Nashua-based photo business puts focus on the digital connection
NASHUA - The digital age has altered the landscape for photographers in ways more profound than the jump from film to digital cameras.
Whether it's the draw of a thumbnail image on a Facebook post or the garnering of students through Meetup.com, today's tech-savvy shooters aren't just moving into brave new realms - they're creating them as they go.
Dan Splaine learned photography during his service in the U.S. Army, shooting at Fort Rucker in Alabama everything from dead bodies to portraits of generals.
"Uncle Sam trained me," said Splaine, who works out of his studio in Nashua. "What it trained me to be was a very capable photographer."
Although he didn't learn social media in the Army, 1977 through 1981, he became the type to embrace tech developments without pause.
Six years ago, Splaine found himself laid up in a hospital bed, facing an illness he would call a blessing as it would force him to restart and reinvent his career.
During that period, which lasted two years, he began studying marketing and business with a dedication that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
"The fun part about it is it's just damn fascinating," he said. "I find myself saying, 'Stop reading software books - go get a customer.'" In 2008 he got out of the hospital and took a space at the Picker Building in the Nashua Millyard.
He figured he'd start teaching classes and put an ad on Craigslist. "No one showed up. 'OK, am I going to buy ads? Am I going to invest money?'"
But he got a response from a guy who ran a Meetup.com group for photographers. "He said, 'Hey would you teach my people a photography class?' and I'm like, 'What's Meetup.com?'"
Teaching that first class, Splaine established a Meetup group of his own. He'd learned his lesson, and from Meetup it was Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and a list of social media sites that will only grow more numerous with time.
These days he spends 20 percent of the work week on his pages; 30 minutes first thing in the morning and 30 minutes at the end of the day, in addition to four or five hours on Sundays.
For Splaine, the trick is to have a consistent stream of content, a little promotion, but steady photography-related content.
"I've been doing it really, really consistently, and my followers have crept up and crept up," he said. "It took me 2 1/2 years to get 200, and this year I've gone from 200 to 500."
"It's kind of like leaving your bread crumbs out in the trail, and all of a sudden you've got a loaf of bread," he said, referring to the cumulative nature of social media content. "And it's working."
Since then he's proud to say that he's filled 1,400 seats in his classes. Though he can't draw any specific sales to any specific posts, he attributes his success to exclusively Internet marketing.
The photographer in the age of Facebook is faced with new challenges that wouldn't have been imaginable before. But Splaine said it opens up opportunities as well; he insists images are the most important element of a Facebook post, more than words and video.
Given the importance of the image in relation to the blog post, the status update, even the email, the need for captivating photography is as pressing as ever.
"Companies are coming to the realization that, oh my God, this is an image-saturated world, and stock photography is too generic, we're trying to create our own identity investing in a guy that can exclusively show us at our best."
That's the ideal scenario, he added, but it's beginning to overcome the why-am-I-paying-you? attitude.
Grant Morris, 27, is a former photojournalist who started his company in 2009. New Sky Productions, which Morris heads along with his partner in Portland, Ore., does video production for private and nonprofit entities.
Like most of today's startups, social media is integral to New Sky's marketing, primarily Facebook and the video-sharing site Vimeo. The number of hits on the company's videos has increased 300 percent since last year's levels.
Morris said while social media is helpful, there's nothing that can replace pounding pavement and shaking hands.
"Facebook and Twitter and all that's great, but ultimately, day to day, me putting my face in front of other people's faces is where I make my money."
Like Splaine, Morris is based in a Nashua mill building. Also like Splaine, he can't trace one single sale back to social media. But unlike Splaine, Morris' No. 1 marketing tool is community involvement.
"We're Rotary members, we're Chamber of Commerce members, and I give a lot of time and energy to those particular organizations because I believe in them," Morris said.
They recently produced a video for the Nashua Boys and Girls Club's annual fundraiser. Though they charged for that, they donated some video work for the event's raffle.
Facebook's value comes into play when the company wants to follow clients' activities, and vice versa, to stay on the newsfeeds of those clients. "It keeps me in front of my clients, people that I've met face to face," Morris said.
Following their initial public offering, Facebook began implementing new money-making strategies, among them, the ability to "promote" a post. The move represents a pay-wall for users, where in order to appear prominently in newsfeeds, the page's controller has to cough up money.
Morris said videos that would have been widely-viewed can be jettisoned now in favor of newer content; that is, unless you pay up. A recent video on a downtown Nashua business only got 187 hits.
"That's because Facebook capped it; it capped how many people saw it," Morris said gravely. "They've really got us behind a paywall."
He has opted for the $5 option and it was well worth it. On Nov. 8 he posted a video about an artisanal cheese maker outside of Seattle. Facebook's metrics allow the user to track how many views a post gets; in this case, 155 were organic and a whopping 1,716 were paid. The page also got 10 likes out of the deal.
Some Facebook business users are offering incentives to people who like their page, like dollar-off coupons or the chance to win an iPad Mini. But likes aren't everything, in Morris' eyes - it's not the like, but the spirit behind the like that counts.
"If you're looking for a number on your page, then by all means go pay for them," he said. "But we want people who are passionate about what we do, and our brand, to like us, because if it's just empty likes, what good does it do you?"
He agreed that social media posts are almost irrelevant without visual content. "People really love to see video, they love to see pictures," he said. "If you're not posting pictures and videos with your posts, you might as well not even be doing it."