How to Convert Instagram Followers into Dollars

June 4, 2014

By Harrison Jacobs

When Los Angeles-based wedding photographer Logan Cole first heard about the social media and image-sharing app Instagram in 2011, he had only been shooting professionally for a little over a year. His business was so nascent that he had yet to set up any professional social media accounts. He started by posting, as he calls them, “blurry photos of whatever,” but, after playing around with a few photo-editing apps, something clicked. He began treating his feed like a client, posting the honest, vintage-inspired photos that became his hallmark. His following grew exponentially. Today, with over 21,000 followers, @logancolephoto has become a force on Instagram.

In short order, Cole’s Instagram feed has netted him wedding clients, a gig teaching for online photography website the Define School, an all-expenses paid trip helicoptering around Alberta, Canada, and promotional partnerships with brands like Red Bull, Boxed Water and Artifact Uprising. Cole’s success on Instagram is the kind you might expect from a 21-year-old millennial, and photographers across the industry are starting to wake up to the money-making potential of the app.

Turning Followers Into Clients
Using Instagram to promote your wedding and portrait business is a tricky endeavor. It requires a light touch, but, if done well, it can pay off in huge dividends. Seattle-based photographer Sean Flanigan was shooting a wedding in San Francisco last year when a bride told him that she would be promoting a custom hashtag for guests to post photos with during the day. With just under 10,000 followers, Flanigan (@stanflan) decided to post a few of his shots halfway through the reception. When guests looked at the hashtag feed at the end of the night, they were blown away—Flanigan’s photos stood head and shoulders above the stream of amateur shots from friends and relatives.

“It was free publicity for me,” he says. “Everyone that went to the wedding saw them immediately. You never know who is planning a wedding.”

Within a week, Flanigan had booked two couples that attended the reception—not bad for a spur-of-the-moment decision. Now, he posts shots to his Instagram feed at every wedding he goes to. So does Cole, who says he’d rather have guests look at his professional portraits than squint at Aunt Susan’s bland snaps. For both, it’s all about brand awareness. “Guests see the photos and start following you,” Cole explains. “When the maid of honor gets engaged in four months, she is going to remember you, because she’s been liking all your photos.”

The strategy is working. Flanigan estimates that he’s booked more than ten weddings this year from Instagram referrals; Cole estimates that a quarter of his wedding inquiries come from Instagram as well. While he notes that he does not book the majority of them, the referrals have more than paid for the time that he’s invested.

Building A Captivated Audience
One reason Flanigan and Cole’s strategy works is that they have combined a savvy photography tactic—posting at weddings—with an already established following. As Canadian wedding photographer David Guenther explains, when he posts photos to Instagram (@davidguenther) on the day of a wedding, one of the key things that gets guests’ attention is that, by the time they scroll through the feed, his photos already have hundreds of likes. Guests find it impressive and it gives him credibility. Cole agrees; when potential clients see that he has tens of thousands of followers and his photos get thousands of likes, they automatically have respect for him. “They think that if you have large amount of followers, you must be good or you must be ‘somebody,’” says Cole. “I don’t agree with it, but honestly, it works for the business.”

The question then becomes: how do you build the following? Brian DiFeo, a co-founder of Instagram advertising agency the Mobile Media Lab and a pioneer of the platform, offered us some hints: “The most successful influencers are the ones that balance what the audience wants to see and what you want to show as a singular voice,” DiFeo says.

DiFeo formed his agency in 2012 along with fellow prominent Instagrammers Anthony Danielle and Liz Eswein. In just two years, the company has completed successful campaigns for some big-name brands, including Samsung, Honda, Coach and Armani. The Mobile Media Lab maintains a network of 300 influential Instagrammers, who collectively have 50 million followers. When brands agree to a campaign, DiFeo finds Instagrammers in his network to hire.

While DiFeo concedes that crowd-pleasers like pretty sunsets and cute dogs do well in the short term, they don’t build what he calls “an audience that anticipates your next post.” According to him, that comes when you hone in on your distinct artistic voice and stick with it.

For wedding-to-lifestyle crossover phenom Max Wanger (@maxwanger), that means having a feed that, while including shots of his baby, sticks to the whimsical negative-space portraits he’s known for. It’s like shrinking his style down to a 1 x 1-inch square. “My artistic photos tend to get more likes because they stand out,” says Wanger. “It’s hard to be artistic with everything, but if you take photos a little differently and intentionally, it has its benefits.”

Meanwhile, Flanigan posts a combination of dreamy landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, intimate portraits and the occasional wedding shot. The fact that it all fits with his brand and style isn’t an accident. He approaches his feed with an eye toward quality control. “When I’m posting things to Instagram, I try to think like a company shipping a product. Is this something that I want to ship? Is this something I want attached to my brand?” says Flanigan. “I always want to post, but I don’t want to flood followers with less- impactful photos. It’s difficult.”

Cole is even more particular about quality control. Once a week, he goes back through his feed and, like a good photo editor, strikes posts that he thinks aren’t up to par or don’t fit in with the group. “When people are just glancing through my profile, I want consistency in the photos,” explains Cole. “I have to make sure everything flows and looks cohesive.”

Keeping Up With The Joneses
While the Instagram feed can be an effective way of netting new clients, all of our photographers say it’s an even more effective way to communicate with existing ones. As Cole says, “I’m constantly on people’s minds because I’m in their feed.”

While Flanigan agrees, he finds that it’s not just about clients seeing his photos, but about him seeing theirs. “If I’m liking clients’ photos, they are reminded that I exist,” Flanigan says. After engagement sessions, he always follows his clients on Instagram. “I can see how their wedding is coming along and stay in contact so they know that I care.”

Cole, Flanigan and Guenther have all noticed that almost all of their clients are already following them by the time they get to the engagement shoot. The heightened frequency of interaction all makes for a more personal client-photographer relationship.

“They get a stronger understanding of who I am as a wedding photographer after following me,” says Guenther. “My feed is my brand and my brand is myself.”

Beyond The Wedding World
While Guenther has used Instagram to boost his wedding business, he has recently discovered its potential for other avenues of photography. Though he has been using the service since 2011, a year and half ago, he decided to bring his feed to the next level, only posting professional-quality images that reflected his brand: a mix of storytelling portraits, breathtaking landscapes of the Canadian wilderness and a sprinkling of his signature wedding work.

The response was immediate. His following grew and he began connecting with big Instagrammers with a similar esthetic. After a few choice mentions and months of steady, beautiful work, Instagram added him to its “suggested user” list. When he looked at contemporaries on the list—big brands like Red Bull and Nike—he knew he was onto something big. His following soon hit 50,000.

Guenther decided to spin off his brand into an account for Canadian wedding photographers called the Great North Collective (@greatnorthco). After he and a few photographer friends Instagrammed weekend excursions in the wilderness for the collective, followers began to flock to that feed as well. Soon after, a public-relations representative for the Tourism Authority of Alberta called, offering an all-expenses-paid trip helicoptering and snowshoeing, given that the photographer Instagram the trip. He, of course, accepted and the trip was a success.

Since the Alberta campaign, Guenther has been approached by a number of other brands looking to co-opt his unique imagery and rabid following. As Guenther hints at an upcoming campaign with “a massive brand” that he can’t yet reveal, it is clear Instagram has changed his career. “With that influence comes the opportunity for brands to hire you,” explains Guenther. “It’s becoming an extension of my career.”

That type of brand partnership is becoming the norm for influential Instagrammers. It’s what the Mobile Media Lab is built on. Despite the Lab’s success, DiFeo is adamant that there is plenty of room for any photographer to get a piece of the pie.

“Any influencer can work with a brand if either they find a brand or the brand finds them,” DiFeo says. “You could be creating great content and have a big audience, but until you approach someone or someone approaches you, you don’t know if that’s a possibility.”

Never Stop Innovating
Becoming fluent in Instagram is an increasingly important part of being a photographer today. According to photojournalist Ben Lowy (@benlowy), who has used Instagram to cover the Super Bowl for ESPN and Hurricane Sandy for TIME, the power of Instagram is that followers are already primed to want to see your work. Photographers can then direct their following to whatever end they want to achieves. For Lowy, that means that when a publication hires him to shoot a story exclusively for Instagram—which happens often—it knows that his more than 111,500 followers are coming along for the ride.

“It’s important today to build an awareness of what you can create with a client or brand,” says Lowy.

At the end of the day, creating that buzz demonstrates that you understand how to leverage technology to your benefit. It’s all about reinventing yourself for the social media age. “Using Instagram lets people know that I can innovate,” explains Lowy. “I can shoot things differently. I’m not just the photographer creating the content of the photograph but also recognizing how that photograph is used.”

With likes, comments and shares turning increasingly into dollar signs, it’s no wonder that a photographer’s network is becoming almost as important as the photographs themselves.

6 Tips For Boosting Your Instagram Feed
While every Instagrammer we talked to called the growth of his followers “organic,” it didn’t take much prying to figure out that there was more to the story than a few lucky breaks. We collected the tips from our Instagram experts, who collectively have more than 350,000 followers and millions of likes and comments.

1. Have a Brand and Stick With It
The key to building and keeping an audience on Instagram is having a distinct artistic voice. The most successful photographers are those that stick to their passion, whether its intimate portraits of people on the street or dreamy landscapes of the Pacific Northwest.

2. Interact Before You Post
DiFeo teaches new Instagrammers to follow the 80/20 rule: When trying to grow your account, spend 80 percent of your time consuming and interacting with other people’s content and 20 percent of your time posting. Before you can be an influencer, you have to understand and participate in the network.

3. Build Organic Relationships
Instagram is a social platform, and being social is the key to succeeding. “It starts with commenting on the photos of Instagrammers that you admire, and they comment back,” says Guenther. “Conversations start based on photographs and then you build friendships that can turn into collaborations and mentions.”

4. Send DSLR Images to Your iPhone Wirelessly
While Instagram purists insist on shooting and processing with only their iPhones or Androids, our photographers noted that while they use their mobile devices most of the time, when they want to put some extra “oomph” in their images, they turn to their DSLRs. To get those images to Instagram, Lowy uses an Eye-Fi ProX2 card and the Eye-Fi app to wirelessly transmit his images to his iPhone for easy uploading.

5. Take Your Pick of Post-Production Apps
Post-processing on Instagram is just as important as with any other type of photography. To get the signature look that will set your shots apart from the pack, our photographers unanimously recommend VSCO Cam, which has become the standard mobile shooting and editing app for pros. Other popular apps include Snapseed (by photo software stalwart Nik Software), Afterlight as well as Squaready, which formats your images for Instagram while maintaining their aspect ratio by placing a border around the image.

6. Go For Sharp Images
The biggest reason that photographers think their DSLR images get more engagement than mobile shots is the upgrade in quality and sharpness. Up until last fall, the only option to upgrading your smartphone’s camera quality was the addition of an awkward lens, which was useful but did nothing to increase the resolution. When taking your DSLR along isn’t possible, the Sony DSC-QX100 can give you both the convenience and quality you’re looking for. The QX100 is a lens and sensor combo that clips onto your iPhone and delivers DSLR-quality images from its Carl Zeiss lens straight to the phone.

See this story in the Digital Edition.