How often do we as photographers just throw up our hands and give in to defeat?
Have you ever tried to start a trend in your area only to find that no one cared?
Have you promoted a special at your studio that was a complete flop?
The deeper question we have to ask ourselves is why did it flop? Why was something we believed in so strongly, not successful?
It’s possible that there was nothing inherently wrong with your idea or product. It might be that you were on to a good thing but people didn’t get connected in the right way.
Who could have predicted in the early 1960s that four young male musicians from Liverpool, England could so profoundly change the pop music scene in such a short time and even dictate the hairstyles of a generation for over a decade.
The highways across North America used to be littered with trash. You may occasionally see some still here or there but back in the 1950s or early 1960s it was commonplace to see someone driving in front of you toss the entire contents of a drive in meal out the window. People frequently emptied out their car ashtrays at will, whenever they were full.
It wasn’t until Lady Bird Johnson, wife of then President Lyndon B Johnson made “highway beautification” her cause as first lady and started a trend against littering.
The “Highway Beautification Act” was passed in 1965 and was sometimes referred to as Lady Bird’s Bill. I remember a television commercial that aired few years later that still drove home that message. It showed a Native North American canoeing through polluted water and later he witnesses someone toss their car trash out the window at his feet. The Native North American turns toward the camera and then the camera zooms in on his face so you can catch a tear rolling down his cheek. It was a powerful commercial. Within a few short years throwing trash of any kind on the streets was frowned upon and still today anyone who willingly litters in front of others will likely have to deal with cold stares and possibly a vocal chastising.
About fifteen years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “The Tipping Point”: How little things can make a big difference. In his book he gives multiple examples of how small starts became big trends with a huge impact.
Here are a few ideas directly from his book:
The Law of the Few says that trends can become highly and rapidly contagious based on the influence of only a few people or circumstances.
The good news for us as photographers is:
The Law of the Few states that we don’t need to have masses of people to get an idea across. It only takes a few people to get things started.
The Power of Context says that a physical few components of the physical and social environment can radically increase the contagious nature of an idea.
The Stickiness Factor says that trends become highly contagious because of some element inside the trend that makes it stick with people.
The Power of Context can suggest that people’s decisions and desires can be influenced by their surroundings or specifically by those around them.
In his book he uses a powerful story about crime in New York City to illustrate a tipping point. In the 1980s and 1990s the New York subway system was a riff of crime and graffiti. Some enterprising lawmakers decided that enough was enough, and started with the graffiti problem on the trains. They ordered a few cars to be completely cleaned of any graffiti and repainted. Some of the NYC subway employees were not convinced. They knew the minute those clean trains left the yard they’d get covered in graffiti again. And they were right, at first. The trains came back with new graffiti and they cleaned and repainted them again and sent them out, and so it went. Soon however they realized that each time they came back with less graffiti than before. The resolve of the NYC subway authority was unstoppable and eventually the trains started coming back as clean as they left. The next area they tackled was the people who jumped the fare turnstiles. People had come to accept that having to pay to ride a dirty, crime infested train covered in graffiti didn’t seem right so they just didn’t pay to ride.
Again the authorities cracked down and started assembling the violators in a row shackled together where all the commuters could see them before they were taken away. Over the next few weeks the NYC subway system didn’t look like an attractive place to commit a crime. The trains were clean, freshly painted and patrolled by New York’s finest boys in blue. The point of this story is to show how a tipping point can often change seemingly insurmountable circumstances. In this case a serious one turning a crime invested area into the city service it was meant to be.
How does all this information help us in the photography industry?
One example I can think of is right here in Canada.
In the USA, senior portraits are a large part of the market for many studios and yet here in Canada it’s practically non existent. Undaunted by the odds I know of a few photographers who decided they wanted to offer that service and literally had to create a market that didn’t exist.
One photographer, John Ratchford, is in North Sydney, Nova Scotia with a population of only 6,048. The next largest area to John is Sydney, Nova Scotia and that has a population of 31,597. Not exactly a thriving metropolis and yet John has built into his regular studio services a successful senior portrait business. He achieved that success by connecting with the right people.
In Gladwell’s book he calls them “Connectors”, people in a community who know a large number of people and are in the habit of making introductions. Gladwell believes that the “Connectors “ typically have a social circle of about 150 people. Another kind of person you want to connect with are what Gladwell calls “Mavens”. They are the “information specialists”. They accumulate knowledge and know how to share it well with others. Mavens start “word of mouth epidemics” due to their knowledge, social skills and communication skills. Finally there are “Salesmen”. You’ve heard that term before I’m sure, but maybe you have a negative connotation attached to that word. Gladwell’s “Salesman” are charismatic and possess an undefinable trait of getting others to agree with them that goes beyond mere words.
You have undoubtably heard of the trend “Trash the Dress”, where only a decade ago it would be unthinkable for a bride to do anything that might involve getting her bridal gown messy or possibly dirty. Now after a recognizable tipping point that started in Las Vegas with photographer John Michael Cooper, TTD (Trash the Dress) sessions are commonplace around the world. When bored with his usual traditional wedding photography he started rolling brides in dirt, flaming dresses, and even getting them submerged in water. He told the New York Times in 2007 he was applying the same principle that many fashion photographers used to get some dramatic and stylish wedding images.
My challenge to you is to consider what you can do to create a tipping point of your own.
Make a list of the people you know and list them as “Connectors”, “Mavens”, or “Salesmen”.
Use your existing social connections to start something big in your own community.
You never know, it might start an epidemic and expand into something you never dreamed possible.