Which Website Platform Should I Use?

 Hi Everyone, As someone who has used both Zenfolio and WordPress sites have worked with numerous students and clients who have adopted everything that includes Squarespace, Wix, Photoshelter, etc. I wanted to share some insights about this topic.  

Website development is part of the job

First of all I want to say that website development is every bit as important to our career as accounting, studio design and maintenance, branding and marketing, and all the other non photography related skills that a business needs to have in order to be competitive and successful.  

The idea of not wanting to be a web developer is a good one if you can afford to hire a competent website host and designer.  One photographer friend I know spent 20K to have a site built for his business. It really works well for him. however most photographers cannot afford this level of premium service.   After a few good years he had to pay to update it.

I keep encountering visual artists who are held hostage at the hands programmers and for that reason alone I strongly urge you to learn how to operate your content management system and that you dig website design even if you hire the work out so you can remain in control of this mission critical function.

Websites are about workflows and business models

Rather than jumping to a decision as to which platform we should use for our website we have to really think about our business workflows and how we want our site to function.  What role does it play.  A lot of systems promote the idea of order fulfillment such as Smugmug or Zenfolio but in my experience online sales has never been as effective as in person sales and works mainly for high volume economy quality services like team sports photography.  

This goes back to the issue of deciding what is your business model in the first place?  If the business model is a luxury brand boutique business then you need a website that supports that and a workflow that delivers that.  

We need to think about what functionality our website needs to have to support our business model.

Those features can include:

  • Marketing Proof Points
  • Customer Service Support/Communication
  • Order fulfillment and accounting
  • Appointment Scheduling and virtual assistant features
  • and others that I haven’t even thought of yet!

I have created a spreadsheet that helps you analyze your business model and web strategies.  Take a look at it here.

Webplatforms are about client interactions

With the sales part I have to decide what kind of interaction I want to have with my clients.  Do I use online galleries and an online ordering system, do I do in person sales, or both.  Do I offer custom wall decor design services similar to Pro-Select or use a third party online gallery system?  Simply put there is not a single solution out there that will address every one of these items easily.  

It will take a lot of work to develop those systems in any web platform you choose.  When you make a decision you are choosing an environment in which to work in and you will have to work very hard in it no matter what to make it effective.  

The best platform is the one you will use consistently

Once you choose your system then you can become comfortable working in that ecosystem to the point where it becomes automatic in a way that begins to feel automated.  It’s about developing the processes and the habits that allow you to forget the technical and just do it and it is about developing the procedure manual that helps new employees learn the system.  I really recommend using Evernote for developing your procedure manual!  

Over the past few years I have come to the conclusion that “the more things change the more they remain the same” and that innovations in web platforms and social media has clouded our judgement in favor of trying to find the easiest and most automated solution possible at the expense of real profitability.  

Collecting email addresses is our site’s #1 job!

When we remember the 80/20 rule (yes I am old enough to have started in the film era and to have gotten my first big sale after purchasing education materials at a Charles Lewis workshop!) we realized that the most important asset we had was client information and the ability to market continuously to our existing clients and prospects.  

In the era of social media we really never acquire client information because that data is controlled by the service provider.  How vulnerable are we to the change in terms of service by any of these providers?  The single most important asset I can develop on my website in my opinion is a mailing list that I have full ownership of.  

For me that starts with using google contacts and collecting business cards in person and then being able to export/import that data as I need to for mailing in a variety of ways.   As I think about how to collect data and what I can give to a prospect in exchange for them giving me their contact info then I realize I need some sort of incentive contact form on my website that offers me the ability to immediately provide a download link to some sort of e-publication/brochure and/or a follow-up html email filled with high quality content.  

Branding Considerations

Other considerations I have run into include limitations on how your branding works with the web platform you choose.  Do you have a great logo?  If so where will it be displayed on your site and can you control the size of the display?  

Content management systems (CMS) that are designed to simplify your life often have severe restrictions on how you brand your content.  This is one of the aspects of zenfolio I hate but then again I can find workarounds by using LR templates or InDesign page layouts that can put a logo on a set of images that I export as jpeg files and upload to my CMS.  

Multiple websites for different brands

Business is really a creative problem solving process that takes creative thinking.   One of the best pieces of business advice I have ever received was from a photographer who showed me that he had multiple sites for different brands and lines of business.  Each site was customized for the particular service so that clients weren’t confused about what service they were shopping for.  Again, I think back to the workshops and conversations I had with Bill Sorensen who had a luxury brand boutique studio but also had a telemarketing machine that generated tons of revenue for an high volume portrait business.  Some of my favorite wineries will sell a completely different brand of wine at the grocery store.  

Dusted Valley in Walla Walla has a Boomtown brand that is much cheaper in the grocery store.   That all said, I will share my observations about platforms.  

There isn’t a perfect website solution

Every website platform will have strengths and weaknesses. No one system will meet every need and you have to be prepared to modify your business model based upon what is most important to you.

Squarespace is a premium platform that will hit the mark for 85% of what most of us need.  To really make it effective you are going to spend at least $400 a year and also want to add on an accounting package such as Xero.  

I continue to use Zenfolio for one of my sites at about $240 because I have finally figured out how to set up the e-commerce with my integrated lab partner and it is saving me a huge amount of time.  I am also excited by the zenfolio app for cell phones that adds another feature set. 

In some ways my Zenfolio site is the backbone of my commercial business because I have built it out to allow all me to service my clients effectively with it.  I have a different gallery collections for different categories of work that range from commercial clients, portrait clients, fine, art and portfolio.  Each of these gallery categories has different price list and access policies to reflect what is appropriate for the type of work I am doing.  I am able to create digital rights management for each category of work and provide digital asset management services for my clients.

Building multiple sites or landing pages for niche markets

That said, I am still using WordPress to develop individual niche sites and landing pages for my different lines of business but I have recently learned how to link my images directly from Zenfolio into these sites which is making for more of a seamless overall web strategy.   I have been using WordPress for the past three years for the majority of my websites.  I have considered switching to Squarespace but in reality I just can’t justify it.  I spend about $120 per year and have total control over my e-commerce, email lists, etc.  One factor that has me sold on WordPress is the fact that I can host a video podcast that is streamed through youtube and available on iTunes! Squarespace only allows audio podcasting which doesn’t make a lot of sense for promoting my visual work.

Search engine optimization issues

There has been a lot of debate about SEO and WordPress and I am really grateful for that because it compelled me to do some research on that.  The main reason WordPress doesn’t perform as well at SEO is because it is too easy to make it bloated with too many plugins.  The other content management systems give you far less control over feature sets and so they can control how the site loads and generate better SEO.  

WordPress is a DIY platform  that unless you hire a really knowledgeable developer to work with you OR YOU BECOME ONE you will have challenges with SEO.  It has taken me the past couple of years to really get comfortable with WordPress and the auxiliary processes I need. 

Using websites as part of a sales funnel

Simply put, I use WordPress sites to build a very specific sales funnel for my portrait business and my separate fine art business, as well as a media consulting business.   I am still working on SEO but that is less important to me at this point than cultivating a client contact list in a way that I understand. Squarespace is good at this because it supports sending your submission data to a google spreadsheet automatically.

I keep in mind the fact that the most successful photographers I have ever known from a financial standard nobody has ever heard of because we are not their target market.  SEO reminds me of the days of yellow pages where we all spent as much money as we could to get a large ad placement.  The best photographers I knew back then weren’t even visible in the phone book because they simply didn’t have time to deal with all the tire kicking prospects.  

I don’t see wineries as being overly concerned about showing up in a google search!  They are more concerned with press releases, being featured in travel magazines, participating in premium events, and designing tasting rooms and bottle labels that creating branding that attract a premium clientele.  

Look at other industries for best practices

Wine is a good industry for us to look at for examples of business practices if you want to become a luxury brand.  Last year I spent time speaking with the owner of a winery and asked him about all the new competition that was entering the marketplace and whether that ever caused problems.  His answer was this, “No, because the investment it takes to open a winery is so high you tend to only see people with excellent business management skills enter the industry.”  This is simply not the case for photography.  

One last thought… the importance of blogging

One last thought about SEO.  I will tell you that blogging has been the most effective tool for improving the way clients find me.  The most expensive/profitable wedding I photographed was for a couple based out of LA who flew up to Spokane to meet and hire me to photograph their wedding at a winery outside of Santa Barbara.  

Keep in mind that I have zero wedding imagery on any of my websites and I actively discourage people from trying to hiring me to photograph their weddings!  When I asked them why they wanted to hire me when they could hire any number of fabulous photographers (they had the means to hire anyone!) the bride responded immediately with, “I don’t want a wedding photographer, I want a storyteller.  I read your blog and you are a storyteller!”

This gets back to the issue of usability and the fact that you will want to select a platform that you feel comfortable blogging on every week. The system you use consistently will outperform the most elaborate system that you don’t use.

Please let me know your thoughts about this post by posting a comment below!


Profile photo of Ira Gardner

Ira Gardner

Owner, Gardner Media Group LLC

Ira Gardner is a media and business consultant with over 30 years of experience. He also teaches digital media production at Spokane Falls Community College. He can be reached at: gardnermediagroup@gmail.com

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