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.
Amy Yvonne Yu works at AKQA, which in my mind is one of the leading digital agencies today. I'm not the only one. Adweek named them digital agency of the year in 2011 and 2012. As Senior Integrated Content Producer, she's plays a huge role in the creation of photography (among other things) for AKQA's clients. Outside of AKQA, is a photojournalist, a collaborator on The Selby's latest, and had a previous career as a DJ.
I was excited to have the chance to chat with her and to learn more about her perspective on the current state of commercial photography for social media.
Your official title at AKQA is Senior Integrated Content Producer. That obviously has the potential to mean a lot of different things. What does your job entail?
I work with any kind of content across different media, so that includes stills and video. I do a lot of video at AKQA since there’s a lot of demand for it. And we do experiential. Experiential is a broad spectrum. It could be an event, it could be projections, it could be holograms, or any kind of installation design.
For instance, I just finished the Air Jordan All-Star Game Weekend in New Orleans. I produced live streams. I managed two video crews for commercial work, and then I also produced a VIP mansion event that was a digital summit with projections and live tweets on big screens and all that stuff, in addition to just performers at the event. So that’s what it all means; just any kind of digital content.
How much original social content are you being tasked to produce?
Quite a bit, actually. In addition to all the stuff I just told you about, I also managed two still shooters, shooting exclusively for Air Jordan’s Instagram. So obviously, with social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+ and everything that’s out there – there’s a lot of demand for content. A lot of people do use stock imagery, but by doing a better job curating your content, your brand can have a voice. You do start seeing a lot of brands are starting to do a better job of this, and actually producing original content. It’s a necessity.
Nowadays, with the internet and everything being so accessible, the problem is that there’s a lot of information out there. You have to filter through what you’re going to digest, including imagery. And I have to say, 95% or more of stuff out there is total crap that you have to weed through. So that’s a big part of what I do.
It feels like there was a time when low quality stock imagery, or just repurposing your print ads was enough for social media. But that’s changing now.
Different medias have different needs, and if you don’t understand the needs and how to either repurpose the campaign or actually create content specific to that media, you’re going to fail. You see a lot of that happening right now. Old school agencies are still struggling to go into interactive, and they think, “Oh yeah, let’s just take that print ad and chop it up and use it as a banner ad." What they don’t understand is the click-through rate of banners is something abysmal like 1% to 2%.
So how do you increase that? Because if you’re not increasing traffic, you’re failing miserably. And the whole point of these different mediums is to engage people. If you’re not, then you’re not doing it right.
It seems that there are different approaches to creating social content. One can be a more traditional approach where you have an explicit idea of the pictures you want to make. The other is more of a run-and-gun approach where you’re sending photographers out and relying on them to tell the story. How do you work with the Air Jordan photographers? Are they going out with very specific concepts, or are you saying “go shoot what feels cool?"
One of the photographers is actually more product driven, and he’ll also shoot a variety of things. The other shoots with more of a photojournalistic style. I think there’s a need for both in brands. I mean, I’m sure you’ve experienced yourself – when you assign a shooter for social media, it’s always good to have a shot list, because you’re going to have needs, and it’s important to get those needs met. Otherwise, without that list, it’s kind of like free for all.
But for me as an audience member, I’m more interested in what comes out naturally. Maybe it’s because I’m more of a photojournalist. When you’re shooting specifically with a shot list, it has the potential to feel much more contrived. And that may not necessarily be interesting to certain people.
Unless you’ve got a little something extra to offer the audience, the viewer’s going to get bored. It’s like, “Oh, you’re marketing to me again, and this isn’t even that interesting.” So brands have to consider what is the added value you’re giving to your viewers? Otherwise you’re just wasting people’s time and money.
I look at photographers like Jamie Beck, for example, and I imagine that she tends to work with brands in a way where she is given a lot of latitude.
I think when you hire somebody who is very strong in their voice, someone like Jamie Beck of Ann Street Studio, or The Selby, or say, Hedi Slimane, you hire them to do what they do. Once you force them to work outside of that mode, why did you hire them at all? You’re not really utilizing them to their fullest potential. It’s kind of like you’re just doing it for the name association.
I truly believe when you hire someone, you should utilize them 100%, to their best ability. But I’m an idealist. The way I see it, why wouldn’t you use them to do what they do best? That’s what you’re hiring them for. Otherwise it’s a waste.
You’ve had experience piggybacking TV shoots with still photographers shooting for social media. Do you think a shoot like this can occur in which you capture enough images for all the social worlds that they can successfully be used for 3-4 months or whatever length of time it is between TV campaigns.
Again, it depends on your campaign and what you’re going to roll out down the line. I think so. You just have to be really strategic and you have to have the foresight to think ahead. Ultimately, when you do a campaign, it usually lasts for about three months. So absolutely, it can be done, and it has been done. I’ve done it myself.
What can agencies who really want to anticipate what's next be doing?
I think it’s all about being smart about what next steps are. You see a lot of media shifting to online. You see things like YouTube and Funny or Die becoming a channel. You see a lot of television is moving online. To stay ahead of the game, you have to figure that out. Branded entertainment is very real. It’s all about that. I think consumers don’t like to be advertised to, so I think to be able to be in the game and to be smart about it, you have to be entertaining; you have to be subtle; you have to be taking risk. Branded entertainment’s been around for some time. I think it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it smartly.
You can learn more about Amy at her website, Virtually Nonexistent.
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.
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
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.
James Wood is an advertising professional who helped pioneer social media at Bolt.com in the late 90s. Before working at mcgarrybowen, where he was instrumental in bringing me on board as a photographer for the Verizon campaign, he worked at entertainment companies including MTV, Syfy and Scholastic. He's currently Group Creative Director at MRY in New York.
James always had great perspective about our project, ranging from broad, big-picture ideas on strategy down to creative direction and ideas for our individual shoots. I sat down with him to talk more about his perspective on great social campaigns.
What do you see as the main challenge for brands who want to interact through social channels today?
There are two key problems that brands face when they’re trying to create content in these channels. The first one is providing value. You’ve got to give somebody a reason to be a fan of your brand in the first place. I think all too often brands don’t really offer much other than throwing out some resized image assets from their other media channels.
The other challenge is that when content starts showing up in your newsfeed it has to be something that you even remotely pay attention to. The Facebook newsfeed is a very fluid dynamic experience. You flip through your newsfeed the same way you flip through a magazine. So it’s sort of the age-old print medium problem of how do you get somebody to stop flipping through the magazine long enough to take in your advertising message.
Part of what we tried to do was to create something that feels like it belongs in that newsfeed and can’t immediately be discounted as an ad. It feels like the piece of content that your brother or your co-worker just posted. It feels like it belongs there. It’s organic. And on top of that, we wanted to create content that also had that kind of stopping power where not only am I not zipping past it and immediately discounting it, but I’m actually sort of hitting the brakes and saying, “Oh wow! That’s fun/cool/interesting/whatever it is.”
I think part of what brands struggle with is they take these things that are mocked up comps that totally feel organic to the advertising world. They feel right as a banner ad or a TV spot or whatever. Then they stick it into a place where quite frankly it just don’t belong. It feels alien to the medium.
So a brand has to say: okay if we’re not just going to repurpose the advertising assets we already have, how do we cost-effectively create something else? They turn to stock photography. Like anything else obviously there’s some stock that’s really great and there’s some stock that’s really awful. I do think you can approximate something that feels genuine and organic through stock, but you’re obviously left limited to what you can find that feels right.
We experimented before your arrival with just shooting stuff with phones. I felt that we were able to capture the moments that we were after, but certainly never were able to do it in a way that had the stopping power that we wanted to have. I certainly hope it continues to be a big part of what agencies can offer and what brands would be interested in buying. Relevant content is going to be more and more important in the years to come as people’s consumption habits get more and more fractured. Figuring out how to get the tenants of a brand into content is always going to be a valuable service. I think we chose to do it in a smart way as far as the Facebook newsfeed goes, but there are any number of apertures moving forward that you’re going to have to try to create the same success with.
One thing that I’ve felt is a challenge for this kind of work, is that an audience is much quicker to cry foul or to call out a brand for a misstep.
For many brands it’s become so evident that people are just waiting for brands to screw up social media. They’re just waiting for that errant tweet to go out that says something insensitive, or for a brand to post something that maybe they didn’t realize was inappropriate for this reason or another reason.
I think that created unfortunately a culture where they are just terrified of putting anything out there that hasn’t been completely vetted and legally chopped up and down. Like, “There’s no way this is going to be a PR disaster for us.” It really cuts down on the amount of stuff you’re able to do that feels reactive in real-time. When we get to authenticity for the platform, timeliness is a big part of that too. There’s nothing you want to skip over in your timeline faster than something that feels like it’s from last week. You know what I mean? You tend to stop on the things that feel like they’re happening now. Very rarely are you stopping on the photo from your friend who did something very cool last Tuesday. They’re at the bar now and you kind of want to live vicariously through the fact that they’re doing whatever it is they are now.
Going back to the audience being more critical about what brands post: I get it because we’re crashing the party. It’s all the people who adopted Twitter or adopted Facebook, and they’re doing really great amazing things with these things. Then the advertisers and the agencies come in and try to figure out how to exploit it. I understand why there’s that desire to kick our ass when we mess it up and nothing makes people happier than to be able to say “You don’t even really get this. Why are you bothering?”
It’s always going to come down to who can leverage these things in a savvy-enough way that there’s appreciation for it. I do feel like appreciation is a big part of succeeding in this space, which is why effort is so important. The effort of sending you out to shoot something in a bespoke way, rather than just pulling a stock photo off Getty, hopefully signals to people that we take this channel seriously and we want to provide content with actual value that has been considered and thought through and we’re not just doing the easiest thing we could possibly do which is: “Here’s our print ad resized on your newsfeed. Please buy our products.”
Looking at all the platforms for brands out there: One interesting thing to me is the rise in prominence of Instagram. And in particular, that on Facebook, anyone can simply pay for followers and engagement. You can pay Facebook and amplify something, and no matter how horrible the content is if you pay enough money you can get in front of lots of eyeballs. Instagram is changing in terms of being an advertising platform, but it seems like they’ve been very protective. I very rarely see promoted posts and I think they’re being very careful to work with companies who are creating great content. That could change down the line. But as it is right now, much more than on Facebook a successful feed on Instagram has to be based on good content because no one is going to follow your brand for any other reason.
I think you’re right. Zuckerberg wanted to keep Facebook “pure” for the longest time and he tried to really keep advertising out. Quite frankly it’s made our job difficult because we haven’t been able to do lots of the things that make sense for our clients, but obviously don’t make sense for consumers. It’s good in a way, but there’s going to be that curve always, like yeah Instagram is pure for a while but sooner or later everybody wants to make the billions of dollars that Facebook eventually made.
I think Zuckerberg is at the point where I don’t think he’s selling out necessarily but he’s definitely making it far more advertiser-friendly than it was even a couple of years ago. That’s why I think you’ll see something else emerge that we haven’t even heard of yet but everybody will sort of go find refuge in it for a while until that becomes big enough that advertisers start paying attention to it. It’ll be a cyclical process I’m sure forever.
Do you think that there’s a tendency for advertisers in the digital and social media space to be too focused on analytics and not enough on the actual content?
There’s that brilliant video about the fake company that provides clicks. Basically they’re saying: what is the point in even measuring things by clicks or views or whatever when it’s always a fake number? What happened to judging things by whether it was truly entertaining and well-crafted and a great story and saying something poignant about the product or the brand or the consumer behavior?
I feel like the work at the end of the day should always make people like the brand, make people want the products, make people want to have relationship with that brand for the foreseeable future. Those things are all measurable but very rarely are those things measured by views and click-throughs. I don’t know, in many ways it’s still a very infant space and it’s exciting but you can also see the places that we’ve already run off the road a little bit.
What do you think you’ll take away from the social project that we worked on together?
I don’t know, it’s thrilling that we succeeded in terms of what we set out to do. It’s thrilling to know that there are lots of things we could have done differently and better. It’s a process and at the end of the day so long as you’re always trying to provide something valuable to the consumer, you’re not going to get it too wrong.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Instagram is curating an excellent Tumblr (the irony I know!) highlighting businesses who are doing a standout job using the platform. While there is currently no paid advertising on Instagram, brands are already on it creating their own content. The future of paid advertising on Instagram is unclear. Founder Kevin Systrom just spoke at London Fashion week, and when asked about advertising plans he had very little to reveal.
It's smart for social media platforms to be concerned not only in having paying advertisers, but also for those advertisers to be creating great content. It's a way to ensure that brands will see a good return on investment, and that the audience will continue to be engaged with the platform. Whatever may lie ahead, Instagram has created a sort of primer for businesses on how to do the platform properly.
As it is, the site is a great resource for agencies and brands looking for inspiration, examples of great content, and unique ways that brands are using the platform. This is definitely a feed that anyone interested in the future of social media and pictures should keep an eye on.
The G-STar Raw Tumblr is a great example of a brand using the platform well. Here are a few reasons why:
- Current and topical posts: Right now they're posting streetstyle images from New York Fashion Week on the same day they're shot.
- True to the platform: In particular I think their occasional use of an animated GIF works well for them without being overwhelming or gimmicky. Most of the images have more of the documentary vibe that fits in well on Tumblr and less of a glossed over perfect vibe that most people write off as advertising. They are dropping in the occasional image from a print campaign, but in this case it blends in well and doesn't feel out of place.
- Invitation to collaborate: The tumblr page suggests that others tag their looks with the #GStarRAW hashtag, and they'll re-blog their faves. That's a great way to organically drive attention towards the brand, and I can imagine that a true fan of the brand would be thrilled to have their look featured among the well curated page.
G-Star Raw produces their content internally. They're definitely going to be one to watch for inspiration in terms of fashion brands doing a great job on social media.
Earlier this year, a creative team including Erin hired me as a photographer for Verizon’s ongoing social media campaign. She was part of the team that conceived of and pitched the idea of having original photography produced on a regular basis. She was a huge part in establishing how the team approaches making content for social media, and championing original photography.
I caught up with Erin recently at her home in Venice, California. We headed down to the beach to snap some pictures and talk more about the conception of the project, and her thoughts on the future of advertising within social media.
Part of the pitch for the Verizon social business was having a photographer working as part of the creative team. Can you tell me more about that? What inspired you guys to do that and how did they react?
I think we immediately saw this pitch as an opportunity. As the art director, I was very adamant that stock photography was not an option. Occasionally, we can try our luck in finding a good stock image, but that just can’t be how a brand makes aspirational and impactful messaging on Facebook. So very quickly we decided a major part of our pitch revolved around making our own original content – basically hiring a photographer as a full-time team member.
It was kind of humorous because when we started to approach the logistics of how to turn this idea into fruition, we found that everyone was a bit puzzled, including our own art buyers, as to how to pull it off. Basic questions arose like “what would you pay someone for this kind of project” to “how would we even arrange the photo shoots.” That made me start to realize we were on the forefront of something. It was obvious, this was going to be a new way of working. From the beginning we knew we wanted the photographer to play an important role in the ideation phase. Having five to seven posts a week meant we needed to be a bit crafty in the execution process. Figuring out a concept is one thing, but having to execute that concept (location scout, find talent, shoot, get approval, and post) within a few days is a whole different story. We needed a photographer to help ground us into what could actually be possible, and then work within those limitation. It’s very run and gun and I think that’s really exciting. It sort of makes the advertising industry rethink how creative can get done.
When you were in that pitch process, was the original photography aspect a surprise to your client? Were they on board with it or did it take some convincing?
We came to Verizon with the notion that we needed to revamp their Facebook page and create a visual voice. Verizon is an industry leader and their social media should represent that. From the get go, Verizon always seemed on board with the photography style we proposed; observed but not contrived, artfully flawed, spontaneous real life moments shot in docu-style. So, when we advocated for hiring a photographer to work side by side with the creative team to create truly original content in that style, I think it was welcomed as a refreshing change.
A lot of big brands are still cutting and pasting stock photography and it’s being seen in this newsfeed where your friends are posting pictures that don’t look anything like that at all.
That’s true. It can’t be authentic if it’s stock. Bottom line. That’s like an oxymoron. I’m a very avid Instangram user. When we started the pitch I would look at Instagram and say: HERE is what people are posting. THIS is what people who have 300,000 followers on Instagram are doing. These are the kinds of pictures we should be taking, or at least be in this realm of photography. So, it should feel like it belongs in your newsfeed and should tempt you to click ‘like’ or be compelled to share. On Facebook the picture is like 90% of the real estate of a post and the copy is maybe 10%. So that picture really needs to be eye-catching and draw you in.
When you are thinking of a concept, is the goal to make Verizon just seem like a cool company. Or is it to get them to click on a link or engage in some other way. Or is it to get them to buy a phone?
For me, it’s about how I like to interact with brands. I want to “like” a brand because they’ve created a persona that I want to be associated with or they provide useful information or a service. It’s about creating positive experiences between a brand and it’s audience. I think it’s more important to make a brand relatable to a consumer by establishing and reinforcing the brand’s reason for belonging in their lives. When the need to buy a new phone pops up, the first thing they’re going to think of is Verizon. So it’s important for these companies to understand who they’re talking to and contribute to relevant conversations being had or better yet, come up with a conversation that’s not being had but that people are yearning for. I guess my goal is really all of those things: a click, a like, a positive feeling you take away from an interaction and ultimately a purchase.
Something else I wanted to talk about is Facebook itself , and how it’s changed as more advertisers are using it as a platform.
Facebook has been around for 10 years. Now you’ve finally gotten big companies to understand “Wow, we need to be a part of this conversation.” That’s probably happened over the last couple of years. I feel like especially within the last year or so there has been an elevated push for brands to take full advantage of this space. But, at this point when you go on Facebook all you see is people trying to sell you something and trying too hard. No one wants to be talked to in an inauthentic way. It’s like they’ve taken the fun out of why people go on Facebook. So, I sort of feel that everyone involved from an advertising perspective: companies, clients, agencies, creatives, media buyers, etc. have a duty to create engaging relevant content if they want to keep this platform what it is.
How do you – as someone who is trained in more traditional advertising and who has done print advertising — approach making content for Facebook. How are you concepting differently than you do for like a print campaign?
I don’t know if you necessarily approach it differently in terms of the end goal, I just think you have to concept a bit smarter. I started off in traditional/broadcast then I worked my way into digital which was banner ads or web pages. When you are writing a TV commercial or making a banner ad, you aren’t necessarily focusing on the amount of likes it will get on Facebook, hits on YouTube, or retweets. In social, the content needs to be sharable at it’s core. The first question I always ask myself when creating content is, “Would I share this? Would I like this?” I know that might sound crazy but I just ask, “Would I do it?” And if the answer is no then it doesn’t seem like it should be content that’s made.
One of the tenants of the project has been to find the space where pop culture and trends overlaps with what interests Verizon and has to do with mobile technology.
I will never forget the day we were post-less. It was a Thursday. We had an old Zack Morris phone on our desk. And we said, “Well, looks like it’s got to be a Throwback Thursday post.” We persuaded everyone to let us put it on the interwebs to just see what happens. At that moment we were at a very crucial hurdle of showing our client that culturally relevant things ARE, in fact, important. We proved that even for a client like Verizon, that is always focused on being a tech forward brand, you can still do a successful and engaging throwback post. Verizon started a conversation that everyone could relate to and more importantly, that hadn’t existed prior in that category. Verizon got to imply “look at the strides we’ve made in mobile phones and service” while simultaneously relating to the audience in a way they would engage with friends. Instagram had allowed #tbt to be a cultural phenomenon. By contributing to #tbt it made Verizon seem like “they get me.” We really leaned into how people already use their phones and apps and just gave them a little more of a helpful conversation around those topics.
What’s next for you. Do you want to keep working in the social media space?
I’m really just interested in making good shit. Aren’t we all? After working on the traditional and digital aspects of advertising, I think I’ve become very spoiled working in the social media space. I also think it’s made me a much more nimble creative. I was fortunate to find myself on a small but highly efficient team where we were leading the way in an industry. We were functioning as an agency within the agency. When you are creating work at such a rapid pace and in such a new process we had to wear a bunch of different hats. We would joke “Well, there’s another title for the business card” – I think mine is up to stylist, location scout, talent scout, producer, prop department, photographer’s assistant, the talent- the list grows by the day it seems.
Most importantly though, once you learn that you don’t need to make an “ad” to get people to engage with a brand it becomes very fun. I basically just make really beautiful, interesting, engaging things. For the first time in my career I found myself not making ads. In fact, in some cases I wasn’t legally allowed to put an advertising message into our creative. IT. WAS. AWESOME. My job is to be relatable and likable and create things I would physically “like” on Facebook. Career-wise, that’s not a bad place to be.
Interested in what actual user sentiment is towards sponsored posts on Tumblr? Take a look at posts tagged with "sponsored posts" on Tumblr.
While there are a lot of negative comments out there, you do have to take it with a grain of salt. Any platform that's being adjusted to let advertising in on the conversation is bound to feel some growing pains.
I believe that Tumblr is in a critical place right now where they're really going to have to cultivate and work with the brands sponsoring posts so that the posts stay true to the platform and relevant to the audience.
Across the board there's been a trend towards combining commercial/motion shoots with still photography. (Here's what Art Buyers are People Too has to say about that). I've worked on a few projects for Verizon shooting still images during a commercial shoot. These shoots can definitely be interesting to navigate, but I also think that they can pay great dividends in terms of creating social media content.
Brands may have limited access to talent, particularly if they are athletes or culture personalities. So a huge advantage of approaching a shoot like this is that it might be the only opportunity to work with particular talent. My first shoot was of IndyCar drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves. It would definitely be hard to imagine a scenario where we were able to arrange for a day of their time for me to focus solely on shooting them for social media. But the time that Verizon had them scheduled to create the TV commercial seemed like a great opportunity to make the most of their commitment and to create some content in parallel with the larger production.
Something to be aware of for anyone who wants to create these sorts of images is that a commercial shoot can be a delicate place to navigate. This was a high pressure situation for the director and crew involved. They were shooting at an expensive location (renting an entire racetrack), with expensive talent, complicated tracking shots with car mounted steadicams, and a whole slew of extras standing by for some of the shots. Every minute of shooting counted. To throw in an unknown variable like a me - a photographer with my own set of goals - definitely had the potential to add to the stress. I was very fortunate that the production crew was amazing and very open to having me on set. In turn I walked very lightly and made sure that I was always aware of the next moves for the production, and that I was never in a place that would slow it down.
This was an early shoot for Verizon. We didn't enter it with a ton of direction, and all of the photography I created was with a behind-the-scenes approach. It was all documentary, and I didn't try to create specific shots or manipulate anything. At a more recent shoot that I did on an NFL set (which I'll be sharing as soon as I'm able to!), I worked with our creative team to think up specific shots, and we worked collaboratively in very brief chunks of time to create some setup shots with the talent.
Take a look at the Verizon Facebook page, and you'll see that we really got the most out of the images that I shot during this shoot. As the IndyCar season continues, we're able to continue to draw from a library of images. They're consistent with the overall photography style, and give a unique perspective on the two Verizon sponsored athletes.
For those interested in new models in media and advertising, Mr Porter's The Journal is a project to keep your eye on in. The brand seems to be spending the bulk of it's marketing focus on creating it's own content rather than the old school pay-for-an-ad-next-to-someone-elses-editorial-content approach. While the outlook for the print publishing industry is fairly dismal, people are consuming content more than ever. I believe that smart companies are going to move more and more to creating content in-house, and curating an audience on their own site. For a savvy fashion brand, that $150K per month you were going to spend on the media buy for a single page ad in Vogue can go a long ways towards producing some beautiful custom tailored content. There are other reasons why I can really see this being a great promotional strategy, particularly for the fashion industry. Mr Porter is able to hire industry heavyweights like Derek Blasberg to write content. Having someone like Blasberg write for you goes a lot farther to build the brand than running a paid ad opposite that same article in a glossy magazine. Also, thanks to what we've been conditioned to see in fashion magazines, pairing editorial content with sales comes off quite naturally. It's doesn't feel obtrusive at all for the article titled "How to Dance (well)" to be followed by a widget suggesting you buy a Dolce and Gabbana tux or a Brooks Brothers bowtie from them. I believe that Mr Porter is leading the way with their Journal, and I expect that we'll be seeing other fashion retailers follow suit in the near future.