Building a Successful Instagram for Paying Clients

By Virginia Smith

Is it just about getting as many followers as you can?  As far as Instagram goes (and even twitter) it’s better to focus on up and coming brands, brands that are trending or that interact with their Instagram accounts was well as have a good following of art directors, magazine editors, agencies and bloggers. It doesn’t always mean a large amount of followers either. I have a friend on IG who has 25,000 followers from being involved early on with IG meet ups. She started to offer her work for sale and crickets…not much response.  She’s changing her strategy from just attracting followers to attracting gallery owners, art directors and agencies.  It’s also studying how the audience you target interact with their IG audience. Is the brand or following WORTH targeting?

My elopement photographer daughter ( targets Free People because many of her elopement brides wear the brand for their wedding dresses. (Using key words with a hash tag symbol # and targeting the brand itself with the @ symbol are the terms I’m talking about.)  She submitted a few Free People branded shots to their submission page and she got featured as well as 150,000 likes on the shot including 500 comments. She ended up with 200 additional likes, several elopement inquiries one of which took her to Costa Rica, one commercial inquiry still in discussion. It also gives her creditability her commercial clients.  A wedding photographer’s audience needs to continue to grow their audience as the new followers frequently are looking for a photographer while the older followers have probably had their weddings.  This is why she intersperses her wedding work with lifestyle work to attract the commercial clients.


When she and I collaborated on a styled elopement based on a children’s author I tweeted the author when it got featured. His mother tweeted all his friends and the publisher retweeted it. That led to another children’s author messaging me and we are planning an editorial collaboration as well as some paid marketing photography to expand his audience.  So using Instagram and twitter together can be a great strategy for building a brand presence.


The series I just finished is bringing me views from some interesting brands. It’s a test of a storytelling series of images from a Road Trip to Zion.  I purposely took shots of the model featuring her as a fitness model on the road wearing her favorite brands.  I created a list of products used in the shots (cosmetics, props, clothing).  As I posted each image, I tagged (@) and hashtagged (#) the brands as well as chose some of the hashtags the brands I am targeting use in their feed that day. Most people check the hashtags they use. The first shot posted featured boots by a particular brand. They loved it and asked to feature it however their terms of service meant that they could use the image in perpetuity for whatever they chose.  Not the results I had hoped for so I turned them down.  However it’s interesting that a leather maker saw it, commented and I’ve started a dialogue with another small leather company who would like to run a similar series.  One of the images got reposted by a major brand on their Instagram featured page that brought me additional views and followers.  I usually look at who is choosing to follow me so I was glad to see that many of the new followers are in businesses that would be in the market for photography.


From what I’ve observed from the younger photographers I network with that use it successfully, it’s consistency, focus and interaction that can lead to the right people seeing the work and translate into paying clients over the long run. It’s also interesting that it can be self-perpetuating. For example the client who hired my Sam Arroyo Photography and Arroyo Films for the Costa Rica elopement will in turn be featured on IG as well as submitted to a wedding blog, which also leads to more clients!  Getting the paying clients to post your images tagging you also leads to referrals and more work!  The images are available for viewing in hashtag searches online, which can lead to additional interest in hiring you or in the images themselves for stock photography.

There are many articles on the dangers of giving your work for free, looking at the terms of service in hashtagging a brand and user generated content being used without permission by brands that should be researched as to the perils a photographer would want to avoid.  After researching and trying out different strategies I am targeting brands that have a submission process for images they use to repost from. One has to decide what the end goal should be. Right now, for me each new series is designed to build an audience who are connected to commercial photography, art directors and growing businesses. Hopefully carefully chosen hashtags can prevent implied consent yet attract the right audience.  I am also looking to change my branding tactics with instagram so that potential clients can see my work in story format by running several images in a theme. When they see an image that’s numbered as part of a series, they spend more time on my feed viewing the series.  The end goal is paid work by building my own exposure.


I am also using the series (in this case “American Southwest Road Trip”) in my marketing materials as well. It will be printed as an accordion fold brochure for art directors and agencies.  In creating a series, I do not automatically share my instagram feed with twitter and Facebook.  I share a few of the series images on Facebook referencing my instagram and targeted towards a certain audience.  For a minimum investment I can run an ad targeted at art directors in my area for a week.  This is not so much to get work about to build a presence and it seems to be effective as more people will recognize the work when I network.  With Twitter I will try and connect with people I’ve met by name to look at the work.  I plan on uploading an image to a twitter post with a link to my website page with the images or to a blog post.  I’ve watched other successful photographers use this method successfully.  It also makes the work go farther when building a portfolio.

Social media has proven to build brands presence successfully over time.  But it’s not just a matter of posting whatever work you’re currently doing.  It’s posting with purpose and a plan.  Think about your audience and the results you are hoping for.  Play around with creative ideas to do just that and have fun doing it!  It’s pretty exciting when you start seeing what works.  I will be finishing a short series today with a stop motion video.  Can’t wait to see what happens!

Virginia Smith


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