© Brian DiFeo
When Brian DiFeo joined Instagram in October 2010 he still considered photography a hobby. Years before, as a high-school student, he had learned to develop the film he shot with his Ricoh SLR. But during his freshman year of college, his gear was stolen, so he purchased an inexpensive digital camera as a replacement, and later a Canon Rebel when he got back into taking pictures. “Instagram definitely catapulted me into a passion for photography,” DiFeo says. “The people that I’ve met and the feedback I got really gave me the confidence … that my creativity and the photos that I was taking and my eye were appealing to people, and that motivated me and challenged me to concentrate on it more.”
From the beginning, DiFeo says that he was “really active, interactive [and] engaging” on Instagram. It was still the early days of the app, he explains, and with such a small community “any interaction could lead to a follow.” Meaning that anytime he commented on or “liked” another user’s Instagram photo, they often reciprocated by following his own Instagram feed. DiFeo (@bridif) eventually formed a group for New York City-based Instagram users (@instagramnyc) with two other Instagrammers, Liz Eswein (@newyorkcity) and Anthony Danielle (@takinyerphoto), which helped increase his following. Then, during the summer of 2011, Instagram made him a suggested user, and the endorsement boosted his numbers even more.
That same summer, DiFeo and Danielle decided to parlay their Instagram following and experience into a gig: They offered to photograph the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island and create an Instagram account for the event in exchange for media passes to the festival. “We were doing backstage content for them and photographing musicians and people who [performed],” DiFeo explains. “But we were also, as the brand, going into the hashtags and connecting with Instagrammers that were in the audience, and then we met up with some of them.”
After Newport, DiFeo realized “there is a truly cool connection you can make with people between an event or a brand, and the audience” via an Instagram feed. Six months later, he and Danielle got a chance to explore this idea further when PUMA contacted them about traveling to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to document the Volvo Ocean Race, in which the sportswear company had sponsored one of the competing boats.
Remi Carlioz, senior head of digital marketing, PUMA SE, explains that PUMA, “aside from the traditional coverage, wanted to gain a more honest and unique perspective” on the event. PUMA sent ten Tumblr bloggers and Instagram users with no sailing background to cover the race, in addition to traditional media outlets. “The bloggers were selected from a pool that our digital team had been following with thought given to style, esthetic and existing audience,” Carlioz says. “We focused on Tumblr and Instagram because of their popularity, versatility and social features.”
The new-media group was given complete creative control by PUMA, and access to all of the events related to the race. The images DiFeo took were posted on his own Instagram feed, but all of the bloggers and Instagram users were encouraged to use the hashtag #marmostro, the name of PUMA’s boat. When he returned, DiFeo wrote about the experience for the social-media training company Social Fresh. The article gained some attention and just a couple of weeks later DiFeo as well as Danielle and Eswein were contacted by various brands to cover Spring Fashion Week in New York City.
“We were all kind of hesitant,” DiFeo explains. “But brands were asking us to photograph events and offered us money and we were like, ‘All right, let’s form a company and sort of shape the way brands work with Instagrammers as photographers and also how brands work on Instagram in general because we really understand the platform more than a brand that’s new to it.’” The trio started The Mobile Media Lab, “a creative agency that produces customized visual experiences with brands and their audiences on Instagram and other social media channels.”
The services they offer vary depending on the client. Some brands, such as PUMA, prefer DiFeo or one of his partners post images on their own Instagram channels (to date, DiFeo has 135,000 followers on Instagram, while Eswein has 506,000 and Danielle has 198,000). “Typically we’d do two or three, maybe four, photos a day and then we will also promote the brand account or hashtag, if they want,” DiFeo explains. Other clients are just looking for competent iPhone photographers to cover an event in real time on the brand’s own Instagram channel. Sometimes the brand will ask The Mobile Media Lab photographer to share the photos on his or her own feed as well, other times that doesn’t matter to them at all.
Regardless of where the images are posted, DiFeo is adamant about one thing: “Every job we do, we really want to keep creative control over our accounts. We don’t do shot lists.” This has become increasingly important as The Mobile Media Lab branches out from simply shooting campaigns to creating them and assigning other photographers to do the work. In these cases, The Mobile Media Lab handles all of the back and forth with the client, including educating them on the best practices for social media. Once the campaign is set, DiFeo will reach out to a photographer he’s met through Instragram or someone who has contacted him separately, to shoot the actual images.
It’s an evolving approach to marketing, one that some brands find enticing. Carlioz notes that PUMA wants “to be where our target consumer is; digital platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram are quickly becoming embedded into our culture and especially that of our consumer.” He adds that the company was pleased with the results of the Volvo Ocean Race coverage, and that “there is a very good chance that at most of our important events there will be a similar component.”
DiFeo, who is slowly transitioning The Mobile Media Lab from a side gig to a full-time job, continues to be active on Instagram as well as other social-media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. He admits that sometimes gaining new followers has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time. For example, when New York Mets player Johan Santana recently pitched a no-hitter, DiFeo tweeted a photo from the game that spread on Twitter and the Internet, and resulted in additional followers for his Twitter account. But more often than not, followers come from engaging and networking with people. “From my experience, it’s 70-30,” he says. “When I’m on Instagram, 70 percent of the time I’m not creating or posting, I’m consuming and interacting. I haven’t put a photo up in three days, I’ve just been so busy, but everyday I go [to Instagram] and check other people’s photos out.”
Update: In December, we contacted DiFeo about Instagram's proposed change to its terms of service policy, which would permit users' photos to be associated with sponsored content. At the time, DiFeo said he was taking a wait-and-see approach, and Istagram has since removed the problematic language from its TOS policy.
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