Growing your seniors business

How one studio ensures a bountiful harvest

By Kalen Henderson, PPA Certified, M. Photog.MEI.Cr.,
Images By Kalen Henderson
First published in March 2004

When clients feel as if they’ve eaten—ordered—enough, they push themselves away from the table and go home satisfied.

There’s certainly something to be said for being brought up a good ol’ Iowa farm girl. We had a daily lesson in marketing when we were told to go out and feed the animals or water the garden. “Remember,” the parents said, “The best crop is the one that has your full attention. The crop that you neglect, dies on the vine.” Ah, such business wisdom.

This is our practice for high school senior marketing. Not unlike the planting and harvesting cycle, high school seniors need to be planted with the seeds of your product early on, and those seeds need to be nurtured to provide the yield you desire, come the end of the senior season.

Some folks think you can just toss seed to the wind and it will find good dirt to grow in, but any farmer knows that picking the prime location and selecting the best seed equals a bountiful harvest. Choosing the high school seniors to market to is the very same process. If the research is done and a plan established, then your seeds should fall on the most fertile soil.

Purchasing a mailing list from an established mailing house is the first step in the right direction. Second, ask someone from that high school or area to help you “clean-up” the list by removing the names of students who have moved away or are not in the senior class. This can save you both time and money in your mailing. When the list is as clean as you can get it, it’s time to send out the direct mail pieces.

The most recent trend in senior mailings includes multipage catalogs and lengthy letters that encourage the senior to make his or her choice of photography studios. Second and third mailings with less information can follow, to reinforce the message of the primary mailing.

This campaign can be highly effective, but also rather expensive to produce, especially if the mailing list is not as clean as it could be. If each piece posted costs $2 to produce and mail, and 500 of the 1,000 pieces mailed go unread, that’s $1,000 just tossed in the trash.

Recently, we had two 5x8 photographic cards printed by our lab (White House Custom Colour, St. Paul, Minn.), and sent them along with a sheet of 8.5x11-inch paper printed front and back on our Xerox Phaser printer. The two cards and the letter contained images and enough information for the seniors and their parents to choose our studio, along with repeated encouragement to visit our Web site for additional information. Because the physical size of the mailing was kept to a minimum in both dimension and weight, we could send it with first-class postage, which meant we could time its arrival in the senior’s home.

Our Web site provided additional images and details for the seniors and their parents. For those who did not have access to the Internet, we would print the Web pages as documents and mail them upon request.

Growing the crop
It was almost by accident that we discovered the buying habits of our clients. While eagerly anticipating that one big sale, we were blind to the fact that clients who were purchasing smaller amounts were purchasing more frequently, and were actually spending more money than the clients who made that one big purchase.

So, rather than put all the food on the table for one big banquet, we decided to let our clients snack their way to the goal with smaller, yet equally substantial servings.

Our proofing and sales process is very simple. Proofs are printed in-house on the Xerox Phaser on Wausau glossy paper and presented in an Art Leather digital folio binder. The client takes the proofs home for no more than two weeks and returns with his order. There is no elaborate sales presentation, just a pleasant high school girl sitting across the table taking the order, much like a waitress would at a cozy family restaurant.

When clients feel as if they’ve eaten—ordered—enough, they push themselves away from the table and go home satisfied.

Two or three months later, they are hungry again for senior portraits and the related products. Hence the introduction of secondary-market products in addition to the original order. The secret is to add these products at a later date rather than trying to include them in the original order.

In addition to being an opportunity to increase the order (because they have already forgotten how much they spent in the first order) it is a chance to get the client back in the door and have personal contact for a second and third time.

Secondary market products can vary from $7 key chains to $700 wall frame collections. Because they comprise images from the original session, we don’t need to do additional photography. The encouragement to the client is to purchase something to enhance the portraits from the original session.

The harvest
By far our most popular secondary market item is the graduation announcement. Created as an alternative to traditional offset printed high school graduation announcements, ours are printed on 5x8 photographic paper with up to eight images, with text that is written and approved by the client. The images usually include childhood snapshots in addition to images from the senior session, composited in Adobe Photoshop. The best part of the whole deal comes when you realize that with your studio logo on the card, your seniors are actually doing a direct mail service for you. They have filtered lists and will gladly mail out your work at their own expense. It is a win-win situation for any senior photographer.

As the popularity of these announcements exploded, we were overwhelmed with the number of orders we received—even from seniors who’d had their portraits taken elsewhere. Now we limit the availability of this product to only those seniors who had their session at our studio—a marketing tactic that smacks of exclusivity and can increase the number of sessions you book.

As we shifted our pricing structure for the digital market, the practice of offering proofs grew outdated. We no longer had first prints around that would just sit there if we didn’t sell them. And with the risk of scanning and copying ever present, we opted to offer proofs in a different format. These 8x30, 10x20 and 10x30 multi-image wall panels printed on glossy paper and mounted by our lab have been a huge success. It gives clients a finished product when they walk in the door, rather than four or five single images that might someday find their way into a matte and onto the wall. Don’t forget that a 3x8-inch panel with three small images fits into an inexpensive panoramic desk frame and becomes a perfect gift for that boyfriend or girlfriend who might not be around long enough to deserve a larger wall image.

Designed and marketed at first as a bonus to spur higher sales, our all-inclusive wall folios from Gross National Product have become a favorite after-market sale. Available in a large variety of moldings and mattes, the reasonably priced frame package ($30-$40) comes boxed and ready for you to insert the four images. The wholesale cost from GNP is so reasonable and the work required to assemble so minimal that this frame is not only a reasonable bonus item, but also a reasonably priced retail item in any market. When offered as a last-minute solution for framing the senior portrait, it fulfills the needs of a busy mom who is scrambling the week before graduation to have a framed display of her senior.

Mini albums from Art Leather are another sale-booster. Holding six 2x2 images, they are great items to market as a grandparent gift, a boyfriend/girlfriend gift, or as a smaller display piece for an office desk. With the cost running less than $10 (including prints), mini albums are yet another reasonably priced item that can be tempting during this second feeding.

The newest item to hit the marketplace is the storybook album. Art Leather has done a favor for the secondary senior market with its new line of self-stick booklets. These books come in various sizes and are assembled in the studio (rather than a printing house). You simply peel off the backing and flush-mount the photograph to the page. We compile the images in Photoshop and print them on photographic paper. This item was just made available at an introductory price of less than $10 per 4x5 book, but you should verify all pricing on the Art Leather Web site ( We take advantage of these booklets not only for our graduating seniors, but as enhancements to our group and sports photography. We will assemble a story booklet of action shots to sell to players at the end of the sports season.

Time to rotate the crops and fertilize
Of course, some would call it by a different name, but we believe in “fertilizing” our market. That is, we believe that continuing to market to seniors throughout the year gives them the opportunity to have everything they want—things that don’t always come to mind on the day of the senior sale.

Come January when the days are sub-zero and the studio heating bills are high, we make sure our senior clients haven’t forgotten the warmer days of summer and fall when they were photographed. It is during this month that we offer a wallet sale on poses they have already ordered prints of. There is no additional camera room work and the files have already been prepped to send to the lab. The only work that needs to be done is to upload the file and finish the order when it arrives.

Wallet print sales are important. These are your “business cards,” which seniors hand out for you at no expense to you. Yes, some clients ask at the initial sale in the fall if they should wait to order their wallets until they’re on sale, but to keep them honest we explain that the wallet sale is only from poses that they have already ordered from—excluding proofs. This makes it almost mandatory that they order prints of all the poses they would like to qualify for the sale price later on. And because our pricing structure now pays us for poses rather than paper, it works well.

Come February we’re still looking at less-than-favorable weather and no one is thinking about leaving the house, let alone being photographed. This is the time when we produce and mail a flyer about the graduation announcement cards. We want them to begin formulating the wording they want, and we offer a discount if they order early. This offer comes on the heels of the wallet special expiration so that the two do not overlap.

It has always been my experience that if you don’t shoot it, you can’t sell it. While we’ve been successful in marketing reorders to high school seniors, what was keeping us from letting them ride the ride again? So this year we mailed out a card that offered a $10 session to all the seniors who had already ordered, paid for and picked up their senior prints. The card, which went out in late January and expires on March 1, asks seniors if they have cut their hair, got a new boyfriend, or just want to have more fun. It was enough temptation to get that senior back in the door later in the senior year for one more 30-minute session (two outfits, about 15 previews) that they could order from at sale prices. Remember, you can’t sell what you don’t shoot.

The month of April finds both the studio and the seniors busy with proms and spring sports. This month allows us to get all the graduation announcements finished and in the hands of the parents. Come May, we remind all our seniors (and their parents) that their senior session comes complete with a free family session. We encourage the parents to take advantage of the session as their home will never be the same once the child has graduated.

To appeal to the mother of the family, we offer the sessions at convenient times (most often the weekend of graduation ceremonies), and promise to make it short. The key is to have either finished prints or proofs in the home when the graduation reception occurs. Simply asking the reception date allows us the opportunity to encourage the parents to have the session earlier in the month so they can show off their family portrait at the reception.

At the end of May, we breathe a deep sigh of relief and have a sort of New Year’s Eve party. Senior season officially ends here on May 31, which means that June 1 brings a new year, and the opportunity to plant, harvest and grow a new crop of high school seniors.

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