The new creative economy is here. How can you turn your ideas into profit?
We spoke to three Philadelphians who make money online in three very different ways. Two of the three are able to make a full-time living from their work; for a third, online sales provide much-needed extra income. All three trade on their visual strengths as urban photographers and makers.
Rory Creative: Building online audiences for brands
Brendan Lowry is not a fan of the concept of social media influencer, despite being labeled one. Lowry, who recently left a position as marketing director at Curalate, runs a successful business in the new creative economy.
When you go to the website of Lowry’s agency, Rory Creative, you get next to no information. It’s as close to a blank page as possible. And you get even less detail on the company’s Instagram account. If this is influence, it’s not immediately apparent.
Lowry doesn’t want to show, and he doesn’t want to tell.
“There’s nothing on the Rory account or site. That’s intentional,” Lowry said. “Agencies try to oversell their capabilities, and they all use the same buzzwords and case studies.” Instead, he creates mystery, and foments a hunger for more. He wants you to dig.
Rory Creative’s clients look to Lowry to build online audiences in the way that he’s done for his own brand, Peopledelphia (93,000 followers), and his personal account (33,000 followers). So while he isn’t your traditional influencer, he is making money on social media by helping other brands grow followings and engagement with an ultimate goal of boosting revenue.
“A lot of my initial meetings are with people who say, ‘I hear your name coming up, but what is Rory? What are you actually doing?’” he said. “I’m not pushing hard sell up front. The entry point is more authentic. They are coming to me.”
Lowry’s reputation and brand, rather, are solidified on his personal account and on Peopledelphia.
“I started to realize there could be a connection to revenue when people responded positively to my own ideas,” Lowry said.
When he mounted his first photography show, for instance, he used his two accounts to drive attendance. The show sold out: “I’m able to drive people to things I am selling. That can be done for brands as well.”
It’s been about six years since Lowry launched his first Instagram account, and he attributes his success to luck — he was in the right place at the right time. His biggest challenge now is to work with the evolving algorithms of Instagram, and continue to build structure into his business practice to stay ahead of digital change.
Streets Dept: Brand-sponsored posts
Conrad Benner started his Streets Dept blog in 2011 as a passion project, with no plans to monetize. But when Instagram came out, he immediately saw the potential and began building an audience. Three years later, he was featured in an Instagram program that highlighted creators, and almost overnight, he went from 11,000 to over 100,000 followers.
“That’s when I realized that Instagram could support the Streets Department blog,” he said.
Benner says that the people who follow him like his curated look at the art on Philadelphia’s streets. As far as he knows, he’s one of the only full-time bloggers in Philadelphia, and he uses the platform both as a revenue source and to raise awareness of local issues. He has pushed for improved public transit, to raise awareness of youth homelessness and to promote civic engagement by partnering with local organizations such as Mural Arts Philadelphia.
“I suspect that the people who follow me can sense the amount of work and love I put into it, not only curating my blog, but also in trying to make a positive impact on the world around me,” he said.
Benner cites multiple sources of income: He makes money from local and national brands that he showcases on his account, including 3M, Budweiser, Jansport, Uniqlo and Timberland. He created an interview series sponsored by South Street bar Tattooed Mom. His podcast is sponsored by organizations such as Temple University and the Navy Yard. He hosts tours and curates exhibits. And finally, he consults, primarily with nonprofits, on how they can maximize their message on social.
“You have to identify sponsored posts,” Benner said. “Mostly I found people are excited that I am working with a larger brand.”
At this point, brands come to him.
“I’ve done a lot of legwork getting my podcast sponsored,” he said. “However, the larger brands have huge marketing departments. They want to talk about street art and public art. When they reach out to me, I’m already in the decks they present.”
Philly Love Notes: Selling products on social media
Emma Fried-Cassorla makes beautiful maps. And then she sells them online at a pretty healthy profit. She uses Instagram (56,000 followers) as her main platform. She also sells her wares through her blog, an email newsletter and her Twitter and Facebook accounts. All of the platforms send shoppers to Etsy, where they can purchase beautifully carved, custom made maps. (All maps are currently sold out.)
“It doesn’t make sense to go with brick and mortar,” Fried-Cassorla said. “My platforms and audiences are online.”
While Fried-Cassorla has maintained a day job as the director of marketing and communications for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, she’s created a lucrative business, and she prefers that balance to striking out completely on her own.
“Philly Love Notes should always be thought of as a project, and not a business,” she said. “I can leave if I need to. I never took out loans. I have no overhead.”
How did she get started?
“I randomly decided to papercut the entire city of Philadelphia,” Fried-Cassorla said. “It took me four months. I did a huge four-foot-by-three-foot papercut.” Soon after, she took a tour of NextFab, and realized she might have stumbled onto something. She transferred her maps to wood, using laser cutting tools at the maker coworking space. She advertised on Instagram and sent pitches to local press, asking to be added to their holiday gift guides.
Her maps come in two sizes and price points, at $50 for a 5×7-inch piece, and $150 for an 8×10-inch piece. These days, she confines her production to the holidays.
Friend-Cassorla attributes her ongoing success to one word: customization.
“The map is a very tangible way to be connected to your home,” she said. “It’s an amazing wedding gift. You customize it to show where someone met or had their first kiss.”
Fried-Cassorla differentiates herself from Benner and Lowry by offering a tangible item on social media: “There are influencers who sell themselves. They will sell you a post, or their creative services.” But Fried Cassorla is an influencer because of what she’s created.
In February, along with Technical.ly and Generocity, author Karin Copeland is co-presenting a special speaker event with Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. Learn more here.
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