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When I returned to photography and made the decision to pursue it as a vocation, I began to actively seek sponsors. Those sponsored relationships have become tremendously important to me and have become a significant part of my business and marketing plan. Before I discuss how these relationships work, you should know why I consider these so important.

When I first joined the fray, I had two problems for which I saw a possible solution in sponsorship. The first was simple: either nobody had ever heard of me, or those who had known me as a comedian were hung up on that (“The guy was a comedian for the last 12 years; what does he know about photography?”).

Associating myself with companies like Lowepro or Lexar, my first two sponsors, had a legitimizing effect. If a company you respect and see as a leader in the industry endorses or collaborates with someone, then generally speaking, some of that reputation will rub off onto those whom they endorse. Sponsors allowed me to place their logo on my website, thus adding further legitimacy. It was no smoke-and-mirrors show; they liked my work and were pleased to associate themselves with it. It simply gave me more exposure and legitimacy than I’d have had straight out of the gate. They placed my name, bio, and images on their sites along with links to my own website, raising my online visibility for nothing—and faster than I could have done alone. In the case of Lexar, they asked me to write content for their website—for a photographer who loves teaching and writing, I could hardly believe I was getting all this for free. No, wait, not even for free—they were giving me product I would otherwise pay for. From a marketing perspective, being connected in the right kind of relationship to the right kind of sponsor is golden.

The other problem I had was a financial one. I have not chosen the easiest market in which to follow the call as a photographer. My primary clients are organizations that work for the protection and development of orphans and vulnerable children. These organizations don’t have deep pockets with fat wallets, and I have neither the means nor the desire to get rich from this work. But I do need to make a living. I need to stay current with gear, and I need to remain financially accessible to organizations that can afford barely more than expenses to gain the advantages my photographs can bring them in their fundraising and advocacy work. Sponsorships keep my overhead lower—for every thousand dollars of product I am given as part of a sponsored relationship, it’s a thousand dollars less income I need to make, and I remain more accessible to clients I want to serve. My sponsors know this, and it’s one of the reasons they work with me. So that’s why I do it. Over the last couple of years, I’ve fielded literally hundreds of questions about sponsorship, so let’s take a closer look at the other details.

A number of variables go into a successful sponsored relationship. No matter what the nature of that sponsorship, there have to be good reasons for them to get into bed with you, among them the following:

  • The quality of your work. Companies want to associate themselves with quality. In fact, it’s the same reason I want to be sponsored by some companies and not others. Association is a powerful thing, and companies want to—need to—associate themselves with work they perceive to be of the same, or higher, caliber as their own branding.
  • Humanitarian or other charitable focus in your work. Companies like being connected to something bigger than themselves. They like being a contributor to the photographic community and the world at large.
  • The size and credibility of your platform. Do you have a blog with an audience of other photographers? Is your readership and influence growing? Is your audience comprised of people within your sponsor’s demographic? This is a marketing investment on the part of most sponsors. They give you cash or product in exchange for honest representation and endorsement of their product. The more pull you have within their market and with their consumers, the more appealing you are to them.
  • The return on investment. What will you give them in return? Every sponsor finds something different of value. Some will want logo placement and product evangelism. Some will want photographs of product in action, articles, or a tutorial video of some sort. They’ll leverage this, and if you do it well, you can, too.

There is a downside, a danger that you become merely a shill. My sponsored relationships are open and honest, and they have no contractual strings attached. I work with them because I like them, believe their products make my job easier, and am happy to tell others. Without exception, I choose my sponsors—not the other way around. The moment a sponsor began to create junk and was no longer the leader it once was, I’d bow out. My value to the people who read my blog or come to my workshops is in my honesty and my integrity. If they doubt my motives for recommending a product, then my value—not only to them but to my sponsors—would also drop. Keep it in perspective. They’re exchanging photography gear you already use and trust for some marketing push; they aren’t buying your soul or your credibility.

If finding and developing sponsored relationships makes sense to you, here are a few more thoughts:

  • Assuming you have a blog, start tracking your blog traffic. Knowing how fast you are growing and the status of your traffic is one of the first things a potential sponsor will be wooed by.
  • Make your blog the most professional, unique, easy-to-read, content-rich blog you can possibly make it.
  • Find an angle. What are you uniquely about? The more clearly you can identify this, the more easily you’ll be able to identify potential sponsors and sell them on the benefits of being a part of the team.
  • Start teaching or in some other way reaching out to the photography industry. Sponsors want to be part of the larger community, and a photographer who’s doing so and can help them extend their reach is more appealing than one who isn’t.
  • Consider approaching manufacturers, not retailers. You might very well enter into some mutually beneficial agreement with a retailer, but remember that their costs are higher than the manufacturer’s costs. When a manufacturer gives you product that has a $100 price tag, that might only cost them $20, and there’s a marketing budget for freebies and comp items. A vendor has to pay $50 for the same item before he gives it to you, and likely has no similar marketing budget from which to draw the funds.
  • Look for ways to make these relationships strongly mutually beneficial and look at them as that—relationships. Check in with sponsors about new products, and find out how you can help spread the word.
  • Remember that timing is everything. Asking a potential sponsor to team up with you at one point in the year might have budget ramifications they aren’t ready for. Try again in six months.
  • Be creative in seeking potential win-win scenarios. Cooperation is a powerful force in marketing.

So how do you make the connection? Find the right person and initiate a conversation. I’ve sent e-mails, made phone calls, and sent letters. I’ve been referred to some by friends and colleagues, and others I’ve had to really dig for to find a name and a number.

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