Zero Budget Instagram Success

You never know how good you are until you are faced with the four headed hydra of no budget, little time, an unusual location and a camera phone. #instagram #nobudget #DIY #photography #socialmedia

Recently, when Eddie Murphy returned to Saturday Night Live, his Velvet Jones character also returned in a sketch promoting a new book, How to Be An Instagram Ho. As the person at the E-Commerce location of my employer in charge of creating images for our Instagram account, I about fell off my couch in laughter.

Eddie Murphy, December 2019, as Velvet Jones, in another Saturday Night Live “Black Jeopardy” sketch. Courtesy of NBC.

Oddly, what prompted me to write about Instagram was an offer I received via a private message from a vendor the other day: “Hey. We like your style. We believe that you have the potential to become a huge social influencer. Go to (website I will not name) and type in this code when prompted to receive free clothing and instructions.

I responded: “I can’t be a social influencer. I have a job. Two of them, actually.”

A souvenir book about Bob Marley. Photo by yours truly.

No, I wasn’t even the least bit impressed or interested. As I tell young people all the time, “Nothing on the internet is ever truly free. Except drama, which never seems to be in short supply.”

A set of leather bound Easton Press and Franklin Library books. I photographed them in the office of the E-Commerce executive director. Not going to lie, it was very hard for him to want to part with them, and I can’t say I blame him.

Unlike many who post images of books on Instagram using the #bookstagram hashtag, there are things we don’t have available to us that many use.

  • High end photography equipment.
  • Settings outside of the warehouse and grounds I work in.
  • The time to be able to stage these photographs as beautifully as I like, since this is only a small part of what I do during the day.
  • Absolutely zero budget.
A well staged #bookstagram image. It does look lovely, doesn’t it? I do prefer white wines over reds, though. This is one in a series of gorgeous images by @sweptawaybybooks on Instagram.

I have to say this: I have been pretty much given few parameters, and a great deal of leeway. This doesn’t mean the ideas are always successful or pass muster. At least my job doesn’t make me do what I have seen recently, which is to put books with a serious subject matter, such as racism, next to a potted plant; makes total sense, n’est pas?

Just yesterday, I was in a discussion with someone who posted an image featuring Nabokov’s Lolita. Why that particular title, since it involves the rape of young woman by her stepfather? Her response: “I don’t know. I’ve never read it. I was just told to sit here with these books.”

Even with no budget, you still have options. The background is actually a mass produced canvas painting that was donated. Photo by yours truly.

Most of the images on my employer’s feed were shot on my cell phone, which I then would e-mail to my work computer in order to process them. Often, I would upload these images outside, even in the rain, since the warehouse I work in doesn’t allow for the best reception.

Hashtags, created by our Marketing department, are invaluable in reaching book lovers on Instagram. This one is the #mortalinstruments. I haven’t a clue about these books, but they, like #harrypotter, have a huge online fanbase. Photo by yours truly.

The build up was slow at first. I can’t take the credit for which images get used. I am given a list of things, then take two shots of the book or books in different staged presentations. They are then sent to Marketing, who make the choices, then create a quick blurb (sometimes this is taken from info I send them) and appropriate hashtags, the latter being a huge part of how we got to over 2,000 followers in just three months.

You don’t need a bathtub to make a statement about a book. I shot this one on my stomach on the sidewalk behind my place of business. Ruined my shirt, but what the hell, it was only Van Heusen.

I do sometimes, however, attempt to really drive home a particular book title or image, and have been known to go into “Strangé” (pronounced strrhaahnnjjshay) mode, a character from the 1992 comedy Boomerang, played by Grace Jones. I will start mumbling some nonsense in French…then follow up in English.

“Écoute, c’est ma vision qui nous distinguera du reste des soi-disant libraires d’occasion en ligne. Ces sujets sont un épave du chemin de fer…”
“…why are my concepts being ignored? I am not a fool. I know what the people want. They want to be SHOCKED. They want to be STUNNED. They want to be JOLTED.”

Grace Jones, in her most iconic film role as the eccentric fashion diva Strangé from the film Boomerang, 1992. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

And the reply typically goes like this:
“OK Ben, can we dial that back just a bit? And in English, please?”
Me: “Sure. Why not? By the way, I brought home made cookies!”

My most liked image on my employer’s Instagram account. Without the assistance of the employees on the production floor, I would never had found it. Different is what makes this stand out.

The primary difference between a bookseller (or seller of any used goods) when they are advertising on social media vs. being an “Instagram ho” is to SELL PRODUCT. Likes are great, followers are fine, but if they don’t engage the audience and people aren’t coming to shop, then there is really no point in investing time and effort in it. (On a side note, it is one of the reasons I no longer have a Facebook account for my freelance work, as the return on investment was actually decreasing.)

Never underestimate the power of cute. This highly popular photo of mine was the brainchild of associates working on the floor.

Additionally, what makes our business model unique is that all of our inventory is donated. Used. We may never see more than one copy of a title, ever. It’s the luck of the draw. There is also the fiduciary aspect of it all, since we are a non-profit, and the more money we direct toward our mission services, the better. Because of this, I have always been very cognizant to give the real credit to the associates at every turn, since they are involved with the products daily. They see the good stuff and let me know when a potential winner is around.

I am just the crazy guy with the “thing”, as I was told. (Maybe it’s time to take those antibiotics again…)

One of my “dial it back Ben” moments. I was very much enamored with this pop-up book, but in hindsight it might have been a little too much.

It’s something I heard Country music legend and best-selling author Loretta Lynn say once: “You have to be first, best or different.” I can’t vouch for the first two, but different is definitely my territory. And yes, I have been known to appear on the production floor, ready to get new images with my cell phone camera telling everyone how glad I am to be back at the Opry tonight.

As far as marketing is concerned, you could learn a great deal from classic country artist Loretta Lynn, pictured here. 1972, courtesy of Decca Records, photographer unknown.

One fantastic thing that has come of it all: unlike so much of what we do, you can almost immediately see the work that I am doing, with the help of the associates, online. It’s something we can easily share with our families and friends. It’s something we can take pride in helping to further our mission and our goals. It’s something we get to be a part of that just six months ago didn’t exist. It’s something that even for just a few moments of our day, dealing with customer challenges and daily goal setting, that allows us to truly think outside the box and use our collective expertise in ways that matter.

Another idea suggested at random. I liked it so much that I found a chainsaw we had for sale, and shot these books with it. I didn’t think it would fly, and now, as a result of its posting, have gladly promised lunch to the Books Dept.

The Instagram project, as I call it, has had the most amazing effect: it has brought me closer to my fellow employees, the associates on the production floor who make the whole business happen. To see people genuinely excited about something as seemingly esoteric as promoting books and literature is a truly humbling thing.

Helpful photography trick I learned decades ago: if you’re ever in a bind for something to make your image or product pop, mirrors are always a great go-to. Look closely, and you can see the rafters at the top if the warehouse reflected in the mirror.

With the coronavirus lockdown happening, of course the project is currently on hold. Of the things I actually miss about being at work, this has to be at the top. We get to engage people online for something that is truly unique and special. And of course, the personal is political: like a good number of the associates, they are, as my mother was, immigrants to this country with English language skills that could use improvement. I taught my mother how to read, and one of our mission services programs is teaching ESL.

You never know what will strike someone’s interest in reading. For my mother, it was this book. If just one image I shoot does the same for an Instagram user, that’s next level success. Image courtesy of Putnam.

A lesson to those thinking about delving into online social media sales: always ensure that those in the trenches are a part of the equation, because they know it better than anyone.

Do I want to be an Instagram ho? Well, I do have the right jacket for it. You can find the Goodwill Books instagram account at @goodwillbooks.

Love to you all.
Ben “Daddy Ben Bear” Brown Jr.
www.aospdx.com
www.aceofspadespdx.com
Instagram: @brownjr.ben

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