Head Shot Monday #2: Photographers With “Impact” – A Chat With Chris Brogan

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Article Summary

Photographers with impact - a chat with Chris Brogan

Photography business coach Nigel Merrick talks to Chris Brogan, CEO of Human Business Works, on how the professional photographer can create more impact in their photography business...

Chris Brogan - CEO of Human Business Works, and co-author of "The Impact Equation"

Photo by Kris Krug

I’ve got a really special treat in store for you, as I was fortunate enough to  spend some time chatting with Chris Brogan, the CEO of Human Business Works.

One of the “secret weapons” for today’s professional photographer is to learn from people outside the business, which is a great way to infuse new ideas and identify new opportunities for business growth.

In this quick chat, Chris and I talked about some of the concepts in his new book “The Impact Equation“, which he co-authored with Julien Smith, and how those ideas can help today’s professional photographer stand out from the crowd…

Photography Business Interview with Chris Brogan

Here’s the video of our chat – if you prefer to read, then the transcript is below. At the end, I encourage you to share your thoughts and comments on how you think YOU can apply some of these ideas in your business…

The meaning of impact in the photography business today - Chris Brogan


[Nigel] Today I’m really excited to have a conversation with one of today’s standout thought leaders, Mr. Chris Brogan, the CEO of Human Business Works. I know he’s on a tight schedule, so you can learn all about him from his website at chrisbrogan.com – and – while you’re there, I really encourage you to sign up for his weekly newsletter – if you want ideas and inspiration to make your business stand out from the crowd, that’s the place to get them from.

Today, I want to chat with Chris about his new book, The Impact Equation, co-authored with Julien Smith, and which takes a whole new perspective on what it means for anyone to make an impact on the world.

So, Chris, welcome! It’s really great to have you here today!

[Chris] An utter pleasure, Nigel, thank you for having me.

[Nigel] You’re very welcome, and the whole reason that we got together is a direct result of the impact you’re having. I subscribe to your newsletter, of course, and we connected very briefly on Twitter, exchanged a few messages, and before we know it, here we are on this call! So, that’s fantastic.

[Chris] Yes, it just seems like a great way to walk the talk, and just fun to get a chance to talk to the folks that you interact with.

[Nigel] Cool, well let’s start with a look at what “Impact” means as you talk about it in the book. You define “Impact” as:

Getting a larger audience to see and act upon your ideas, and learning to build a community around that experience to take it all to a higher level.

Now, Is this something that anyone can do, no matter how “small” they might feel they are in the scheme of things?

[Chris] I think so. I think it’s one of these scenarios where you can start where you are, and you can do what you’re capable of doing and understanding from it, and then just sort of pick up as you go along, and really get the sense of, here’s what I’m capable of, and here’s something I’m going to reach towards, and I think that’s true of everyone.

I think what happens is, we look at how other people have evolved or built something, or a position where someone is that comes to our attention, and we think “oh I could never be there“, but of course that person also thought that they could never be there. They just kind of went a lot of different paths and found their way.

[Nigel] Right, and what might this type of “impact” look like for someone such as a professional photographer for example?

[Chris] For example, a professional photographer! My goodness, what a dreadful way to earn a dime these days, and I’m not telling you anything your audience doesn’t already know, Nigel!

[Nigel] Well, yes, you’re exactly right!

[Chris] Yes, they’re great pub-mates, though! I mean, professional photographers, you don’t really have to get a pint in them – I suspect I could probably pour them apple juice and they’d say, “oh, people these days, with their iPhones and their Instagrams…” and, you know, it’s utterly true, everything they said. So, I mean, how does a professional photographer stand out? Well, there’s lots of things that an “Instagram at arm’s length” photographer can’t do.

So, the impact equation has these six points, and they’re called:

  • Contrast
  • Reach
  • Exposure
  • Articulation
  • Trust
  • and Echo

And, let me walk through the example of, if I were silly enough to be a pro photographer, what would I do to try to help people stand out?

First, I’d push on the “contrast” the most, and not contrast as we use it in photos, but “how do I seem different than someone else?

So, for instance, that photo that you’re using on this particular video we’re doing is shot by this guy Kris Krug, who’s a great photographer, a professional photographer, and that is one of the best photos that someone has taken of me in the last couple of years.

I repeatedly use that photo right now for everything I can because it’s so good, and I don’t use all the little photos I take with my stuff on my Macs and my iPhone.

So, right away, there’s a contrast. There’s kind of a “I can do it better than you, for your own good“, you know, “get one of these great pro photos done” kind of experience.

The other thing is, professional photographers often times, let’s say portrait photographers, can go way beyond what a regular person is capable of doing, by setting up interesting shots, by doing really interesting and exciting avant-garde type work that, still, you can bring back to the portrait world, and get some of the business that you’re not getting.

And, Nigel, what people do is this. They say, “well that’s the kind of work I used to charge this much for…” Well, congratulations – unless you also have a TARDIS, you don’t get to charge that any more.

Secondly, what happens is, they’ll say, “oh, but this is too complex for the average taste of a portrait photographer because we normally have those horrible screens that we slide down behind you, and we squeeze the squeezy ball until the little baby looks at the right point, and we shoot.

Well, that’s great, except that I can buy that at Wal-Mart now for $29. So, really, contrast as standing out, is one of the most important ones.

The second one is “echo”, the end of the impact equation, which is, “I see myself in this work, or I’m the kind of person who would like this work.

So, there’s a lot of people who don’t want the standard photo, or there’s a lot of people, even more so these days, who love to mock the quality of the standard photo, and it requires great skill to be able to make a mockery that’s of value.

And so, I just think there’s a lot of things pro photographers could learn from this concept to promote their business better, to get the kind of clients that they want, and to not feel like they have to follow the herd.

[Nigel] Right, and one of the things I’m really big on is helping photographers try to understand why they do what they do – it’s a very deep introspection, and goes way beyond the idea that “I’m passionate about photography, I have a great eye, I love art, and love working with people…

Well, any photographer should be able to say those things and, in fact, you know you wouldn’t go to a photographer who said, “I’m not an artist, I hate people, and I really can’t stand cameras, or anything to do with that, but, hey, I’ll take your mugshot or whatever…

So, we have to go beyond that, and a lot of times, it comes from a much deeper need to share something with other people or to bring out some quality they see in other people that most people may not be able to see, or they miss.

But, you know, many photographers fall into the trap of thinking that their photographs are able to create all the impact they need just by themselves.

It’s like, “well, my photography should sell itself“, you know, which it really doesn’t.

So, how might they bring real human impact into play to get their audience to truly appreciate and act upon what you might call their creative vision?

[Chris] And that’s a really great point to make. It’s interesting, from whence this comes, but I was with my therapist of the time, about a year ago, and we’re having a conversation, and he says to me, “do you want to be Warhol or Van Gogh?” And he was expecting me to answer “Van Gogh“, because of course there’s a much deeper history etc.

And I said, “of course I want to be Warhol! He got all the spoils early, you know, he didn’t have to wait around until he was dead to be famous and I want the money and the fame right now, thank you!

So, photographers quite often fall into the Van Gogh trap. You know, “I see myself and my art“, or whatever.

There’s a huge bifurcation, to use a giant word, there’s a huge rift or a schism with photographers in so far as, “am I making insanely artistic, artsy, artwork or am I making craft artwork that someone will actually buy, and there’s some commercial viability?

To get them on your side, either way, requires letting people in to see the process, getting them to understand what goes beyond the frame – remember that a photo, or even a series of photos, is a captured moment in time.

A friend of mine, Geo Geller, has this great quote he told me. We’re walking through the building of the associated press, which is as you know, AP newswire feeds many of the world’s newspapers as well as photos, and he’s showing me these incredibly historic photos. He’s touching them all, as if he took them by the way, and he says:

A photo is a perfect capture of a moment that never really happened…

And, of course, what he’s saying is that sometimes photography doesn’t catch the truth, it catches an instant, a moment.

And so, when he said that, I’ve never looked at a photograph the same way again. I always have a very different perspective on what I see captured.

So, what’s a photographer to do?

They have to break “the fourth wall” and shoot video talking about what their process is, they have to maybe blog, or write newsletters or whatnot to say what’s going on, and again look for “echo”, look for “trust”, get people to understand the human behind things.

This gives you more exposure to the context of what an artist is doing, what a photographer is doing with their art…

It’s a super-long answer, Nigel, to a simple question…

[Nigel] It’s a great answer! And that in itself echoes something that the great wedding photographer Jerry Ghionis said not so long ago about telling the story that exists beyond the frame. We have to use words to communicate the story of the image to our clients and prospects so that they get a perspective of what’s really happening in that image, because as you say, it’s a split-second capture. It tells a sort of emotional story, but at the same time there are elements outside the frame that somebody new to that particular image may not understand or see.

And when they do understand it, then they really “get” it – the emotion in the image really connects with them and creates a real emotional response.

So, in your book, you talk a little bit about social media and all that kind of thing, and you make the point that the book is not really about how to use social media tools per se but, of course, marketing today seems to be all about Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and all these social networks, and there seems to be something of a gold rush every time a new one pops up.

Is it really all about the social networks when it comes to creating impact?

[Chris] It’s not…

It’s about finding humans where they are and connecting with them in a way that you can. In looking at the work of Jerry Ghionis, for instance, any one of his quote “simple” wedding photographs would make an insanely beautiful poster, and getting that kind of work into the hands of people in a very inexpensive way that would get put into simple prints or whatnot wouldn’t necessarily make Jerry a great deal of money but would give him a lot more reach and exposure, which would then lead towards more business opportunities and so I’m saying to make more posters and prints – there couldn’t be anything less social media than that.

But, I mean, one of the larger pieces of the book – the book is broken into four major concepts: one is goals; one is ideas; one is platform, which includes these social networks, but also other things; and the other is networking – how do you make people care?

Just sticking with Jerry Ghionis just for a fun example, what Jerry’s done with an idea perspective on how to make his ideas have more contrast, is he’s taking something as simple as wedding photographs and made them somewhere between romantic and erotic.

I mean, there’s some of these shots that I look at and I just think I don’t know that I’d want people seeing some of these photos of my new bride because I imagine they’d have a different opinion in their mind right away. Maybe I would. Maybe I’m so filled with pride at that moment.

But I would say that the beauty, just the absolute imagery, is different than your standard wedding photo. I mean there are just so many great captured moments that are above and beyond your wedding photo that that’s where the impact is, the impact is that the idea’s so great.

The non-social media side, Nigel, is to bob when everyone is weaving and, sure, use Pinterest, use Google+ – Google+ is like the ultra-hangout of photographers now, but that’s like saying, “hey, there’s this bar where everyone’s trying to hit on this one girl, you should go there too!

[Nigel] Yes, you’re absolutely right, and it all depends which part of your target market is hanging out there. I mean, if you’re an executive headshot portrait photographer, you don’t really need to be hanging around on Pinterest too much because it’s populated more by moms and that kind of thing, certainly at this early stage.

I know that in the book you make a big mention of the fact that it’s not about the social tools – it’s about the message and it’s about the impact that message has on the person at the other end.

[Chris] Exactly. I spoke to a room full of people just yesterday, Nigel, and it was this organization of presidents of companies, and they have such and such a revenue and all that, and these people ran moving and storage companies, textile companies, a paper factory – this man made napkins for a living – and this is a tough crowd, Nigel, because they’re saying, “well what are you going to teach me, monkey-boy? Dance!” And, I had an idea for all of them, one at a time, and the same kinds of things could apply internal to one’s business.

Now, of course, photographers are a fairly thin business – usually, it’s just one human and maybe, if you’re lucky, a couple, but the concepts of the book have nothing to do really with jump on Twitter and get famous.

We paint with those brushes a great deal because we find that, given the options of mainstream existing traditional ways to promote and get people to understand where you are in the world, there’s just not enough attention being gleaned there, whereas this social shiny world, once you get people to go beyond paying attention to you, hopefully you want them to know your story, you want them to share what you’ve got, and  then maybe even feel some emotions and then a deeper trust with you, and that’s something that happens a lot easier using the online tools.

[Nigel] And that kind of connection that we make with people on that level translates then into things like really positive word of mouth marketing where that message gets spread almost, hopefully virally, but even if it’s not truly viral, it spreads among their friends and family, and they talk positively about what we’re doing because they feel that emotional connection with it through all those factors of trust and echo, and that kind of thing.

[Chris] Right. And the poor people being forced to pay attention to this video and listen will hear me repeating a lot of the same comment, which is that it isn’t about the tools, and the reason I’m doing that is because for the last few years, I’m sure your audience and everybody else have just been bombarded with, “if you just get on Facebook, everything will be better. You could just start cashing checks, don’t worry, they’re right there for you. Just get on the Facebook, and you’ll be rich…

And I guess I’m just trying to be a bit of vinegar into your juice, because I want you to have that sense that there’s a wee bit more work than that.

[Nigel] Right. I know your time is precious, I just have a couple more questions before we finish up. The first one is, if you wanted to start out from scratch, let’s say that Chris Brogan woke up tomorrow morning and said to himself, “hey, I’m gonna be a photographer! I’ve never done photography as a business before but my girlfriend says I take great photos with my brand spanking new shiny camera, so I’m gonna go out there and start a business as a photographer“, how might you go about building the right audience – one that’s going to resonate with what you do and hopefully respond by investing in your work?

[Chris] It’s really funny because you’re asking me this question at the exact same moment that someone was telling me they’re starting a new business where they’re going to be selling iPhone and iPad accessories and whatnot, and they wanted to know where was the community who buy iPhone accessories, and I said, “there isn’t because could you imagine a less interesting community than a bunch of people talking about iPad cases all day?

And that’s really what I just sent him back, and so the same is true with photographers. A lot of times, what happens is, you need to remember that everyone belongs to more than one community. We’d kill ourselves, we’d absolutely slice our faces open if we had to stick with one community because, let’s say you’re a parent, and you only hung out with your children’s football mates or whatever, you’d lose your mind.

If you’re a book reader, you maybe love spy novels, but you don’t want to hang around with the Ian Fleming crowd.

So one thing you need to realize is you have to have at least two communities. One to get your enthusiasm fed, and all that sort of thing, and that’s of course the kind of community you run, I mean Zenologue and all that, to help people learn their skill, learn their craft and connect, so you need the sort of enthusiast education side of your business and then all you really want to do is start thinking about what your buyer would want and what would attract them, and either start finding the communities through search and looking around in various social ways through Google and the like, or make the kind of information that would make your buyer excited and thrilled.

You know, if you’re a corporate headshot photographer then what do people care about when they’re buying your service? They want to know that you’re reliable, they want to know that you’re efficient, they want to know that you’re whatever, I mean that’s very mechanical stuff.

If you’re a portrait kind of a person, like Jerry Ghionis, they want to know that you’re going to bring a really high level of quality product, and so you start telling stories about what you tell but in a way that is all about the buyer’s perspective and what makes them the hero.

And content marketing is what we call it in the marketing space, but really all that you’re doing is equipping someone to know that they’re making the right choice by going with you. And, I’d say create it even if it doesn’t exist, and then visit the places where it does exist, and invite people back to your pad every now and again to see what you have to do.

And it’s not just your portfolio! People make the mistake of thinking the very next thing after having decided they’re going to go digital is they make the portfolio and call it a day. First off, a lot of these portfolio pages are using Flash technology, which is invisible to iPhones and iPads, so you’re already losing a good chunk of your viewership, and in the US, about 68% of web traffic coming to your site now is mobile, and so if that mobile service is coming through smartphones, which a good majority of it is, you are accidentally throwing away a lot of potential customers by using technology that is not visible to them.

[Nigel] Yes, I would definitely echo that. In fact, I recently made the switch to using the Genesis framework and their themes for the Zenologue site purely because of the mobile-responsive aspects – plus it’s all-round great software and I love those folks at Copyblogger and StudioPress anyway.

But having the website visible on a mobile device, and not just visible, they don’t have to get the microscope out or start pinching and screwing around with the screen makes a big difference. And you’re right, there is a lot of traffic coming to our sites now from mobile users, and we have to think about the speed at which they can consume the content and how quickly we can get the message across. So, excellent point!

Before we finish up, can we talk very quickly about work discipline? We’ve mentioned throughout this that this takes a little bit of extra work – this isn’t just a case of throwing up a social media profile, throwing a portfolio online, and sitting back waiting for checks to come in.

We look at other successful business owners sometimes, and imagine they must somehow have more hours in a day than us, or they don’t have to deal with all the mundane stuff like the rest of us, or perhaps they have an army of elves working for them, or something. How much effort and commitment does this stuff really take, and is there a magic bullet anywhere?

[Chris] I wish there were magic bullets but, if there were, then it would nullify the space truly because if everyone could do it simply, then everyone would do it.

Again, photographers, remember you’ve already seen this – they call it the iPhone, and that’s wiped out a good chunk of people’s business because “good enough” has replaced “good“.

But, the answer… it was really strange, as you started asking the question, I thought “to the victor goes the spoils“, but that’s not really not what I’m saying here – I’m saying “to the hard worker goes the spoils.”

But when I think of “hard worker“, probably like yourself, our parents version of hard work was really kind of grinding away for not much loot, and the sense of the factory world that came in the generation before us, or maybe the one right before that, is what we think of when we think of hard work and that’s not what I’m espousing.

But what I think is, I always ask the question back when someone says “this seems to take a lot of time“, and I always ask, “well, you know, is prospecting for new customers too low on your priority list that you shouldn’t find the time to do it? What are you doing with your time if prospecting for new customers isn’t possibly one third of your small business?

And I always get, you know, “Well I’m very busy with the work I already have…” And I say, “Great, if it keeps paying you in a recurring, you know, timelessly, then you’re fine, but the minute you finish the job then you finish the revenue that goes with that work that you’re busy with.

And I also don’t accept that I’m too busy to use social networks and use these digital tools, because on one side of the spectrum I’ve had the lovely opportunity to spend time and speak with Sir Richard Branson – the man runs 400 companies, he’s one of the wealthiest men in the world, owns an island, and he has time to use Twitter and Google+ and all these things quite effusively, just all the time.

On the other side, there’s these two blokes up in Maine who run a brewery and it’s just two guys. One guy’s like the lawyer and, officially, the bottle washer, he sterilizes the bottles for real, and the other guy is the chief financial officer and the brewer, and he makes the beer, and they both use social platforms to get their word out, and they’re making money off of it.

So I just can’t accept “I’m too busy” – I’m a three-person company and I’m the only one doing the outreach and all my money and revenue comes from digital channels so – well, it doesn’t hurt that I have a couple of books out there – but the revenue is all drawn inward from these digital channels so I just have the sense that people’s excuses, more often than not, have nothing to do with “I don’t have the time“, what they’re really saying is, “I just don’t know where to start putting my effort.

[Nigel] Yes, you’re quite right. And then I hear people talking about things like, “did you see Honey Boo Boo on TV last night“, and all this kind of thing, and as charming, for want of a better word, as Honey Boo Boo might be, I don’t really want to invest my time in that space. I would much rather do something that works to put me closer to my goal than trying to figure out, you know, what Honey Boo Boo’s up to or American Idol, or any of those other shows – not that there’s anything wrong with them, you know, I mean if you have time then that’s fine, but as you said, in a great interview with Copyblogger with Robert Bruce, I remember you saying that you haven’t found a way to get paid for watching American Idol yet.

[Chris] I would love to – you know, I don’t like television very much but if there’s a check in it… Well, I’ll tell you this. I would sooner try to figure out great BBC shows – I only get them through things like Netflix, and long after you’ve already forgotten these shows, but I watch them and forever shake my head at American television and say “Why? Why do we try?

[Nigel] Well, I enjoyed your little Doctor Who reference earlier on, I’m a big Doctor Who fan – that’s one of the things that I do take some time out to keep up with my time-traveling friend Doctor Who.

[Chris] See, there it is, we all have our passion, right? But, your point though, Nigel, is that people always reveal themselves. The moment they tell me they have no time in a day, as you say, the very next question is, “did you see Manchester trounce such and such, you know Leeds or something, or Liverpool?

And that’s the end of that, I mean you immediately know where their priority is, and my priorities, I would love to have such a flow in my business that when I take a day off and just look at the sky for the whole day, I feel like I can still cash a check later.

[Nigel] Well, listen Chris, you’re a true super-hero – and I want to thank you for spending time with us here today, it’s been really valuable – I’ve really enjoyed this chat and I could sit here and chat with you all day about it, but I know that you’ve got better and bigger things to do. The work you do, and the ideas you share with the rest of us are immensely valuable at making us think harder about who we are and how we impact the world around us.

Before you go, how can folks get more inspiration from you? I know we have your website address up there on the screen – http://www.chrisbrogan.com/ – but is that the main place for people to go?

[Chris] It is. You know, if you show up at chrisbrogan.com, at the very top there’s something that says, “I want to share my best ideas with you” and it’s an email newsletter. It comes out every Sunday, which is uncommon for newsletters, and what you’ll find is it’s very uncommon as a newsletter. I guess if there’s only one thing I wanted to tell you is to get involved with me there because, not only is it a newsletter, but you can just hit reply and talk to me any time you want and I can answer any questions you have and do whatever. Just, whenever you go through that process, and you do decide to reply, don’t sell me your “dumb thing” because I don’t want to buy it.

[Nigel] Right, and I’ve been receiving your newsletter on a Sunday, and I really look forward to getting it. There’s always something in there that is very thought-provoking that comes at things from a different angle, really gets people thinking, and I want to thank you for sharing those things with us.

[Chris] Well I’m very grateful that you’re there and you mentioned something earlier I just want to correct, which is that you thought I might have bigger or better things to do. Never – spending time talking to you is the most important part of the day today, and so thank you for that, and thereafter I guess, what I’ll say is that we all are the most important person, that includes you, so thank you for your time today.

[Nigel] Well, thank you, Chris, and you have a great day.

[Chris] Thanks!

Get The Book

If you haven’t read The Impact Equation yet, then I strongly recommend it! Here’s a sample chapter from the Kindle version:

The Impact Equation by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

"Anyone can write a blog post, but not everyone can get it liked thirty-five thousand times, and not everyone can get seventy-five thousand subscribers. But the reason we've done these things isn't because we're special. It's because we tried and failed, the same way you learn to ride a bike. We tried again and again, and now we have an idea how to get from point A to point B faster because of it."

Three short years ago, when Chris Brogan and Julien Smith wrote their bestseller, Trust Agents, being interesting and human on the Web was enough to build a significant audience. But now, everybody has a platform. The problem is that most of them are just making noise.

In The Impact Equation, Brogan and Smith show that to make people truly care about what you have to say, you need more than just a good idea, trust among your audience, or a certain number of followers. You need a potent mix of all of the above and more.

Use the Impact Equation to figure out what you're doing right and wrong. Apply it to a blog, a tweet, a video, or a mainstream-media advertising campaign. Use it to explain why a feature in a national newspaper that reaches millions might have less impact than a blog post that reaches a thousand passionate subscribers.

How Are YOU Creating Impact?

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did – it was a real privilege to talk to one of the marketing world’s prominent thought-leaders, and I would love to know your thoughts.

How can you apply these ideas in your photography business?

Have you already put “The Impact Equation” into practice?

Share your thoughts below, and let us know if you have any questions.

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