Senior rep programs (or “senior model” programs) have gained popularity among senior portrait photographers as a way to increase word-of-mouth marketing and encourage teens to talk up their photographer to their friends. Some photographers report more clients and larger average sales as a result of their model program, while others express frustration with the lack of return on investment on their time and effort.
Why is it that success varies so much between photography businesses with these rep programs? Is it that seniors from certain areas are much more likely to talk, or that some photographers offer much better perks than others? We’re here to share the methods many photographers have used to take their programs from struggling to thriving, and a few general points for you to keep in mind.
1. Provide an exclusive experience.
If you refer to every senior you photograph in a given year as a “senior model,” the experience doesn’t feel particularly special to the participants. By providing exclusivity (or the illusion of it), you are inviting seniors to participate in something unique and competitive—which is exactly what they want! Being chosen for your rep program will feel like a prize and your seniors will be more likely to brag about their new role.
There are a variety of ways in which you can make seniors feel like they are part of an exclusive club. You might choose to have a more intricate application process, with a casting call and interview with each applicant. Perhaps you hold a model interest meeting for potential applicants complete with a slideshow of fun images from previous models’ sessions and goody bags for attendees.
Regardless of how you scout and select your senior models—even if you accept every single applicant—each one needs to feel like they were offered an exclusive spot in your program.
Once you have your senior models and begin scheduling their sessions, consider how you set your model experience apart from your typical portrait sessions. Do you offer hair and make-up artists? Cool locations for the shoots? Themed sessions? Will you do group sessions with all of your models, or solely individual sessions? However you decide to make your modeling experience unique, keep in mind that your models don’t want exact replicas of each other’s images and add each senior’s individual flair to their sessions.
2. Outline your expectations of senior reps–and make them easy to meet.
One pitfall we often see for photographers attempting to run successful senior rep programs is that their expectations for seniors are far too high. Requiring students to pass out business cards to their friends, or to post stiff recommendations to their social media accounts, does not work for today’s seniors. The good news is that, with new advances in technology, the days of insincere advertising are over. Just give your seniors great images and the resources they need to share, and they’re all over it!
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Photographers often disagree on whether or not digital images should be provided to clients. For high school seniors (particularly the ones promoting your brand as models), the ability to share their images digitally is a big pro.
Whether or not you choose to provide watermarked images for social media, a single digital file as a profile picture, or no digital images at all, you should clearly outline your expectations for how images may be replicated and shared in a contract. Having a contract in place won’t guarantee that the rules are followed, but it will give you grounds for removing a senior from your modeling program if they choose to ignore them.
A simple alternative to printing rep cards is to create senior model StickyAlbums. Providing images in app form to each model (with the option to easily share images to social media from within the app) resonates more with the millennial crowd than handing out printed cards! The StickyAlbums can be images from a group session (with the app itself customized to each senior) or images from their individual session. You can even include a coupon in the app for the seniors to share with their friends!
3. Treat models like members of your team.
One way that you can guarantee loyalty and referrals is by making models and their families feel not just like clients, but like members of your business team. When you’re looking to make changes in your program, brainstorm with your models! While you shouldn’t be sharing specific business strategies with clients, opening a dialogue as to what they would like to see more of as models makes them feel like valuable contributors to your team.
Another great way to encourage the team atmosphere is by providing feedback and maintaining communication throughout the senior’s year modeling with your business. When you receive a call from someone they have referred, send them a card or give them a phone call to express appreciation! If you’re concerned that they aren’t sharing your business, ask them how you can help them reach goals and earn perks more effectively!
4. Give seniors what they want.
The ultimate goal of your senior model program is to bring in new clients, specifically by creating such a buzz with your senior models that their peers are begging for their parents to hire you as their photographer as well!
To promote your models in creating this level of excitement, the perks they earn in your program should be things that they want. These are likely not the same incentives that their parents might want—you’re rewarding the seniors for talking up your brand!
Many photographers offer print credits or free sessions to their models and are then confused when the referrals don’t come and the senior reps undervalue their time and work.
The reason for this is two-fold: 1) Seniors aren’t enticed by the free photography products and sessions because it’s their parents who pay for these anyway; 2) Your prices set the value for your product—if you are offering your work for free, it cheapens it in the eyes of your clients.
This isn’t to say that there is never an occasion on which you might give clients products for free. Perhaps you gift an extra print or a StickyAlbum to a client as a way to exceed their expectations—this is great! But allowing them to earn valuable products by sharing your name with their friends may not be the best route; consider offering cash, gift cards, or other student-friendly perks when your models meet their goals.
Despite what some have suggested, senior modeling programs are alive and well–in businesses that strategize and run them savvily. We hope these tips on operating a successful senior rep program for your photography business have been helpful! Keep in mind that not every business model fits every business; there’s nothing wrong with foregoing the model program altogether–or running yours very differently than we’ve suggested!