Understanding Photography on Instagram

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United Kingdom-based Digital Photographer Magazine interviewed me for their current edition (Magazine Issue #173) on Instagram best practices for photographers. The article is titled “Market Yourself on Instagram”, but it is gated, unfortunately. However, I did keep a copy of my answers, which you can find below.

DP: Do you use Instagram to post the same content as your other social media sites?

GL: When it comes to photography, yes, for the most part. I find that crossover between social networks – 500 Pixels to Facebook to Flickr to Instagram to Twitter – is minimal. Each network has its own audiences.

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Some photos don’t translate well due to the format, which almost forces you to be literal about the rule of thirds. For example, I love this Super Moon photo with the Washington Monument in the lower left for foreground (above), but it breaks the rules. It would never work in Instagram. The photo would be cropped either as another full moon photo, or a Washington Monument pic. Extended in a wide format it would be too small. So I wouldn’t post it in Instagram.

DP: How do you think the platform helps emerging photographers reach new audiences?

Nice of Kendall Jenner @kendalljenner to humor me with a selfie. #whcd #nerdprom

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on


Me shamelessly promoting myself at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

GL: I think Instagram has become much more mainstream in the past two years, and is in many ways is starting to replace Twitter. So it’s a good place to brand yourself, regardless of your type of photography. But, for many of us that’s where it ends.

Portrait and wedding photographers could use it for lead generation, but it would require them to actually network with other people, like and comment. It would not work to just post pics for most. Instagram also has additional potential for photojournalists.

DP: Does Instagram’s limited format enhance or impinge creativity?

GL: I wrote four years ago about my dislike for most of the images, and I still don’t like it. LOL. What many of us would consider dodging or burning or adding a bit more yellow to the temperature is replaced with filters. And as a result, bad images are glossed over.

But for the average point and click person, it improves their efforts. And for all intents and purposes, that’s what smartphones have become, point and click cameras.

Most importantly, though, Instagram allows people to share their lives in a visual manner. Everyone uses visual media to communicate about their lives. Because of this viral social network, many more people are falling in love with photography. That’s a good thing.

Over time I have come to realize that Instagram makes good photography stand out that much more. It’s kind of like a Pultizer Prize caliber writer clearly distinguishes himself in an email correspondence compared to the average office worker’s prose. People can see which folks know how to communicate with a lens, and that’s where photographers start to brand themselves.

DP: How do you use hashtags and geotagging to increase your reach?

Misty Morning #blackandwhite #monochrome #forest #woods #mist #picoftheday #photooftheday

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

GL: I try to use at least five hashtags per pic, and geotag the photos with location. The reality is that this increases reach by 20-30% per pic. It exposes your work to people who search by topical area, news trend, and location. In my mind, that’s just smart marketing.

DP: In your opinion, what are its biggest drawbacks and advantages?

Walk this way. Featuring Fana Lv. #model #asian #asianmodel #walk #picoftheday #photooftheday

A photo posted by Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) on

GL: The power of Instagram as its own type of social photography is both its biggest drawback and its greatest advantage. Instagram is life stream/photoblogging in my mind. Like blogging it can create a sense of expertise for inexperienced smartphone heroes. Within their medium they are just that.

But outside of Instagram, their photography may not be as strong. To successfully expand their skills, they may need more practice, or need to learn about lighting to take their photography to the next level, or might simply need to learn manual camera basics like ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

For an Instagram hero, this might be extraordinarily frustrating. They may simply retreat rather than grow and become the photographer they probably could be. This happened with many bloggers who were good writers, but could not conquer other media like magazines, books and traditional journalism.

A champion on one level is a neophyte on another.

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The same could be said for pro photographers who post their outstanding work on the network, and find it undiscovered. They are neophytes in social media and in particular, Instagram. So perhaps they walk away.

When these two worlds collide — the point and click heroes with the tried and true photography experts — is when photography grows and becomes a wider, more appreciated art form.

I came to photography ten years ago through blogging and social media, the need for original images was critical. But I would not be the photographer I am today if it were not for 1) a passion for creating visual art and 2) the expert photographers who took me under their wing, and showed me how to realize more of my potential. We need each other in this digital world.

And now my question to you, the reader: What do you think of Instagram from a pure photography standpoint?

The Transparency Failure

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Transparency was the ideal of the social media age in its apex. But as the years have marched on, we have seen that society is not ready for transparency.

Life as an open book is uncomfortable.

When we see open human nature, we punish people for it, hold them accountable for oddities, and for breaking social norms. Or worse, those naked conversations turn into dinner room and Sunday phone call lectures with parents. Bosses and HR engage in brand control. Spouses get jealous when they see conversations with colleagues and friends.

Let us not discount what happens when every action becomes catalogued within the corporate world’s marketing databases. Retargeted precision spamming happens in earnest.

We have seen ourselves — humanity — for what it is, and we became punitive. As posters, we have become self conscious. We let companies exploit our actions. And now when it comes to those naked conversations more often than not we say, “No, thank you.”

The reality of transparency is that human beings — all of us — are very flawed. We’re not ready to see our lesser selves.

Recent Events Crystallize the Transparency Failure

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Seeing the Obama administration chastise media for not digging deep and demanding transparency from into presidential candidates was quite a laugh. Hypocrisy could not find a better definition than the president’s public lecture.

The Obama campaign was elected on the promise of transparency, and then systematically shut down the media in its many attempts to seek information. Keep in mind this information should have been provided under the Freedom of Information Act. No, I think Obama’s manipulation of social media in particular, failure to provide access, and pandering to the public with silly tricks (remember the Death Star letter from NASA?) really typifies the failure of this medium.

Then there is the ultimate in transparency — sort of — The Donald. The more we know about the authentic Donald Trump, the more exposure he gets via Twitter and political gaffes, the less Americans like him.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this growing negative whiplash is a good thing for our country, but if you want to be a liked, are you going to offer a stream of consciousness on Twitter? Be transparent and be like Donald? No, no, you won’t. Sensible people mind their tongues.

Finally, the D’Angelo Russell gaffe last week put me over the edge. For those that missed it, the Laker rookie secretly videotaped teammate Nick Young talking about running girls behind his fiancee Iggy Azalea’s back. The video was leaked online, perhaps by a hacker, a SnapChat friend, or by Russell himself.

I totally agree that Russell broke protocol by not telling Young he was taping it. I also think the story as reported by the media missed a critical point. Young was cheating. He kind of deserves whatever he gets, forgiveness after trial-by-fire or broken nuptials.

In addition, anyone familiar with the NBA knows this kind of womanizing is par for the course in the league. We just don’t want to see it publicly. Transparency into what NBA players do in their relationships turns heroes into antiheroes.

Transparency, you say? No, let’s shoot the messenger and completely villanize D’Angelo Russell, a 20 year old kid who made a stupid mistake and broke the code. Perhaps the scandals of the NBA are too close to the truth for Americans. After all, we just recovered from the Ashley Madison scandal.

Why Dark Social Matters

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Part of being human is sharing experiences with each other. Sharing forms relationships. Yes, that includes the good Fakebook moments where we share our triumphs with friends and family. There is also an innate desire to share the bad, the daily trudge, the disgusting, and the naughty.

If you only post on the mainstay networks — LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — then there is no quarter. You are subject to public indexing, ridicule, and shame. Sure, you could have a private Twitter or Instagram account, but the likelihood of a frequent user remaining private is relatively small. Locked down Facebook posts are also relatively few and far between (and still indexed by the Facebook marketing database).

Some people still post their unfettered truth. And there are some really cool people that I admire who do it, too.

But not everyone is so brave. Instead, most need to trust SnapChat AND hope their friends on there aren’t going to rat them out (sorry, D’Angelo Russell). Some choose the anonymity of Yik Yak or another network. Or create an anonymous handle and go “troll” on a main network (even if you aren’t attacking folks, many people are leery of anonymous handles).

Dark social is the only recourse for people who crave transparency with their inner digital circle and the few who relate with them.

Think about that. We have forced ourselves to hide our own actions. The private lives of people are digital now, but hidden from the common eye.

Public transparency for all has failed, my friends. Not because of the medium, but because of who we are.

What do you think?

SnapChat Is Social Media’s Ultimate Revenge

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Watching the social media marketing world talk about SnapChat has offered quite a few laughs. Most marketers hate it. They just don’t know what to do with it. They paint SnapChat as a way to talk to “young people” or millennials, perhaps a sign on how much the original generation of social media voices has aged.

Snapchat is pure and unaccountable. It’s really what social media was meant to be, a real goofy conversation between people. In that sense, perhaps SnapChat is social media’s ultimate revenge on businesses.

There are no parents, no employers, no tracking algorithms available to the common user or even most of the brands participating online. If someone wants to post private media to select followers, they can bypass their story and go dark. And, if someone doesn’t want to view your content, they simply don’t. Even if you pay to get your content featured in the Discover or Live areas, people have to opt in.

In my mind, Snapchat is almost pure, (yes, there are those paid content channels) uninhibited social media. That’s why it does not compute to those who want to track mentions, push brand messaging, and sell product.

It’s about people sharing experiences — silly, inane, and/or serious — with one another. Overt messaging usually fails here. That’s why corporate communicators would rather throw their hands down and quit, writing SnapChat off as a silly Millennial network.

The Untrackable Defies the Analytics Age

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Perhaps the most confounding aspect of SnapChat is its lack of analytics and accountability for small and medium-based business marketers. In essence, the network is a walled garden.

Sure, you can advertise and get better analytics. But right now, you’d better bring a cool half million to the table for your entrance fee. Even getting a geofenced overlay can cost a pretty penny when compared to a Facebook boost or a Twitter ad.

The thing that SnapChat has going for it is its dark nature. Protecting customer integrity and their ability to post really interesting and generally (but not always) private social content is a huge differentiator.

Consider this. You can bash most brands on SnapChat and they will probably never find the complaint. Literally someone would have to screen capture it and send it to the social media manager. On Twitter, you’ll get stalked by someone trying to get you into private message land. If the complaint gets loud enough on Facebook, though less likely, you’ll probably have a customer service rep show up.

Then there’s the whole parental/employer thing. How many of you readers have decided not to post something because others would see it?

See, when social media is untrackable, it gives users a sense of ease about what they are posting. This free feeling is false. We all know what’s posted digitally can be picked up and sent anywhere, but nevertheless SnapChat has made it difficult. So analytics be damned, [young] people love their SnapChat.

Perhaps SnapChat really is the domain of the intern, as some older marketers would have it. At least the intern, won’t try to insert the brand in every post!

What do you think?

RIP Spammy Twitter Marketers (#RIPTwitter)

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A Twitter meme — #RIPTwitter — took the social network by storm over the weekend. Users complained about a rumored change from a traditional Twitter user feed to an algorithmic-sourced feed next week. The angst was inspired by this BuzzFeed post reporting the change.

The algorithm would source the most popular stories in people’s Twitter feeds. Users believed the experience would be bad enough to kill the network. The meme was so overpowering it caused founder and current CEO Jack Dorsey to make a statement and allay concerns:

But in reality, would an algorithm really kill Twitter? I don’t think so. It would probably make the experience better by eliminating bad spammy link-based Tweets usually sourced by marketers and inane ranters.

Tweets that aren’t interesting, including the overwhelming majority of tweets marketers push out every business day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., would lose priority. Without engagement, most of those tweets would fail to trigger the algorithm. They would die in the machine.

Conversely, the tweets that get the most engagement in a stream would rise to the top. I think this would be a fantastic development that would make Twitter’s stream much more competitive with Facebook, LinkedIn and to a lesser extent Google+. And it would force brands to invest in real conversations instead of simply publishing.

Further, based on Jack’s tweet, afterwards power users can simply pull down their screen or refresh their feed to get the traditional timeline. So no, Twitter algorithms won’t kill the social network. But based on the incredible amount of spammy marketing junk and bad content on the social network — even those based on popular topics and hashtags — well, an algorithm can only improve the experience.

Letting Go of 2400 Followers

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Every time I blog about Twitter losing its mojo, I receive several comments about how that’s my fault. Specifically, that I followed the people who post spam, so shame on me.

After my last post about how Twitter can improve its experience, I decided to listen to them and unfollowed 2400 Twitter users. This isn’t one of these, “I unfollowed all of you posts” that bloggers drop for attention. I actually did most of this at the beginning of last month so if I was seeking to draw attention, that would have been the time. Plus I would have dumped another 1500 out of my remaining 2000 followers.

No, this was an experiment to get rid of what Malcolm Gladwell would call weak ties on my social network. Specifically, I cut people I did not know or just had a brief acquaintance with and who are also marketers. I also unfollowed people who simply use Twitter to drop links, marketing or not).

What happened?

My experience definitely improved, not enough to make Twitter thrilling again, but the stream did seem to liven up a bit. I began engaging more, too.

The funny thing was that I did not receive one peep about the mass unfollowing either, which substantiates my belief that these people weren’t vested in being engaged in a conversation with me, at least on Twitter. About 200 people have auto unfollow bots or noticed, and unfollowed me back. The rest stuck around for whatever reason.

I may go further and drop some more followers when I get a chance. Whenever I am in the network and I see someone just dropping links or posting ridiculous spam, I unfollow them then and there. It’s adding up to a better Twitter that I actually care about again.

What do you think?

Consulting and Photography in 2016

 (Geoff Livingston)

(The Space Shuttle Discovery)

Several folks have asked what I am doing now on the professional front in the post Tenacity5 era. I am focusing on independent consulting and photography in 2016.

Consulting remains my primary focus as it is my most valuable skill, and the one companies need the most. Give them what they want as they say, and it is something I feel very comfortable doing. I will say that I am being a bit more selective about clients as it is just me, specifically no ongoing community management accounts or the like.

This also means I will not build a new agency or a larger marketing company. Part of my reasoning to end Tenacity5 was that I did not want to invest the energy into starting a new company anymore. That remains as true now as it did six months ago. However, I am keeping the Tenacity5 site up to describe the services I am offering, but have deleted the primary Tenacity5 social media properties.

What About the Photography?

 (Geoff Livingston)

(Early Morning at Pier 3)

On the photography front, I am getting hired more frequently as a pro photographer, which is awesome! In fact I have three jobs this week alone, which is pretty cool. Overall, photography makes up about 10-15% of my current income, and for that I am grateful.

However, the fine art and landscape photography, while certainly a driver of social media engagement, is not producing great amounts of revenue. I believe this is in part due to distribution.

Combined, the photography is not enough to earn a living. I am exploring some possible gallery and distribution methods, but none of these will be a quick fix. Even if I am able to get my own space, I don’t anticipate that photography will become my primary business. Things could change, you never know, but for now it’s a nice secondary revenue stream.

If you want to help with my photography business you can buy or license a photo, or you can hire me to perform work for your business or custom portrait shots. I am referring personal events to my friend Camille Catherine.

What About a Job?

 (Geoff Livingston)

(Under the El)

I did conduct a job search for several months, and while there were some near misses, things have not worked out. Some of the experiences reminded me of why I left corporate America 10 years ago. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Rather than continue the search, I have stopped looking completely. There will be no commute for me. Instead, I am taking the aforementioned consulting and photography route. I am able to do this thanks to my wife Caitlin, who successfully rejoined the government contracting community this past October.

That does not mean I won’t take a job or won’t listen to opportunities, but it is no longer a direction I am actively seeking.

I do want to thank everyone who inquired about what’s going on. You are good friends.

The Best Content Myth

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Featured image by yosuke muroye.

I wrote a post a couple months ago called watching the Content Marketing Trend Fade to Black that received a lot of attention, mostly positive. Some of the feedback included rebuttals (like this podcast from the Content Marketing Institute), which have to be anticipated when you write a post like that.

This post addresses the two most popular rebuttals: 1) content is not going away; and, 2) the best content always wins, which I will call “The Best Content Myth.”

Let’s handle the first one as it comes from an incorrect interpretation of the original post. There is a difference between content itself as created by both everyday citizens and marketers, and the content marketing trend. The post clearly deals with dwindling enthusiasm for the marketing industry trend, and states that content itself will only continue to grow albeit under different trend monikers and buzz words. So, I actually agree with rebuttal one, and always did.

Rebuttal number two is a much more dangerous myth. Many marketers believe that if they create great content, then they will succeed. The best content always wins, they say. This is not true, and frankly never has been.

I’ll go a step further: Even if you have socially validated content (i.e. popular online) it still may not succeed in generating marketing outcomes. Attention is not ROI. Attention can help build brand, sometimes. But even Super Bowl ads — arguably the most sure-fire way to garner tons of attention for your content — do not guarantee a successful result.

It’s important to understand why the best content does not win. Otherwise, you will build many beautiful things that will remain unused.

The Blood Meridian Case Study

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Cormac McCarthy is widely recognized as a great American author, and Blood Meridian is considered his masterpiece, a savage novel that spits up the conventional western myth in dystopian fashion. Published in 1985, Blood Meridian is often listed as one of the top 20 novels of the 20th century.

But the book did not sell. At least, not until Cormac McCarthy’s later commercial successes like All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Road (2006). In fact, at first it only sold 1200 copies in hardback. Instead a more commercial western novel released that year — Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove — won the hearts and minds of American readers.

After the Border Trilogy and the movies that ensured, Blood Meridian enjoyed pull-through sales and wider recognition for its incredible story. But even after the lift brought about by those powerful coattails, the novel is much more of literary success than a commercial one.

Blood Meridian epitomizes best content not winning in business. To be clear, business is about sales. Comparing western to western, Blood Meridian reads like a fricking Ferrari next to the safe yet lovable Lonesome Dove, a Honda Accord of novels. That’s not to belittle a Honda Accord, or McMurtry’s Pulitizer Prize winning best-seller. But time has proven Blood Meridian to be the all-time critical masterpiece of the two novels, while Lonesome Dove is the commercial winner hands-down.

Why did this happen? One word: Distribution.

McMurtry was an established author with a reputation for good works like the Last Picture Show (1966) and Terms of Endearment (1975). As a result, Loneseome Dove was well distributed much like an unproven Stephen King novel would be well distributed and reviewed today.

On the other hand, McCarthy had some literary successes, but was not a proven commercial quantity. In fact, in 1992 — before the publication of his first commercial success All the Pretty Horses — an article in the New York Times noted that none of his novels published to that point had sold more than 5,000 hardcover copies.

Once commercial success arrived, so did distribution and reviews as well his own Pulitzer Prize for The Road. But none of McCarthy’s books have been as highly regarded as Blood Meridian.

The “Yeah, Buts”

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Yeah, but that was in the 80s before the Web, social media, and email. Now with social media good content can rise to the top.

No, it’s not that easy. Anyone who has had any success online knows that it takes distribution. Distribution through your site, through a cultivated community that shares your information, through your own networks, through a sizeable email list(s) that actually opens your emails, through influencers and media that share your story, through native ads, and on and on. Content must be shared and delivered.

Yeah, but when I focus and write great content it always performs better than my mediocre content.

Of course it does. A ripe tomato tastes better than one that is spoiling. I would even agree that if you don’t create at least above average content, your effort will fail before it even starts. There is just too much noise out there!

But does a secondary player or unknown person’s outstanding content perform anywhere near as well as a market leader’s above average content? No, that’s because distribution is as important, if not more important than ever before. The amount of posts and related content is flat-out overwhelming now. It’s almost impossible to rely on the best content to rise to the top. People are increasingly looking for trusted sources — even algorithms in networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter — to tell them what’s important, rather than seeking out the best content possible.

Yeah, but I know a company that has great content, and they are getting incredible double digit returns on new leads and revenue.

Show me a good content marketing effort, and I’ll show you an organized distribution strategy. In fact, I’ll also show you a relevant product and service offering, and brand that people are at least moderately interested in. But in the minds of some digital media mavens, the success belongs to the content. In many ways, that’s like giving credit for a great dish prepared at a restaurant to the superior saucier working in the kitchen. Much more goes into the entire dish and restaurant experience.

The Hard Reality of Increasing Content Glut

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This is my real beef with best content myth and the overall great creative meme. You can write the Eiffel Tower of blog posts, but it will fail if no one sees it. Increasingly, less people share content. Half of all posts get shared eight times or less, 75% get shared less than 40 times.

That’s because there’s more and more content. This decline is affecting everybody, even top content creators as evidenced by the above chart from Buzzsumo.

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet trends report shows a 20+% increase in Internet traffic year-over-year. It also shows a 75% year-over-year increase in consumer generated shares. ALl of these increases equal more noise year-over-year.

Yet, while the average amount of content dramatically increases every year, the actual time people spend online is not increasing that much. We are talking about single digit growth. You can only spread the peanut butter so far. This is the very embodiment of content shock.

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The time shortage also provides the raison d’etre for why data and analytics have become necessary. Data drives successes now. Intelligence online shows you who is amplifying content and how to reach them. Of course, with data you can understand whether or not your brand is increasing its positive equity online. It shows you where customers are. Data can help you to identify which prospects best match your customer profile, and how to intentionally focus your efforts on them. You can use it to build the programmatic triggers based on algorithms to serve the right content (inbound or online) at the right time.

I don’t think this is a great secret. Analytics has always been mentioned as the underpinning of great content and distribution.

Yet if you read the case studies of great content these days, data and distribution are usually not mentioned. And these are case studies published by well-established content marketing authorities. This is how myths get perpetuated. I guarantee you that if you pried under the covers, every great content success uses analytics to optimize its content, and has excellent established distribution channels, earned, owned and paid. Most use marketing automation tools, too.

Winning is much more about the mechanics than the great content chefs would lead you to believe.

I remember speaking with my friends at Navy Federal last fall about their content. They saw a 14% jump in inquiries based on a content campaign via social media. Because of the increase in volume, they moved to enterprise grade social media management solutions and analytics tools to monitor conversations, log service interactions, and measure the impact of these conversations. They ended up optimizing their efforts and focusing on the channels and tactics that were driving the most customer interactions. The financial results justified further investment.
 
The content was very good. The optimization and tailoring was even better.

Concluding Remarks

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More and more companies deploy content marketing tactics now. Yes, you can have the Inbound Marketing success that the Neil Patels of the world profess. But it takes a hell of a lot more than just great content.

Make no bones about it, the best content needs amplification. Stakeholders are inundated with messages, updates, ads, and other forms of content, both corporate and peer-to-peer.

From a corporate standpoint, content is a product. It serves a stakeholder. Without the data to become precise not only in distribution, but also in targeting and content creation to actually resonate with the stakeholders that matter, that content will not be found.

To succeed, marketers need to go beyond content marketing. They need to create marketing ecosystems that blend precision targeting, product marketing, engagement, branding, distribution and yes, content.

So, no offense to the best content crowd, but your 10 out of 10 stars quality blog post with little distribution won’t perform anywhere near as well as one might think. Good content will be read and shared as much because of distribution as quality.

Good is good enough, but even the good will dwindle with ever-increasing content volumes. Precision and discipline driven by data are the answers, not just creating “the best content.” On to the next unicorn.

What do you think?