The wedding industry is not one most people consider ripe for innovation. But a Maine entrepreneur and veteran wedding photographer believes he has an idea that will allow his small Portland-based digital marketing startup to rival the likes of TheKnot.com and WeddingWire.com, the big players in the online wedding marketplace.

Behind him is more than $500,000 in financing to launch his marketing idea, which revolves around the intersection of wedding photographers and other wedding vendors, such as florists, venue providers and cake makers, vying for the roughly 3 million couples planning a wedding at any one time in this country.

Consider this: In most cases, when an engaged couple hires a wedding photographer to shoot a wedding, it’s a fairly simple business deal. The photographer gets paid, shoots the wedding, provides photos to the newlywed couple, who entomb the images in custom-printed coffee table books. End of transaction.

But J Sandifer believes those photos contain much more value. Drawn from 12 years as a wedding photographer followed by years providing digital marketing services for wedding venues, Sandifer saw lost opportunities in an industry estimated to be nearly $100 billion a year in the United States.

“How are we being innovative in the wedding industry? Really, we’re taking this underutilized asset” – the photographs – “and bringing it to the masses,” Sandifer said, “and really making marketing approachable for the up to 370,000 wedding venues and vendors there are in the U.S.”

In March, Sandifer launched a website called LulaWed that he believes will unlock untapped marketing value for photographers and wedding vendors. LulaWed, which appears like any of the numerous online wedding directories, is actually built upon a social media platform. The website is under the umbrella of Sandifer’s existing company, Tide Creative, which he founded in 2011 to provide digital marketing services for wedding venues. While working for clients such as French’s Point in Stockton Springs, Sandifer struggled to obtain images from professional photographers who shot weddings there, which he wanted to share via French’s Point Facebook and Pinterest accounts.

LulaWed “was born out of the frustration” of the missed opportunities between wedding photographers and the wedding vendors that needed professional marketing images.

“We said, ‘What the hell! There has to be an easier way to do this.’ And this is a solution for that,” he said.

The LulaWed platform works like this: A photographer uploads images from Rebecca and Joe’s wedding and tags each image with relevant vendors. For example, a photo of Rebecca in her gown would be tagged with the dressmaker; photos of the ceremony would be tagged with the venue and florist; a photo of the dinner spread would be tagged with the caterer. LulaWed then sends the vendors an email telling them they’ve been tagged in photos of Joe and Rebecca’s wedding. On LulaWed’s website, those vendors can easily share those photos on their Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter accounts.

The vendors get timely content to share with clients who are increasingly turning to social media when planning a wedding, while the photographer gets his or her watermarked photos shared on a far larger network than if they had shared them only on their own accounts. Sandifer estimates that a photographer sharing photos via LulaWed’s platform and tagging the vendors could increase the number of potential clients who see those photos by 10,000.

“If the couples who are looking at that venue see images from your photography studio, you’re getting your images in front of your ideal clients at an ideal time,” Sandifer said.

LulaWed is bringing the wedding industry into the “sharing economy,” Sandifer said, using a buzz term that encompasses the explosion of Web-based businesses like Airbnb and Uber that allow people or businesses to share their assets with others for mutual benefit.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND NUPTIALS

It’s never been more important for wedding vendors to have access to professional images for marketing, especially in the realm of social media, according to Julie Albaugh, editor of weddingmarketnews.com and an Ohio-based social media consultant for wedding vendors. More than ever, engaged couples are planning their weddings with the help of social media, according to data from The Wedding Report Inc. that shows an estimated 49 percent of engaged couples plan to browse websites like Pinterest and Instragram this year. That’s a 113 percent increase from 2011 survey results that showed only 23 percent of couples used social media in the wedding-planning process, and a good sign that Sandifer’s idea of a wedding directory built on a social media platform is on the right track. Meanwhile, the use of bridal websites and wedding magazines has remained relatively stagnant.

“Social media has changed everything,” Albaugh said.

Albaugh has run into the same problem as Sandifer. She said time and again she’s found wedding photographers won’t make the time to share their images despite the fact that it would provide free advertising for their services.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are in the industry; it’s how you market. I think sometimes the focus is on getting the best equipment and there’s no focus on marketing,” she said. “I think that is the biggest problem with photographers.”

Sandifer’s competition in the online wedding directory business is fierce. TheKnot.com boasts 4.5 million unique users a month on its website and claims to be the top wedding-planning website in the country. Its main competitor, WeddingWire, doesn’t release Web traffic stats, but it raised $25 million in 2012 and now employs more than 200.

Those websites attract a majority of the 3 million or so couples planning a wedding in the U.S., Sandifer said.

“They have the eyeballs from the couple end – both companies do – so they don’t need this underlying platform of sharing in order to succeed. They’ve already succeeded basically,” Sandifer said. “So, that’s where we feel we can come in and undercut them … we’re also creating this vendor relationship. One of the things I’ve always said is couples come and go, but the vendors will always be there.”

If it’s a daunting task, Sandifer has the experience to pull it off. He was employee No. 16 at Pictage, a California-based company founded in early 2000 that revolutionized the wedding photography industry by providing digitizing services to wedding photographers. He caught “the startup bug” there and left in 2006, by which time the company had grown to more than 200 employees and was acquired by private equity firm Apax Partners for $29 million.

After Pictage, Sandifer worked for five years at LiveBooks, another California startup that offered website management services to professional photographers. WeddingWire acquired LiveBooks in 2013 for an undisclosed amount.

In addition, Sandifer is married to Emilie Sommer Sandifer, who operates Emilie Inc., a well-known wedding photography business in Maine.

Albaugh, who wasn’t aware of LulaWed before being contacted by the Portland Press Herald, said the company has the potential to take on the likes of WeddingWire, but only if it’s able to get a buy-in from a significant number of photographers.

“If they can get the right photographers on board, I think it would be very valuable. But they have to get that first,” she said.

Sharyn Peavy, who has been a wedding photographer in Freeport for the past 20 years, agrees. Peavy, who plans to shoot 15 weddings this year and estimates that 80 percent of her business comes from word of mouth and social media, says the website has promise. She has a basic profile on the site, but has not uploaded photos yet.

“If LulaWed catches on and becomes as popular amongst couples as Instagram and Facebook then it will really become effective,” she said. “There are numerous wedding blogs and directories – does LulaWed have a little bit different approach? Absolutely. If LulaWed can stand apart from them, that’s awesome.”

Photographers traditionally don’t get paid by vendors who use their photos, Sandifer said, and they wouldn’t via LulaWed either. The value is in the potential business that comes from brides-to-be seeing the images on the Pinterest account of a venue they’re considering, Sandifer said.

LulaWed makes its money by charging vendors a $25-a-month fee to receive a premium directory listing on the website. In its first three months, the website has attracted more than 100 paying vendors and more than 700 that have set up basic, free profiles. The online wedding directory-cum-social media platform isn’t profitable yet, but Sandifer expects that to happen by January with 2,000 paying vendors.

Sandifer has raised $700,000 to date to get LulaWed off the ground, including $300,000 from angel investors in Boston, $150,000 from the Maine Venture Fund and $250,000 in the form of a zero-interest loan from the Maine Technology Institute.

Based in Think Tank, a co-working space in Portland, Tide Creative has five employees. Sandifer expects to double his workforce each year, reaching 20 people by 2016. To accommodate that growth, he plans to move into Portland office space with Tide Creative’s Web and technology developer, Freeport Metrics.

Tide Creative also has a number of mobile apps focused on the wedding industry, and Sandifer has other ideas for potential revenue streams.