Using Email to Find an Audience

Column Series Intro | Using Email to Find an Audience | Harnessing the Power of Flickr | Using Twitter to Find an Audience for Your Photos

Intro Image: People used to communicate by mail—as these nearly empty, old-fashioned mailing slots symbolize, the function of “snail mail” has largely gone electronic, to email.

In Finding an Audience for Your Photos I explained that the changes brought by the Internet era have altered the way photographers need to approach marketing their work. For most photographers who are interested in finding an audience in an era of social networking, email is a crucial part of this—either as their primary marketing endeavor or combined with other Internet tools such as blogging and using Facebook and Twitter.

But for a number of reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, sending out emails to serve the marketing and business needs of a photographer with high aspirations is not as simple as it sounds. True, if you are a serious amateur photographer you can—and probably should—send out casual emails to a BCC list of your friends who are interested in your work. But beyond a surprisingly small number of recipients—probably more than a hundred or so—this electronic era cottage industry approach is simply not practical.

I found this out the hard way. Like many photographers and artists, marketing is not my favorite activity. I’d much prefer to be photographing, writing about photography, or doing something creative.

In the beginning I was operating on a “Build it and they will come” philosophy. Which mostly meant that I uploaded my photos to Flickr (a future column will explore how you can use Flickr to achieve attention for your imagery). When someone on Flickr marked me as a contact, I reciprocated—and I began to use my Flickr contact list for informal emails from within the Flickr system.

This approach imploded when I reached about 850 contacts. I sent out an email noting the publication of one of my books. The powers-that-be at Flickr contacted me, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I sent another piece of what they termed “commercial spam” they would terminate my account.

Check out my Flickr Photostream; 2,000 users at last count have made me a contact but it is a fact of life that I cannot use this mechanism to interact directly with them.

Clearly, I needed to take control of my email destiny. Before I outline the problematic areas with email marketing for a photographer (actually, mostly for anyone) and how I solved these challenges, let me cut to the chase.

Today I have a strong list of more than 4,000 people who respond well to my emails. The list is self-service with a sign-up page, meaning that I don’t have to manually add people, or keep track of people who change their email address or decide to unsubscribe from my list. You can check out my subscription page here; the sign-up portion is shown in Figure 2. You’ll find more about creating your own sign-up page later in this article.

Figure 2: A simple sign-up form allows users to subscribe to my email list.

Email is not my only marketing effort, but it is of crucial importance because it allows me to communicate directly with people who are interested in my work and let them know about things that are important to me in real time. Better yet, my email list works hand and glove with my other marketing endeavors.

My experience in this arena should help to give you a jumpstart on building your own list and sending out your own emails. So if you are seriously interested in finding an audience for your work, why not get started today?

Email Problems and Challenges

As I’ve explained, sending emails to help your photography find an audience may sound simple, but there are many problematic aspects. I’ve written this article to help you overcome these challenges, but first let’s outline what they are:

  • Legal (complying with the CANSPAM act of 2003)
  • Getting your emails through
  • Logistical
  • Getting subscribers
  • Creating well-designed emails
  • Integrating Email with your web and social marketing presence

Legal Requirements and Getting Your Emails Through

The CANSPAM act of 2003 (15 U.S.C. 7701, et seq) is somewhat controversial Federal legislation that defines commercial email as “any electronic mail message the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet website operated for a commercial purpose).”

Commercial email that falls under the definition (which is most of it) must provide an unsubscribe mechanism on each email and an opt-out list, provide non-deceptive from and subject fields, include a valid physical address of the sender, and comply with various behavior requirements such as not “harvesting” email addresses via screen-scraping, and not including fake headers in an email.

Please understand that I cannot be in the position of offering you legal advice. If you have questions regarding your specific situation, you should consult a knowledgeable lawyer. That said, my take on CANSPAM is that the emails a photographer sends out will mostly be commercial emails under the definition of the statute, and need to comply with CANSPAM.

Figure 3 shows a footer from one of my emails that complies with CANSPAM.

As a practical matter, a photographer’s emails are pretty small potato stuff, and CANSPAM enforcement has been pretty lax anyhow. I don’t think your risk of prosecution is great.
But bulk emails that are sent out that do not comply with the CANSPAM provisions are very likely to be tagged as spam by the recipient’s ISP. Even if they get through, the subject line of the email may well be altered with the word “SPAM” added. And if you keep sending this kind of non-compliant email you may well hear from your email service provider, asking you to desist.

Anyhow, spam is awful stuff—and you don’t want a whiff of spam to taint your emails. Like Caesar’s wife, you need to be above any suspicion. This implies a number of things, including making very sure that everyone on your list wants to be there. For starters, it also means that you need to comply with CANSPAM.

Understanding the Logistical Hurdles

If you look at the logistical requirements compelled by CANSPAM that outlined above, they are already fairly formidable. The key logistical points are providing a way to unsubscribe on every email, and also maintaining a permanent opt-out list.

But bear in mind the mechanics of sending emails. If I were designing a system for sending email, I’d want it to be able to provide at least the following things:

  • A graceful interface for creating visually appropriate HTML emails
  • Integration with my web presence so that users could subscribe without my intervention
  • A mechanism for required user confirmation before they were added to my list (this is called “double opt-in”)
  • Tools for managing my contacts, perhaps segmenting them into sub-lists
  • A way to test the effectiveness of alternative emails
  • Effective analysis so I could understand the impact of my emails, and the response of subscribers to individual emails. What links were clicked on? How many subscribers—and which ones—opened a specific email?

Put together as a package, this is not the kind of infrastructure you’d want to have to create—or to manage without effective tools on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, it is pretty clear that one needs to contract for email management, as I discuss below in “Choosing a Service Provider.”

Defining an Audience and Clarifying Your Content

Sometimes the forest gets lost in an examination of individual trees. Before we get caught up in issues of legal compliance and logistical infrastructure, let’s talk for a moment about the big picture: what makes email marketing successful.

If there is one thing you take away from this article it should be the realization that bombarding your list with emails they feel are irrelevant is a bad idea—and doesn’t work as a marketing strategy.

Noted photographer Vincent Versace says that his email works because he sends “emails to a pre-qualified group of people not every twenty seconds” but only when he has something real to say: “They want to know about me and what I am doing, so I have a higher percentage of people who are interested in what I am doing than blanketing the universe and Tweeting my brains out.”
[View Vincent Versace’s work here:]

This brings up questions of how you target your list, and how you keep your emails focused on things that interest the recipient.

There’s a normal process of ebb and flow with any email list where people join, and after a while they decide they are not interested and unsubscribe. In the meantime, other people have joined up to replace them—if you are doing your job right, they will have found you because of word of mouth.

By the way, it is possible to purchase or lease targeted email lists, for example of art directors at ad agencies. However, you have no personal connection with the people on these lists, and they will probably not pay attention to your emails unless they are very, very interesting to the targets. You should also be cautious about your rights to use the emails on purchased lists on an ongoing basis.

Outside of short-term perturbations with audience members coming and going, a successful email strategy starts with a plan—and the first element of the plan is understanding your target audience. For example, emails sent to professional ad agency art buyers should be very different in content and tone from those sent to serious amateur photographers who are interested in workshops.

With some exceptions, one-size-fits-all email campaigns are less successful than those that have a specific target in mind. It is possible to segment your lists to various different targets, but this gets complicated very quickly—and you risk spending your life as an email marketer rather than a photographer.

It’s also important to integrate your email campaign with the other aspects of your web presence. Photographer Derrick Story notes that while the foundation of his “personal platform” is his blog with its well-known weekly podcasts related to photography, staying consistent and making sure that his communication tools “play well” together has been key to his success.
[View Derrick Story’s work here:]

To summarize, beyond the expected day-to-day variations, successful email marketing requires:

  • Understanding your target market and audience, and their interests
  • “Right-sizing” the quantity of email you send, and making sure that each email has a purpose
  • Integrating your email strategy in a synergistic way with your other online and off-line marketing efforts

Visual Marketing for a Visual Business

One thing I heard over and over again when I interviewed successful photographers for this article was to be aware that photography is a visual business. Wildlife and nature photographer Oliver Klink puts it this way: “I strongly believe that all material used as promotion needs to be carefully put together. And this creates challenges. Messages have to be concise and conducive to the visual aspect of photography. Also, you need to create an identity, so that all your media channels convey your business and message.”
[View Oliver Klink’s work here:]

In other words, you are in the business of photography, or trying to find an audience for your photos. There’s no excuse for sending out emails that don’t have photographic content. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

On the other hand, over-reliance on imagery can get emails labeled as spam, and may not be that effective as marketing. In addition, many people receive email as straight text, not as HTML. While the email services that I mention allow you easily prepare alternative versions of your emails for these folks, it does imply that you should be careful about an overreliance on imagery.

There’s a fine line between visually boring and over-wrought—one that takes a fair amount of design thought and effort. Figure 4 shows a portion of a recent email I sent out advertising a print sale, with the print shown to simulate how it might look matted and framed—and plenty of written text in addition to the image.

Figure 4: This email was designed to nicely show off the print it is marketing without going over the top in terms of graphic design.

I’ll leave the last word on this important topic to adventure photo pro Michael Clark, because if you can achieve anything like the email design proficiency he has you are sure to win an audience. Michael describes his highly successful quarterly email newsletter as follows: “The newsletter has anywhere from 14 to 30 pages in it and includes news updates, editorials, inspirational articles, equipment reviews and digital tech tips. Most of the photo editors I was working with when I started the newsletter were photographers themselves so I figured they would love the equipment reviews from a pro perspective, and I also started included digital tech tips since many of the photo editors I worked with weren’t as savvy with digital as they wanted to be. This proved to be a really great strategy for creating a following among art buyers and photo editors, though I hadn’t thought it through at the time. They had never seen anything like it before and still to this day remark about how I am basically producing my own magazine.”
[View Michael Clark’s work here:]

Choosing a Service Provider

There are a number of email service providers that provide the infrastructure and CANSPAM compliance features that I’ve already discussed. These services are available on a monthly or annual subscription basis. The following email marketing vendors make a point of being small-business friendly:

While I use iContact for my own email marketing, I have the impression that the offerings and pricing of all three are roughly similar. The fees depend upon the number of subscribers you have and how many emails you send out.

One service these vendors offer that I haven’t already mentioned is a guaranteed minimum delivery rate. This is partly achieved through agreements with major ISPs—if emails send via these vendors meet certain requirements, then the ISPs won’t treat them as spam.

As always, you should do your own due diligence—and shop around before making a decision. These vendors all have free trials, so you can easily see which one you like better.

An interesting possible wrinkle: each of these email marketing service providers has an affiliate program, so you can make money and perhaps offset the costs involved by getting others to sign up. (Full disclosure: if you click on the iContact link above and then sign up with iContact I will get a small commission.) The danger, of course, in this kind of scheme is that it can take attention away from your own marketing efforts as a photographer if your recipients think you are actually marketing an email service.

Setting Up a Subscription Page

If you’ve ever put a Google ad on your website, sold a book through Amazon’s affiliate program, or placed a PayPal button on your website, you’ll know that Google, Amazon, and PayPal generate the HTML code for you. There’s no need to understand what this code does; you just select it, copy, and paste it into your webpage.

Setting up a self-service subscription page for an email service works the same way. You answer a few questions about the form you want to create, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: You can determine which fields users must enter to subscribe (shown here in iContact); I only require an email address.

This step is where you decide what information your users must enter to subscribe. I personally just keep this very simple, and only require an email address. A number of my subscribers have let me know how much they appreciate the simplicity because they are concerned about handing over personal information online. It also makes it easier to sign-up as a matter of impulse.

The downside, of course, is that I know less about individual subscribers than if I’d asked for more information—and it makes it harder to address them personally since I haven’t stored fields such as their first and last names. There’s a balancing act here. It certainly would be helpful to know names, job titles, addresses, and phone numbers if you are interacting with an art director who might hire you. However, to get more information you are going to have to give more that is of perceived value—and the requirement of providing information will inhibit some kinds of sign-ups. So this is a place where you need to be clear about your business goals for your email.

The Require Confirmation check box, shown at the bottom of Figure 5, is where you can require a double opt-in. If you check this box, then you will be prompted to create an email that goes to people who filled in the subscription form. They must affirmatively click within this email, or they will not be subscribed.

Once you have entered the required information, your custom code is generated, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: iContact has automatically generated the code I need to add an HTML subscription form.

The idea is to copy and paste this code into the web page you want to use for subscriptions, such as my sign-up page (partly shown back in Figure 2).

As part of the sign-up process, you can redirect subscribers after they add their information. In my case, I simply redirect these subscribers to the home page of my blog, shown in Figure 7. This helps to integrate my email with my other marketing efforts.

Figure 7: Users who subscribe to my email list are redirected to Photoblog 2.0.

Creating Email, then Sending and Tracking It

Creating effective emails that support a visual business is an art and craft, not a science. Start by subscribing to the email lists of photographers whom you admire, perhaps the ones mentioned in this article. That should give you ideas and inspiration when you begin to design your own emails!

Each of the email marketing service providers I’ve mentioned helps you out with libraries of templates and a number of editing tools that you can use to create your emails. Some of the tools that iContact provides are shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8: iContact provides a number of message creation tools as well as a library of templates.

Once you’ve created your email, you assign it to one or more of your email lists, make a few more choices, and then arrange for it to be sent—either right away or according to a schedule.

It’s important to understand the reaction to your emails, and tracking helps. Figure 9 shows the overview tracking panel that iContact provides. It’s possible to drill-down through this, and find out which links were clicked, how many times they were clicked, and who exactly opened your emails—and who didn’t.

Figure 9: iContact provides tracking information that you can use to better understand the success of your email campaigns—and what you might need to do to improve results.

It’s fair at this point to note that I’ve only scratched the surface of the many features available to you when you signup with an email marketing company. And also I have only begun to touch on the marketing and design issues involved in successfully marketing via email.


I use email marketing so I can continue photographing—and I don’t photograph to create emails. In other words, the point of my emails is to allow me to continue to create imagery like the photo shown in Figure 10. With this in mind, email marketing can only be one arrow in my Internet-era marketing quiver, and marketing in general can’t take up so much time for me that my photography becomes neglected. Ultimately, without worthwhile photography no marketing no matter how good will work.

Figure 10: This shot of star trails in Valley of Fire, Nevada took an entire night to capture.

That said, email is one of my favorite forms of marketing because it allows me to stay personally connected to people interested in my work. The personal connection is key here—because it implies that my emails cannot always be just marketing, marketing, marketing. You have to give people something real from yourself, or they won’t want to stay part of your community or remain subscribed to your list.

Like I do, most successful photographers find that email is crucial to their Internet-era marketing efforts. Email needs to work well with other forms of marketing—particularly with blogging and effective use of social media. When it does, email becomes a strong pillar that helps support your platform and all your endeavors.

In this column I’ve discussed:

  • Email and finding an audience for your photos
  • Email subscription forms
  • Email problems and challenges
  • CANSPAM legal requirements for email
  • Logistical hurdles that email faces
  • Finding a vision and voice for your emails
  • Clarifying who your audience is
  • Understanding the visual nature of marketing photography
  • Email marketing service providers
  • Getting the code for a subscription page
  • Creating and tracking emails


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text and photos ©2011 Harold Davis.

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    • Thank you for writing the article, it's very interesting & helpful.   Looking forward to more detailed posts based on the topics in your first outline article.

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    • Not sure why somebody succesful as you are needs to send SPAM.

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    • @Harry Joseph: From the text of this article, "Anyhow, spam is awful stuff—and you don’t want a whiff of spam to taint your emails. Like Caesar’s wife, you need to be above any suspicion. This implies a number of things, including making very sure that everyone on your list wants to be there."---As I note in my article, I use a double opt-in system to make sure everyone on my list wants to be there. I do need to keep in touch with people interested in my work, my books, my workshops and so on, but I don't think this is remotely spam.

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    • Well written perspective on the subject, Harold.  I found it interesting - and helpful.

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    • "Lease" targeted email lists? "Service" providers? That's a laugh...

      Post an RSS feed and let subscribers pull. Pushing UBE, collecting email lists, referring to said lists as "digital assets", and especially "leasing" them to third parties is spam. You should have gotten a hint from that Flickr incident that your "marketing strategy" is not all that welcome as you make it out to be...

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    • @Andrei---Writing on the topic of email seems to be a "hot button" topic. But you also seem to have misunderstood what I wrote. I hate spam. I don't lease emails from anyone, and I don't lease them to anyone. People sign up for my emails one-by-one, and if you visit my site you'll see it takes a bit of looking to even find my sign-up form. They are welcome to unsubscribe if they wish, as people do from time to time. So I think your email is unwarranted.

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    • No, I understood what you said. Let's see. You are a commercial entity, engaged in targeted commercial bulk email (CBE), otherwise known as spam. You share your subscriber base with a third party (iContact), which are in a business of targeted mailing, without consent or disclosure on your subscribe page to that effect. They in turn most likely have a "sharing" clause in their EUL and a clause allowing them to contact a user on their list for any reason, and sure as hell they have a "change of terms" clause allowing them to change EUL as they see fit. And subscribers? Subscribers get spam.

      P.S. You get special cookie points for being well-intentioned and "hating spam".

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    • @Andrei: One point in your email is not true. iContact does not contact my list with spam, I have not consented to their contacting anyone, I have heard of no instance of their doing so, and this is not allowed in their TOS.

      Also note that your definitions are a little loose. It takes a stretch to say I am a "commercial entity"---but even if I am, email (bulk or otherwise) is only spam if it is unwanted.

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