As far as my circle of photographer friends goes, I’m an oddity. Our studio is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, excluding holidays and with very little emotion. Specializing in headshots and commercial photography has its perks. No babies in buckets, no couches in fields, no wedding weekends.
Still, I’ve often complained about the heaps of money my friends make from vacation portraits in the fourth quarter of every year. Some photographers I know make half of their gross annual revenue between October and December. Half! Now I sit here and turn down all offers for portraits and the like because, to be honest, I just don’t feel like it.
I love the niche my business occupies and all the perks that come with it, but I also love having money in the bank.
A few years ago I noticed something strange. As we sat down at our annual team meeting and went through the numbers, it became clear that like portrait photographers, we also seem to be getting a significant increase in inquiries starting in October. As it turns out, in 2019 we actually made 40% of our annual gross between October 15th and December 15th.
In recent years (the pandemic hasn’t been quite as robust), this trend has been constant. Remember that we do not do portraits, only headshots, branding, advertising and corporate event photography. Our team realized something important was happening, but due to the nature of our business, we had no idea how to capitalize on it.
First, let me theorize a bit WHY happens. We don’t do a big deal in corporate holiday cards or anything, so why the push? Here’s what I think: First, you have to understand how budget-driven the corporate world is. Every dollar spent is booked in advance to a line item in a specific department’s budget.
Each department’s budget is determined over the course of the previous year, based in part on what was spent on the same cause the previous year. If this budget is not used, it will likely be reduced to what was actually spent and reallocated to another department or project. So if your team’s marketing budget was $20,000 and you’re only spending $10,000 this year, your team is likely planning a drastically reduced budget for the following year.
This becomes especially important when you start thinking about tax liability. For most companies, December 31st is the last day they spend money for the year as it applies to corporate taxation. When a company needs to reduce its tax liability, spending in the fourth quarter becomes very important. Additionally, the federal government’s fiscal year ends on September 30th, so any company working on government contracts will see a huge spike in inquiries, spending, and new projects on October 1st.
How does this affect us simple headshot and commercial photographers?
All of the corporate panics in the fourth quarter and government funds combine in early October in a tidal wave of funds that end up in the hands of many small businesses. Google’s latest tracking data on the term “headshots” shows that the word and the trend driving it are on the rise. From individual entrepreneurs and small businesses to large corporations, it is widely recognized that headshots are important to doing business in the modern era. So much so that they’ve become a staple of most companies’ marketing budgets. As the money starts to flow in the fourth quarter, savvy headshot photographers can position themselves well to take advantage.
So how do you use it? To save you from reading a long thesis on my general headshot marketing strategy, let me get one thing straight. We are laser focused on teams rather than individual headshots. The ROI is better and the repeat business is more consistent.
It’s not uncommon to shoot a team before lunch on a Tuesday, deliver the retouched headshots, and cash a check for $3,000. A good individual customer can cost $500 to $3,000 a year depending on how you do your sales. A good corporate client that sends you all of their team members and new hires can cost $10,000 to $20,000 per year each year. Twenty individual customers will not support your family. Twenty big companies will do it.
With that in mind, here’s what I think every headshot photographer should do as of the first Monday on or after October 1st.
1. Shop your closet
Have you ever heard the expression “shop your wardrobe”? This means that when you rummage through your belongings, you’ll often find things you forgot. It’s like getting a new outfit without having to pay for it. Do the same with your customers.
Compile a list of all the clients you’ve worked for over the last four years (with a focus on the company teams and event-based headshots), re-acquaint yourself with their company and their needs, and then start making a few friendly customer service calls make . Remind them who you are, ask lots of questions, and see if they need anything.
Having started this process ourselves in late September, we’ve already booked a company we haven’t worked for since 2019 for a total of $12,000.
Remember that as a small business, retaining your existing customers is more important than attracting new ones. Existing clients have a lot less effort to acquire which makes the win percentage better on any jobs you book with them.
It’s not a bad idea to make it a habit to give your clients a regular check-in call or email to keep the relationship healthy. At our studio, we call every client every 90 days just to say hello and check in. You’d be shocked how often this translates into paid work.
2. Improve your ads
If you’re a regular ad camper, especially on Google, October 1st is the time to increase your ad purchases. You don’t want to miss out on booking a great job because you hit your $10 daily limit.
I highly recommend going with a reputable and local marketing company that specializes in digital ads rather than trying it yourself. They most likely have more insight into best practices and keep track of results better than you do. It’s a bit silly to tell everyone to hire a professional headshot photographer and then try to act like a marketing agency to save money. If you find the right company, you will make far more money than they cost.
Keep in mind that if the project manager tells their employee to find a headshot photographer so they can spend the remaining marketing budget, that person will most likely use Google to find one. Make sure your ad appears in the results when they do.
This one probably needs an article of its own (maybe I’ll write one), but first let me say this: there’s no better way to increase your reputation in a community than through personal networking. Our involvement in local charities, chambers of commerce and community events has been invaluable to our business. Nothing makes it clearer that you’re a photographer than being out and about with a camera in your hand.
Now that the holiday season is here (stop fighting it, is it okay here?), the number of events taking place in communities across the country is about to explode. We make it a priority to attend library openings, chamber of commerce social events, arts festivals and more to ensure the people in my town know me as a photographer. A camera is a great… conversation starter.
Thanks to our involvement in our local community, we’ve become the official headshot photographer for the city and a dozen other local businesses who send us every new employee they have. Not to mention various other jobs doing photography and video for great local companies.
Take the opportunity to peek into your local business-focused groups and see what’s going on out there. Box smart and pick some great social events with community leaders in attendance and see what happens.
In case you wanted to skip all the brilliant insights above, here’s the recap: Reach out to your past clients, up your Google Ads game, and shine in your community. There is a significant and well-documented increase in corporate spending in Q4 and as a headshot photographer you can take action and end the year strong.
Your friends who take family photos on fall and Santa Saturdays won’t be happy this year if you’re fast, smart, and kicking your butt.
About the author: Gary Hughes is a commercial photographer based in Florida. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website.