Photography in Content Marketing, an Interview with the Editor in Chief of Contently Quarterly

Contently is a company that is at the forefront of content marketing today. The company provides software that aids brands to publish their own branded content, and also connects companies with freelance journalists and other content creators. They were founded in 2010, and since then have found plenty of people who are optimistic about the future of content marketing: they have raised more than $11 million in venture capital, and work with brands like Coca-Cola, GE, Google and GM.

For a company in their line of business, it’s only natural that they would have their own content marketing program. They publish a print magazine called Contently Quarterly, and have a robust digital content marketing site as well. 

Joe Lazauskus is the Editor in Chief. In that role, he’s spent a lot of time watching content marketing develop in the last several years, and also has plenty to say about what brands can be doing to get the most out of their marketing campaigns. 

I sat down with Joe to talk about how photography and imagery factor into the recent changes in the content marketing world.

Cover from the first print volume of Contently Quarterly.

Cover from the first print volume of Contently Quarterly.

Are there areas where you think content marketing can benefit more from photography or graphics in general?

I don’t think there’s an area where brands can’t do more visually. Certainly so much of the key to social is the visuals that you’re putting out there, no matter the platform. It’s not just Pinterest and Instagram, but it makes a huge difference on Facebook and Twitter and even on LinkedIn. I’d love to see brands telling more visual stories. Even in terms of blog posts, having huge, beautiful images, or getting more creative with original GIFs or animation.

There’s just such a huge world out there right now for brands to explore, and there are so many visual storytellers who are very hungry for work. And it’s a really ideal marriage when brands are willing to give really talented people the freedom to create things that they feel is going to resonate with an audience and take some risks in terms of new, original art.

I think we’re going to see that more and more. In the global age, the short attention span age, you’re going to need great visuals to keep people’s attention on longer pieces. It’s also going to be the key to that short attention span content that people are consuming.

We’re coming from an advertising space that’s so based around things being conceived and approved and people knowing exactly what they’re getting before anyone even sets out to actually make an image. But even due to just the sheer volume of content that digital demands, you have to have a little more trust in the content creators to do it without a comp or set guidelines.

Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. It really is about the shifting models of doing things. I think more and more what you’re seeing, what you’re going to see, is dedicated content groups within brands having the leeway to take X content budget and do with it what they will. It may still need to get approved at the end, but things will actually get created.

I think one thing that’s going to make it a little bit easier, is when you have a few really creative people in the content marketing newsroom—or whatever you want to call it—within a brand, and they get an idea and they commission the work. Once the work is actually done and it’s a possibility that people see it, it’s a lot easier to make publishing it a reality than when it’s just a concept that’s going through a giant RFP with an ad agency and getting bogged down in 20,000 different people approving things 6 months in advance, it’s really hard to get anything cool or creative done. But when you have smaller teams working more autonomously it’s a lot easier.

I think that brands are slowly building out those teams. It’s not going to be all there in 2015; it’s probably not going to be all there in 2016 either. But slowly more and more brands will realize this is the way to go. They’ll invest more resources in it and give a little more freedom to their creative people.

Also, I think the biggest switch in all of this is going to be when the younger digital-savvy people who really are pro-content marketing right now just continue to move up the ranks.

As Editor in Chief of Content Quarterly you're essentially responsible for B2B content marketing. While you guys are an exception, to me, it feels like most B2B marketing is less visual or image based. Do you find that there’s a major difference in approach between B2B and B2C?

One thing that I’ve noticed is that B2B marketers kind of have an inherent advantage when it comes to brand publishing because they have a certain expertise and authority. If you’re Cap’n Crunch, you don’t really have an authority or an expertise to talk about a topic. But if you’re HubSpot, for example, you can talk about inbound marketing in general. If you’re GE, you talk about science and innovation. So there’s sort of an inherent advantage that a lot of more B2B focused brands have over other companies.

That makes sense. Your expertise can be the content. Whereas a lot of traditional B2C marketing is about directly promoting the product.

I think the key for content marketing work is that it can’t be self-promotional. It has to be based on good storytelling. You have to talk about topics that are interesting and really matter to your target consumers. That’s the underpinning of all great content marketing right now. It’s brands that are telling really interesting, well-crafted, original stories about the things that people in their target audience care about and topics they align themselves with and can speak to with authority.

It doesn’t always have to be inherently in the company, though. The hallmark B2C example of content marketing is Red Bull, and that’s because there wasn’t necessarily a direct link in terms of Red Bull having an expertise about extreme sports and music and all that stuff. But they aligned themselves very much with those communities by sponsoring tons of skateboarders and snowboarders and racecar drivers. That gave them a cred and authority where they can really talk about and cover extreme sports.

And from that they’ve built the biggest extreme sports platform in the world, with a magazine that has more paid subscribers than Sports Illustrated, and films that top the YouTube charts. By doing the same with music, they’ve expanded even further, where they have a record label that’s putting out Top 100 artists.

B2B marketing is often about providing information, whereas B2C is often about establishing a certain feeling or lifestyle that a brand represents.

Yeah, definitely. But at the same time, B2B content marketers shouldn’t feel limited by that. Just because you’re talking about great software, doesn’t mean that you have to use god-awful stock photography. It doesn’t mean that your blog can’t have really gorgeous design. If you want to actually capture readers’ attention, you can’t just publish a bunch of information. There’s tons of other people doing that. No matter who you are, you’re always going to have competition.

So it really comes down to the basics of storytelling. Having compelling narratives in your pieces, having strong voices, having personal anecdotes. All the storytelling principles are still the same, no matter what type of content you’re creating. So there’s a lot of overlap.

Do you ever feel that there’s a tension between telling a great story and the stakeholders in a brand who want to make sure that there’s plenty of product placement or an explicit marketing messages.

We work with a lot of people who came over from the journalism world, and a generally creative background, and they understand the value of really good stories and how you can’t mess that up by just plugging in a bunch of product mentions. We know as well, that the moment you start pushing a product in a piece of branded content, trust drops dramatically: by like 30% on the first mention.

And there definitely is this tension right now, because you have people coming from different backgrounds working together. It’s still a weird marriage. You have people who come very much from a product marketing background of just “We need the product mentions. We need the links,” and they can be really focused on that.

We have people who come from creative backgrounds who know that what is going to engage people the most, going to get people to spend time with content, and build bonds, isn’t just pushing a product; it’s telling a greater story.

I think that as everyone works in this discipline more, it’ll be easier to sort that out and get everyone on the same page. But there are things that you can do if you’re on the pro-good-content, pro-great-storytelling side of things. 

There are simple technologies that will allow you to A/B test different images. And you can look at even deeper engagement metrics. You can look at engaged time, scroll depth, and so on. When you have a piece with beautiful imagery and photography or really fantastic, engaging written narrative or video narrative, you can demonstrate that people are spending time with that content.

And then if you’re really at the next level and you’re properly connecting a bunch of different marketing automation systems, you can actually start to show that the pieces of content that you’ve invested more creative firepower in, are actually at the end of the day driving more business results for you. But a lot of that really requires having everyone on board so you can set up those different tracking systems and really accurately measure the success of your content. That’s a broader problem that brands are dealing with as a whole.

So it’s definitely a complex problem – one that will get solved as measuring gets better within brands screening content. Right now, a lot of people are still just doing stuff very blind. But once those numbers start to bear out, I think it’ll be easier for the content-minded people within organizations to advocate for a greater investment in truly good storytelling, and they’ll be able to show that product pushing doesn’t work quite as well.

The whole idea of A/B testing and putting out different forms of content and seeing what performs best is interesting. There was a recent story in Fast Company about how a lingerie company is running A/B testing on photos of underwear models, and creating guidelines for the photographer on how to create imagery based on that.

Do you think that there’s a point where that can go too far? Or as long as you’re increasing performance in terms of metrics, is there no distance too far?

It’s really funny how atomic you can get with A/B testing different pieces of content. BuzzFeed, for example, will figure out from scroll depths and page drop-offs and all those things where they should rearrange a listicle. They’ll A/B test different versions, like “Oh, the picture of the cowboy with a water gun GIF really does well at #6, but it’s terrible at #17.” They’ll see different stuff like that, and they’ll optimize every single listicle accordingly. They also do that with testing the different leads to articles.

I think that kind of application is really cool to me, that you can really optimize every little single part of a piece. I think there’s a lot of creativity that goes into coming up with all those variations and figuring out which is working best.

I think what you’re talking about sounds to be a little more creatively stifling. It’d be like if someone came to me and said “Okay, our perfect blog post is 600 words and uses the term ‘content marketing’ 7 times and uses ‘leverage’ twice,” and really directing every little aspect of it. Because I think that shrinks your creativity when you’re put into that type of constraint. 

Obviously constraints can help your creativity. Like if I said to you “tell a joke” versus “tell a knock-knock joke,” the latter would be easier and probably funnier and more creative. But I think when you tighten that box too small, it’s not a good thing. We’re talking content creators, so yeah, there’s probably a limit where over-testing will stifle creativity. But at the same time, when it comes to matters of editorial judgment or different variations that can work, I think it’s great to be able to test multiple iterations of a piece to see which one is going to pop off the most for you. Everyone who does that is going to be the people that win over the next 5 to 10 years.

Any parting thoughts?

I think the biggest thing is that for content marketing to work, brands really just need to give a lot more freedom to smart, creative people who know how to reach audiences, know how to tell a story that’s going to bring people in. Those brands just need to give those people the freedom to do what they do. That’s going to be the biggest challenge for most brands in the year ahead, and it’s what’s going to separate the brands that are really successful from the ones that continue to struggle at doing this.

And then if you’re a content creator and you’re interested in doing some work with brands – because some of it is really interesting and rewarding – that you look for the brands that are going to give you that freedom. It’s going to just make your life a hell of a lot more enjoyable.

Joe's work at Contently can be found here

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Photo Essay Platforms Gaining Viewers, Rolling out Brand Partnerships

A number of social sites are emerging that allow people and brands to easily create beautifully designed long-form photo essays. While these platforms are relatively new options for those looking to share photo stories online, they certainly deserve a place on the radar of anyone involved in creating digital advertising content. Brands are just starting to discover these sites as marketing opportunities, and so far the executions have been a mixed bag. Some of it is excellent, but some of it, not so much. Regardless, Medium, Exposure and Stampsy are all sites worth keeping your eye on.

  Screenshots from The Selected Issue on Exposure, and Lauren Brown on Stampsy.

 

Screenshots from The Selected Issue on Exposure, and Lauren Brown on Stampsy.

Medium is the best known of the bunch. The site, created by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, already boasts posts from a range of well-known public figures like Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Medium made the move into native ad publishing beginning in the middle of last year with BMW, and more recently with Marriott.

Exposure is less well known, though I’ve been particularly impressed by their design philosophy, and have been keeping my eyes on them for some time. Their original strategy for making money was based on selling monthly subscriptions to those posting content, but with the recent content marketing moves that Medium made, I’ll be interested to see how that changes. They recently started promoting an account curated by Filson, which could point to an interest in further exploring native advertising as a revenue model.

Stampsy is the smallest player in the field, but according to AngelList, they’ve raised nearly 750K, in investment capital and are planning to go public in 2015, so they certainly will be worth watching in the upcoming year. Also, unlike the other platforms, their platform looks great for photo essays that don’t include any words at all.

As a photographer, it made me happy to see more photo-centric platforms start to draw the attention of big marketers. However, some of these sites have a long way to go to consistently create engaging content that will prove to be a true draw.

The Marriott sponsored feed, Gone on Medium is a great example of where these branded content series have room to grow. 

A snippet of the story published on Filson's Exposure page

A snippet of the story published on Filson's Exposure page

On the one hand there are a few examples of good photography, such as the Dancing in the Streets story documenting a second line parade in New Orleans. However, there are plenty of disappointments. To give one example, the photos in Duck Taco Night in Saigon are lackluster. The lack of a byline on these photos makes me suspect that they tasked the writer to also create the artwork for the story, which may have played a part in the less-than-amazing results.

Even worse, photos for the Marriott-sponsored story, Brazil’s Mind-Boggling Art Park are sourced from Flickr. Here’s a platform that’s all about sharing big, beautiful photos. It’s one of the flagship marketing examples for the platform. It’s being bankrolled by Marriott. And the best they can do for photography is to source images from Flickr! That had me shaking my head in disbelief.

Having said that, there’s also work being produced that is cause for optimism. Filson is doing a lot right here. For example this story on fishing in the Olympic Peninsula was beautifully shot by photographer Brenna Marriie.

Filson published the same stories to its website and Exposure, so it’s very interesting to see how the story looks when compared to the execution on the Filson site.  For me, it’s a compelling side-by-side comparison that implicitly argues for the value of great design. On Filson’s website, I feel like I’m reading a marketing piece. On Exposure, it’s like I’ve kicked back with one of my favorite magazines, reading something for pleasure.

Filson is also doing a great job showing how long-form photography content produced for a platform like Exposure can get a lot of mileage in other places as well. Images from the same shoot are not only used on Exposure and the Filson website, but also on Instagram and Facebook (photo example of Facebook and Instagram executions). With brands trying to engage on so many digital platforms these days, there is a huge benefit in commissioning this sort of story-telling photography that can then be published in many different ways across a variety of platforms.

These platforms are still in their earliest stages, so it has yet to be seen how big of a player they’ll be as a social platform. Medium is undoubtedly the biggest player in the game, and some educated guesses suggest they have around 460,000 followers and 13 million unique monthly users earlier in 2014. This may be a drop in the bucket compared to platforms like Instagram and Facebook. However, their potential for growth, along with the unique approach they take to photo essay style content, mean that these platforms should at least be on the radar of anyone working in digital advertising.

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Original Photography for a Geo-Targeted App

Earlier this year I traveled to 17 cities across the East coast to make images for Chase's app. We shot a series of images in each city that are now being used in a rotation on Chase's iPhone and Android apps. Users sees an image based on where the app is accessed from. The goal behind every image was to shoot a picture that would be instantly recognizable to someone who lived in that city, while avoiding shooting in cliche or tourist spots.

I'm posting this here, not just because it's a series of work that I'm proud of, but also because I think the strategy here could be the seeds of inspiration for other digital campaigns.

As the nations largest bank, there are plenty of advantages to banking with Chase. Looking for an ATM in Tuscaloosa? Chase has you covered. But at the same time, any national corporation of this size has to make special efforts if it wants to appeal as a local option in any particular area. I've found the homescreen images to send the message that Chase is dedicated to serving and being a part of a local community. It's subtle, but Chase starts feeling more like my hometown bank when I see these images.

Chase isn't the only one stepping up their game in terms of geo-targeting. Within the last few months Apple introduced iOS 8, with the ability to send notifications to a phones lock screen based on your location. Walk into a train station, and you could find a link on your lock screen to an app that will allow you to purchase a ticket on your phone.  In a similar vein Facebook has also announced local awareness ads that similarly take advantage of a users location.

As far as I can tell, Chase is the first company that has invested in creating original photography to be used as part of a location-aware campaign on a national scale. However, I think this area is full of opportunity for brands and agencies, and I'll be excited to see what kind of tailored content other brands create in the near future to be used in location aware marketing.

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20 Under 20

A fantastically curated group of 20 photographers under 20 years old has been assembled by Flickr. 

For those looking to create work that is authentic, particularly for that coveted "millennial" demographic, there's a lot to be taken away from looking at the kind of work that millenials are creating, and are drawn to on social platforms.

Photos from Oliver Charles' photostream, one of the photographers selected for 20 under 20.

Photos from Oliver Charles' photostream, one of the photographers selected for 20 under 20.

A few items that I found especially interesting:

  • There's a lot of attention put on post production, with a lot of images tending towards that VSCO-esque film vibe
  • There are LOTS of self portraits. Advertisers inspired by this approach might want to commission photographers who work this way (This is an approach that style bloggers have been taking for years.... Ann Street Studio is one of my favorite examples of this done properly). 
  • Many of these photographers participated in "365" projects, where they created and posted an image every single day. This gives me lots of inspiration about being scrappy and creating great work even when you aren't working with the sorts of budgets associated with traditional print campaigns. (Though we can hope that most photographers working on social advertising campaigns won't have to resort to  mom and dad assisting on shoots.)
  • There are lots of serial projects. Advertisers can do well to replicate this approach to help pull together an idea or a campaign that will be spread across a number of different posts on a platform like Instagram, Tumblr or Facebook.

Anyone who works in advertising for social media that uses imagery in their campaign (IE ANYONE working in social media) would be well served to take a look at these 20 photographers. Here are a few of my favorites:

Brian Oldham

Brian Oldham

Greg Pths

Greg Pths

Alex Stoddard

Alex Stoddard

Lauren Withrow

Lauren Withrow

Small Teams Making Great Content

For those brands and agencies who feel that they're tasked with making a lot with a little, I thought it would be worth sharing a look at some of my favorite blogs/social campaigns that are run by just one or two people. The work below, in my opinion, is compelling and original on it's own.... But what makes it even more impressive is that it's curated or created by just one or two people. Some of them are even side projects of sorts. Next time you think the digital advertising campaign you're working on doesn't have enough money or resources to make great work, take a look at these sites to get some perspective on what's possible.

 

Nick Onken

I've followed Nick's blog for quite some time, and I've watched as it grew from focussing on the business of photography into a full on lifestyle media site. Nick records his own podcasts, writes commentary and shoots original content... And he does all of this while working as a busy full time commercial photographer.

 

Ariele Alasko

Ariel Alasko is a furniture builder and woodworker based in Brooklyn. Her website is very well done, but the real standout is her Instagram account, which is approaching a quarter million followers. She announces sales of items like carved spoons and bowls on her Instagram, and the premium priced products invariably sell out very quickly. 

 

The Glamourai

I've been following this blog ever since running into stylist Kelly Framel at fashion week a few years ago. At first glance, you might think that The Glamourai is supported by a giant publishing team. On a regular basis they roll out original fashion editorials whose production value and art direction rival anything you'd see in a major fashion publication. Take a closer look, though, and you'll see that the site is entirely written by Kelly, with her sister serving as the market editor and production manager. 

 

The Glow

I was fortunate to have the chance to work with Kelly Stuart when she hired me to to photograph fashion week for Elle a couple years ago. While working as a full time photo director at Hearst (which, as you can imagine, isn't one of those phone-it-in kind of jobs), she also found the time and resources to put together The Glow. The entire site (and now book) is produced by her and editor Violet Gaynor.


People in the advertising world have a tendency to look to what other brands and agencies are doing for inspiration. However, with digital publishing allowing individuals to put out great content that others are actually consuming, it can be super useful to look at content being made by people outside the ad world.

These are a few sites that I really admire for being able to make so much from relatively limited resources. If anyone else has suggestions on individuals or small teams making great digital work, I'd love to hear about it!

Photography for J. Crew Digital
with Bryan Derballa

When I was a fresh transplant to Brooklyn in 2006, one of my sources of photography inspiration was Love Bryan, a blog curated by Bryan Derballa. The blog came in an unusual format, displaying the work from several photographers in personal, long form photo essays.

I hadn't met Bryan, but I followed along with his career as I started seeing his name popping up in credits for the Fader, Vice and the Wall Street Journal.

More recently, I was excited to see his work on posts for the J. Crew blog. Coinciding with when Mickey Drexler took over as CEO in the early 2000s, the brand has grown into one that truly stands out in terms of creative direction. They are consistently creating fresh and forward thinking images. Their social media and digital presence is, in my opinion, one of the most well executed programs in fashion, and brands working in any area can take inspiration from it. In particular, I think the editorial/storytelling approach that they've taken on their blog is a brilliant way to create content that people actually want to subscribe and tune in to.

Bryan has a key role in creating visual content for J. Crew's digital presence on their tumblr, and Instagram feed. When I recently ran into Bryan at a seminar for PDN 30, I jumped on the opportunity to say hello, and a few weeks later we sat down to talk more about the work he's been creating for J. Crew.

How did your relationship with J. Crew start?

Several years ago I shot J.Crew’s presentation at Fashion Week for T-Magazine – I think it was only the second presentation they’d ever done at Fashion Week. I shot it and just did my thing. The nice part about working with T was complete creative freedom. They kind of wanted you to do whatever you did well.

Some people at J.Crew found those photos, and they passed it along to Jenna Lyons, (President and Creative Director of J.Crew). She liked it and they brought me in to photograph their presentation and backstage for the presentation at the next fashion week. They wanted it for their Tumblr and for their internal usage, and I think some photos might’ve got thrown up on Instagram, but their Instagram was still very new at the time.

It was the blog director’s first day. Her first day was my first day, and after that it just became this match made in heaven, and we worked on so many things afterwards together. It evolved from being just fashion week to a whole host of things.

So right from the start, it seems that there was a very editorial mindset about creating content?

Yeah, absolutely. I started in photojournalism; all my early clients were newspapers and the occasional magazine. But it was always very reportage style. That’s the kind of work I love most and that’s the kind of work I enjoy doing, and I think it’s really cool that J.Crew has seen that. They identified that in me and allow me to do it in a more commercial and fashion-based setting.

A lot of what we do is studio tours and factory tours. We have columns, like In the Kitchen, where we’ll go to someone interesting and photograph them making a meal. We do a lot of style features. We love to work with real people, not necessarily models, to see what the clothes look like on those people and to get more of their personality and to try to find a place where the clothes, the personality, and the photography all meld together.

That’s something interesting in terms of social media and marketing right now. You’re basically combining two things: the social media world and the advertising world. So a brand has to choose: do you want to take it more from the angle of how people are already creating content on social media with a more loose, editorial approach? Or do you want to think of it more like traditional advertising, which might mean things are conceived ahead of time and you’ve got an art director making up comps and clients signing off on concepts before they’re even shot.

One of the coolest thing about social media and photography, and one of the reasons I’m really interested in doing it right now, is that it hasn’t been totally defined yet. We know what advertising looks like in magazines or on billboards; we have an idea of what we’re going to see when we open the pages of those magazines. It’s often very slick and there’s production value and the clothes look good, people look good. We know what that is.

Likewise, we know what photojournalism looks like. We see the New York Times every day, Time Magazine, we have an idea of what that is.

But social media photography, it’s so new that it’s still being defined, and it takes influences from all these things that are still evolving. Twitter did so well because it gave people direct access to their friends and celebrities. If you want to know what Ashton Kutcher really thinks, or Shakira or whoever these people are that have really popular Twitter feeds, you can get an intimate look into their life and what they’re thinking. Even if it is filtered through a publicist, it doesn’t always seem like it, so you get this more raw and candid look at these things that we’re interested in and fascinated by.

So I think that the photography in social media does that really well – or at least it should be doing that really well. We’re not going to repurpose a photo that was shot for the catalog necessarily; instead, we’re going to get something more intimate, more behind the scenes, closer to the people actually making the clothes.

Or we might make something that has a little bit more personality, just to engage the viewers in a different way, because that’s what they want with social media. They’re looking for some kind of intimacy, and it gives you a feeling – it’s so personal. You’re looking on your phone, you have this little device, and it’s just you and the device. You’re choosing what’s on that screen. Unlike a billboard or a magazine or something that you walk by and it’s just there, you’re very interactively choosing, “This is what I want,” and it seems like that personal experience has shown brands and the folks that follow this kind of stuff that people want intimacy and the rawness and candidness, and just a sense of honesty in a world that is often so bombarded by artifice.

So what I’m really interested in, is taking a documentary approach and applying it to all kinds of different situations. It doesn’t have to be as serious as my photojournalism, and it doesn’t have to be as serious as traditional advertising. It can be more free-flowing and more abstract and strange and interesting.

So in a way, do you feel like you have even more license to be creative with it than you would when you’re shooting for the Wall Street Journal, for example?

Yeah, definitely. The Wall Street Journal, they’re great and do very important work. They have a defined readership and journalistic obligations. The images they choose to run in their paper need to inform and serve the story.

At J. Crew we can also share a photo that gives a feeling in a more abstract way, and it doesn’t require as much of an explanation but can still affect people in a way that goes beyond what we’re traditionally used to.

 It’s exciting to imagine an emerging area in advertising photography where photographers have a bit more creative freedom and the shoots are a little more loose.

Yeah, it’s just a whole new way to engage and to push boundaries. And what else is cool about it – and this is from a more general perspective: everyone’s a photographer now. People are constantly going through Instagram and clicking on pictures that they like, and then they’re going out and trying to make photos like that. Often people just shoot the things that are important in their life, but they’re doing it so much more that they’re trying to figure out ways to do it in a new or creative way. They’re trying to see things a little bit differently, and they’re trying new filters and understanding the look of the picture rather than just what the picture is.

So I think that people on a whole are increasing their visual vocabulary. They’re becoming more sophisticated with it. When I first started shooting, for the first few years I was taking pictures that I thought were so smart and so visually sophisticated, but they were lost on people who weren’t photographers. Photographers liked it, but people who weren’t photographers, it didn’t really resonate. It looked weird or it felt uncomfortable or whatever.

But now people are becoming more and more open to that. I have a lot of tricks in my bag, and I like to employ them when making photos. That keeps it interesting for me. I like to use visual techniques to do things with images to make them more engaging. People are becoming more open to that, and I think that is a big benefit of Instagram.

How do things come together for a shoot for J. Crew in terms of production?

The blog director will come to me ahead of time with a few things that we’re going to shoot. We’ll schedule it, we’ll lock down our subjects, and she’ll send out call sheets, and then I’ll show up. Sometimes, but not all the time, there’s a creative director there as well.

What’s been really nice for me with J.Crew is that I get to work with a team. When I was working with newspapers a lot, I would have a lot of contact with my editors, but they were assigning so much and overseeing so much that they never actually came on the shoots. But with J.Crew, I always have my blog director and my art director there. They give me pretty free rein, but they also help to encourage me to try things that I may not see, or to point out details that I may have missed, or to help elicit something from the subjects to make it more comfortable to shoot.

That’s the process of shooting. I’ve pitched a couple things here and there, but in general I leave it up to them. Most of my time spent on coming up with photo ideas are for personal projects. And they have so many things that they need to cover that I could never even know about, because I don’t attend the marketing meetings, that I just leave it up to them.

Do you work with any other brands in the same way you shoot for J. Crew?

 Not really. I've done it once for Nike. But I haven’t really sought out doing it with anyone else. J.Crew keeps me very busy. A lot of people don’t know what this kind of work is worth. But with J.Crew, I don’t feel that way

One of the things that’s interesting is how much they’re really invested in this. How do I put this… we shoot around New York all the time, and our shoots aren’t huge; it’s not like we have production RVs and stuff like that, but we do travel a lot with it. So far I’ve gone to London three or four times with J.Crew, and we’ve been to different parts of Europe. We go to California every year. Went to Hong Kong and to Tanzania.

All of this was to produce content for their Tumblr and their Instagram, and I think that that’s pretty unique. I think that not very many companies would take the risk of sending someone so far at such a high expense to produce content specifically for those things. So I think that’s really cool.

I do think that’s true. One thing that’s interesting, to me, though is that any component of an advertising campaign is the media buy. So if it’s a TV commercial or an ad in a magazine, they’re paying a lot of money just for that space. You can pay money to get people to see things on Facebook and on Tumblr, and on Instagram too now. But it doesn’t seem like that has been the approach by J. Crew.

Obviously the cost of production and your fees adds up but I would imagine that it can be well worth it if the content is great and people want to tune in and subscribe to the feeds and share it.

Yeah, totally. I never thought about it that way but that does make sense.

 Another part of J.Crew’s approach that I think is so smart is having this long-term relationship with you. So it’s not like every time they do a shoot, they’re trying to teach a photographer what the brand is supposed to be, where they’re trying to take it, and the kind of things that they’re really interested in showcasing. 

Have you felt that they’ve taught you about the brand and the direction it’s going, and if so, has it translated into you being able to take pictures that work for them better?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a two-way street, though. J.Crew has a very strong visual and brand identity. It took me awhile to learn those. I’d seen the brand and I knew a little bit about it beforehand, but now I understand so much more. I understand of course the clothes, and I can spot those from a mile away, but now I understand the style.

I can pick out the things that are going to be on brand for them in terms of people and personalities and music and arts and culture and all those things that are going to influence the J.Crew voice. I’ve become pretty well attuned to that, some through working with Jenna Lyons at fashion week, but mostly through my team, the blog director and creative director, and just all the other media that they put out.

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But in the same way, I got to help define what their voice is for social media. I’ve been able to help define a look. I do most of the stuff for the blog and for the Instagram, but I don’t do all of it. Sometimes I’m out of town or sometimes they have multiple shoots going on at the same time, or sometimes they have something come up in a faraway place and they can’t get me there in time.

In those instances, they hire photographers with similar aesthetics, and the photos move pretty seamlessly. Another photographer recently covered the Hong Kong store opening, and those pictures didn’t look too much different than how my pictures look. I think that’s a purposeful thing. I think they know what they’re doing. They want to have a consistent voice and a consistent vision.

I’m lucky that I came in at a time when they were figuring out what that was going to be, and I got to help decide what it was going to be with my own vision.

 

Bryan's work can be seen at bryanderballa.com. Bryan and I will be sitting on a panel, How to Land Assignments for Social Media Advertising during PhotoPlus Expo on October 31st.

On The Road

Today marks day 23 of a project that I'm working on with the fine folks over at mcgarrybowen. Of course the details are a bit under wraps, but what I can say is that we're working on a set of images that will take me and an super talented and dedicated production/creative crew to 17 cities over the course of 6 weeks to make images for a mobile app. I can't wait for the project to launch in the fall so I can share more. This blog will be back to it's regularly scheduled programming after I've wrapped, but in the meantime you can catch up with the latest from the road on Instagram, or Tumblr.

Design Inspiration from Exposure.co

I’m always on the lookout for examples of brands who are doing a great job of publishing images in social media and on digital platforms, and I certainly feel like I’ve found a variety of examples (some of which I’ve already written about in this blog). One item that I’m at usually at a loss for, though, are examples of brands who are setting high standards for great design and presentation of images.

Of course on social media, there are pretty tight boundaries to how images are presented (though JWT Canada did have an interesting approach for this Mazda campaign). But what I’m talking about in this case is great design on a brands own websites.

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Yes, I’m a photographer, so perhaps I’m more of a sucker than most for beautiful, well displayed photography. However, when my friend, Jake Lodwick, launched exposure.co, (created by  Luke Beard and Kyle Bragger) it really made me think that this is a sort of design approach that brands—particularly those in fashion or other style related areas—should really be looking at.

I started thinking about this more when my friend Tanveer Badal sent along the series that he posted from Everest Base Camp. I quickly took a spin through the Staff Picks, and it wasn’t hard to find some other excellent examples of how great, minimalist design can interact with pictures in a way that we seldom see brands take advantage of.

I’m not an expert in the process that most brands follow to build websites, but from my understanding, the typical approach is to start with a wireframe of the site long before any content has been introduced. I suspect that this might be part of the problem. Imagine an art director trying to sell a client on a screen design consisting of a bunch of simple large boxes representing full bleed horizontal images. Part of the solution might be a re-think on the start-to-finish process of making a website.

I think there’s an opportunity here. Pairing great photography with minimal, yet well thought out design shouldn't seem like a novel idea.... Yet it's surprisingly rare (in my opinion) to see a brand doing this. Brands looking to stand out with their work, or agencies looking to offer something unique could definitely take some inspiration from exposure.co

Instagram Playing it Safe with Paid Content

This questionnaire recently popped up in my Instagram feed, and it’s a reminder that the social network is being very careful as it works out a strategy for allowing paid content.

From a personal perspective, I saw a flurry of ads on the platform in November of last year. I didn’t block any of the advertising, but it’s been several months since I’ve seen a sponsored post. An informal survey of friends on Instagram confirms that users haven’t really been seeing sponsored posts lately. A deal was announced between Instagram and Omnicom worth $40 to$100 million at the beginning of March, which has me scratching my head in terms of when the deluge of advertising is going to start.

We can only speculate on when the sponsored post will become a regular occurrence on Instagram, or what doors might open down the line for advertisers. However, the current structure means that success is less about paid placement, and more about great content. The best solutions for getting a brands message out right now is by collaborating with Instagram users who already have a strong following (like Mercedes Benz did in their campaign last year) or to create genuinely compelling work that users will organically want to follow.

Either way, the current winners on Instagram aren’t necessarily the ones with the money, they’re the ones with the vision. That’s an opportunity for smart marketers, ad agencies, and image makers.

 

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Herman Miller creates an editorial platform with Dwell alumni

Herman Miller’s Why is a fantastic example of a brand bypassing magazines and creating great editorial content on their own. The project launched in July of last year, stating that their aim was to answer the question "Why has Herman Miller thrived for 108 years?" They are creating content and hosting it on their site, very much up the alley of what I described last year when I wrote about what Mr. Porter is doing. The formula is pretty simple: Make content that the people you want to engage with will want to consume.

The project is overseen by Sam Grawe, who is the former editor in chief of Dwell Magazine, and edited by Amber Bravo, a former editor at the magazine. For some recent shots, they hired Dwell freelancer Jake Stangel. In other words, the people making content for Herman Miller were all doing the same thing for Dwell magazine just a few years ago.

A couple of recent articles about Mexico city are great indicators of how the Dwell team approaches content marketing. One reads as a travel piece, with just a few references to Herman Miller’s new Latin America headquarters. The other talks more explicitly about a Mexico city based organization that was the recipient of an award from Herman Miller. The stories were written by Bravo and photographed by Stangel.

I suspect that smart brands will continue to borrow from the editorial world, both in terms of their approach to making work, and talent itself. Brands who do this right will be able to grow a loyal, engaged audience that they can speak with on their own terms.

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Why-screenshot-2

Everlane's Stand Out use of Photography in Social Media

I've been keeping an eye on the online fashion retailer Everlane for some time. This company is doing it right in a lot of ways, particularly in terms of still photography and social media. Their campaign can be an inspiration for any brand looking to develop a more refined voice in their imagery. Here's what I like about what they're doing:

Optimizing their shoots and knowing their platforms:

Everlane has done a great job of getting the most out of their photoshoots. As an online fashion retailer, their bread and butter is in catalogue style photography. These pictures have to be clean and straightforward to show a potential buyer what the product looks like. Everlane makes the most of these shoots by creating additional content that can be used elsewhere. The way they edit and use the pictures reflects a deep understanding of these platforms. A clean lookbook shoot turns into a Facebook cover page when the photographer captures an image with more personality and more of an editorial approach. That same shoot turns into Instagram material when the model is shot away from the seamless backdrop with less refined light and more of a snapshot feel.

Campaigns Encouraging User Generated Content:

On Instagram, Everlane ran a campaign based on the #WhereITravel hashtag last year that was remarkably successful and culminated in a gallery show at Milk Studios here in NYC. More recently, they started a campaign based on the #myeverlane hashtag. They kicked that it off by asking contributors to take pictures of their travel gear including Everlane product. Both of these campaigns were successful because they played off ways that users are already using Instagram.

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Everlane-customer-engagement

Balancing User Generated Content with Original Content:

Everlane has lots of great user generated content to choose from. This stems in part from campaigns like those described above, and also because of the elegant design of their packaging which is effective in getting customers to post their own unboxing photos. They understand the value of this sort of content, and curate user generated pictures on both Facebook (in this album) and Instagram accounts.

Everlane-From-The-People
Everlane-From-The-People

However, they're smart to not depend too heavily on user generated content for their owned platforms. They still lead with well produced original photography.

Where Everlane could improve:

A large part of Everlane's marketing message is about working with factories operating at the highest standards across the world. They've commissioned documentary style photography of these factories, but unfortunately, these images fall short compared to the rest of their media. For example, take a look at images from their China factory in this Facebook gallery. While I can imagine that Everlane was weary of not wanting to sugarcoat the factory conditions, they ended up too far in the opposite direction. The bleak color treatment and lack of engagement with the workers works against Everlane's message in this case.

Despite a few quibbles with specific elements of their media, for me Everlane still represents a company that is breaking ground with well executed photography that is  true to the various digital platforms it lives on. Companies and agencies looking to refine what they do in this area should take note.

Tinker Street Mobile

NYC based agent Jesse Miller has been representing Instagram photographers for some time, with Tinker Street Mobile. Collaborating with Instagramers with a large fan base has been one of the most effective ways for a brand to work on the platform, and Miller was quick to recognize the opportunity here. I'll be interested to see how things change now that there are more ways for brands to work with Instagram.

Either way, for agencies looking to engage some great Instagram photographers, their roster is a great place to start. And for creatives looking for inspiration, their commissions page shows off some beautifully executed work that really rings true for the platform.

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tinkerstreet

An ACDs Thoughts on Photography for Social

“The thing that I’m finding is that it’s always better to engage any sort of visual thinker very early on in the creative process, when all the strategists are sitting around and you’re figuring out what the brand needs to exist like in the physical realm.”

There's a really fantastic interview on Photo District News with Maury Postal, ACD at Social@Ogilvy. Postal has some great insight into what's happening right now in terms of content for social media. Check it out here.

Red Bull's Content Marketing Strategy

Digital has been a game changer in terms of media production for most big brands. As the number of platforms and opportunities to publish increase online, I see a lot of scrambling to keep up. While some brands are still struggling to find a cohesive strategy for publishing on their own websites and in the major social media channels, Red Bull has taken it to another level, with Red Bull Content Pool.

The site essentially serves as a free stock agency. There are more than 50,000 photos on the site, all of which can be downloaded and re-purposed for uses ranging from a blog post to print publications. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the images have a well placed Red Bull logo somewhere within the frame.

The Red Bull Content pool is a compelling and unique marketing strategy. A brand looking to make a serious investment in brand awareness could consider doing something similar. While the Content Pool also provides videos, the still images seem more compelling to me as a type of media that can easily be leveraged by third party publishers

There certainly is no lack of media outlets--from hobbyist bloggers to large media companies--that would jump at the chance to have access to high quality images that relate to their subject area and can illustrate their stories. I'll be interested to see if any other brands follow suit with their own branded stock sites in the coming few years.

The Value of Original Content

I recently had a great chat with the folks at Percolate. They offer a unique product. In a nutshell, it's an all-in-one platform that streamlines content production for social media. We both work with clients with similar goals, so I was genuinely interested to learn more about what they do and how their system might be used to improve what we're currently doing. I got the full rundown on how their system works, but naturally what interested me most is how their platform works with still photography. I discovered that customers with Percolate have streamlined access to a broad library of images via 1) Getty and other extensive royalty free libraries, 2) an iPhone app that allows anyone in the organization to take photos on their phone and acquire a signed model release and 3) a pretty slick system to request and acquire releases for found amateur images on social media platforms.

From there, the platform has a built in system to retouch, crop, add Instagram style filters, logos and copy.

Percolate

While my initial interest in Percolate was trying to see how we might integrate their system into an ad agency, I walked away from the conversation realizing that Percolate is a platform that is really well poised to replace ad agencies.

A forward looking agency looking to win more social business is well served to keep a close eye out on solutions like this. Agencies have to ask themselves: what is our unique selling proposition? From a photography perspective, if you're relying on using stock or found imagery, can you really demonstrate the value you're bringing to the table? For agencies who aren't focusing on creating original content, a solution like Percolate could start to look like a very viable alternative.

Shooting Live Events

I recently shot CMJ for Verizon social. In addition to allowing me to relive my college days shooting shows for the school newspaper, it was an opportunity to let our photographic style breathe a bit. After a couple days shooting at CMJ I've been thinking more about how this sort of photography can fit into the bigger picture of a social media strategy. Here are some things to consider if you're thinking of integrating live event coverage into your social content.

Give insider access.

One way a brand can set itself apart from fan generated content is by sharing images shot from a unique vantage point. In this case, having backstage access allowed us to offer something original and worthy of a comment, like or share.

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Streamline your approvals process.

We're accustomed to seeing fan images post live on social media. For a brand, the structure for getting images up might require a number of agency or client approvals. Make a game plan before the event on how images will be delivered and approved by stakeholders. This will go a long way toward getting the content posted while it's still fresh, and the engagement with the fanbase feels more authentic.

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Arrange for model releases ahead of time.

Having model releases buttoned up is something that can make or break a shoot like this. In this scenario, the musicians had made model release arrangements in advance as part of Verizon's sponsorship of the event.

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See it through the lens of the brand.

Shooting in a documentary style means that there's less opportunity to explicitly insert a brand message into the work. However, the DNA of the brand can still inform the approach. While there were plenty of opportunities for gratuitous shots of the collateral advertising materials around the venue, we settled on a more nuanced approach.

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Tell a story.

 Event and documentary coverage is a great opportunity to engage your fanbase with more than just a single image. If a gallery or series of images is your goal, think how the images will work in terms of pacing and as a narrative. In this scenario, we wanted to be able to add some visual diversity and shoot more than just bands on stage, so we enlisted a couple people from the creative team to make some images with a lifestyle perspective.

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Creating Content for Promoted Pins

Pinterest just announced that they will be bringing paid content into the fold with "promoted pins". This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. Generating revenue of some sort has to be in the books for any social media service to stick around for a long time. And ever since dropping their skimlinks partnership in 2012, Pinterest has not been generating revenue. From my perspective, what's interesting about his is how the production of pictures for social media will evolve for Pinterest. I've worked with clients to produce content for Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram. One of the biggest conversations has been about how we can create content that feels right for the platform. What's different about Pinterest is that much of the content is NOT user generated. Rather, it's pinned from other websites, which means it's common to see content that was professionally produced. To put this another way: your average Tumblr, Facebook or Instagram user isn't going to post 20 professionally produced studio shots in a row. But it's not uncommon at all for a Pinterest board to look like this:

 Producing good commercial content that works on Pinterest is going to be less of a paradigm shift for most advertisers. Having said that, every social media platform comes with it's built in personality and quirks, and I'll definitely be keeping my eye out for the agencies and brands who can create images that really takes advantage of the platform.