Article published in Issue 27 of Wild Planet Photo Magazine, January 2016
It seems to be a perpetually unsolvable mystery these days, how to show your pictures to the wider public, ideally with minimal effort and minimal cost. Of all the social media platforms it is Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which seem to be the big three that people use to tell the world about their photography.
The mystery is that there seems to be no consensus about how it all works, what works and what doesn’t, and what should work for you. There are many opinions, many of them contradicting. Everyone’s needs are different. But because we are image people, we’ll look at Facebook and Instagram. Not only are they by far the best platforms for pictures, they are the fastest growing ones too. Each has its strengths, and it’s smart to play to them.
Facebook launched in February 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg with help from several other Harvard College colleagues. They’d initially limited the website to Harvard students but later expanded to other colleges in the Boston area, gradually adding support for students at various other universities and high-school students. Then, in 2006, anyone who was at least 13-years-old was allowed to become a registered user of the website.
In 2007, Facebook launched Facebook Pages to allow users to interact with businesses and organisations in the same way they interact with Facebook profiles. By the end of that year Facebook had 100,000 business pages, now it has over 50 million. It is these Facebook pages that made it suddenly very accessible for photographers to market their work to Facebook’s user base, which stood at more than 1.5 billion as of November 2015.
It goes without saying that that represents a huge audience, far greater than any other media outlet, printed or otherwise. Anyone with a Facebook page can publish posts directed at any area of interest within that audience. So for photographers wishing to publicise their work, the platform is almost ideal. It’s become very image friendly these days, and that suits us all very well. So with that all said, how do you go about it all?
The key to it all is post shares. You really want to have your posts shared by viewers as much as possible. A shared post gets you more views, of which the by-product is more comments, likes and followers. But to get your posts shared you need to provide a good reason for people to share and that comes down to content, or more precisely, content that people like to see. And variable content is where it’s all at.
Two to three good posts a week is always going to be better than five or six so-so ones as that keeps people interested enough while minimising the risk of people getting bored with it all and turning away. Boredom arises when you post a bit too often or post the same kind of thing week in week out, so you will need to mix it up a bit. Mixing the regular posts with a few variants on your usual theme will keep it lively. Simply posting an Instagram picture on it once day for weeks on end is one example of what not to do. It’s a bit lazy, and your results will vindicate that for sure.
Your posts are going to be seen by more people if you post regularly too. If you are inconsistent then very few of your followers are ever going to see you. Dropping posts for a week or two means your percentage reach falls and you will have a hill to climb to get your reach back to where it was before you lapsed. If you are regular, then more will see your posts. And the followers that are liking and commenting on your posts on a regular basis are the ones who are seeing your posts the most too.
Nobody goes online anywhere to see advertising, especially on Facebook. I’m not speaking of Facebook’s paid promotions here, but more of posts that contain words like Book Now, Buy Now, or For Sale. If you’re going to publish posts like this you are going to have to be pretty judicious and conservative about it. Putting such posts among your regular posts will help appease your followers. But if you are going to frequently publish posts with words like Book Now, or For Sale, then you are going to either lose your followers or just acquire them a lot more slowly. Know too that people will follow you simply because they like your pictures. There is unlikely to be any other reason, so to show them too much of something else won’t be too beneficial.
The catch though is that for posts to be effective they really need to contain a link to a website, and any post with such a link is severely curtailed by Facebook in terms of reach. Posts containing links are only going to get about 10% of the reach of your regular posts. It’s because Facebook is being smart in doing this so that you can’t advertise using its platform for free. So to alleviate this, you’re going to have to give Facebook some money to boost your posts.
This is so often decried as there remain people who still cannot justify in giving money to Facebook. Some believe they’ve a basic right to a free Facebook, which of course has no basis in anything. They’re happy to pay £100 to a magazine with a readership of 40,000, but they seem to balk at paying £25 to a targeted audience of 250,000. But if you really want to broaden your reach, then this really is worth looking at because if you want Facebook to work for you then you’re going to do far better doing it this way than not doing anything at all. The posts to boost are the ones that offer somebody something. It makes no real sense to boost a post that offers nothing but a picture to look at; much better to boost one that promotes something a bit more tangible, like a print, a book, or a workshop.
You can boost any post to either your followers or to a targeted Facebook audience outside of your followers. It stands to reason that if you have a small following, then better to target non-followers. An upside to that is that those you target will learn of you and may follow you as well. So, two birds, one stone.
I think everybody by now knows of Facebook’s image copyright agreement whereby any image you post can be reproduced by them however they see it for marketing and promotional purposes. This has scared people. People got to thinking that one day Facebook was going to sell their photos to magazines, or make posters, or T-shirts, or something. But that’s not really the case at all.
What they are really doing is protecting themselves against lawsuits as soon as they reproduce any image across the site, which is what they have to do. Your image is uploaded to their site and then reproduced by them to make thumbnails and other incidental images to make it tick over and easy to follow for everyone online. So they aren’t going to take your images. They’re just making it easier for more people to see them.
Instagram is a little like Twitter where simplicity is the requisite, but with the emphasis on pictures over text. It emerged in October 2010 and got to a million users within three months, 10 million in a year, then surpassed Twitter’s 300 million users by the end of 2014, all in turn making billionaires out of its two student developers. From that beginning, people began to recognise it as a useful marketing tool. From its cultural selfie beginnings, more serious photographers jumped in and started posting pictures taken with their DSLRS, which gradually eroded the unwritten rule where Instagram pictures ought to be taken with a phone only.
Wildlife photographers in particular have seen its benefits – taking advantage of its effective sharing abilities, an account can gain hundreds of followers very quickly if shared by any of a number of mega-accounts resident on Instagram too. If you are a wildlife photographer, whether making a start or seeking to use Instagram more, then hashtag a few of the larger accounts to your post, and hope they notice and share. The rules of smart use are similar to Facebook’s really: post reasonably frequently, maybe once a day or every other day, not several times a day and not once a week. Don’t open your account with a dozen of your best, start with one and add gradually, don’t over-tag, just a line of subject-related hashtags will do, plus two or four more of the mega-account ones to get their eyes. Remember, you can still tag pictures long after you’ve posted them. Broad tags like #photo or #life are inherently useless as millions are created every day and your post will be buried hundreds deep before you’ve finished posting.
Each platform has its strength, and with Instagram it is simplicity. There is no place here for long captions or stories, or attempts to make it your Facebook page. People are visiting for its strength, and that is pictures with minimal wordage. URLs in captions are of no use as Instagram doesn’t make them functional, nor can you copy them to paste in a browser. So nobody is going to visit your website page on the back of a long and ugly URL. As it is anywhere, it’s better not to post a photo at all than it is to post a substandard one. Follow others that inspire you, and comment and like their posts too. It’s reciprocal – when they mention you, it will be noticed by their followers as well.
Both Instagram and Facebook, alongside Twitter, have their strengths, and success in becoming more widely known is in playing to their strengths. Twitter is simple, easy and text specific, and Instagram is simple, easy and image specific. Facebook offers both text and images, but needs a little more work. But it also has by far the largest following, more than the population of any country on earth.
Every mystery is solvable, including the one on how to get your pictures out to the wider public. Like all good things though it may not happen overnight, but respecting anything for their strengths and using them accordingly will ensure success will come sooner or later.