When Instagram launched in fall 2010, small businesses weren’t buying it. But by the time the app expanded to Android a year and a half later, they had to admit it was special. For one thing, the platform was 30 million users strong. And for another, it was becoming part of users’ daily app habits.
Now with 200 monthly million active users, Instagram presents a big opportunity that brands can’t afford to ignore. And as a result, a new breed of marketing agencies has cropped up to help them get noticed. There’s New York's Mobile Media Lab, which partners brands with a handful of influencers for select campaigns, and theAmplify in Culver City, California, which uses an algorithm to do the same thing.
The advantage of being a freelance Instagrammer is that you can choose who you want to work with and set your own rates, says Brian DiFeo, co-founder of Mobile Media Lab. However, working with an agency ensures you’ll be "compensated nicely" and never short on assignments. "It’s pretty clear there’s a business here, and I think people are hungry to get into this industry and make money on it," he says of his check-wielding clients. "And Instagram isn’t going anywhere."
Going With Their Gut
What sets Mobile Media Lab apart, DiFeo says, is its ability to tap into a wide network of influencers, many of whom are handpicked himself. To date, there are about 400 users, with a core group of 70 to 100 that he hires "pretty regularly," though he’s quick to add the network is always growing. "If we don’t have a specific person [in mind for a project], our social footprint makes it really easy for me to just comment on someone’s photo and say 'I want to talk to you about a potential job,' or people get referred," he says. "We typically get a few emails a week."
As one might expect, DiFeo was a hardcore Instagrammer who loved the app so much he started his own Meetup group, Instagram NYC, in March 2011. There, he met an up-and-coming street style photographer named Anthony Danielle, who would later become his business partner.
By March 2012, the pair were being plucked by the likes of Puma and W Hotels to shoot campaigns worldwide. But they weren’t being fairly compensated, says DiFeo.
"The first time I ever got paid to photograph, I was given $200 and I put up five photos in the span of two hours." When he and Danielle realized they "wanted to determine our value and educate brands on what was working" on Instagram, Media Mobile Lab was born.
Today, DiFeo works with clients like Vh1 to determine their "needs and goals," which typically entail boosting followers, engagement, and awareness of content. Projects tend to range from $10,000 to $100,000; Instagrammers receive a nice cut. He’ll then develop a proposal "with a price tag" and try to match the right Instagrammers (at least three) with the job. Clients get final say on who shoots campaigns, but DiFeo always provides a curated list of names to approve. "Sometimes brands will pull people off," he admits. But on the flip side, "the Instagrammer has the final say on what goes in their feed," though clients will sometimes send inspirational photos or a mood board since "the average photog appreciates direction."
A Data-Driven Approach
Justin Rezvani, chief executive of theAmplify, takes a decidedly different approach. Rather rely on gut instinct or experience, he finds Instagrammers using cold hard data. Initially the algorithm he built was meant for weeding out fake followers. But over time it evolved into something more: SharedRank, a powerful tool that measures 1,000 data points to determine the ideal audience for a brand to target on Instagram. "It’s a beautiful platform, and in a lot of ways it defines human experiences," Rezvani says wistfully of the site that gave way to his six-month-old startup. "It’s the most important mobile platform."
For a holiday campaign with Redbox, for example, he tapped influencers to share photos describing what the holidays meant to them. They then asked their followers to create content using the #redboxholiday hashtag. "What this created was thousands of people engaging with the brand," says Rezvani. He adds, "We have a dedicated team in-house that actually reaches out and invites influencers to our network. It’s invite only, premium. The way to get in is through our mobile app, which costs $100 on the App Store."
As far-fetched as some of this sounds, Amy Cao, head of social media at FiftyThree, says she isn’t surprised. "Social media agencies are now an established thing," she tells Inc. And while she admits an agency focused on Instagram is "more niche," she believes they'll give small businesses an edge. Of course, whether it will work depends on what kind of business you’re running-;and if you can afford it. "Instagram is effective," she says, "but it depends on what your company is doing and what your reach is."
Small business owners should clearly consider what they hope to achieve on the platform. "If it’s just to have [a striking Instagram feed]," then that’s pointless, says Cao. They need to ask, "Are they making a post or trying to do one picture-based campaign?" Ultimately, if the agency "can create content that you can’t yourself, then that would be worthwhile for you."