June 10, 2013 —
Southern California-based wedding and lifestyle shooter Jana Williams is the definition of the term “social media phenomenon.” In the year-and-a-half that she’s been in business under Jana Williams Photography, she has amassed an insanely-high number of followers: 17,000 on Instagram, 26,000 on Facebook, more than 8,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel and over 200,000 video views.
As a result of that reach, Williams’ recent opportunities read like a wish list for any wedding photographer interested in fashion and esthetics: She’s been invited to shoot the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in New York City; covered New York Fashion Week and designer Tadashi Shishoji’s 30th anniversary party; photographed (and Instagrammed through her username janawilliamsphoto) The Tiffany & Co. Blue Note Gala; and shot weddings in Qatar (for the Ambassador of Qatar’s son) and in Lake Como, Italy. She will shoot 40 weddings in 2013, and is already booked through 2014.
For a woman who picked up her first digital camera in October 2009, this is all quite remarkable.
Williams, who is originally from Alabama (and uses that fact cleverly in her blog URL, janafromalabama.com), started her career in front of the camera as an actress and occasional model. Gradually, she became more interested in what was happening behind the lens. “I always thought photography was a bit too technical for me, and I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it,” she says. “I bought a [Canon] 50D at Best Buy and put it on a credit card; it sat in the corner of my room for two months. There were so many buttons and numbers, and it felt bigger than me. I finally just challenged myself to pick it up one day and shoot something.”
Williams shot something everyday for two months, then bought her first 50mm lens and started interning under other photographers in L.A. She describes what came next as an obsession with photography—a “tunnel” of constantly wanting to take pictures and learn more about the craft. “You have a vision in your mind of what you want something to look like, and you’ll do anything to get there,” she explains of the feeling.
Williams turned to her actor friends in the industry to practice shooting; they made for great portrait subjects, and got updated headshots in return. It was a stroke of luck that someone from Ford Models in L.A. saw one such photo and called in Williams for a meeting to be one of the agency’s in-house photographers. “I was so scared that they would find out I wasn’t that great, but [the job] hit me in high gear because then I was making money for taking photographs and had all this responsibility to turn over work.”
Williams developed a romantic esthetic, and naturally progressed to shooting under a wedding photographer. She felt confident enough to shoot her first wedding under her own name in October 2011 (an image from that shoot was subsequently chosen for the cover of Style Me Pretty magazine in 2012)…and that’s when social media became necessary to build her business.
Like many wedding photographers starting out, Williams didn’t have extra capital to advertise or hire a PR person, so she became her own PR rep with a Facebook fan page. “Honestly I was a little scared because in the very beginning, it was so weird asking people to be my fan,” she explains. “I just had to ignore the thoughts in my head and know that I was doing it for my business. It was all about getting work, and people aren’t going to know about me unless I tell them about me. I can’t just sit here and take pictures and hope that one day someone will notice. I needed to speed up the process.”
It all started with one fan, and grew as Williams researched the key cornerstones of social media and learned how to reach more people. One of the most pivotal factors in Williams’ ascent was collaborating with local style blogger Chriselle Lim (of thechrisellefactor.com), who already had a fan-base in the tens of thousands.
“When we first started working together, I was basically just trading photo sessions for her to put my name out there because she had a big following, and at that time, I didn’t at all,” Williams says. “I would pick her brain during photo shoots; it was a lot of free work, but it was worth every penny because she would give me so much advice and then she was blasting my name out there.” From that initial exposure, Williams went to work—and strategically so—on her end.
The Three E’s of Online Marketing
“In the very beginning, I started with the intention to educate, entertain and engage,” Williams explains of her approach to blogging and Facebooking. “I didn’t know what the rules were going to be from there because I didn’t know what my followers were going to respond to. I let the followers make the rules for me.”
Williams essentially paid close attention to what her followers “liked” and what engaged them. It makes sense that they were a lot like her—female, relatively young, into cute clothes, exercise, travel, hanging out with girlfriends and getting inspiration from magazines—so that’s what she gave them. And more than anything, for her audience, the draw was love and romance.
“Anything romantic, they’re in, they’re all for it,” she says. “The sun, the love, the laughs, the pretty dresses, New York City in bloom. And I love that. My husband always says that I’m a good wedding photographer because I’m a hopeless romantic, so it makes me feel like my followers and I are on the same level.”
After Williams had some time to get to know her audience, she was able to build her brand more specifically. “Now,” she explains, “my platform is photography, but it goes further than that, into inspiration,” she says. “I’m staying inspired, staying positive and giving tips to help other photographers. In all of my blog posts, and most of the time on Facebook, I sign off by saying ‘stay inspired.’ And my series on YouTube is called ‘Stay Inspired.’ That is a big deal—staying consistent with that.”
The “Get Them, Keep Them” Strategy
Consistency is key to maintaining a relationship with one’s audience and building new followers. But how does that translate over into everyday, already over-scheduled life? To keep a robust social following is a lot like a part-time job.
“I would never go a day without putting at least one or two images on Instagram, and one post on Facebook,” Williams says. “For the blog, I do three posts a week, one that has to do with a wedding, one engagement and one about me. With YouTube, I do four tutorials a month—one a week.”
Putting herself (photos of her life, stuff she likes and images of herself) in her posts, her Instagram feed and on Facebook, is something Williams has found drives her audience. She compares their virtual relationship to a real one.
“You can’t disappear for a few days, come back and think your followers are going to be there...they are your supporters, they want content and they want to know what’s going on,” Williams says. But that doesn’t mean posting something that’s inauthentic; Williams stresses that her audience can sniff through that. “When I travel, my followers are totally cool with me putting up as many pictures as I want because if I’m in New York or New Orleans, or a different country, I’m seeing this awesome scenery that’s so pretty—and it’s totally cool to [post it] because it comes in real time and it’s organic,” she says. “If you’re reaching for content—for instance, some days I’m just editing at the computer, and if I’m searching so hard to post stuff—it reads that way and they don’t like it. It needs to come from an organic place.”
For Williams, “using what you have” is also key. “Take a look at your life, at who you are,” she continues. “A lot of my posts are of beautiful images, but a lot are also of my husband. I love seeing pictures of people in love, so I take pictures of myself and my husband, and that’s something people can comment on. I like food, I live in L.A., I’m not a fashion blogger and I don’t spend tons of money on clothes, but I do like to put something cute on and take a picture before we go out.” These are all aspects of her life she reveals in her posts because they are common ground with her audience.
Overall, Williams’ success in social media (and therefore business, clients and bookings) has come from letting down her guard and putting herself and her personality out there.
“You don’t have to know your platform in the very beginning, you just have to be brave, and then trust that it’s going to be a give-and-take relationship [with your audience],” she says. “Then figure out what you’re about and what you’re going to say, and what people want you to say.”
(Williams and husband, Dave Baez © Tim & Co)
Jana's Tips for Building Buzz:
- Use video. Because it’s one of the top five websites in the world, “YouTube is an awesome way to bring people to your Facebook, Instagram and blog,” Williams says, and it helps to build other avenues of social media.
- Be an open book. One of Williams’ biggest points is her openness for sharing information. “If you don’t give them something, why would they come back?” she says. “Make the decision to not hide information—if they want to know your settings, be honest and give them your settings. If they ask questions, take time to answer them. I spend a lot of hours a week getting back to people on email.”
- Giveaways. It’s no big secret that people love getting free stuff, but especially for drumming up followers, Williams says giveaways are “a great way to get attention.”
- Have camera, will travel. Williams says that travel is the best time for a “social media growth spurt.” People want to live vicariously through your eyes, so show them amazing things in cool cities you visit.
- Show your best work, even on Instagram. “Because I am in the business of professional photography, about 80 percent of my images on Instagram are taken with a DSLR and then transferred onto my iPad and then onto Instagram,” Williams says. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a pain in the butt, but my platform is pictures, and pretty ones. If I want to book work off of Instagram, then the images cannot [solely] be from my iPhone. I definitely post real-time photos as well, but if they are taken with my iPhone, I always hashtag #iphonephoto.” (Williams has booked seven weddings this year from Instagram alone.)