When I get an opportunity to speak with a successful photographer of any genre, one of the questions I always as is “What has been your most successful marketing tool?”.  Many answer with word of mouth.  Which is true when you get to the point of very successful studio, but I often refine my question to “What was your most successful marketing tool when you were starting to acquire clients spending at least a $1000 session average?”  That answer is rarely word of mouth!  Not to say that referral programs don’t have their place and word of mouth isn’t a powerful marketing tool, but what do you do before you have large numbers of happy clients singing your praises all around town?

I’m going to share with you what has been my most successful marketing tool to date, the silent auction.  Uh oh, what’s that you say?….“I always donate a session and they never buy anything additional”.  As with anything, that may happen on occasion, but I believe that if you approach silent auctions in a well planned manner, then the number of clients that only want the item they bid on will be extremely minimal.

Let’s start with the goal of the silent auction.  Ask yourself why you want to support this auction?  There can be numerous reasons; to support the charity, to increase your visibility in the community, and/or to gain qualified clients.  There may be other reasons that you choose to support a particular charity but generally that is what I am hoping to gain when I choose to make a silent auction donation.  When I am deciding whether or not to donate to a particular event, I ask myself two critical questions:

  1. Is this a cause that I feel strongly about and would like to support?
  2. Will my target market be at this event?

When it is a cause that I feel strongly about that is usually enough for me to make a donation.  I am using my time and talent to raise money for something that is important to me.  I do not have any expectations of making money or attracting my perfect “target” client.  It is simply a way to give back.  As some of you may know, when you give freely you are often surprised by what you receive.  I have found this to be true and one of my largest sales, and best referrer, came from one of these events.

The second question is the most important question to ask yourself when you are deciding which events to participate in if your goal is to attract your target clients.  Will my target market be at this event?  In order to answer that question you must first define your target market.  My target market is young professionals (generally married) without children and empty nesters whose children are out on their own, all living comfortably with disposable income.  The first thing I look at when deciding whether to participate is the ticket price.  A few members of my target market MAY be at a $50 a plate fund-raiser, but it’s a whole lot more likely that the black tie event with a $250 per plate price will have a higher percentage of my target market.  Those are the events I want to seek out.

I love my animal rescues and I support many of them in the Pittsburgh area, however often their ticket prices are $50-$150.   I generally  see these events as helping a great cause that sometimes leads to wonderfully qualified clients, just not as often as the others.  Remember, just because you have a pet photography business does not mean you should only donate to animal related events.  DEFINE your target market and donate to those events.  Donate to cultural galas, the ballet or symphony.  Donate to medical fund-raisers, Heart Ball, local hospitals.  Donate to local foundations or non-profits, just about every single foundation and non-profit has some sort of event throughout the year.

I am on the lookout all year long for great auction opportunities.  When I see an article in the paper or local magazine recapping a great event, I make a note and contact them the following year.  Don’t be afraid to contact the organizers.  In my experience they are thrilled to have another wonderful item to offer their guests!

I should also note that I will only donate my items to live or silent auctions.  I do not donate to raffles as the person that won my session by dropping a random ticket in a basket is likely less qualified then the person that bid and spent a few hundred dollars to purchase it.  They also are not as emotionally tied to my donation as they may have just passed the raffle basket and dropped in a ticket thinking, “That looks fun”.  Meanwhile, the person in a bidding war to win the item in a silent auction is much more emotionally vested in the session before it even begins.

These are just the beginning steps of making auctions a great funnel of qualified clients.  There is so much information I want to share about this that I will be back tomorrow to help you decide what it is that you want to include in your auction donation.