Photographer’s Guide to Permission Marketing: A Real-Life Success Story


Some years ago, marketing guru Seth Godin wrote a book about permission marketing and explained why it’s so much more effective when you can market to a prospect when you have their permission to do so.

Long before that book came out I used a campaign to promote my studio that did just that before I had heard the term “permission marketing”.  I want to share that promotion with you and  hope it works as well for you as it did for me.

Partnership marketing first

I had heard that it was very effective to show your work in malls, stores, anywhere you could get the public to see your photography. I went around to the bridal stores in my area as well as some children’s clothing stores to see if I could get my work up on display in those stores. Some said yes, others said no, which I expected. For those that said yes I didn’t waste any time and came back within a few days with some framed 20×24’s to hang in their store. I left a stack of business cards and had a card mounted just below each image just so there was no doubt as to whose work those customers would be admiring. I went back to my studio anticipating the flurry of phone calls that would follow.

The calls trickled in very slowly and it occurred to me something was missing. I wanted a better response than I was currently getting from my display work.

One small change to stimulate action

My next step was to create a promotion that might stimulate more of a response.  I created a monthly draw for a portrait session with a framed 11 x14 print. I purchased some plexi ballot boxes with a standup back that held an 8×10 where I put the copy explaining  the draw. The next step was the most important step of all. The ballot I created was 4.5 inches by 5.5 inches and it was the key to this promotion being successful. The ballot read like this;


393 Linwell Rd., St Catharines, ON L2M 2P3 

905 682 0063 





When was the last time you had a portrait  made?

1 yr       3 yr    5yr      10 yr        never 

What kind of portraiture are you most interested in? 

individual     couple    family   children    engagement     boudoir     pet 


Our studio often has special offers throughout the year,

may we contact you when we have a special promotion? 

YES____     NO____ 

Thank you for taking the time to fill in our ballot, Good Luck! 

Ballot must be completed in full to be included in the draw. 

The best part of the ballot was getting their permission to contact them with special promotions. What I was actually doing was creating a brand new client list that I could market to throughout the year. The data I collected on the ballot helped me take a laser beam approach to my marketing campaigns. I could market to a prospect in exactly the area they were most interested in.

Every month I would go around to all the locations that had my portrait draw boxes, and collect all the ballots. Most people filling in a ballot might have assumed that the draw was coming from just the box in that store but in reality I was drawing a name (randomly of course) from all the boxes I had planted in my city. After I had selected my winner, I went through all the ballots and discarded the ones that had circled No when I asked if I could contact them with our special promotions. I then added all the names and information to my database including the type of photography they were most interested in. I’d contact my winner and arrange for a consultation and photo shoot and each month I showed the current winner’s name on the ballot box in each store.

Permission marketing at play

[Tweet “Permission marketing is alive and well! You MUST market your business with intent.”]

Four times a year I would create a promotion for each of the categories and send a newsletter to all the clients catered to that specific genre. To be clear, that meant I had five or six different newsletters designed specific to each kind of photography. I would send a pet portraiture promotion to all that circled that on their ballot, and a family and children would go out to those that circled that on their ballot and so on.

It wasn’t as much work as it might sound. I’d keep the format the same for each newsletter, but would just change the colors, the header, the photos and some copy.

After sending promotions out for a couple of years, I would remove any prospects from that data list that had not responded at all, and would of course be continually adding new prospects to the contact list each and every month. I was actively creating a flow of interested prospects and turning them into clients. I was able to do that because I knew that if they took the time to fill in a ballot, they must value professional photography on some level. By giving me permission on the ballot to market to them when we had a promotion then we had eliminated the need for a cold call. They would actually be expecting a contact from us!

I made a point of rotating the ballot boxes so it didn’t become a stale idea in the stores where they appeared. That meant in all I had about 10 stores that would take the boxes on their counter and I only had around 5 or 6 out at any one time. Placement of the boxes was critical. I pointed out to the store owners that having them on the counter where goods were purchased was key, so customers had something to do while they were waiting for their purchase to be run through.  I found that thanking the store owner with a free portrait was also helpful in maintaining goodwill. Another point that made the store owners happy was that I changed my display prints at least three times a year to keep it fresh.

I mentioned Seth Godin and his book “Permission Marketing” earlier, I suggest you get it and read it cover to cover.

Frequency builds trust and permission facilitates frequency

– Seth Godin, Permission Marketing

By getting the client’s permission to send them our studio promotion is one thing but it’s key to give them some extra benefit when doing so. That’s why I chose a newsletter rather than just hitting them up with a flyer.

In a newsletter I can showcase my work better and include helpful information specific to the topic of their selection. For example if they had circled pet photography, I could include in the newsletter, along with gorgeous unique photography of pets, a short article that discusses pet health and diet. The promotion is an offer to try us out at a lower than normal price. By giving the benefit of free helpful information along with an incentive price we are encouraging trust.

Marketing frequency

Frequently marketing to a smaller more focused prospect (laser beam approach – marketing to them only what they show a preference for) is far more effective than a shotgun approach (which is sending out a universal message to a huge group of people).

I did this marketing idea many years ago and if I were to do it again today, I’d still have the physical ballots and boxes. I’d also add an online version by using mach forms or some other online survey method and get busy with a web version of this marketing program. For anyone who is just getting their photography business off the ground I’d suggest you give this a try, and for those who’ve been running a studio for a while and would just like to be busier that you are now, you’ve got nothing to lose by investing some time in a solid marketing plan. This should only be one of many ways you market your business if you plan to have a successful photography business.

Action item:

1. Get display prints made of your best work suitable for the store you want to hang them in. Ask for an appointment with the store owner and maybe bring them a coffee when you show up. Offer to do a family portrait for them as a thank you.

2. Once you have the work up get the ballots made and look for the ballot box online.

3. Have your ballots made as a tear away pad and provide pens to the store with your studio logo on them.

4. Keep track of what promotions you send to each prospect so you never send them the same thing twice.

Extra tip: You MUST read Seth Godin’s book Permission Marketing!

Written by <br>Robert Nowell
Written by
Robert Nowell

Professional photographer, photography professor and co-founder at Sprout Studio.

Written by <br>Robert Nowell
Written by
Robert Nowell

Professional photographer, photography professor and co-founder at Sprout Studio.


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