Specialize as a Web Designer
There are many reasons to pick a niche as a creative freelancer. Clients trust experts, word of mouth works better, and your marketing becomes more straightforward. For your inspiration, and to give you a little push to specialize, I interview creative freelancers who have chosen their niche.
Meet Alex Vita! Alex is a Bucharest freelance web designer/developer who specializes in websites for photographers. Alex works with photographer clients from all around the world, and each month he gets around 20 project quote requests from potential new clients.
Read on for Alex's niche pick, his marketing and samples of his design work!
The Niche Picked
Hi, Alex! What's your niche?
I'm a web designer and developer working exclusively with photographers, offering them professional web-related services (design, manual customization, SEO, consulting & more).
Besides client work, I also write in-depth articles on my site's blog and send out a weekly newsletter for photographers, all about photography websites.
My target audience is made up of semi-pro and pro photographers who have a poor or outdated online presence and are looking to improve their site or build a new one from scratch. I've also successfully worked with larger photo agencies wanting website improvements. My clients are usually already established in the photography industry and are just looking to make their website have a bigger role in their photography business.
Regardless of their status as a photographer, my clients are sometimes not very technically experienced, so I'm used to “hand-holding” them through the first weeks of learning to manage their site.
Why did you pick photography websites as your niche? How did you break into websites for photographers?
After a degree in computer science, a fruitful but boring programmer “office career” was in store for me, and I worked as a software developer for a short while. But I was always searching for a better lifestyle, and my entire spare time was spent exploring the passion I had for photography. That meant buying professional camera gear, setting up a photo studio, shooting weddings, and slowly improving my artistic skills over time.
It also meant sleep deprivation. My regular office job was bringing me down, so I made the leap and quit my job, becoming a photography freelancer.
The website I had built for myself (as a photographer) got the attention of others online, and they soon hired me to build their own site. And that's how it all started for me. Some of it was accidental, I guess, but letting go of job security and leaping into the unknown world of freelancing were the calculated risks I needed to take to change my life.
What was the most important thing (initially) that allowed you to grow your business?
After building several sites for other photographers, my big break came when I was noticed by a company offering photo websites & tools: PhotoShelter. They were looking to build a short list of certified consultants that can help their users with improving their websites.
That brought in a steady flow of clients in the years that followed, allowing me to build a growing list of clients (with a high rate of repeat business), and connections in the photography industry.
Which service has proven to be the most successful for you?
Building websites from start to finish have always been the most fulfilling projects I had. That means having initial discovery discussions with the photographers, setting clear goals for the site, designing and building everything, taking care of the site's performance, security, SEO etc., polishing everything up into a marketing engine for the client.
Building such a website from scratch is where I find the most meaning in my work.
What are the top things photography clients are looking for in a website designer? What crucial pains do you solve for your clients?
1. Photographers want something as automated as possible. Since they're sometimes not experienced with any web stuff, they just want getting quick results from a site and then not having to manage it too much. Their focus is on going out there and shooting images.
There’s also a wrong expectation there (which I'm trying to correct):
- websites are not magic, they’re just a multiplier of the quality of the work they put out
- a new website is just a tool; it depends on how they use it
- it's an on-going effort (and not the “build it and they will come” mentality)
2. Photographers are obsessed with SEO, often over-doing it. They should focus more on user satisfaction and less on keyword density. They should focus more on the quality of their work, and less on Google.
3. They’re sometimes reluctant to hire professionals in other industries (although they advocate hiring pro photographers, of course). And sometimes they say they need more sales for a new website, and they need a website to get more sales. Kind of like the chicken and the egg thing. I try to help them think of websites as an investment, as a marketing engine for their business in the future.
What’s your personal USP in this particular niche? Why do clients choose you over other web designers working in the same niche?
It wasn't always clear to me, but, over time, I've honed in on my unique story, and that always acts as a compass in everything I do.
I'm driven by three main principles:
- I hate online “quick tips & tricks” douchebaggery.
- Always start with WHY (and understanding the reasons behind everything, instead of implementing changes blindly)
- Help needs to be more personal. So less “productized services” (website-in-a-day packages, fixed-price website reviews) and more human interactions with as much consulting as needed to help the photographer out.
All of this helped me form great relationships with my past clients, with them often coming back to me for follow-up projects or referring me to other photographers.
Overall, how important has choosing a niche been to your business?
There's a plethora of DIY website building tools for photographers. That had mixed effects on the industry: on one hand, photographers can create a good website themselves using these tools, no longer requiring professional help. One the other hand, since everybody is now using these tools, many photographers choose to differentiate themselves through bespoke designs, rising above the “noise”. So a need for experts in this field with always be there.
Having specialized on photography websites, I learned many of their particularities (specific browsing habits, performance for image-heavy pages, tailored SEO advice, ways to showcase galleries, eCommerce for prints and image licenses etc), which allowed me to become really good at it. And that all helps me promote my services more easily than if I were just a general WordPress developer. Climbing the ladder of a specific niche is both easier and more “fruitful”.
Reaching out to photographers
I attracted new clients […] by being interviewed on popular industry podcasts.
What’s been your most successful way of getting clients from this niche?
Before talking about getting new clients, I should mention that a big chunk of my projects come for old clients. Repeat business is very important when selling services.
I guess the most effective way I attracted new clients was by being interviewed on popular industry podcasts:
- Sprouting Photographer: Your photography website as a multiplier of your work – Interview with Alex Vita
- Photo Biz Xposed: Alex Vita – How To Build A Photography Website That Converts Visitors To Clients
Many photographers listening to those interviews ended up writing for project quotes or giving me feedback about my work and my website. Searching bigger audiences through guest blogging and guest podcasting have been the most successful for me so far.
Otherwise, which are your most important ongoing marketing activities? Your website, blog, SEO, email newsletter, social media? How do your marketing activities work together?
I didn't try to reach out to smaller sites first and went directly for a bigger site.
Besides guest podcasting, I'm also investing time into guest blogging for top publications in the industry. I didn't try to reach out to smaller sites first and went directly for a bigger site: digital-photography-school.com (which is one of the most popular sources of information for photographers). Being a guest author for them is a “highlight” in my blogging career.
Now back to my own stuff. Right from the start, my site had two main purposes: one was to showcase my web design services for photographers. And the other was to start writing regular content (as blog posts, guides, and eBooks) to help photographers improve their online presence. Later on, that also saw the addition of an email newsletter with short essays on the world of photography websites.
As I was blogging, I discovered (in me) a preference towards writing long form content, as helpful as possible, always actionable and linking to other relevant articles online (instead of being worried of people leaving my site). After an 80-page eBook, tens of blog articles (some of which went beyond 5.000 words) and weekly newsletter issues, more and more photographers are discovering my services, seeing myself as an expert in the industry and contacting me for projects.
It was always about building trust and showcasing my web design “voice”, and never about keywords. But good SEO was a natural side-effect of all the content.
To help us understand your marketing, please also provide us with some numbers! For example, the number of monthly visits to ForegroundWeb, subscribers to your email newsletter and inquiries you get a typical month!
Please take these with some grains of salt. ForegroundWeb is less than a year old, it's just a one-man site (and not a team-managed media powerhouse), and I also have to dedicate time to working on the actual projects instead of marketing and outreach.
At the moment of writing this, ForegroundWeb has about 8.000 monthly unique visitors. This is where the traffic comes from:
- Referral traffic (which represents about 10% of all visits) is from other photography websites who mentioned or linked to my articles (Digital Photography School, Light Stalking, PetaPixel, PhotoShelter) and from the 2 podcasts I was interviewed on (although few come from their site's show notes, many people come directly so they aren't tracked as referrals).
Organic search is 20%.
Direct traffic about 30%.
- Social traffic 40%, most of it being Facebook, and I don't even have a Facebook page! Some articles of mine went “viral” on Facebook, so they were re-shared there like crazy.
Newsletter has almost 1.000 subscribers. I get somewhere around 150-200 new subscribers per month and the graph line keeps rising. :)
I get around 20 project quote requests a month (which end up in about 3-4 projects per month, both big and small).
Do you also reach out to potential clients personally, e.g. via cold calls or cold emails? Any tips for how to reach out to photographers in an effective way?
I do 20-30 minutes of outreach daily, regardless of how busy I am with projects.
I do occasionally also reach out to photographers (via email, not phone).
But I never promote any services right from the start. Instead, I try to give them content (like my eBook) or offer to do a free website review (giving them a detailed list of 10+ things I would improve on their photo website). The goal is not necessarily to win them as a client, but to help them, and to at least form connections in the industry and just raise awareness about my work.
I formed a routine where I do 20-30 minutes of outreach daily, regardless of how busy I am with projects.
For social media, I just use Twitter and Google+. No LinkedIn, I found it served no purpose for me. I like to build connections more naturally over time (via email or Skype.)
You recently launched a new website for your photography website services, ForegroundWeb. In comparison with your old website, what did you try to fix with the new site?
The old site was basically my own photographer portfolio where I gradually added mentions about my web design services.
As I moved away from actual photography work, I obviously wanted to re-design my site to showcase my web services. At the same time, I know I wanted to make the business as professional as possible, and also have the ability to scale it in the future. That made me think of rebranding under a business name (instead of my own personal name), basically setting the ground for building a web design agency in the future (working with photographers exclusively, of course).
That's how ForeroundWeb was born, after several months of research and preparations.
Being a perfectionist (and I don't say it in a good way), this turned out to be a “monster” project, especially since it wasn't just a small portfolio site, I wanted to also make it a strong blog, the “go-to place” for photographers to learn about improving their sites.
What kind of website copywriting/imagery attracts photography website prospects?
Photographers are not technical in nature, so listing out a bunch of development terms wouldn't have helped.
What worked was writing about the benefits of working with me, about the problems I can solve for them. That’s why my site’s Work page starts with the benefits of working with me, and WHY and HOW I can help solve their problems.
Generally speaking, photographers obviously also want to see these on my site:
- That I'm trustworthy (bio section, self-portrait, tone of voice, testimonials)
- Prices (since I do custom websites that vary in terms of complexity, I don't have fixed prices, but I have at least addressed the issue of costs and what factors matter)
- Examples of past sites I've built (with screenshots and case studies if possible)
You are also blogging. What kind of content/topics attracts visitors to your website the most? Which 3 blog posts are the most popular on ForegroundWeb?
From the very start of the blog, I wanted my posts to be as helpful and actionable as possible, instead of just writing sleazy how-to lists.
There are usually two types of topics I cover:
- advice/tips on how photographers can improve their site themselves
- the why and how of working with a professional web designer (example)
The common misconception is that if I teach photographers to do things themselves, they wouldn't need to hire me anymore. But that couldn't be further from the truth:
- many photographers are not technically skilled, so they still need someone to help them
- they might lack time, but I at least make them understand the importance of some improvements, leading them to get professional web design help
- I position myself as an expert in the field, building trust with them
My most popular articles on ForegroundWeb are:
- The complete SEO guide for photographers (a giant list of 50 detailed tips)
- An in-depth guide on writing photography “About” pages
- An article on embracing minimalism in photo websites
For you personally, what kind of website content is actually client-getting? Which page on ForeGroundWeb has caused the most inquiries from photography website clients?
My site's Work page is the most targeted on convincing leads of the quality of my work, so that's always in their browsing path when deciding whether to contact me. So that has the most immediate impact.
Although I have gotten client emails from certain blog posts, the value of the blog “pays off” in the long term. And so does the email newsletter. They are tools to inform clients, to teach them potential solutions, to build their trust, and this is all a long-term game.
- made it conversational, asking subscribers for what they're struggling with
- discreetly promoting my web design services from time to time
- offering free advice and 1-on-1 consultations (basically, free website reviews that also sometimes lead to new projects)
Do you buy any paid advertising for your photography services, e.g. Google AdWords, Facebook advertising, ads on photography sites?
I'm not a big fan of advertising, to be honest. I'm more in the “content marketing” bandwagon.
I understand that advertising can help me reach larger audiences, somewhat targeted if done right, and will consider exploring that more in the future. Based on my initial research, I'll start with advertising on Facebook and Twitter first.
But for now, I'm focusing all my (time & financial) efforts into writing quality content and building a strong foundation for the site.
On a more personal note: I also think this is my perfectionism talking (not willing to do some things until I feel everything is right), and I'm sure other people have crappy websites and they advertise the hell out of them, and have faster results. I don't care though; I'd much rather do things that feel right to me, at the expense of some growth-speed. It's a lifestyle business for me, so I need to feel good doing it, right?
Do you get any paid help with your marketing, e.g. with website copy, SEO or prospecting?
Nope, nada. And I say this with both pride and shame.
I've always been a self-taught person, always willing to dive deep into a topic and research it from top to bottom. There's nothing I can't learn to do if I try.
I understand this is also a control issue, I wouldn't want to lose control over small details here and there, and I need to learn to let go. Freeing myself up (by hiring help for some tasks) would allow me to focus on the most important business aspects.
I guess I'm not just quite there yet, both in terms of mindset and actual business stage.
Any marketing tools or online learning resources you would like to recommend to fellow freelance creatives?
Here are tools/website I check almost daily (for blog post ideas, outreach “targets”, engagement opportunities):
- Twitter (with private lists for past clients and influencers in the industry)
- Topsy and Buzzsumo (bookmarking a few specific search results pages)
- Swayy (great for finding quality content to share to your audience)
- Reddit Photography
- Alltop > Photography (for an overview of recent news in the industry)
I also use Feedly (subscribing to 50+ blogs/feeds about web design, marketing, SEO, photography), so I always know the pulse of the industry and am up-to-date with latest tools. I use Pocket to save articles for later.
On freelancing in particular, Seth Godin’s course on Udemy is tremendously insightful.
What’s your next self-promotional step?
I’m always gathering ideas and writing lists, so I have detailed notes on what I can/will do in the future to grow my business. I have tens of blog post ideas still waiting for the light of day, and plans for a book and several premium online courses. I’m also looking to write more guest posts for popular publications in the industry and appear on more photography podcasts.
So my next step is to keep taking (small) steps in the right direction, starting with regular quality content for my blog and newsletter, because that will make all other self-promotional steps easier.
What advice would you give a fellow freelance creative who wants to break into the photography niche?
First of all, become a great web designer, by refining your skills over time, and keeping your pulse on this rapidly-evolving industry. Then also learn the particularities of photography websites, and the common problems that photographers have.
Building websites for photographers is almost a consulting business since they often need personal help throughout the entire process. Consulting requires excellent communication skills, patience, resourcefulness and a constant willingness to help.
Starting is difficult (as with every freelancing niche out there). I recommend you spend time where photographers spend time online (communities, forums) and make your voice heard there. There aren't any easy shortcuts; it's just about hustling to get your first clients and to keep them happy (for referrals and repeat business).
For more examples of niches actually picked by freelance creatives, check out these 170+ examples!
Any thoughts, tips or questions on the topic of picking a niche for your own freelance business? Maybe you are a photography website designer yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comments!