and headshots. Now with today’s technology everyone has a camera and claims to be a photographer, and many people bypass hiring a professional. The mystery is gone and photography is not as “unattainable” as it used to be.

There are photographer’s who are successful at what they do – both financially and artistically. However differentiating yourself simply because you are a photographer is much harder.

First to market never lasts 

Once you’re doing something unique,  your competitors and industry colleagues will quickly follow. Maybe it’s a marketing tactic, a product line, or a unique style of shooting. If you’re doing something good you will be copied.

[quote]Any product that is first to market has a limited window where they will enjoy unnaturally high marketing performance, until the competition enters, in which case everyone’s marketing efforts will degrade.” Andrew Chen [/quote]

I remember when marketing with reps and ambassadors was new, and a very effective way to book new seniors every year. Then later of course EVERY photographer was using reps to promote their studio to friends. Suddenly students became deaf to discounts and incentives and it was no longer as easy to recruit studio reps as it was in the beginning.

Pros will often lament the fact that there are so many photographers out there doing the same thing that and nothing “seems to work” anymore. Or that “people just don’t value photography.” But if that were true than no one would be having success. We know that there are photographers out there doing well – really well.

So is the problem really an over saturated industry? Easy access to cameras and too many amateurs hurting the market? What are the photographer’s who are having success doing differently?

If ultimately every marketing strategy loses it’s lustre, what can you do about the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs?

You can’t move forward while standing still

In a live state-of-the-industry panel with Seniors Ignite, Mike Hanline from WHCC talked about the challenge photographers have today. He said for photographers to be successful today, they have to manage continuous change, create change and and stay two steps ahead in your market.

Your marketing is always in beta

Nothing ever stays the same. Just like your images or your photographic style,  your marketing is always evolving. It’s just that today things change much faster with technology.  Instagram is a good example. It’s a great place right now to market to high school seniors, but it won’t be forever. Facebook was once the hot place to be. Now teens are moving to other social media channels. To be successful, your marketing will need to adapt.

Remember the example I mentioned above about marketing to high school seniors with a rep program? The problem isn’t that everyone is using the rep strategy to market their business. That will always happen. The problem is that some continue to do the same thing without adapting to a new, fast changing market.

Studios that are having success continue to adjust.

Don’t follow the competition

Stop comparing yourself to others, and don’t blindly follow what others do. First, you have no idea if what the competition is doing is actually working. Second, you will never stay two steps ahead if you are always playing catch up. You don’t need to be on every single social media channel. Pick one where your target client is, and your competition is not. Think Vine, Snapchat or Google Plus.

Or come up with a unique way of using a social media channel. Try a different angle for partnering with another business.

New tools and technology aren’t a magic bullet for getting new clients. Flashy tools and quick fixes are not going to help if you don’t have a solid foundation and brand to build on. Instead of focusing on the latest trendy whatever, figure out what makes your business unique. What makes the experience you offer special? Why should people book a session with you? If you can answer that you will be miles ahead of most of your competitors.

Uncharted Blue Oceans

Getting ahead in today’s market means creating your own roadmap, trying things and going into untested areas. Be a disruptor. Start looking outside the industry. As a photographer your biggest differentiator will not be found by looking inside the industry. Don’t copy what someone else is doing exactly – take the best parts and apply them to your new style, marketing or service.

Most innovative businesses are in saturated markets

Many feel that there isn’t a way to stand out because the industry is saturated and the magic of photography is no longer there. The thing is, pros need to get past thinking of themselves as just photographers. Because yes, they will never stand out as “just” a photographer. You can’t compete by staying the same. By guarding their “hot idea” and not moving on. When a marketing “strategy is hot, or an image, a product – anything,  everyone will flock to it. If you have a great idea expect to be copied, multiple times over.

I love what Jael Thorpe did with her senior photography business. She too saw competitors popping up in her small town after pioneering her own brand of senior portraits. So she reinvented. She didn’t stand still. She went in a direction where no one else was going, and opened a clothing boutique that put a different spin and value on her senior business.

Look at Warby Parker. There isn’t anything innovative about prescription eyeglasses but Warby Parker didn’t get ahead by touting themselves as experts in eye glasses. They disrupted the industry and started operating and branding themselves in ways that no one else in their industry was doing.

The world may not need another photographer but there will always be demand for something distinctive and original.

Do you have a plan for that?


About Nancy Nardi

Founder of HiFi Social Web, Co-Founder of Seniors Ignite, website maker and entrepreneur. I help photographers and entrepreneurs leverage the power of the web with WordPress.


  1. mark on June 18, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    “The world may not need another photographer but there will always be demand for something distinctive and original.”

    Originality generally comes from happy accidents or a warped view of the world. Distinctive can come from that… or from “paying attention” as your social media examples show, or from concentration — concentrating on delivering great service with great pictures; concentrating on hiring great people and providing them with superior training; concentrating on delivering upon and exceeding promised products/services.

    People involved with artistic pursuits tend to be drawn to original. People involved in business tend to be drawn to distinctive. One isn’t better than another. It’s simply important to know where your heart is and supplement shortcomings. The biggest shortcoming of photographers is thinking they can/should do everything themselves.

    How can we look in the mirror and recommend people use professional photographers and then do all of our own marketing, packaging design, SEO, web design, etc., — as pure amateurs.

  2. Nancy Nardi on June 19, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Mark – great thoughts as always.

    This made me chuckle:

    “The biggest shortcoming of photographers is thinking they can/should do everything themselves.

    How can we look in the mirror and recommend people use professional photographers and then do all of our own marketing, packaging design, SEO, web design, etc., — as pure amateurs.”

    So true.

  3. mark on June 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Talking to a friend yesterday who told me she was meeting with a magazine rep to consider an ad placement. Just for fun, I asked what they discussed.

    Color vs B/W, size and shape of ad. Where ad would show in magazine and how many competitors would be advertising. Good starting point, unfortunately that’s where it ended.

    So, no questions about rack sales vs subscription. No questions about pass-along. No questions about cpm, guaranteed response rates, frequency discounts or promo add-ons or any of the other basic things a media buyer would discuss. And, I’m not a media buyer. Worst of all, no “comparison” shopping.

    That doesn’t even get into creative: Development of a creative platform, a way to effectively communicate that message, and decisions about whether or not print is the right medium for that message. The result will likely be a $3K to $5K decision made in a vacuum with little or no roi. And, the photog will then assume — “print ads don’t work” or it produces shitty clicks.

    Of course, that’s advertising — shaky ground for DIYers who rarely even understand the differences between direct marketing, mass media advertising, and the rest of the marketing mix. In my experience — it’s lack of professional help that produces far more shitty CTRs than getting into the game late.

    I thinking of something like “Lawyers who defend themselves have a fool for a client.” IOWs anyone reading this should hire you or someone like you to do their online for them. Even with help some things won’t produce great results — most often because of lack of budget — which is a whole ‘nother discussion.

    Miss you — but always watching. TC