426,000 YouTube subscribers. 158,000 Facebook fans. 43,000 Twitter followers. 5 years of speaking gigs and other well-paid jobs as a leading authority in his space.
Jared Polin of FroKnowsPhoto.com has accomplished all of this by giving away free content.
His website covers everything from tips professional photographers use to get the best shots to reviews on the latest equipment.
I had the opportunity to ask Jared a few questions about how he grew his audience and what he gives away to maintain that following:
You’ve built up a large audience over the last five years. How did you do it?
“I built a following off of free. When I started on June 1st, 2010, I had zero followers anywhere. Nothing. I’ve been a professional photographer since I was 13, but this was something new.
“I went to Internet marketing events for free. I didn’t pay for the $3,000 ones because I traded my services as a photographer to get the education. This meant I got to sit in the front row and hobnob with some of the bigger people like Gary Vaynerchuk, Ryan Lee and Yanik Silver.
“The problem is everybody who was at these events thought about charging.
“Five years ago it was all about high continuity. I sat there at these events, and I’m like, ‘Well, this is BS. I just want to give away my information, because if I give away my information and people pay attention to me, I’m going to inevitably be able to turn free into something.’ And since then, I’ve been able to turn free into paying.”
How did attending these events show you that “free” was the way to go?
“I would sit at these events with other people that were building dating apps and all this other stuff. They were all like, ‘Well, man, if I had all the traffic that you were getting, I’d be killing it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, if you were giving away quality stuff and not just selling things, then you’d have a better opportunity to build up a following.’ ”
If someone is going to give away stuff for free, what should they be giving, and how should they be doing it?
“Well, I started with videos. Videos was my whole thing. My podcasts are videos too, because most people just do audio podcasts. I have a photography site. We do video as well, so my whole goal behind launching my podcast 140 episodes ago was to film it.
“The whole time we’ve been filming podcasts, we’ve used three professional cameras with good lenses and quality RØDE microphones, because if your audio sucks, people aren’t going to pay attention.
“We added a fifth camera yesterday for the first time. We had a GoPro, (a small, professional quality, digital video camera) so now we have five cameras, and every episode is professionally shot and professionally edited by my team (which is one person and me) and we put this stuff out week after week.
“Every week, we’re putting out a podcast that’s an hour and a half to two hours long. On top of that, I’m putting out four, five or six other videos throughout the week and I’m interacting with my people.
“There is no ‘big secret’ to being successful. The ‘secrets’ are as simple as: Put out quality content, bust your butt everyday, interact with your following and catch some breaks along the way, but know how to pivot when you need to pivot, and just go where you need to go.”
If you give away all your content for free, do you use it to promote your photography business, or do you have other ways to generate revenue with your free content?
“When I first started, the idea was that I would start giving away videos for free in the hopes that people would hire me to shoot gigs. What happened is, that didn’t happen. Right off the rip, people started asking me questions, because they saw my work and the quality that I provided, and they recognized me as an authority in my field.
“They were looking to me to help them become better photographers, so I had a choice to make. Do I continue trying to promote myself as a photographer, which I’m always going to do, or do I go the direction and pivot where the community is directing me and saying, ‘Hey, there’s a need for this because there are too many boring people putting out content; we want to hear what you have to say.’ So I went that direction.
“I answered everyone’s questions. I opened up my Skype line. Anybody that called at any point during the day from anywhere in the world, if I was sitting at my computer, I would answer the call and I would record the call with their permission.
“Then I would take that content and I’d put it up online, because if one person is asking that question, then other people are going to be asking that question too.”
I’m still curious as to how you use this to get paid. Since you’re not getting photography gigs from it, what are you getting?
“Well, I do get gigs from it these days, but I also sell my own video guides.
“I went over two and a half years without selling any product, because I didn’t want to sell too soon. I didn’t want to start offering something until I’d built up the loyalty, the brand equity, the credits in people’s mental accounts, to have them say, ‘All right, you’ve given me so much free stuff that I don’t mind spending $67 on a video guide,’ or $97, or whatever it ends up being, because they want to support the hours and hours and hours of content that I’ve given them throughout the years.
“I will tell you, on June 16th of 2010, I started selling a t-shirt, that says I Shoot Raw for $11.99. I didn’t make much money on those shirts, but that was a way for brand awareness. I sold them for $11.99. It probably cost me $8 when all is said and done. I had a couple of bucks here and a couple of bucks there coming in. But that was just a little bit to sell something like a band would sell a branded product, and that t-shirt was the only thing I sold for two and a half years.
“Other than that, you could do money off of affiliate commissions. I made money off of YouTube videos because of the advertising, but it’s not substantial. A lot of people think you can make a ton of money off of YouTube. You’re only going to make a ton of money off of YouTube if you’re getting millions of views a day, not just a million views a month, which is what I get. It’s not a bad income, but I knew that I could also get brand deals with companies. I could have advertising and sponsors.
“The problem is, I hate banner ads. My new website, which is launching next week, does away with every single banner ad except for one box that I can program and change to whatever I want it to be. The future of advertising, not to mention the present of advertising, is not banner ads, it’s not clicks, it’s not how many people are clicking from my site to theirs; it’s brand awareness.
“So my whole thing is working with companies that understand that banner ads are BS. If a company who wants to work with me asks for a banner ad on my site, I give them a chance and say I don’t do banner ads and if that’s the only metric you go with, then we’re not going to work together.
“Plus, I won’t work with people if I don’t like their product. I’m not beholden to any advertisers because I make my own money from my own products, which allows me to say no and to be very selective of who I work with.
“When I do work with a company, it’s always meant to be long-term. I’ve worked with four or five really quality companies for the last two to three years, as well as some I keep picking up now, but they’re the ones that get it. They’re the ones that get that social influencers are a thing.”
What do you mean by “social influencer?”
“I call myself a social influencer. When I go on a date and somebody asks, “What do you do?”, I don’t even know how to explain it. I’m a photographer first and foremost. I’m not a blogger per se, because blogging denotes something different from back in the day. I call myself a social influencer. I say things and people listen or take what I have to say and then take action, so I bring results to companies when I work with them.”
In terms of giving away your content for free, what do you consider valuable content for your audience and how did you determine that?
“I think I have a lot of different pieces of content that percolate for a lot of different people.
“For instance, I do critiques of people’s websites. I call them Rapid Fire Squarespace critiques, because Squarespace is a company that I work with. They’re very powerful and we have a great working relationship. Then I do things like an AdoramaPix Rapid Fire critique, where I critique somebody’s top ten photos and tell them what I think about them. Whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, I’m honest and I tell them.
“I’ve got my podcasts, I’ve got user guides, where I take a new camera that comes out and I make a 30 to 40 minute video that shows people how to set up the camera, then I put that out for free. That’s usually designed to get people who have that camera familiar with it so that they see that look, I’m giving away this free content.
“If they want to learn more about photography, they can pick up my video guide to getting out of automatic settings. I just make content that I enjoy making and that resonates well with the people that are paying attention and interacting with it.”
So how do you determine what resonates well with the people interacting with it?
“Well, you can look at numbers. You can see what gets shared the most. You can see what gets interacted with the most, and you can see how certain things just don’t resonate with readers.
“I have to make a decision at some point, considering the amount of content that I put out. I have to figure out what content is the best content for me to create, is the best use of my time and is also the most beneficial to my audience. So when I make things that are quick tips, and they’re two and a half minute or less videos, I know that that resonates well on Facebook because it gets shared a ton and it gets viewed a ton.
“Those are the things that I know of that are quick and dirty. Making simple videos that people can consume and share because they’re going to help other people, but will also help them as photographers.”
Why do you think people keep coming back to your website?
“The reason I started my podcast was to invade people’s ears. We did audio only for the first couple of episodes, because somebody I was working closely with told me, ‘Well, podcasts are meant to be audio.’ I looked at what we were doing and decided, ‘Screw that.’
“I had two hundred some thousand subscribers at the time on YouTube. So I’m like, ‘I’ve got all these people that want to watch what I’m doing. Why don’t I film it?’ So now I do both. People can download the audio, they can watch the video. They can do a mixture of both.
“Why do people keep coming back to my site? If you’re a photographer and you’re into not straight up technical, boring videos in my opinion, then you’re going to enjoy the Bob Ross/Mr. Rogers (with a little more Howard Stern mixed in) style of my videos, because they’re to the point and I don’t pull any punches. I don’t make stuff up, I’m not fake on camera. I say it like it is and that’s that.”
When you started out, what do you feel made your audience grow?
“I think what happened was I came by a little late for YouTube in 2010. 2007 and 2008 was when the YouTubers of today broke into the ‘big time.’ I still think I was a little late to the game, but it still can be done.
“The hesitation when starting was, ‘There are so many other people doing this. How am I going to find a niche, or how am I going to make it?’ But then I was just like, ‘Screw it. I have something to say and people may want to hear it.’ So I started to put out content. I had to make the decision about what type of content I wanted to do?
“I knew that I couldn’t sit and type, because even though I’m articulate, it takes too long. So I decided I want to crush videos.
“YouTube is owned by Google, so I figure, if I crush videos every single day or sometimes two times a day and put out new pieces of content, people are going to find me and search me out. Or they’re going to search for something and find my video, which in turn gets them to subscribe to my channel.
“People are either going to love what I do or hate what I do, but that’s still better than having 100% of the people not care, so you want to be one way or the other. You don’t want to try to pander to everybody because then you make nobody happy.
“My whole goal was to create fun and informative content that kept people coming back for more, and you’ve got to add consistency and quality on top of all of that these days, and that was it. I wanted to do quality, consistent, fun and informative content, because I knew that if I did that, I had a better chance of getting people to find me and not watch somebody else’s crappy, boring photo video, because mine just punched them in the face better.”
What else will you be talking about during your CONVERTED presentation in October?
“I’m talking about everything. I’m talking about whatever anybody asks me. My primary focus is video and content. Everything that I do is content, so that’s podcasts, that’s videos, that’s anything interactive.
“People want to ask questions. You can point a question and answer session in whatever direction, but I’m going to leave it open. We can talk about video, we can talk about podcasts. We can talk about creating, or we can talk about building a following.
“I can talk about whatever, but what really drives the speeches that I give are the people in attendance. They’re the ones who take it in the direction that it should go, because they’re the ones asking the questions that are relevant. They want to know the answers and I don’t want to stand up there and just try to tell people what I think they want to know. I want to know what they want to know and then tell them what I think. I just react to what they ask.
“That, to me, is the best thing to do, so I take my ten, fifteen minutes up front and talk and then I take 30 to 40 minutes and let people rapid fire, throw questions at me down two aisles. It goes really well, because everybody’s got a question. You wouldn’t be sitting here if you didn’t have a question, so ask.”
If You Could Ask Jared Only One Question, What Would It Be?
If it’s a great question, who knows? He just might answer it himself at CONVERTED this fall. Leave your question in the comments below. (No guarantees on an answer. But do register for CONVERTED to find out if he does respond.)