A long-time photographer recently reached out to me and shared a painful dilemma. Long story short, she was moving to a different city where she essentially knew no one and needed to start her portrait photography business from scratch. No contacts. No leads. Nothing.
Interestingly enough, I had been in her exact shoes a couple short years before, so I was compelled to share with her the strategy I had used to find clients. Long story even shorter (I won’t make you wait until the end!):
I told her to throw a strategic, well-planned portrait party.
It was a well-planned portrait party that helped revolutionize my struggling business by allowing folks to get to know me, and therefore trust me. It was also a great way to build a list of contacts. Whether you are moving to a new town, or are just decided to start your photography business, or just want to give your existing business a good kick in the pants, then this is a strategy worth considering.
In this article, I’m going to cover how it can fulfill one of the most painful immediate needs: clients.
Below is a still from the actual overhead security footage of my first portrait party as guests began arriving. In the bottom left corner is where I set up for portraits. As you can see, the rest of the space was dedicated to chilling and hanging out.
Gauging Interest and Spreading the Word
Your first step will be to gauge interest and get the word out. If you’re moving to a new town or don’t know many folks in your existing area, then this stage will take some elbow grease. If you have contacts around town already, then this step will be easier for you.
If you don’t know many people, then you are going to have to physically leave your home office/computer screen and start talking to people in (gasp) person. Being an introvert, I completely understand how uncomfortable this can initially be, but if you want to get to know people, then you have to put yourself out there. I recommend local networking events, such as at your local Chamber of Commerce, or even MeetUp groups.
Here’s an interesting thing I’ve found: oftentimes I’m the only photographer at Chamber networking events. This provides me a wonderful opportunity to be known as “the” photographer. Showing your face goes a long, long way.
Once you’ve started to get to know people, then they become a natural pool to start mentioning your “upcoming” portrait party. It can be as simple as passing around a sheet of paper and making an announcement that you’re considering throwing a portrait party. Ask whoever is interested to sign up and that you’ll get them more details as it develops.
Decide what you want you the minimum number of initial sign-ups to be (mine was 12.) Once you reach your target number, decide on a date. Then, start marketing in earnest: create flyers, create a Facebook group, announce it to your online and offline friends. You’ll most likely find that some of your original 12 dropped off, but you will get more people through your additional marketing efforts.
This also involves getting people to officially register and pay beforehand, either by using a service like Eventbrite or with good old-fashioned paper forms and checks. When they commit with payment beforehand, that drastically reduces the instances of the annoying day before cancellations.
Open It Up to Guests
One thing I did that was insanely helpful was just to open it up to folks who wanted to attend for free and check things out without getting any type of portrait or headshot. It added a neat “networking” feel to the event.
Make it clear they shouldn’t expect a portrait if they haven’t paid in advance, but that they are welcome to hang out and soak up the ambiance. Even if people don’t trust you enough to fork over money for a portrait, they may still want to show up just to watch you and get familiar with you. Watching you in action goes a long way towards building trust. At my party, we had as many folks attending for free as paid for a headshot, and I made sure go around and introduce myself to each and every person, whether they were getting a headshot or not. And you know what? Many of the free folks later approached me for a full, private session after the event. After having seen me in action, they were comfortable enough asking for a portrait. As much your portrait party is about making short-term, you should also view it as a marketing event.
And even though they were attending for free, I still made sure they signed into the event with, at a minimum, their name, and email address as soon as they walked in the door. Getting their info for followup is important.
Some events charge a nominal fee for entry to cover expenses, such as refreshments. This is also an option for the folks who are not getting a portrait done.
Get People Excited Beforehand
As you collect registrations for your party, add these people to an email list and send them periodic messages to keep them updated and excited as the event approaches. In the weeks leading up to your party, send them a handful of emails about what to expect, where to park, what to wear, and how much fun it’s going to be. This will help put them at ease. You’d be amazing at the questions and natural insecurities they have at attending a new upcoming event. It’s completely understandable and gives you an amazing opportunity to answer their questions and get them excited. As an added bonus, they’ll get to know YOU more through this email correspondence, so that by the time the event arrives, they’ll feel like they know you.
After Your Party: Followup, Followup, Followup
After you’ve successfully completed your portrait party event, do NOT just fall off the planet. If you’ve done your due diligence in collecting information after your party, then you will have a healthy list of emails. Keep in touch with them after the party.
In the immediate short term, thank them for coming and tell them how much fun you had (because hopefully, you did have fun.) Include photos in your email blast of the actual party showing people interacting having a good time. Show off the amazing portraits you took and tell your clients’ stories.
Long term, you can begin sending out a once-a-month fun newsletter to keep in touch with these folks. Hence, you have a contact base for your new business.
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits and mechanics of throwing a kick-butt portrait party, I do go into great detail about how to throw one here. As with anything worth it, it takes effort, but you won’t regret it once you do it. It’s a great tool for growing your business!