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You Can’t Cram For Your Business.

You Can’t Cram For Your Business.

Guys, I have to tell you about my super skill that I’m not particularly proud of having:

I’m the queen of cramming for final exams.

My freshman year at Yale, I took a class called The History of the Roman Empire.  I showed up and enjoyed all the lectures, but didn’t do a page of reading or a sniff of studying outside of class.  All semester long.  (Well, to be more precise – I fell asleep on top of Tacitus’ writings one week into the semester and never tried again.)

The night before the exam, I grabbed my laptop, my textbooks, and a case of mint gum (it keeps me awake), and holed up in a classroom until a startled janitor discovered me the next morning.  I memorized dynasties of emperors, calendars of critical events, miles of Latin terms, and otherwise crammed three hundred years of history into my head in a matter of hours.

Then I went and took the test – and got an A.

I wish I could tell you this was a one-time thing, but it wasn’t.  I’m really good at forcing myself to sit for marathon cram sessions, and have had a lot of success with that strategy.  Studying, writing – why spread it out when I can get it done all in one sitting?

But there is one tough lesson I’ve learned since graduating:

Cramming doesn’t work in business.

Sure, I can compile all my tax info in one miserable afternoon, marathon-edit until my fingers are sore, or write three blog posts in one sitting.  But the things that really count?  They can’t be crammed.

Like marketing.

When I moved to a new town and started marketing afresh, I approached it like a big final exam.  I got up early one summer morning and pounded the pavement in my new neighborhood, flyer’ing every house with a well-designed card.  Surely if I applied the same dauntless vigor to marketing as I had to studying, I’d come out with an A, right?


Cramming doesn’t work in business. 

I wish it weren’t true, but it is.  I speak to hundreds of photographers each month.  I follow thousands of you on Facebook.  And the biggest problem I see?

Too many photographers are trying to “cram” marketing.

They’re hoping that one big heroic effort will win them a calendar full of clients for the next couple of months.

They pour a whole lot of work and excitement into get-clients-now marketing strategies – and then feel horrible about themselves when those methods flop.  Facebook contests that don’t turn into actual clients.  Mini-session specials that don’t generate business.  Money wasted on ads that didn’t elicit a single call.  Each representing an enormous amount of work, each receiving a lackluster response.

The sad part is, most of these people are doing really cool work that people should be hiring them to do.

So how do we fix this?  The answer lies in lightbulbs. 

No, I don’t mean lightbulbs as in the metaphor for a good idea.  I mean actual lightbulbs.

Ever heard of Joseph Swan?  Maybe not.  But he gave his first public demonstration of an electric lightbulb in the beginning of 1879, nearly a full year before Thomas Edison first publicly demonstrated his.  Swan was awarded a British patent for his invention a year before Thomas Edison received his American patent.  In fact, Thomas Edison tried to improve upon Swan’s design, and both he and Swan had been working from the same knowledge base provided by many other inventors.

Despite Edison’s claims that he was the inventor of the lightbulb, he knew Swan got there first.  To avoid a legal battle, they worked out an agreement to share manufacturing rights.  So the first widely available lightbulbs were manufactured by “Ediswan,” short for the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company.  (Heh, Ediswan…I guess they were the Brangelina of 19th century industry.)

So why the heck does Edison get more press when it comes to the invention of the lightbulb?  Many reasons, but:

In part, at least, because Edison knew how to open a can of awesomesauce in the marketing department. 

Starting in 1881, Edison spent months wiring lower Manhattan, getting about 85 businesses to volunteer to be lit with the new technology.  Then, on September 4th, 1882, he stood in the office of JP Morgan (powerful financier and a heavyweight in American industry) and flipped a switch that light up 800 electric bulbs in the businesses in the Wall Street neighborhood.

He went on to strategically light up major locations like the New York Stock Exchange and the House of Commons in London – places where his “target clients” (movers and shakers who had the power to spread the popularity of his ‘invention’) gathered and were sure to notice.

In short, Edison knew that having a good product wasn’t enough.

He knew that getting it into the hands of a few well-known people would be the most efficient way to get the word out.  Although Swan had lit a public theater and wired private homes, Edison arranged huge spectacles targeted toward the right people, and he knew how to organize people as strategically as he did electrical systems.

I imagine that if I were to ask Edison for photography marketing advice, he’d say “Having a good product is just the start – you’ve got to get it in front of people who already have public attention.  Let them spread the word for you.”

If Edison had a photography business, I doubt he would have been flyer’ing the neighbors or using any one-shot “cramming” strategies like I did.  He would have spent his time building relationships with local businesses just like he did in Manhattan – people who already had audiences and broad public attention – and gotten them to talk about it instead.

Talk about a lightbulb moment.  (I get one pun per post, right?)

Those relationships didn’t solidify overnight.  He finessed his way, built contacts, and engineered his legacy one step at a time.  But it was both smarter and more profitable than me cramming pounding the pavement for a few sweaty summer hours, merely hoping for glory.

The time-and-sanity-saver in marketing is not one ultimate promotion idea or template – it’s getting people who already have audiences excited to share you with others.

Boom.  Really, truly.

If you take no other single direct marketing ideas from this blog, please do this one thing:  Make friends with local businesses, prioritize those relationships, and keep at it.  It will change everything.


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  1. Daniel waters on March 12, 2013 at 9:20 am

    A great idea beautifully articulated. When I do this kind of joint venture marketing I always smile to myself. I mean there I am eating in a nice restaurant building a relationship with the owner who displays my photos on his walls getting great exposure in my neighbourhood all for the price of a couple of meals out which I would have had anyway. The most enjoyable marketing ever!

    • Jenika on March 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      Absolutely! That’s so cool!!

  2. Misty Bradley on March 12, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Do you live inside my head? If so, I’m sorry because it sure is chaotic in there! But I love how you help it all make sense. If you ever need someone to sing your praises, just let me know! I hereby resolve to end my cramming mentality with marketing. Thank you! Off to purchase Piece of Cake.

    • Jenika on March 12, 2013 at 5:38 pm

      Haha, thanks for the fun note, Misty! You’re the best. I hope you love love LOVE the e-book.

  3. Janelle on March 13, 2013 at 12:25 am

    Frustrating!! I’m stuck right now, between a rock and a hard place. I can’t buy things like this without any startup money that I’ve earned, but I’m not earning anything, even from friends. I really wish I had the $169 for this, but I just don’t. I really need it, though. 🙁

  4. Craig on March 13, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    I love the article, and I even got your Swift spin comment “call me maybe?” LOL

    • Jenika on March 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm

      Haha thanks Craig….that’s my wink at pop culture. Isn’t it Carly Rae something-or-other though? I don’t think it’s Taylor Swift….and now you know how up on pop culture I am.

      • Craig on March 13, 2013 at 7:34 pm

        Hey at 45, I just want Kudo’s for just “getting it”…lol

  5. Ali Peterson on March 20, 2013 at 1:40 am

    This post is so true! When I relocated my business to a new state, I literally went to every pet-related boutique store (I’m a pet photog) & introduced myself. That simple act has created valuable friendships with people who gladly spread the word about me to their hundreds of customers. I also joined a few business networking groups from which I’ve made valuable relationships. Meeting people is by far the BEST way to grow your business! Plus, it’s more fun then designing & ordering promo cards!

  6. Megan DiPiero on March 21, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Just as I suspected. I went to WPPI looking for the quick fix marketing solution. Didn’t take me long to realize, marketing is the business of building relationships. Yes, that takes time, but I’m in it to win it. Thanks for the confirmation that I’m on the right track and for the witty, insightful post as always.

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