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Using Email to Find an Audience

Finding An Audience for Your Photography Column by Harold Davis, March 2011 (updated June 2011)

Column Series Intro | Using Email to Find an Audience | Harnessing the Power of Flickr | Using Twitter to Find an Audience for Your Photos

Intro Image: People used to communicate by mail—as these nearly empty, old-fashioned mailing slots symbolize, the function of “snail mail” has largely gone electronic, to email.

In Finding an Audience for Your Photos I explained that the changes brought by the Internet era have altered the way photographers need to approach marketing their work. For most photographers who are interested in finding an audience in an era of social networking, email is a crucial part of this—either as their primary marketing endeavor or combined with other Internet tools such as blogging and using Facebook and Twitter.

But for a number of reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, sending out emails to serve the marketing and business needs of a photographer with high aspirations is not as simple as it sounds. True, if you are a serious amateur photographer you can—and probably should—send out casual emails to a BCC list of your friends who are interested in your work. But beyond a surprisingly small number of recipients—probably more than a hundred or so—this electronic era cottage industry approach is simply not practical.

I found this out the hard way. Like many photographers and artists, marketing is not my favorite activity. I’d much prefer to be photographing, writing about photography, or doing something creative.

In the beginning I was operating on a “Build it and they will come” philosophy. Which mostly meant that I uploaded my photos to Flickr (a future column will explore how you can use Flickr to achieve attention for your imagery). When someone on Flickr marked me as a contact, I reciprocated—and I began to use my Flickr contact list for informal emails from within the Flickr system.

This approach imploded when I reached about 850 contacts. I sent out an email noting the publication of one of my books. The powers-that-be at Flickr contacted me, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I sent another piece of what they termed “commercial spam” they would terminate my account.

Check out my Flickr Photostream; 2,000 users at last count have made me a contact but it is a fact of life that I cannot use this mechanism to interact directly with them.

Clearly, I needed to take control of my email destiny. Before I outline the problematic areas with email marketing for a photographer (actually, mostly for anyone) and how I solved these challenges, let me cut to the chase.

Today I have a strong list of more than 4,000 people who respond well to my emails. The list is self-service with a sign-up page, meaning that I don’t have to manually add people, or keep track of people who change their email address or decide to unsubscribe from my list. You can check out my subscription page here; the sign-up portion is shown in Figure 2. You’ll find more about creating your own sign-up page later in this article.

Figure 2: A simple sign-up form allows users to subscribe to my email list.

Email is not my only marketing effort, but it is of crucial importance because it allows me to communicate directly with people who are interested in my work and let them know about things that are important to me in real time. Better yet, my email list works hand and glove with my other marketing endeavors.

My experience in this arena should help to give you a jumpstart on building your own list and sending out your own emails. So if you are seriously interested in finding an audience for your work, why not get started today?

Email Problems and Challenges

As I’ve explained, sending emails to help your photography find an audience may sound simple, but there are many problematic aspects. I’ve written this article to help you overcome these challenges, but first let’s outline what they are:

  • Legal (complying with the CAN-SPAM act of 2003)
  • Getting your emails through
  • Logistical
  • Getting subscribers
  • Creating well-designed emails
  • Integrating Email with your web and social marketing presence

Legal Requirements and Getting Your Emails Through

The CAN-SPAM act of 2003 (15 U.S.C. 7701, et seq) is somewhat controversial Federal legislation that defines commercial email as “any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose).”

Commercial email that falls under the definition (which is most of it) must provide an unsubscribe mechanism on each email and an opt-out list, provide non-deceptive from and subject fields, include a valid physical address of the sender, and comply with various behavior requirements such as not “harvesting” email addresses via screen-scraping, and not including fake headers in an email.

Please understand that I cannot be in the position of offering you legal advice. If you have questions regarding your specific situation, you should consult a knowledgeable lawyer. That said, my take on CAN-SPAM is that the emails a photographer sends out will mostly be commercial emails under the definition of the statute, and need to comply with CAN-SPAM.

Figure 3 shows a footer from one of my emails that complies with CAN-SPAM.

As a practical matter, a photographer’s emails are pretty small potato stuff, and CAN-SPAM enforcement has been pretty lax anyhow. I don’t think your risk of prosecution is great.
But bulk emails that are sent out that do not comply with the CAN-SPAM provisions are very likely to be tagged as spam by the recipient’s ISP. Even if they get through, the subject line of the email may well be altered with the word “SPAM” added. And if you keep sending this kind of non-compliant email you may well hear from your email service provider, asking you to desist.

Anyhow, spam is awful stuff—and you don’t want a whiff of spam to taint your emails. Like Caesar’s wife, you need to be above any suspicion. This implies a number of things, including making very sure that everyone on your list wants to be there. For starters, it also means that you need to comply with CAN-SPAM.

Understanding the Logistical Hurdles

If you look at the logistical requirements compelled by CAN-SPAM that outlined above, they are already fairly formidable. The key logistical points are providing a way to unsubscribe on every email, and also maintaining a permanent opt-out list.

But bear in mind the mechanics of sending emails. If I were designing a system for sending email, I’d want it to be able to provide at least the following things:

  • A graceful interface for creating visually appropriate HTML emails
  • Integration with my web presence so that users could subscribe without my intervention
  • A mechanism for required user confirmation before they were added to my list (this is called “double opt-in”)
  • Tools for managing my contacts, perhaps segmenting them into sub-lists
  • A way to test the effectiveness of alternative emails
  • Effective analysis so I could understand the impact of my emails, and the response of subscribers to individual emails. What links were clicked on? How many subscribers—and which ones—opened a specific email?

Put together as a package, this is not the kind of infrastructure you’d want to have to create—or to manage without effective tools on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, it is pretty clear that one needs to contract for email management, as I discuss below in “Choosing a Service Provider.”

Defining an Audience and Clarifying Your Content

Sometimes the forest gets lost in an examination of individual trees. Before we get caught up in issues of legal compliance and logistical infrastructure, let’s talk for a moment about the big picture: what makes email marketing successful.

If there is one thing you take away from this article it should be the realization that bombarding your list with emails they feel are irrelevant is a bad idea—and doesn’t work as a marketing strategy.

Noted photographer Vincent Versace says that his email works because he sends “emails to a pre-qualified group of people not every twenty seconds” but only when he has something real to say: “They want to know about me and what I am doing, so I have a higher percentage of people who are interested in what I am doing than blanketing the universe and Tweeting my brains out.”
[View Vincent Versace’s work here: versacephotography.com]

This brings up questions of how you target your list, and how you keep your emails focused on things that interest the recipient.

There’s a normal process of ebb and flow with any email list where people join, and after a while they decide they are not interested and unsubscribe. In the meantime, other people have joined up to replace them—if you are doing your job right, they will have found you because of word of mouth.

By the way, it is possible to purchase or lease targeted email lists, for example of art directors at ad agencies. However, you have no personal connection with the people on these lists, and they will probably not pay attention to your emails unless they are very, very interesting to the targets. You should also be cautious about your rights to use the emails on purchased lists on an ongoing basis.

Outside of short-term perturbations with audience members coming and going, a successful email strategy starts with a plan—and the first element of the plan is understanding your target audience. For example, emails sent to professional ad agency art buyers should be very different in content and tone from those sent to serious amateur photographers who are interested in workshops.

With some exceptions, one-size-fits-all email campaigns are less successful than those that have a specific target in mind. It is possible to segment your lists to various different targets, but this gets complicated very quickly—and you risk spending your life as an email marketer rather than a photographer.

It’s also important to integrate your email campaign with the other aspects of your web presence. Photographer Derrick Story notes that while the foundation of his “personal platform” is his blog with its well-known weekly podcasts related to photography, staying consistent and making sure that his communication tools “play well” together has been key to his success.
[View Derrick Story’s work here: thedigitalstory.com]

To summarize, beyond the expected day-to-day variations, successful email marketing requires:

  • Understanding your target market and audience, and their interests
  • “Right-sizing” the quantity of email you send, and making sure that each email has a purpose
  • Integrating your email strategy in a synergistic way with your other online and off-line marketing efforts


About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »

Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.

Article revised June 2011.

Readers' Comments

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Rob Piontek , March 17, 2011; 07:30 A.M.

Thank you for writing the article, it's very interesting & helpful.   Looking forward to more detailed posts based on the topics in your first outline article.

Harry Joseph , March 27, 2011; 04:36 P.M.

Not sure why somebody succesful as you are needs to send SPAM.

Harold Davis , March 27, 2011; 06:18 P.M.

@Harry Joseph: From the text of this article, "Anyhow, spam is awful stuff—and you don’t want a whiff of spam to taint your emails. Like Caesar’s wife, you need to be above any suspicion. This implies a number of things, including making very sure that everyone on your list wants to be there."---As I note in my article, I use a double opt-in system to make sure everyone on my list wants to be there. I do need to keep in touch with people interested in my work, my books, my workshops and so on, but I don't think this is remotely spam.

Jeff Clow , March 29, 2011; 01:19 P.M.

Well written perspective on the subject, Harold.  I found it interesting - and helpful.

Andrei Frolov , April 16, 2011; 05:46 A.M.

"Lease" targeted email lists? "Service" providers? That's a laugh...

Post an RSS feed and let subscribers pull. Pushing UBE, collecting email lists, referring to said lists as "digital assets", and especially "leasing" them to third parties is spam. You should have gotten a hint from that Flickr incident that your "marketing strategy" is not all that welcome as you make it out to be...

Harold Davis , April 16, 2011; 12:41 P.M.

@Andrei---Writing on the topic of email seems to be a "hot button" topic. But you also seem to have misunderstood what I wrote. I hate spam. I don't lease emails from anyone, and I don't lease them to anyone. People sign up for my emails one-by-one, and if you visit my site you'll see it takes a bit of looking to even find my sign-up form. They are welcome to unsubscribe if they wish, as people do from time to time. So I think your email is unwarranted.

Andrei Frolov , April 16, 2011; 03:15 P.M.

No, I understood what you said. Let's see. You are a commercial entity, engaged in targeted commercial bulk email (CBE), otherwise known as spam. You share your subscriber base with a third party (iContact), which are in a business of targeted mailing, without consent or disclosure on your subscribe page to that effect. They in turn most likely have a "sharing" clause in their EUL and a clause allowing them to contact a user on their list for any reason, and sure as hell they have a "change of terms" clause allowing them to change EUL as they see fit. And subscribers? Subscribers get spam.

P.S. You get special cookie points for being well-intentioned and "hating spam".

Harold Davis , April 16, 2011; 03:35 P.M.

@Andrei: One point in your email is not true. iContact does not contact my list with spam, I have not consented to their contacting anyone, I have heard of no instance of their doing so, and this is not allowed in their TOS.

Also note that your definitions are a little loose. It takes a stretch to say I am a "commercial entity"---but even if I am, email (bulk or otherwise) is only spam if it is unwanted.

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