Advocacy & Viral Content Photographer Case Study
So Benjamin Von Wong. Now, Ben is a guy that we've talked about a little bit throughout this class. And Ben is one of my favorite photographers on the internet these days. Not just because he's a super-nice guy and he's a friend of mine, and he's willing to help out, and help out his fellow colleagues, and engage with people, but because he has taken his immense skill and talent as an artist and as a photographer, and his large social media following. And he has dedicated the last number of years of his career to, essentially, advocacy or humanitarian work. And what I mean by that is that he's not necessarily going to places like Haiti and documenting children, or he's not going to be in Tacloban after the Philippines and the typhoon landed. But what he's doing is he's taking the idea of high-concept art and trying to effect change on a large level, on a large scale. So Ben is a very unique individual. He's a photographer, a director, and humanitarian. He specializes in advocacy photog...
raphy, total followers throughout majority of his networks is probably around 400,000, maybe a little bit more. He's active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, although you'd probably see him on a handful of different platforms. And you've certainly probably seen his work in news across the world. His most important network is Facebook as well as Instagram. Now, Instagram he likes because he understands that it's trending right now. He likes to be able to tell stories and it's simplistic, much like why Chris loves Instagram. But Facebook is still Ben's bread and butter. And Facebook is Ben's bread and butter because it's so much more easier for him to communicate as he needs to, to create the projects that he's trying to create, which generally are large-scale projects which involve lots of people, lots of other creatives, lots of other stuff, and lots of other publications to help get his work out there, which we'll talk about in a second. His online personality, much like Adam, is himself. He's a tech geek, he's an artist, he's passionate, he's funny, he's engaging, he wears his emotions on his sleeve, he doesn't mind sharing his challenges, he likes having conversations and engaging about just about anything. But he's always lighthearted, he's always happy. Whenever you see the stuff that he shares no matter what, there's always a positive spin on things. He just doesn't like to be negative and I can appreciate that. So Ben's revenue streams for the most part are large-scale marketing campaigns that he works on that he does seldomly, usually just to make enough money in order to get to the next project that he wants to do. And then he has done some workshops and some tutorials, which he likes to say are essentially like his safety net. So if he ever gets strapped for cash, he'll create some tutorials and do some things, again, mostly so that he can get on to his next creative project and try to effect change around the world. This image that you see over here on the right is an image that Ben did for a company for a large global campaign around the same time that I was working on a campaign for a similar mobile phone. And essentially, the wings that you see right there behind this artist, none of the work that Ben does uses CGI. He actually likes to play with fire. And he created those wings, working with teams to create fairy-like wings on the back of this model, with the model standing right there as they created everything. It was incredible. That's the type of stuff that Ben likes to do. Now, this one was a paid gig that he did. But most of the other stuff that he does are all based on that idea of advocacy. He's worked for things for underwater shark and shark finning, he's worked on projects wrapped around the idea of global warming. He recently did the big project that we've seen a couple times throughout this course when he was talking about plastic bottles in the ocean. It's huge. So the turning point for Ben was a couple-fold. One of the things that Ben brought to my attention during the time that we were talking about putting this course together and I was asking him questions was that Ben to this day still questions the fact if he's successful or not. And that just speaks to who Ben is. He's so honest with the idea that he knows that his work is seen around the world. His work is seen more so than probably most of the photographers on the planet. And he knows that the work that he does, does effect change. He gets a lot of people to raise money, he gets a lot of people to do action, he gets a lot of people to care about the projects that he's working on. But he still, at times, feels like most the rest of us where there's these ups and these downs. And so every once in a while, he says that some days are better than others. A lot of the times, he's riding high on the projects and the success he's having, and other times, he's hitting roadblocks, and so he's still trying to figure it out. And I think a lot of the turning point that happened for Ben, in terms of his branding who he is, is just the realization that he was going to be so determined in his artistic vision to make things happen, that once he was able to build a network of people that support him around the world where he has closed Facebook groups of the countries he likes to work in and says, "Hey, I'm coming to Australia and we want to do this. Who can help?" And there are tons of people that are just dying to help, that he was able to take that idea of some of the determination of his artistic vision of the fact that he has built up this network around the world, and the fact that people were actually starting to pay attention mid-layer around through his career because he's only been doing this for five years. 2012 was when he started doing this full-time. So he was able to take that vision, the creativity where he went from being a mining engineer. And I can't envision him being a mining engineer for the work that he does. I'd imagine there's just so much creativity just jumping out of his head and jumping out of his mind and his soul that I understand that he felt like he had to do something different. And so his turning point was wrapped around those three core concepts. That idea of passion, and engagement, and blind focus for his vision of what he wanted to be able to create. His network of people around the world that have been able to help him create these massively complex projects, and the fact that people were beginning to pay attention, and that the work that he was doing a couple years ago was starting to get noticed. And all of a sudden, effect some layer of change. And so that's where things started to continue to turn around. And he's just taking things to the next level, every project is bigger than the one before it. So building his following. So as I mentioned before, he likes to post very positive. He's always putting a positive spin on things. And everything that he does is very high-concept. So you will not see finalized images from Ben that aren't up to a level like this photograph that he took in Fiji. Actually, I was with him for this. They're always uplifting, they're always very dreamlike. He definitely does, obviously, post-process his images. Like I said, he never uses CGI. There are images that I've seen that he'd bring modeled. When we were in Fiji after we taught a workshop together, he worked with the Fijian government and the Tourism Board, and essentially worked with a dive company. Took all of his gear underwater, found an underwater cave, brought a model down on scuba gear, had people that were part of the environmental programs out there. Were able to feed a bunch of the sharks that were in the area, bring the sharks throughout the cave and pull it all together to create a beautiful series of images trying to promote the idea of not finning sharks. How much work goes into that? How many of us would have, A, the mind of being like, "Hey, I want to go underwater. I want to bring a model. I want to get sharks to go through a cave. And I want to make it all happen," which I think he did in 14 days. It's impossible for most of us, but this is the idea of high-concept work that makes Ben so unique and special because everything that he produces is on a level that is pretty much beyond the comprehension of most of us feeling we could create because they're so involved. So Ben's Facebook page uses a business page and his profile, and he jumps back and forth between the two. He'll promote his stuff on either, he'll get as much engagement as he can. That's his idea. "I want as much engagement and I want as much reach as anything..." As he can get. So the videos that he's producing, he wants millions, and millions, and millions, and millions of views. He posts one to four times a day. He's highly, highly engaged, always having conversations, always posting about interesting things. He uses call-to-actions, asking questions. He does a lot of crowdsourcing where he's sitting there trying to get information about ideas, about ways, who has connections with the Filipino government for a project he wants to work on. He'll happily put it out there to his followers. Doesn't matter what he needs, he'll push it out there and he'll make them part of the journey, which, again, helps build his fanbase. He posts interactions that are all over the place. So post interactions are all the place. What I mean by that is that he is posting, like I said, behind-the-scenes stuff, anything that he's working on, gear that he's using, everything. If there's anything that you look through his streams that, mostly, it's a lack of consistency because every project is so vastly different than the one before it. They're all always high-concept, but the interesting thing about Ben is that it takes so much time for him to create these high- concept images that he doesn't have content that he can push out every single day that is of his most highest caliber. So he has to share all this behind-the-scene stuff because he wants to, but also because he needs the content that can continue to feed the social media platforms. So Ben's Instagram page is @vonwong. He likes to share about projects and his life, including his girlfriend. He is high comment engagement. So highly different than a lot of the other people that I've seen in terms of the amount of followers he has and the amount of engagement he typically gets. In terms of that engagement, his comments compared to his likes are a much higher ratio. Most people get super-high likes and a much lower fraction of comments. He gets a very high level of comments on each of his posts because, again, he has such a rabid following, and because of the high-concept nature of the work that he does, and the fact that its advocacy work that people care about. He does use a lot of hashtags. He averages at least one post per day on Instagram. And his posts average 2,000 or 3,500 per post. And again, I mentioned that he likes Instagram because it's an easy way to tell stories. But because there's no easy way to hyperlink back to advocacy to have some sense of action, it's challenging for him to put it as his most important network. That's why Facebook still matters because he can put in a link, he can put a video, a full-length video of one of his projects that he's trying to advocate for, and Facebook gives him the ability to really push that out, and have people actually do something. Whereas on Instagram, it's much less likely where people are going to look at your photo. If you say, "Hey, check out the link in my Instagram profile," because the only link you can actually do in Instagram is going to be in your profile, most people don't go through those steps. There's barriers of entry, so to speak. So Ben's parting advice, again, I told you, he likes to play with fire. So Ben's parting advice is that he built his following in a different space, a different time. He works on such a different level with the stuff that he does that he says that if he was to give you advice in terms of how he built his following and you should replicate it, he said that it probably wouldn't be so relatable. He said that you shouldn't need to listen to what so many other people tell you you need to do because everyone has different social media channels, everyone has different personalities. He said that things change, platforms evolve. And there's a lot of truth in that. We talk a lot about the different lessons that I've learned over the years, and there's a lot of stuff that is still very relevant today, but social media is dynamic and it's fluid. And so the idea that you need to constantly be paying attention. And I mentioned this a few times, you need to have your ear to the ground, the idea that you need to be paying attention to what's happening, which is why things like insight and statistical information is important because you might all of a sudden see, realize that your images are getting less reach on Facebook, or Instagram, or wherever it is. And it might be because how you're posting, or maybe they change what keywords they're going to start limiting people on. You have to pay attention. And most people aren't paying attention. They may not be happy with what's happening but they're not really dissecting what they're doing and trying to understand where they can find successes and how they can change. All the stuff that I've learned over the years, and Ben, and most of the people, has been trial and error. Again, Facebook isn't calling us up and saying, "Hey, we're changing the algorithm tomorrow and here's what you need to do." We're experimenting, we're trying. We're trying to find pathways through things. And that's why it's important, that's why I feel it's important overall to look at all these different case studies, is because all of us have done the same thing. And it's a common theme that I've been trying to spread throughout this course, is the idea that you need to take the time to understand your own following in your own brand. Take some lessons that you learn throughout this course and get out there and just start experimenting with different things because if what you're doing isn't working and you keep doing the same things, that's literally the textbook definition of insanity. Nothing's going to change. Stagnation is going to be prevalent. So like Ben, I recommend that you take aspects of what we've talked about, and you make them your own. You sit there and you understand that right now Facebook is pushing up Facebook videos. Lots of statistical information about that. So maybe you should jump on that. Maybe you should share some Facebook videos, create small behind-the-scenes stuff. Even if they're not high-quality caliber, Facebook will still push out further than a regular post. So experiment with it. We talked a second ago about Instagram. Instagram live stories, Instagram Stories, which Ben uses and myself use and other people use, he understands that's also pushing up his regular posts, so he's going to keep doing it. He sees the trends of what's happening just because he's using these networks. None of us have special connections, none of us are having conversations with Mark Zuckerberg. We're out there trying to make this work. And we're learning from our mistakes, and we're trying to leverage our successes to get to the next level, to the next success. So one last piece that he had that I wanted to talk about is essentially the idea of advocacy work because this is what Ben specializes in, and I know that a few people are interested in this type of stuff. He says that, what you make or what you do needs to be unique. People's attention spans are so small these days that to really grab people's attention, you need to do something that capture the people's attention. And when it comes to advocacy work, that generally requires complex projects or complex thought, especially if you want to effect change on a larger level. If you're just looking to fundraise for a local NGO or something, that's a different story. But if you truly want to effect some change, if you truly want to raise money on level that can actually do something about it, aside from affecting a small number of people, you have to think bigger. He said, you can't do it for the money because he and I can tell you from being in the humanitarian side of things for the last seven years for myself, five years for Ben, is that there's not a lot of money in advocacy work. It actually doesn't pay very well. Most NGOs, most causes just don't have the funds. You have to figure out a way to make it work on your own. And what he recommends is the idea…very similar to what I've done with The Giving Lens, is the idea that if you truly want to do something, if you truly want to use your artistic skills in photography to make a difference, that what you want to do or what you might need to do is to separate the advocacy from your core business. So for me, I have Colby Brown Photography. That makes a massive chunk…it pretty much makes all of my revenue. I also have The Giving Lens. As I mentioned before, I don't make a single penny from Giving Lens, I don't take any money when I lead the trips. We pay other photographers and instructors, but I don't personally want any money from it. I've been able to separate the two because I've been able to find success through my core business. And that allowed me the ability to use The Giving Lens in order to effect change, to raise money, to help those in need. But I couldn't do them together, they're two separate, there's too much contrast. I wanted them to be separate entities. And so his advice is that if you feel that you have to start sacrificing the vision you have for the advocacy work or the humanitarian work you want to do, he said it's at that point that you want to diverge. Do you want to separate the two so that you can give both the attention that they need and that you don't have to worry about things like finances that might end up crippling your idea for helping other people or using your artistic vision to effect some sense of change?