In 2011, Ike Edeani bought his first iPhone, primarily so he could download a new photo app called Instagram.
At the time, Edeani yearned to quit his day job as a graphic designer to pursue his passion for photography. Instagram offered a creative outlet and a receptive audience, so he quickly got hooked. His carefully-considered subject matter and his focus on composition and light helped endear him to the then-fledgling photo-sharing community.
[Don’t miss our gallery of the top Instagram artists. Check it out here.]
Now, more than 360,000 people follow Edeani on Instagram, making him one of the most influential artists on the network.
Those of us with just a few measly “likes” on our #nofilter sunset snaps might wonder: Where do all these followers come from?
Cast your mind back to the early days of Instagram, long before the photo-sharing app inspired a bidding war between social media titans Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. In 2011, Instagram was just beginning to gain a foothold in the community.
Even in those early days, Instagram had its die-hard fans. One devotee, Jessica Zollman (@JayZombie) would spend hours tinkering with Instagram while working at another startup. Her dedication impressed the founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. In August of that year, she was formally brought on by Instagram as a “Community Evangelist,” making her the startup’s fifth employee.
In her new role, Zollman helped promote the best artists to feature on the “suggested user list,” which is maintained by the community.
Zollman added Edeani to the list, along with a few dozen others. In a matter of months, Zollman had inadvertently created a pack of pseudo-Internet celebrities.
The Daily Dot reported that Instagram cut down its list of suggested users to follow from around 200 to just 72 last year. In the space of a year, most suggested users will break 100,000 followers.
Today, Edeani is regularly approached by ad agencies and brands willing to pay him hundreds of dollars to photograph their products on Instagram.
He could probably make a decent living through Instagram alone. But he turns down many of these paid opportunities, because he doesn’t want to lose credibility with his followers by turning his Instagram presence into a platform for promotional photos. Instead, he primarily uses the service as a tool to promote his fledgling photography business.
“I owe Instagram a lot. And have received so many emails and offers of photography work,” he told me.
The most powerful marketing tool for brands?
Brands are also staking their claim on Instagram, which offers an alternative to traditional advertising. In addition to creating brand-specific accounts, corporate social media teams are busy discovering and cultivating relationships with “super users” like Edeani.
But it’s still early days for Instagram marketing, which means companies are trying many different approaches.
They hire Edeani and other Instagram artists to take these accounts over for a day or two. Edeani will mention on his personal account that he’s representing Warby Parker or some other brand.
The artists are often encouraged by social media teams to develop story lines inspired by their new products. It’s far more compelling for consumers than an endless stream of retro-filtered coffee cups or running shoes.
Freelance art director Michael O’Neal, better known as@MoNeal, recalls a time when top Instagrammers (himself included) would get their wrists slapped by Instagram if they worked too closely with brands. Littering personal accounts with logos was something Instagram just didn’t condone.
But lately, Instagram’s team has been more receptive to product placements, advertising, and partnerships, even encouraging its top users to do brand marketing. This shift started after Facebook’s $1.2 billion acquisition, and after CEO KevinSystrom’s subsequent experiments with new revenue models.
These days, O’Neal says, it’s almost a badge of honor for Instagram artists to be selected by a brand or agency for a corporate campaign.
Meet the “Instagram ambassador”
O’Neal also discovered Instagram in its early days, shortly after he moved from New York to San Francisco. New to the city, he would spend his weekends exploring, using the app as a visual diary of sorts. He’d find local gems, photograph them, and share them with his network.
Fortunately for O’Neal, his circle included Zollman, who selected him for Instagram’s coveted suggested user list. His follower base subsequently ballooned to over 500,000 people.
In a matter of months, he began receiving regular emails from tourists in San Francisco. They would get to know the city by following his Instagram photos, which formed a sort of social-media trail of crumbs through the city. O’Neal began organizing “Instameets” for his followers in the area and also set up educational “photo walks.”
Brands began to approach him, too. O’Neal told me that media powerhouses like CNN would ask for advice about leveraging the social network (“Instagram 101″), and others would offer him paid gigs.
“This app has changed my life,” he said in a phone interview from Apple‘s Sunnyvale headquarters, where he’s working for the summer on the creative team.
O’Neal is genuinely passionate about Instagram, which he believes is a democratizing influence in the art world.
“The best camera is the one that you carry in your pocket,” he explained, repeating a popular photographic cliché. “I just fell in love with the idea that Instagram levels the playing field, and became an ambassador for the company.”
Similarly to Edeani, who is a good friend of his, O’Neal rejects most of the corporate social media teams who approach him — most won’t pay more than a few hundred dollars. “I haven’t been ready to pollute my personal photos with commercial endorsements,” he said.
According to O’Neal, most marketing departments still haven’t set aside ample budgets for the new crop of social media sites, like Instagram and Pinterest.
But mobile photographers (O’Neal’s preferred term) are proving more willing to work with brands that pay a decent freelance wage, or sweeten the deal with cool perks.
O’Neal just returned from an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii, where he participated in a five-mile run. During that time, he snapped Instagram photos and added hashtags to promote Nike products. He stresses that he wasn’t under contract to share any specific number of photos and was given a fair bit of creative license.
Read on, here