Social networking websites are the talk of the town, but how can they help your business?
Supporters exalt it as the great advance in communication. Detractors consider it a waste of time. Like it or not, the phenomenon of social media empowers the public at large to capture and disseminate information immediately.
But how do all these technological advances affect the photographer? Is the growth of social media killing our business? How do these changes affect the amateur? Are there ways for photographers to use these new tools for their benefit?
As with all tools, the utility of social media depends upon how they are applied. Consider the cell phone: It's an excellent business tool if used properly. However, in the hands of most teenagers, the cell phone is nothing more than an expensive gadget.
Technology has changed the business of photography. In the more than 20 years I've worked as a photojournalist, I've had the privilege to observe and grow with these major advances. When I started my career, photography was a mysterious craft. Photographers shot their images blindly. We learned through experience how well our film might turn out at the end of the day.
Today, the mystery is gone. The learning curve is nearly nonexistent. Anyone at the scene of a breaking news event with a cell-phone camera can whip it out of a pocket or purse and capture the moment. Visual feedback on image quality is instant. Moments after capturing and verifying the image, it can be e-mailed to editors at CNN or to the photographer's personal publishing platform.
As a university-level photojournalism instructor, I ask myself before each new semester: What am I going to tell my students about the future of photojournalism when images have become a commodity and are extremely abundant?
Building a community
The answer to this question comes in understanding that many photographers will have to go beyond their local communities to support their careers. Social media have made the world a more accessible and smaller place. Photographers need to expand their client base on a global level.Begin by creating and building your own community. Direct marketing is an important part of nurturing a photography business, but networking, word-of-mouth advertising and referral requests are some of the most effective methods of finding photography buyers.
Many people mistakenly use social media for direct marketing. They look for the immediate ROI, or "return on investment," when social media should be viewed as public relations tools. In social media, ROI should really stand for "return on influence." The focus is on becoming an expert and developing a community of people around you who admire your work and will tell other people about you.
Social media offer photographers the opportunity to share their images with people around the world. Just a few years ago this was an almost impossible goal. Smart photographers use social media to learn about the latest equipment, share concepts with other photographers, develop communities of fans and build new client relationships.
The internet offers more social media than anyone really has time to explore. Here are my recommendations for the photographer to consider:Blogs: As the foundation of the social web, blogs provide the ability to publish text, images and videos of interest on demand. Information can be instantly shared with a receptive, waiting audience.
Photographers – at any level – have the opportunity to post their latest images and thoughts via blogs and share them with interested friends, associates and fans. These viewers may then comment and interact on the posted content, a type of interaction known as Web 2.0.
Standard websites are excellent places for photographers to share their online portfolios, which serve as electronic brochures to sell photographs or services. Blogs offer readers a deeper insight into a photographer's personality and creativity. This is very helpful in building relationships with potential clients.
If you don't wish to create and maintain a blog, then merely reading other blogs is still beneficial. By doing so, you may gain insight into how some of the top photographers create their work. These blogs can help you improve your own photography, study how different bloggers share their unique views, rate the latest equipment or just view lots of images.
Podcasts: A blog, if done well, can help you become an expert in your field, which is a major goal of public relations. A podcast – an audio bulletin disseminated over the internet – is the next step in reinforcing your expertise. Podcasting is not for everyone, but it is important to note that people consume media differently. Creating different platforms to share your thoughts and ideas helps to expand your audience.
Forums: Forums have been around for a long time in internet years, but they are still great places to interact with fellow photographers and like-minded people. Communication is in a question-and-answer format. Active members may pose questions, answer them, or do both. I recommend that you take the time to join at least one photography forum and one industry-targeted forum to develop an understanding of your clients' needs and build relationships.
Flickr: There are many photography-sharing sites, but the king of the hill for serious photographers is Flickr. Both amateurs and pro shooters use this site to share their images with the other members of the community. Flickr users are encouraged to comment on other members' photographs, join groups and share ideas.
Flickr.com has become a popular portal used by photography buyers in their search for images and talent. Even Getty, the giant stock photography agency, has an agreement with the site to allow them to approach photographers with offers to sell their images as stock. This has given amateurs new opportunities not available in the past.
A word of caution: Flickr should not be used in place of a professional portfolio. However, the site has wonderful functionality and applications that you can use to share your images. It is worth exploring.
YouTube: People are always looking for entertaining, educational and interesting videos. This is why YouTube.com is the second-largest search engine behind Google.
Whether you are an amateur or a professional, your portfolio should include at least one video on YouTube. Not only are portfolio videos a valuable tool, but sharing behind-the-scenes footage also adds depth and dimension to a photographer's work.
Videos are as easily shared as still images these days. Creative videos often become viral, meaning they are passed from person to person quickly. Short and active videos tend to work best. But there is an enormous amount of competition online; if you want your video to get noticed, you will have to use all your creative energy to attract viewers.
Facebook: Facebook is the world's most popular social media website, hosting an estimated 20 billion images. It allows community members to connect through status updates, link sharing, photographs and videos.
The site, however, is a closed community: Only people whom you allow in will have access to your photographs and words. I recommend using Facebook to build a community of your closest friends and associates. Think of "Facebook friends" as those you would invite into your home or studio.
Facebook is also a nonindexed site. This means that search engines such as Google will not list your Facebook comments and resources in search results. But if you are interested in more exposure using Facebook as a platform, you can develop an independent fan page that can be found by search engines, so people from around the world can follow your updates freely.
LinkedIn: Business networking is the foundation of LinkedIn. The site is based on the concept of "six degrees of separation" – the idea that every person in the world can be connected to you by no more than six other people (if only you can find those particular contacts). By developing a network of associates, you can share business contacts and request warm introductions through your LinkedIn connections.
Twitter: Twitter often confuses people. Many mistakenly believe this micro-blogging platform is only a tool for chatting. Twitter is, in fact, a media stream. While Twitter is hardly a replacement for true journalism, it could be compared to the AP wire for the general public. You submit interesting or useful information, called a "tweet," 140 characters at a time. In return, you may follow other people, businesses and organizations that offer content in which you find value.
Photographers often follow other photographers. This is fine if you are interested in learning more about photography. But if your goal is to find clients interested in your photography, it's important to use keywords in your tweets that will attract your target audience.
Twitter is the largest source of traffic to my blog. I share ideas about social media and photography; occasionally I link to my posted material.
It has been noted that Twitter can be twice as fast as traditional media in spreading news and information around the world. The ability to comment quickly and share photograph and video links from the happenings of the day is extremely powerful. This was evident during the 2008 earthquake in China's Sichuan Province and during the Iranian elections this spring. Both are examples of how Twitter was more effective than traditional media at getting the word out about current events. It should be cautioned, however, that unlike traditional media, Twitter has no mechanism to assess the veracity of those posting "news."
Tumblr and Posterous: Tumblr.com and its rival, Posterous.com, are gaining popularity among the camera-phone crowd. The site is a cross between traditional blogging and Twitter. It's easy to use and designed for quick posts. Unlike Twitter, it doesn't limit you to 140 characters.
Posterous has become very popular with iPhone users because the platform is designed to accept posts via e-mail. Write an e-mail, attach a photo, press "Send," and Posterous will update your blog. This posting method is extremely beneficial for people who like to take photographs with their cameras and quickly share the results with the world.
Content sharing: Sites such as Digg.com, StumbleUpon.com and Delicious.com are considered content-sharing sites. Many photographers underestimate the power of these sites as places to expose their images to new audiences.
Digg and StumbleUpon allow users to rate and review content they find on the web and share this information with people who appreciate it.
Delicious is a bookmarking site. Just like the bookmarked websites you store in your internet browser, this site allows you to share your favorites with a community of like-minded people. These sites are a time saver when you are researching a specific topic.
Link shorteners: Link-shortening sites such as Tinyurl.com have been around for a long time. They are valuable in a Twitter-pated world where you have a limited amount of space to share your thoughts. If your thoughts include a link to additional information, a 73-character link will take up valuable real estate on the internet. Link shorteners solve this problem.
Lately, new link-shortening services such as "bit.ly" and "su.pr" have emerged to allow submission to multiple social media sites at one time. Even better, they offer valuable analytical tools that help content creators discover what their community really likes and what they ignore.
The ability to deliver written thoughts, images and videos to multiple social media sites from one location is a real time saver. Sites such as Pixelpipe.com and ScreenTweet.com allow photographers to simultaneously send images, video and text to multiple destinations.
The future of social media will rely on real-time applications and universal platforms that will allow photographers to send and receive information from all of their social networks in one location. A new application set for release in late 2009, Google Wave, may provide those capabilities and functionality in breathtaking fashion – possibly even rendering e-mail obsolete.
New applications such as Google Wave are the reason I like to encourage photographers to at least become familiar with online social media tools – they are the training wheels for how we will communicate and do business in the future. Like digital photography, communication is following an evolutionary path.
Don't be left behind.