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Instagrammers in Demand by Major Brands

Marketers borrow audience from photo platform's top users
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Instagrammers are the new brand influencers.

In the wake of Facebook’s purchase of the popular photo platform for a cool $1 billion, a growing number of marketers have been trading perks—cash, trips, swag—to a coterie of widely followed smartphone photographers in exchange for snapshots broadcasting products or events.

Two weeks ago, for example, Barneys New York hired Anthony Danielle (@takinyerphoto, 166,000+ followers) along with other influential photographers to shoot the launch party for its new Costello Tagliapietra line. The same week Danielle was one of two high-profile Instagram users to snap and share photos promoting Warby Parker’s new summer eyewear, of which they received free samples. Meanwhile, Brian DiFeo (@bridif, 105,000+ followers), a partner of Danielle’s in The Mobile Media Lab—a marketing agency for Instagram, launched in March—was in Miami photographing the Volvo Ocean Race, with expenses covered by the auto brand. Sam Horine (@samhorine, 137,000+ followers) was also there to shoot the event.

And in late April, Danielle, DiFeo and Horine—along with The Mobile Media Lab’s third partner, Liz Eswein (@newyorkcity, 251,000+ followers)—were among six prominent NYC Instagrammers paid by Delta to shoot from Madison Square Garden during the playoff hockey game between the New York Rangers, which the airline sponsors, and the Ottawa Senators.

The tactic is a smart one for visually driven brands in industries like fashion and travel—especially those already dabbling in influencer marketing, said Angeline Vuong, a strategist for digital agency Huge. It’s trickier, though, for those outside lifestyle categories—a soda brand, for example—to attract Instagrammers wary of being seen as shills, according to George Sylvain, who co-founded Instagrid Network, a startup aimed at connecting brands with popular Instagram photographers.

Danielle, for one, does worry about blurring the line between editorial and advertising. “Nobody wants to be deemed a sellout, but everybody has to make a living,” he said.

DiFeo, asked if he was concerned about misleading viewers who might not realize he is working with brands, offered a slightly different take. “I’m just sharing my experiences with my audience,” he said. “Sometimes it’s personal and sometimes it’s professional.” 

A number of marketers, including some blue-chip brands like GE, have their own Instagram streams, with sizable followings. But absent a traditional advertising model on the platform, borrowing a popular Instagrammer’s audience is another easy way to reach some of the startup’s tens of millions of viewers. And given the time-and-location-specific nature of tool’s snapshot content, it’s a particularly good strategy for brands looking to amplify their sponsorship of events or provide photoraphers’ audiences a window into behind-the-scenes locations they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. “[Instagram] creates this intimacy to these places that people can’t be,” said Vuong.

In the case of the Rangers-Senators game, for example, Delta facilitated a tour for Instagrammers of Madison Square Garden's best vantages—not usually open to fans— and granted access to the brand’s Sky360 Club, according to Dave Brown, a digital strategist at experiential agency MKG, which organized the stunt. The agency had set out to make “a big impact with a somewhat limited spend,” he said, and netted more than 5.6 million impressions—the total number of photos broadcast by the Instagrammers, multiplied by their total number of followers.

Warby Parker, for its part, has also recently staged a handful of unpaid “Instawalks,” inviting fans of the brand to traipse around New York City taking photos of its frames—loaned to attendees by the company at the start of the events—and sharing them with followers. The brand’s first, held in January, received about 140 RSVPs, but Warby Parker capped the event, which ended with a cocktail party at the Hotel Gansevoort, at 100 attendees. While a handful of those had tens of thousands of followers—including DiFeo—the average attendee had only about 250, according to Jen Rubio, the brand’s social media manager, who estimated that it generated about 850 photos and reached a total audience of some 370,000 Instagram users. A second, held two Sundays ago, was a smaller event, with only 40 attendees or so, ending at Warby Parker’s headquarters, where the brand served shaved ice as a treat. “We don't pay anyone to show up,” said Rubio. “We're really fortunate that people are excited to hang out and be part of something the brand is doing.” The end-game? Create “really great relationships” with the people who show up, she explained. “Not only do they become customers if they're not already, but they become really big advocates.”

Nonetheless, the January Warby Parker Instawalk sparked some complaints that it was too gimmicky or corporate, DiFeo said—part of the inspiration behind launching The Mobile Media Lab as a separate entity for working with advertisers. “One, I realized there's potential to partner with brands on this stuff…” he explained. “And two, I wanted Instagram NYC to be independent."

DiFeo also said The Mobile Media Lab doesn’t currently have plans for a similar influencer programs around Instagram-style video-sharing apps with growing user bases, citing the quality of Instagram’s photos and the ability to share them instantly. Danielle, meanwhile, hopes to build the business out so that they can eventually pay more Instagrammers to talk about products and brands on their own feeds. “I'm looking to share the wealth,” he said.