Ten years ago, PhotoShelter launched our website product to help photographers store, distribute and sell photography. Concurrent with that launch, I started blogging on the mundane topic of “Total Cost of Ownership.” It’s a yawner, and reads like your grandpa telling you about how they never had cellphones in college. Being the nostalgic and self-indulgent fellow that I am, I thought I would share a few thoughts on blogging, marketing yourself, and why you won’t find me on Twitter very often.
1. Writing is important
The ability to cohesively articulate your thoughts is as important as ever. The digital cycle has gone on for so long that we had to invent a word (i.e. “longform”) to describe this process, and differentiate it from the skimmable content/microblogging/tweeting that is so dominant today. Photographers too often fall back on the “but I’m visual” excuse, which is the equivalent of declaring “I’m bad at math.” Writing, like math, takes effort and sustained practice. And for all the naysayers who defiantly proclaim that they’ve never used algebra since high school, I remind you that we’re surrounded by graphics, infographics, charts – all of which require us to have a fundamental grip on math to correctly interpret and make decisions about our lives and the lives of our community, states and countries. Similarly, the ability to read, interpret and then cogently express an opinion or position is crucial to an informed democracy.
Also, it’s good for SEO.
2. SEO matters
I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who are introduced to PhotoShelter via search engine optimization. We’ve published a lot of content on the blog, and the majority of traffic is coming from organic search results. As I’ve said in many marketing talks, you don’t want to be a needle in a haystack – be the haystack. Increase your online digital footprint so that people can find you through a myriad of methods. Blogs happen to be very good at this in a way that a gallery of photos or an Instagram account is not.
3. I’m not always right, and I no longer need to be
As more people became acquainted with PhotoShelter, I felt inclined to express my opinions in the blog with increasing frequency. And in writing these opinion pieces, I was always convinced of the accuracy and fortitude of my position. Now, I’m not so sure.
The culture of the Internet demands oneupsmanship and outrage. It feels good to outsmart and outmaneuver, but that sensation is often for our own egos, and not about advancing a discussion. As we have seen with our dysfunctional Congress, there is no point in demanding that our position is always the correct one to the detriment of our communities.
The more people I meet, the more I read, the more I experience life, the less convinced I am about my own knowledge. I have also been called out multiple times in public and in private for expressing my opinions. Sometimes rightly so, and other times, not so much. My current uncertainty doesn’t keep me from expressing my opinions, but it does make me more receptive to listening before and after.
Richard Prince is still a jerk, however.
4. There is rarely room for measured discourse in the comments
One of the reasons I decline many Facebook friend requests is because I don’t know people personally. Without this #irl connection, I’m concerned that online discourse will devolve into a rabbit hole of “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” Positive online discourse is rare. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but it does mean that the majority of the time, you’re simply wasting your breath. Either people agree or they don’t. They are rarely in the mood to be convinced otherwise.
5. Grow a callous on your soul before criticizing popular figures
One of my favorite targets is Humans of New York. I actually have a lot of respect for what Brandon Stanton has accomplished, but given his huge reach, I can’t help but occasionally play critic. But the often black and white nature of the Internet means you can’t criticize something popular without being construed as a “hater” or being jealous.
I respect Stanton, but I am not jealous of his success. He is doing his thing, and I’m doing mine. But that doesn’t mean he is immune to criticism as his influence grows, and more people are exposed to his brand of storytelling.
6. I wish I had taken a journalism course
Upon naming Teru Kuwayama as photo community liason for Facebook, I once wrote that he “declined to comment.” I had, in fact, reached out to him, but he didn’t receive my note. It was therefore inaccurate to say that he declined when he actually did not respond, or “my efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.”
A year and a half later, this gaffe still bugs me, and it makes me consider how many other stupid journalistic mistakes I have made in the past ten years. In my defense, I am not a journalist. On the other hand, because I have an audience, I have a moral responsibility to try to be accurate. I was not in this case.
7. People read what you write
This isn’t universally true, but if you’re putting stuff on the Internet, the potential for someone to read it exists. In my case, I am the co-founder of a relatively successful photography services company, and despite my denial, people read what I write. This is a great ego stroke when I write something like this and it gets syndicated to places like PetaPixel, Wired and the Huffington Post. But even with my limited “power” comes great responsibility. A flippant remark can be misconstrued. Reputations can be affected. SEO can be a karmic bitch.
8. Don’t be seduced by your own “brand mythology”
Contemporary marketers often tell individuals that they need to define their brand. Some of these marketers mean this as an exercise to define what is important to you and how you want to express yourself in business. Other charlatans believe that every individual needs to market their names as a “brand,” talk about yourself in the 3rd person, and have a signature accent piece in your wardrobe.
I once spoke at a marketing event and ended up using expletives in my presentation. Some people laughed, and so I thought that swearing and “keeping it real” was a part of my brand. The following year, I did the same thing, and it fell flat. I wasn’t asked to return. I’ve always believed that speaking my mind with a certain amount of tact and panache is a part of whom I am – and indeed it is. But when you start to self-aggrandize around the authentic parts of yourself, you become inauthentic.
Hopefully, the evolution of my writing continues to search and find a more authentic voice.
9. Twitter is not for me
I’ve written and lectured on social media with some frequency, and I’ve felt a pressure to be on various social media platforms so that I can speak from a position of authority. But I’ve never gotten Twitter. Part of that is their perennial struggle with usability. Who the heck can even read the stream of diarrhea of the mouth that comes at you when you follow more than a few hundred people? The other part is that I just don’t care. I’m glad other journalists extract 140 morsels of sometimes entertaining and sometimes insightful prose. But most of the time I just ignore it, or laugh at celebrities who post 20-part tweets to express their feelings about the latest tragedy.
10. Textual content is important, and will be forever
Sure, Instagram is a platform which suggests that textual content isn’t so important. Their new explore tab is impressive, and it suggests that nearly visual discovery mechanism can fuel your marketing. But most of the Instagram stars with millions of followers are there because the press wrote about them and said “you should follow this person.”
You should never model yourself on the outliers. Let yourself be inspired by Elon Musk, Michael Jordan and Rhonda Rousey – just don’t think you’re gonna be them. That is to say that for the rest of us, having written content is what will make us discoverable on the Internet and mobile.
I’m not necessarily advocating that everyone blog because I think there are viable alternatives like Twitter, Tumblr, Periscope, and the rest. But I think creating written content must be a part of your marketing efforts if you want to make a living (or partial living) from photography.
Here’s to the next 10 years.