The problem with most websites isn’t that they don’t look good. It’s that they don’t work well. Sure, you can see the portfolio, you can find the information – that’s all there. But being professional and fulfilling the basic functions of a site are the worst standards imaginable. These things should be the bare minimum a site needs to work, not the measure of success. The real question is how photographers can take their sites from functional to unforgettable. The most important question is, “How well you are connecting with your potential clients.

When it comes down to it, if you’re going to run a business, you’ve gotta do the legwork. Period. It’s all about going beyond where others have gone. In a competitive marketplace, where everyone is gunning for the same, good enough isn’t going to be good enough. Mind you, that’s not to say you have to blow through your business full throttle until you burn yourself out. No one can do everything at 110%. But, rather, for those things you commit to – commit to them fully, and take them as far as you can go. And in no place is that more important than in spelling things out for your clients.

Which is precisely where most websites and marketing fail. Spelling it out doesn’t mean showing a bunch of pretty pictures and waiting for the calls. If your only goal is to get people onto your site so you can throw your pictures at them, then you’re leaving life to chance. You need to prime your visitors to react to your images. To react to you. Think about the experience from the client’s point of view. Everything you do creates an impression. Your colors. Your typeface. Your layout. What will move people? What triggers a sense of familiarity? Comfort? What do they want to hear? If you don’t address these things, then you’re just playing a numbers game.

Instead, play a quality game. People define value not just by the quality of the product, but by the quality of the experience surrounding it. If you walk into a jewelry store, you’re not going to see a bunch of rings lying on the floor. They’re in cases. They’re set apart. The environment is reverential.

Spelling it out means giving people all of the verbal and visual cues necessary to make them sense your worth. And it means taking time to identify who you’re trying to say it to. The frame you build to house your art is an important part of your business – as important as the art itself.

Think of a store you love. Or a restaurant. What happens the first time you walk in? You don’t say “Oh, this is properly done and quite professional.” If that’s all you feel, then either you’re not part of their target market or they didn’t get it right.

When it’s done right, you say “This is my type of place.” You feel like you belong, like everything was designed just for you. That’s the experience you want to create on your site. If you make people feel like your site was built just for them, they’ll be ready to hear what you want them to hear.

On Dropbox, when you upload a lot of files, it could say “284 files uploading, 2% uploaded, 18:43 hours remaining.” But, instead, it tells you “A long time left. Go grab a Snickers.” That’s smart. It’s thoughtful. It’s personal. And it clues you in – not just to who they are, but to the fact that they took time to think about your experience. I just received an email from Tumblr saying, “Ickspix is now following you. Sweet!” Great language. Perfect for the Tumblr crowd. If they said “Ickspix is now following you. Find thousands of others who want to follow you too by clicking here,” the implied message would have been totally different. It would have gone from “We’re fun-loving and want to create a good experience for you,” to “We’re corporate and want to suck you into our system.”

It’s always about translation. You have to take the values you believe in and translate them into the language of your client. No one looks at a bunch of copy that says how great you are and how much you care and thinks about how great you are and how much you care. That’s just how it is. People look for what means something to them.

Don’t give people a choice in understanding your brand. Don’t ask what you want to say. Ask what they need to hear and how they want to hear it. A functional site isn’t a site where people can find links and know where to navigate. It’s one where you make people react. That’s doing the legwork. It may be that every client just wants to make a beeline right into to your portfolio, but you know better. Because what they will really react to is the discovery that there is a living, breathing person underneath it all. And that’s something that sticks.

About Spencer Lum

Spencer is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. 

With 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker. 

Spencer is the founder of the industry blog, Ground Glass, as well as a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY. 

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