NOTE FROM JONAH: The following blog post is a guest lecture I am giving to the International Multimedia Journalism MA in Beijing, Wednesday night. The course is based in Beijing, and is a collaboration between the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the University of Bolton in the UK. The course leader is Dr DJ Clark.
DISCLAIMER 1: Dear Biel Calderon, Stephanie Thiedig, Mark Esplin, Joseph Djima, Dirk Claus, Jeff Kennel, Lui Chen, Tracey Shelton, Michela Orlandi, Yi Song, Lee Ryan Perkins, Chen Mai, DJ Clark, Sharon Lovell and BFSU social media and photography students,
In talking about online promotion for photographers, there is no correct answer. There are certainly best practices, things to avoid and techniques to help, but the information that follows this note is simply my quasi-guerilla (social) warfare technique that I employ to promote me, my photography and my business. The online atmosphere for #togs is constantly changing and in many ways, to stay up to date with the blogosphere, microblogosphere and visual communities — would be a full time job. While we have other full time jobs already, doing every step below, every day, is simply not always possible … but we can sure try.
DISCLAIMER 2: Yes, I am promoting myself, by talking about promotion.
WHY SHOULD WE PROMOTE OURSELVES?
The first question we might ask before we get into how I go about promoting myself, might be — why should we promote ourselves?
We are currently living in an over-saturated photographic world. Nothing says this better than the latest iPhone update. While the phone has improved a small bit, the big push from Apple this round was a photographic update. For $399 mobile phone users now have an 8MP camera and a video camera shooting 1080P at 30 fps. Apple’s attention to this detail (over some more practical things) is certainly a testament to the world’s current obsession with photography.
Given that the average meathead has at least 8 MP in their pocket, and thousand of talented graduates come out of J-school, photography school or multimedia programs like yourselves every year, it becomes increasingly important that we as professionals not only separate ourselves from the general amateur photo community, but also within the professional community.
By promoting ourselves efficiently we gain two things. First and most importantly, we gain eyes on our work. Second and also most importantly, we gain income. While some will disagree, our work is heavily based on technology that is constantly changing and improving. To keep these toys in our hands, we need money. Increasing our revenues to keep up with technology is important (as is money to live comfortably while tackling this competitive world).
While no one will put a knife to your throat saying “promote!!!” there is a great risk in not promoting because everyone else will be doing it. This has a semi-swing effect for photographers who don’t have web sites, have no Google klout or place in online social communities. At least from the public perception and online eye, you could become buried under those who do. For some this is very tough. I have plenty of friends who truly dislike social media and online promotion — but who are great photographers. You can chose not to play the game, but given the online environment for #togs, you are walking a slippery line.
PREPRODUCTION AND ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNALISM: YOURNAME.COM
When I was going through J-school I was always told — if you are looking for money, you might want to try the business school across campus. Post univisity, in my first years as a staffer at newspapers I was paid the equivalent of peanuts by Swift Communications, a chain of newspapers in America’s west.
While you probably won’t become a millionaire by being a photojournalist, for the entrepreneurial journalist there is a world of financial opportunity out there. To get a piece of this, you need to think about your images, as your business.
Freelancers often think about themselves as independent contractors going from job to job. This is true. However, what you are really doing is creating a business. So whether you sell cupcakes, lemonade or photos — you should have a plan. Brand yourself as your business. Branding is essential to any business.
The first step to this branding, is creating a web site. And the first step in creating a web site is creating a name for your web site. I see a lot of questionable decisions at this early stage of the game.
Do you want to brand your name or some other abstract title? For example, you might have a portfolio site that has lots of breathtaking photos form Asia. You want a web site to show case this work and call it “asiaphoto.com.” Now, let’s say this site becomes popular. The average person will now know asiaphoto.com instead of your name (.com). I see this very often with nascent production companies and individuals who chose a name which makes them look like companies. In the much more likely scenario that the business doesn’t succeed, you’ve also wasted time branding a business that doesn’t exist anymore, while you as a person, photographer and business — will always exist.
My first web site was called kesselimaging.com. This site branded “Kessel Imaging” which was actually just me. After a couple years I decided to pull the plug and stop wasting time promoting an ephemeral brand, and instead brand me (a real person … I think) and moved my branding efforts to jonahkessel.com.
• For more on entrepreneurial journalism check out Steve Buttry’s post “Jonah Kessel and Carmen Sisson discuss entrepreneurship and photojournalism” here.
STEP ONE: YOUR ONLINE BACKBONE
The backbone to my online presence is my web site (not to be confused with my blog, photoblog, microblog, etc.). First, in no way does Facebook “cut it” as “your website”. Neither does Flickr, Picasa or some other photo sharing site.
I meet photographers almost daily who don’t have personal Web sites. Many of these folks will have Flickr pages or Facebook pages — but don’t be confused, these become largely invisible to the public eye, expanded social networks and bots who will be your friends in getting visitors, clients and eyes on your work.
While bots are increasingly indexing social media, by hosting your works on these sites, you end up promoting them, sometimes more than yourself. They gain traffic. They gain Google status. And perhaps worst off,they can gain the rights to your media. On an subconscious level or psychological level, hosting your content exclusively on a social media site such as Facebook or Flickr, can create an unprofessional association with your work.
BEST PRACTICES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS CORE WEB SITES: The top five concerns I have with my site, and also the top four problems I see with other photographers’ sites are: usability, compatibility, search-ability, share-ability and load times. Let’s quickly go through these elements:
- USABILITY: On a basic level, your web site should be easy to use. In fact, it should be so easy to use — an idiot should be able to navigate. For the busy client who is checking dozens of photographers’ sites, fancy and hidden buttons can turn mean a click off or closed tab.
- COMPATIBILITY: Your web site should function not only across all browsers but all platforms — and for all users. jonahkessel.com may look like a flash built site, but there’s more than meets the eye backstage. Underneath the flash site is a mirror HTML site for users who don’t have flash as well as for bots who are indexing content. There is also a site for mobile users, a site for tablet users and another site for disabled users.
- SEARCH-ABILITY: Photographers who simply have one flash built site lose a tremendous amount of traffic because bots can’t truly search the content of the site. Every image on jonahkessel.com has: (1) file names specifically labeled for SEO, keywords specifically labeled for SEO, titles specifically labeled for SEO. While this information is not contained in the flash built site, it is contained in the HTML site. When bots cruise the Web they see this information, index it and then make it available for users and potential clients browsing. Then when they click the link, the images forward to the flash built site. If your content is not searchable or findable, its almost as good as it not being there.
- SHARE-ABILITY: I’m assuming you are all children of the 21st century and understand the power of sharing. A viral video or a photo can take off putting millions of eyes on your work. Let’s hope that content links back to you — but in the meantime, let’s make sure there is a sharing button accessible ALL OF THE TIME. By not having these buttons easily accessible, or accessible at all, you are simply loosing out to potential traffic, eyes and income.
- LOAD TIMES: Unlike print journalists, our media unfortunately requires some space. It is critical to keep file sizes on videos and photos down to the smallest point possible. A long load time can be the difference between a click off and view. You could have the best content in the world, but if it takes too long to see it — no one will.
There are about a thousand choices for web sites. For the past three years I have been a client of Livebooks, a company who makes web sites for photographers. For the most part, I’ve been very satisifed. The company has lots of options including custom options. Might site is custom built off of my own functionality and front end visual design.
The company allowed me to give them the blueprints of how everything should work and look, and then they build the back end. The back end (in screenshot above) has a graphic user interface that makes managing the web site extremely simply, easy and fast. When I update the GUI, it updates the site and all mirror sites (including mobile and tablet sites). While this isn’t free — I couldn’t imagine updating 6 web sites manually every time I make a small change. The money spent on the site surely is made up in productivity time later.
In my continued efforts to brand myself as a business, the details of the site will also cross into the upcoming topics. Fontography, color schemes, link functionality and logos will be cross-branded across all of my web sites. Although these are small details and are largely ignored, the subconscious effect of branding continued out over multiple platforms turns you as an individual — into a brand.
You can sell a brand. Selling yourself is much more difficult … or illegal (in most places).
STEP TWO: YOU HAVE A SITE, NOW WHAT?
After creating jonahkessel.com, my goal was to create a continued traffic stream to it. While there are a number of ways to do this, we can split it up to a couple key categories: the blogosphere, the microblogosphere and social media communities. By engaging in these three keys elements, you will bring direct traffic to your site, while creating a Google ranking that will bring clients to your doorstep.
- BLOGOSPHERE: The site you are currently viewing is my blog, hosted by WordPress. This site, named “Nomadically Curious Visual Thoughts” (note visual branding/attention to myname.com over title in logo) is dedicated to long form blogging and details images I take from traveling, as well as commentary about work I do. The general topics are journalism, photography, technology, video, China and travel. In an active month I will update it eighth to ten times. In a inactive month (which probably means I’m too busy to even sleep) I will update it two or three times. Since I am always working or traveling — there is never a shortage of items to blog about.
The WordPress community is often a more mature community and technically sound one, than some of its counterparts (i.e. Blogger, Tumblr, etc.). People who use WordPress generally know HTML (at least enough to update a blog) and in general, the professional blogosphere is found here.
I also host a photo blog called “Good Light and Good Luck” hosted on Tumblr. The Tumblr environment is very very different to that of the WordPress community. In general demographics of users seem to be much younger. Narrowcasting seems to be much greater in the Tumblr environment as well. While in the WordPress arena we see blogs on China or technology for example, on Tumblr, topics are widdled down to a much more specific level. Some of my favorite examples of narrowcasting on Tumblr include Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Beiber, Fuck Yeah Girls on Bikes and Awesome People Hanging out Together.
I do believe a monkey could use Tumblr. Its extremely simply, extremely efficient and requires no knowledge of HTML. While I target a general audience with my WordPress, I am targeting a younger demographic with the Tumblr blog. However, my Tumblr account is linked directly to my Twitter account and Facebook account, and these are updated simultaneously to a Tumblr post.
The photoblog I update (at least) every day. However, this process is automated. About once a month I will update the blog for the next 30 days. I program the system to release one picture a day that includes a large caption with some backstory about the photo. I initially started this blog as a simply traffic fishing device that required little effort; however, over time I have come to like the community and its ability to focus on very narrow subjects.
My Google Analytic report for last year shows my WordPress blog as the eighth largest traffic generator toward my mane site, and Tumblr coming in at eleventh.
- MICROBLOGOSPHERE: While my blogs rank eight and eleventh in traffic generators to my main site, microblogs are ranking much higher, coming in at third, only behind Google and direct traffic. When I talk about microblogging I am primarily talking about Twitter. I believe Twitter is the single greatest tool we have for promoting ourselves as photographers; however, without the assets listed above (site, blogs) it becomes a much different beast.
Twitter is something that has become integrated not only into my work but my life. It is always on. While I have backed off a bit compared to where I was at about a year ago (in terms of time actually spent watching Twitter feeds), it is still an intrigal part of my life. It connects me people who see and view my work. It gives me the opportunity to let those people who do follow my work, do follow it as it develops.
From posting cell phone photos during shoots, to talking about the process as it happens from shoot to edit, Twitter helps me create transparency in what I do. People ask me questions daily about photography, technology and the stories I am working on. As a journalist I believe transparency in our work creates exponential value to our content. When readers, viewers or users have a connection to both the content and journalist, this becomes a lot easier.
Making Twitter an effective tool for promoting is not as simple as just placing a link to your content when it becomes available. In fact, per article you publish you might have a specific roll out plan just for Twitter in how to best promote your work. But first, you need an active community of followers and aggregators to help spread your links around. And this means actually being part of the community, helping to promote other journalists and photographers works and engaging in dialogue.
If you have 100,000 followers, but you are not active with them — the tool will be much less powerful. However, 200 active followers can be a huge help in getting your work into their networks.
Here’s a couple things I keep in mind when using Twitter to promote my work:
- TIME ZONES: Your followers most likely follow many people, and probably exist in many time zones. Therefor, if you post something once at 9:00 am its probably unrealistic to think Sahid in Qatar, Jaques in France and Chen in China all see the link. This makes it necessary to post things for different audiences in different time zones. Now look at times during the day when people might most likely be online.
Right before lunch, when desk employees are killing time before they can take off. Right after lunch, when people don’t want to do work cause they are tired and full. Maybe 45 minutes after people arrive at work and are finished checking their work emails and thinking about how long till lunch. 30 minutes before the end of the work day is another great time when the Twittesphere becomes very active.
If you post during those times and based on different time zones, you’re sure to get a little more attention.
However, if you post the exact same Tweet twice, or Tweet too often, you’re followers will likely be annoyed with you for clogging up streams with content they’ve already seen. There is a fine balance between tweeting often enough, but not too often to be annoying.
To give your followers more than just your content its important to stagger tweets linking back to your content, with tweets leading elsewhere, or commentary on other people’s works. If I put out a big piece that I thought could really go viral, I would link out to it every four hours for a day, and in between link to other things. With an article that was not as important, I might do it twice in a day (once for the Eastern hemisphere and one for the West – usually separated by 12 hours exactly).
- TIMED TWEETS: You may be thinking … well, that seems like a lot of work. And it is. However, you don’t need to be sitting next to a computer the entire day waiting for 4:30 to roll around in every time zone. Instead you can use tools to automate Twitter. For example, right now, I am talking to you; however, I have programmed Twitter to automatically send tweets out during this lecture every 10 minute pointed at one of your Web sites.
Having a presence on Twitter during all time zones will create a bigger following in more places. So take advantage of technology and tweet while you are sleeping.
- SEO: You only have 140 characters, and Google is watching, so make them count. Just like writing a good headline, writing a good Tweet will make be clip or pass over.
- SOCIAL COMMUNITIES: Beyond Twitter and the microblogosphere, other online social communities are critical in creating traffic to your sites. Last year, Facebook ranked fourth (only behind direct traffic, Google and Twitter) in generating traffic to jonahkessel.com. In the last six months of this year, Vimeo ranked eight, with stumbleupon, YouTube, Google+ all also ranking in the top 20.
Social communities can build your profile independently of your web sites as well. Today (November 23, 1:52pm), I had 2,300 views on Vimeo alone. This doesn’t count YouTube, Youku and Toudu where I also host videos.
STEP THREE: BANG FOR YOUR BUCK
So far, we’ve discussed the basics of online promotion. This is the bare minimum. However, if you want to excel I believe with each article or project you produce you can have a promotion plan and weasel your content into more places. Let’s take a couple examples, going from simple to some more complicated methods.
THE TEASER: If movies can have teasers, why can’t you? As cinematic journalism increases you’ll probably see more of this. I’m currently working on a project for Save the Children documenting disabled people around China. On December 1 a series of six videos will release on a new channel on Youku to promote the NGO and the channel. The videos are funded by the European Union as well as Save the Children.
The client requested a teaser to help promote their screening as well as the upcoming online dissemination. This can be a great money maker because, hey, its easy. Most of the content will already be ready to go: edited, color graded, codec-ed, etc.
THE REEL: In the past, it was normally just cinematographers, cameraman and movie people making reels. However, in the realm of cinematic journalism putting images with music can create a great self promotional tool. Having a reel ready, also opens up the doors to working outside of the traditional journalism fields. While I am largely video based now, in the past I would still make an annual reel made up of still images.
Creating a reel can be effective and fun. However, there are many things to think about when creating one. See this post “The Science of the Reel” for more thoughts on journalists using a reel as a promotional tool.
THE GUEST BLOG: Alright, so you have a blog, a photo blog, a microblog — now its time to guest blog. I guest blog on a number of different sites, one of my favorite being DSLR News Shooter. This community is mostly film makers and visual journalists, but plenty of audience members too. The video above, which was made mostly for the fun of it — has received over 5000 views, just on this site. For taking 20 minutes out of my day to write a blog post, I would say this is worth it.
Guest blogging also opens up the door for community members of that blog, to find your blog, increasing your core audience. On all major articles I produce I try to write at least one guest blog talking about what went into the production or some type of backstory, on top of creating content for my own blog. Here’s a couple examples:
Video above, guest blog post here:CHINESE NEW YEAR GOES WITH A BANG FOR SHOOTERS JONAH KESSEL AND PAUL MORRIS WITH CANON DSLRS
PRODUCT REVIEWS: Reviewing products can benefit more than just a manufacturer. When reviewing gear, you can use your own work as an example of what can be done with the kit. By speaking out on your experience with gear and kit, you can help create dialogue for both users of technology and the creators.
In this example, I combine a product review of Kessler Crane’s Pocket Dolly, with a promotion for my own work. Guest blog post here: KESSEL ON KESSLERCRANE – JONAH KESSEL REVIEWS THE KESSLERCRANE POCKETDOLLY V2.0
PEOPLE HAVE QUESTIONS, YOU HAVE ANSWERS: People are curious. That’s a universal truth. One of my favorite new sites (which admittedly I had more time to use) is called Quora. Its a social media based Q&A site with an excellent community of experts on various subjects. As journalists we’re always (at least attempting to) answering questions. Often when I have a new story I think about what question it might be answering. For more on Quora and its potential see this post “Curious on Quora.”
In the example above, I created a video on censorship. I searched Quota for questions relating to censorship and China and found a couple that it related to. For example, one user had asked “When will China’s web censorship stop and the government’s attitude change?” While my video didn’t exactly answer this question, I did have an unused quote that I added to the conversation. I then gave some links to help push viewers from this site to my content in other places.
UTILIZING YOUR ASSETS: Often I see great content with short legs. This means, I see a great article but I don’t think the journalist (if its a freelancer) necessarily got all they could out of it. If you can promote your content efficiently, you will have the capability to make more money while getting more eyes on your content.
This means one project can have many different lives. In the fall of 2011, journalist Kit Gillet and myself created a project called “The Fate of Old Beijing.” This was an interactive project funded by the Asia Society and included three videos, a digital tour and two photo essays. You can see the project in that form here. However, we wanted more eyes on the content.
While we had an audience in the nonprofit sector, we then found a home for the video package in the editorial, or news sector. We sold the package to Global Post, who published all three videos in a series called Beijing’s vanishing act. You can see those videos here.
After a nonprofit and online newspaper — we moved to television and sold the rights to the Archeology Channel, where the videos were shown in the summer of 2011. Their posting about the series here.
Using our own contacts in the media, we started offering interviews and screenings of the films. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but you will gain a greater audience by simply making yourself available to other journalists. Here’s some links of some of the places I interviewed, blogged or helped promote my material:
Beyond online media, we had enough content on this one to flip it around into a print article. As DSLR shooters, you always have the option to shoot stills and video. I often grab a still shot before I shoot video, to examen the frame. This gives me still photographs of most subjects and places I go. When video is rolling, you are grabbing quotes. So the only thing left is to fill in the details of the story where the quotes leave off.
This video appeared as a print article in UK based Geographical magazine in November of 2011, nearly six months after its first publication at the Asia Society, again — bringing in more revenue while getting more eyes on our content.
THE WIDE WIDE WORLD: You may have noticed a great variety of places mentioned above. Geographic variation can be another great asset to your content. When I publish an article, often times I think — “Ok, its published in China. Where’s next?” While publications like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal won’t make this possible, other publications have looser rules surrounding the issue.
HONG KONG: SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST
In many instances this can be a great asset to you and publications. For example, it is unlikely a reader in India will read a newspaper in Hong Kong. Above, you can see an article titled “Tunnel Vision” which appear in South China Morning Post in May.
BEIJING: THAT’S BEIJING
Three months later, a slighter shorter version appeared in That’s Beijing’s August edition. The article would again be printed in Caravan, an Indian magazine. And of course, a blog post. Looking at your content as dynamic assets will get more eyes on your content while at the same time raising your profile and your income.
RE-EDIT/RE-SELL: Keeping control of the rights to your content is perhaps the most important thing you can do in repackaging and reselling. While NGO’s and the nonprofit sector don’t necessarily pay well, its usually pretty easy to control the rights to your content while helping out a good cause. Most NGOs are very happy in this scenario as it creates greater awareness of their cause. Here’s an example:
I support a couple different NGO’s, one being Shanghai Roots & Shoots. In the fall of 2011 I helped create a series of twelve, two-minute videos detailing one of their projects called “The Million Tree Project.”
The NGO paid for my expenses to travel to Inner Mongolia and film their volunteers planting trees in the desert. While there I grabbed more content that I knew would not be needed for their films, but might be useful for an additional program. In the end, I had enough content to create their videos as well as another long form piece here:
I find the nonprofit and NGO sector to be a great resource in doing ethical work while gaining assets that would otherwise be expensive and hard to find. In my experience, its pretty rare to encounter newspapers and magazines that will pay freelancers expenses (lodging, flights, food, fixers, translators). However, NGOs can do this — and as long as you can keep yourself separated as a journalist from their agenda, you can put yourself in a great position to gather unique and sellable content.
FINDING THE TIME
If the above plan sounds daunting, it is. On good days, I can get it all done. On days where hundred of emails are stacking up and the clock clicks away toward deadline, this can become tough. However, I have found the effect of my dissemination and promotional plan to be invaluable to both my career and content.
Now … Any questions? Those of you in class, ask away, those of you not in Beijing, feel free to write in questions in the comment section below or email me.