Social media has an infinite, universal audience. But as you define your niche, your potential audience becomes smaller and smaller. Not everyone is interested in macro photography of sand, so how do you maximize your audience? By understanding what your potential value is to your followers.
Have you ever thought that your final work might not be the most interesting part of what you do? For many, just changing how you talk about your work can completely change your maximum potential audience and engagement retention.
Your value proposition on social media is an interesting discussion topic that you won't find in a marketing class in college. No one ever talks about how important it is that what you post needs to add some type of value to the person following you. Whether it's inspiration, education, or by just being a fun person, there's a reason people hit "follow." In this article, I'll go over the some of the different styles and who can benefit from them.
Who Is This For
Some people are just so good, everything they do you want to save in a scrapbook. This is for the upper echelon of people who have such an incredible style and consistency that you just have to stay attached. Now, we can't all be this, but that doesn't mean we can't all have a seat at the table. These are for pretty much anyone with a distinct, original style and consistently phenomenal work. This can be anyone; you don't need to do anything special, but if your work is phenomenal, just keep posting it.
What Audience Does This Attract
Because of the quality, they interest everyone from photographers to normal people with no connection to photography who just like art or nice landscapes.
You need to be great and stay great. If you're just good, you will fall into the Transactional category.
I absolutely adore Julia's work. Every time I see something new, it's a kick in the butt that I need to keep shooting. Her audience is definitely more makeup enthusiasts and photographers, but that's because her niche immediately separates herself from an audience like landscape or pet photographers.
Educational / Technical
Who Is This For
These are people who not only share great work, but always add something informative and nuanced along with it. Every post, you'll find a lighting diagram or a caption about why a print portfolio still matters in 2020. These accounts are usually inspirational, but also are tailored for someone to learn. You can be one of these people, but you really need the work to back it up.
What Audience Does This Attract
They are specifically targeting other photographers with this style. Adding in lighting diagrams and talking about photography topics in the caption can be interesting for newer photographers who want to learn. This won't deter your target client from reaching out; in many cases, it will also interest them because educating shows you know what you're doing.
You really need the work to back up what you're talking about. You can't be talking about something and not know what you're doing. I say this as I write an article on social media when I have less than 5,000 followers, but we will get to that in Transactional.
Lindsay Adler is an incredible photographer and educator. Most posts come with something to teach, and she is very open to answering questions when they're asked.
Who Is This For
Storytelling is a fantastic approach if you're a landscape photographer or your work is editorial in nature. People want to know more about how you got the shot and what it was like. You don't have to talk about changing apertures or putting on lens filters, but talking about the hike that you took to get the shot or something that made the bridal party laugh at the ceremony; you're going to find a lot of people are interested in these stories.
What Audience Does This Attract
It really depends on how you tell your stories, but telling stories is a great way to build bonds with whomever chooses to follow you. You are showing yourself, and people love that.
If you've ever seen independent recipe blogs, it's a joke online that people looking for roasted potato recipes are mad that the writers tell personal stories to go with the instructions. But the whole reason they do that is because there is a segment of people who enjoy the stories and will read the recipes for the story. Telling stories connects people; they always have.
If your work is very formulaic, this won't be interesting to the viewer. You really need to shoot things like editorials, food, or landscape, where your subjects and difficulties are always changing.
My favorite example of this is Art Streiber. His work is incredible, but the stories he tells are what keep you interested in what he does. His style is almost educator/technical, but the way he talks about the experience is why you stay engaged, not where the lights are placed.
Who Is This For
This consists of two important differences. We'll start with if you are a fun or interesting person. If your personality is interesting, you travel a lot, or your day-to-day is unique, showing that off is a great way to gain an audience that will stay around. There are people I have never worked with and probably will never have an opportunity to, but I still follow them, because they're fun people, and if I pass by their Instagram Story, I'll probably get a laugh.
The second part of this category is if your work is fun or interesting. If what you shoot is interesting, like newspaper editorials where you're getting a chance to share someone else's story, people will stay around to see what you do next. Humans of New York will always have an audience, because it is consistently interesting. This also goes for people who shoot fun things. If your work is energetic or sparks joy, people will always want to be around that. Similar to HoNY, The Dogist is consistently fun and interesting, because it's just pictures of dogs on the street. People always want something like that in their lives, especially on an escapist outlet like Instagram.
Another great group for this is people who do very niche photography. Like people who shoot scenes with toys, if you start posting behind the scenes of how everything was shot, your audience will increase, and you'll have a bunch of articles written about you. There are a lot of intricacies that go into niche types of photography that we don't normally see, and that tends to be what people are interested in.
What Audience Does This Attract
This one is relative to your niche; you're not reaching out to any one group. This is closer to Transactional, but you have staying power, because people want to keep you around.
For the first category, it's based off you. You need to stay interesting and fun, which can be stressful if you're going out of your way to do it. I don't recommend it for people who are trying to be fun and interesting. But if you're reading this and realize your environment just happens to be fun, try adding that into what you do. Post more behind the scenes videos in your stories and feed, add more storytelling in your captions. It can help.
For the second category, if you switch what you do, people will be less likely to continue to follow. Simple as that. If you're fun and start posting more editorial with a different style, you're no longer giving your audience what they came for, and they might not like that. They're not there for avant garde pictures of birds; they want you to make them smile.
John Schell is an incredible photographer, but he's also just an interesting guy with an adorable lab. His work takes him to incredible places, but you don't just get lifestyle photos for REI, you'll also get little glimpses into his interesting personality.
Beth Sternbaum is one of my favorites to follow, because her work is just fun. The way she shoots beauty is always bright and full of energy, especially her animations.
You don't want to be in this category, but I'm sure many of the people reading this are here. Being transactional basically means that people are coming to you for a service, and once they get that service, they leave. If you're looking to build your social media presence, you do not want to be here. In this situation, you treat your social media just like a social portfolio, and that's it. The problem is there's no value in what you're posting online besides being the photographer from X location. You don't offer anything that makes people want to stay around. As soon as people shoot with you or you refuse to shoot with them for free, they stop following you.
Think of when you're researching a new lens or lighting kit. For a month, you're looking at blogs and comparisons that show everything about your new kit. As soon as you buy it, you're done with that research. You've made your purchasing decision, there's no more reason to Google "Profoto B1 vs. Godox AD600." You've finished the transaction.
I'm in this category currently: it's not great, but it's not some weird death sentence either. When you're young and still figuring out what you're doing, it doesn't make sense to worry about how you should be posting on social media. You should just be figuring out who you are, and once you know, then you can start looking at your value added online. Always remember that the work comes first, no matter what. None of this matters if the work isn't good.
This one is from me. The work is good, but it's not incredible. And the caption doesn't really add anything. Maybe it makes you chuckle, but I don't talk about the styling of the shoot or how the idea to shoot her laying down wasn't planned. There was no value added in this.
How Do I Figure Out My Value Proposition?
I can't really decide this for you; there are so many factors that go into it, but here are some questions you can ask yourself.
- Do I shoot something unique?
- Do I shoot in a fun/interesting environment?
- Can people learn from my experience?
- Do I have interesting lighting setups that vary every shoot?
- Am I knowledgeable enough to teach others?
Use these questions to start understanding what value you can add. If you shoot product, maybe the final product photo isn't the value for social, but the setups you use to get the photo. If you shoot fashion editorials, maybe the behind the scenes showing the production and team working together is what people want to see. In many cases, there's so much more to add than just the final product.
But Dave, I've Been Doing These Things and They're Not Working
This is the part of the article where I add in the stipulations that come with everything. This all scales with the quality of your work. If you aren't a good photographer, people won't want to follow you. No matter what your behind the scenes content is, the work is still the most important part.
Another important caveat is just because you're putting out great work doesn't mean it's getting seen. If you're not engaging in The Flyer Theory or putting the right hashtags, you won't be getting seen and therefore won't be getting followers. Going along with this, adding value is just a part of the solution; it isn't everything. Adding a BTS photo isn't like a magic wand to fix all of your marketing problems. It's a part of marketing plan that you need to execute consistently to build a brand and a following that people like.
You need to understand why people go to social media. It's not for you; it's for the value you add to their experience. In terms of building a social media presence, understanding your value is important for growing your following. Why do 10 million more people follow Red Bull over Coca Cola? Coke definitely has more sales, but look at what they post on Instagram. All they do is post illustrations and commercials. Now, look at Red Bull. They post a bunch of action videos from sponsored riders. Which one adds more value to the follower? People only follow Coke because they like the brand.
Figure out the part of what you do that is the most interesting, and try to embrace that on social media. Maybe you're a food photographer, and you show the styling tips on your story. Maybe you're part of a production team, and you have a lot of fun behind the scenes. Whatever it is, that extra value is what makes people want to keep coming back.
There’s another category I wanted to write, but couldn’t really define as well since you can’t really just tailor how you post to this, but being a friend is another category.
I know personally, there’s so many people I’m rooting for and I follow and like all their stuff on Instagram. This is more just networking and building relationships though. Still something I thought needed to be said!
They all have one downside in common:
They all belong to a fantasy world decided by followers and likes (look at the title: Want Followers).
Sorry, but I am going to be... that guy: Social media is over-rated and a time sucking waste.
I have found the opposite to be true. For years, photography friends encouraged me to join Instagram, and I kept putting it off. I finally joined about a year ago, and man, have I ever gained immeasurably from becoming a part of the Instagram community!
Through Instagram, I have found dozens of other wildlife photographers all over the U.S., and gotten to know many of them. We message each other all the time, exchanging information on different places to find and photograph wild animals. We meet up at these locations and shoot together, eat dinners together at the end of a long day afield, even share lodging expenses at times.
Because of Instagram, when I drive 1,000 or 1,500 miles to a place I have never been before, to photograph animals I have never seen before, I will already know several people who live in that area and are familiar with the animals that I am seeking. We will send messages back and forth to each other while I am en route, and then when I get to the brand new location, thousands of miles from home, someone will pull up next to me in the parking lot and say, "You must be Tom, right? I'm Joe. Great to finally meet you!"
That kind of thing has happened dozens of times over the 13 months that I have been on Instagram.
And then Joe (or whoever it happens to be) will show me around the place, we'll shoot together, probably eat lunch or dinner together, and he (or she) will introduce me to other local wildlife photographers. Before I know it, I know all of the people who are photographing at that park or refuge, and we all get along like one big happy family!
Joe will introduce me to someone, and they'll say, "Oh, you're Tom Reichner? I've been following you. I love your work!" And then I'll find that they are someone that I had also been following. Hence, many of the people I have met on Instagram are people that I eventually meet in real life, and then we do photography together.
I have learned so much more about wildlife and where and how to photograph it, all thanks to having joined Instagram! To many of us, social media is not about how many "likes" or "followers" we can amass, but rather, it is about getting to know other people who have the same passions we have and do the same kind of photography we do.
Brian, it's sad that you have found it to be no more than a waste of time. You said that it is nothing more than a fantasy world of followers and likes. But it can be so much more if you engage with the people there and get to know them and meet them in real life and shoot together. There is nothing fantasy at all about that.
I am glad to hear it has helped you as a photographer and meeting like minded people.
Regarding a fantasy world. My last straw is when I heard the poor woman did not get a job with Canon because she did not have atleast 50k followers. And just like the reason I left 500px, is that you give the rights to Instasham to use any of your work as see fit.
I would rather improve in my craft, grow my portfolio and an email list then grow some big tech platform.
In closing, seeing you like the community aspect of Insta, do check out @cleargram founded by @jeremiahkohkar. A great group of guys and community 😉
Thanks for the tip about Jeremiah and Cleargram. I was skeptical when you first mentioned them, thinking it wouldn't be all about wildlife. Well, maybe it isn't ALL about wildlife, but there are some wildlife posts there, so that does spark my interest.
I do sometimes get down to the Tampa Bay area to photograph birds, so the next time I go there I will keep Cleargram in mind, and check them out while there.
You're welcome, Tom.
Do check them out. A great group!
If you are in the Tampa Bay area, feel free to reach out to me if you want a shooting buddy. There a few great spots for wildlife 👍
I started using Instagram about a year ago, and purely as a photography related tool. It’s been awesome, I don’t follow anything else aside from photography related content and my football team. It means I can view the world how I want to view it on social media and I also have access to some of the best photography in the world.
Added bonus is after a couple of months I realised how rubbish Facebook so I’ve deleted myself from it.
Social Media has the ability to offer you so much control over what you want it to be that it’s really in your hands to set it up to do that.
I am glad to hear you are finding it beneficial.
There are a lot of great photographers on there, this is absolutely true. However, there also are alot of the same cliche shots, the same famous spots, photographers or selfie addicts tearing up precious land all for the dope. There are many great peaople on the platform, but there are many more negatives that outway the positives for me.
I know that some say that social media is a waste of time. It isn't.. If you do it right and (I haven't been really) then you can gain a ton of business depending on your clientele. Thanks for the article David. I do appreciate the examples and sometimes picking and pulling ideas from those successful posts can help us in the long run.
I haven't been great either. Finding the value is all about figuring out what's right for you and then sticking to that. There's this author, Shea Serrano, and whenever he's asked about writer's block he always says "I only ever get writer's block if I feel I don't know what I'm talking about."
Same goes for how you approach your content. If you're not comfortable adding lighting diagrams and talking about how beauty dishes add contrast, maybe that's not for you. Like I'm never going to talk about the exposure triangle or why aperture number goes up, but the hole gets smaller. It's figuring out what's for you.
And thanks for reading!
Thanks for writing this article. This obviously took a great deal of thought and focused wrodsmithing, and I appreciate the time and effort you put into it. I especially appreciate that it is an actual article, and not just a suggestion to go to YouTube to watch somebody else's video ... that is hollow, superficial content, in my opinion.
I think that if you concluded the article with a question, it would lead to more people engaging here with comments ... which in turn leads to more people finding and reading the article. Never, ever miss the opportunity to draw people in with a question or three!
For those of you who have read this, I wonder ...
Which of the categories that David outlined do you consider yourself to most closely resemble?
Which category are you aspiring to be?
What are some categories that David did not describe, but you think are important?
Thank you for reading! If you're open to new ideas and you don't shy away because a few issues, social media can be great in so many ways. I always tell myself I'm going to put a question in the end, but it always just seems so forced for the type of stuff I write.
Followers will probably be the next thing they hide. The reach is as bad as Facebook is so no thanks. Crawled to 30k on Facebook after 5 years and then jumped on to Instasuck right after FB bought it. Went up to 25k in a year and it's been crawling ever since. Don't waste your time. I use it as a portfolio site that people can go to but likes and followers do not equal business or money.
Aren't you using Instagram to personally interact with other photographers in your genre, to get to know them and to exchange ideas and tips via direct messages? If not, why? Isn't that what Instagram is for?
Nope, I have potential clients contact me, that's it.
I guess it all depends on your business and how you communicate with clients. Most of the people I work with are in their 20's and some reach out directly via Instagram as first point of contact.
Also just having followers and likes don't mean anything, but creating a following based off the value you offer people is a step towards profit. I see you shoot cosplay. Creating a large following that loves everything you post can quickly turn into selling an art book or even just reaching other large cosplayers who would want to shoot with you.
To say social media as a whole doesn't matter would be ignorant to the fact that so many people have built careers off understanding the importance of social media and building off of it.
Let's just keep in mind that social media is supposed to be ...... social! That is the point of it, to promote social interaction with others.
Many people try to use social media for something other than social interaction - like for business promotion or for advertising. Then they get frustrated with it because it doesn't provide the results they were hoping for. D'oh.
Use social media for what it is intended - social interaction - and you will likely not be frustrated with it. When used for its stated purpose, the benefits it provides are proportional with the effort you put into it. The only people complaining that it is a "waste of time" or "not worth it" are those who are trying to use it for something it is not intended for.
Just because millions of other people have used it for the wrong reason, and succeeded, does not mean that anyone else should expect to use it improperly and achieve satisfactory results. Twenty million wrongs do not make a right.
Facebook and Instagram are no longer social sites. They have removed that element by crippling the reach of post, shadow banning accounts and removing chronological order. Now they are hiding likes for the hell of it. They are not social sites.
yes they are, David ...... yes they are
Great argument. Don't forget to pay to boost your post, click those ads and buy those likes.
I don't understand what you mean when you suggest paying to boost posts, click ads, and buy likes. I don't know that that has to do with anything. None of that is what Instagram is about. Instagram is about getting to know other photographers who photograph the same things we do, and exchanging information with them.
I couldn't care less about page views, number of likes, number of followers, ads, etc. That has nothing to do with the Instagram experience. And it's certainly not about getting our content out here where lots of people can see it. Numbers don't matter. If that stuff has any meaning to you, then I suggest that your priorities and values are askew.
I would say this site is better for that than a site designed to throw ads in your face while hiding the majority of the people you follow in a jumbled delivery system.