Published: 21 August 2016
During the immediate 24 hours after one of my photos hit the coveted number one spot on Reddit, I was fighting against a world-wide storm of copyright infringement, enduring online harassment and generally having a bit of a tizzy. Not a great start to a weekend, especially when it was all your own fault…
I had seen people use Reddit for marketing and self-promotion in the past, and it looked like it was a bit of a minefield. Although the community lauds itself as a hub of original content, anything that “smells” a bit too much like advertising is quickly flushed by the users, so to speak. Even though I was in the business of online print sales of my travel photography, marketing my work on the very anti-corporate Reddit seemed too risky to consider.
That all changed when I witnessed an artisan knife-maker accidentally make a few sales from sharing photos of his work on there. His work was beautiful, loved by the users, and what’s more, he had (by chance) dodged the anti-advertising hatred that commonly chased other artists out of town.
So with a bit of an inflated ego, I said to myself “Pfft, I can do that too”, then dug into my photo folders to find an image that a) had proven interest b) users would enjoy and c) was available for purchase on my website, if they wanted a print. It wasn’t hard to settle on my photo of Mount Fuji’s shadow, an image that was born out of my slight obsession with the mountain.
My Love Affair with Mt. Fuji
When you’ve spent the prior 23 years of your life solely in Kent, where one of the most scenic locations is a large field of pebbles with some old boats on it, the sight of a 13,000 foot high volcano tends to grab your attention.
Yeah. It stands out a little doesn’t it? As awesome as that sight may be, let me tell you that the view is even better from the top; a view that kept me coming back to climb that very same mountain on four separate occasions.
The fourth time wasn’t supposed to happen, by the way. The first time was for fun, the second was to play Sherpa for some new friends and the third was to accompany my wife on her first ascent. After that third climb, I had told myself that Mount Fuji was not for climbing anymore. From then on, my involvement with Mount Fuji would only extend to looking at it from the comfort of a hot spring bath, miles and miles away.
However something disastrous happened on my third trip, that would leave me with no other option but to climb up one final time: I took a rubbish photo.
This would not stand.
I knew I could do better. Despite my insistence that I was “finished” with Fuji, that hot spring would have to wait. So, one year later, grumbling and with an 8kg tripod strapped to my back, I snapped a layered exposure that I was much happier with.
The popularity of this photo was fairly good after sharing it on a few photo sites – better than I’d expected. It even went on to win the grand prize in Getty Images’ “A Moment Connecting Japan” competition in 2012! Clearly this was the image that had the most potential to get some attention on Reddit…
With my content decided upon, the only other obstacle was figuring out a way to post my photo and get sales without seeming too obvious in my endeavour. Luckily, that part came naturally: I would post my photo, respond to comments, engage in conversation, cultivate interest in the product, and finally post a link to my website in the hopes that people would make the journey to the checkout page themselves.
I wasn’t ready for what happened next. Within the hour, my photo shot to the #1 spot on Reddit, and near-instantly I was inundated with thousands and thousands of comments and messages; a mix of praise, criticism, jokes, conspiracy theorists claiming that I wasn’t the original photographer with "proof" (that one still confuses me) and most worryingly, people pointing out that my photo was already being used without my permission on various blog sites and Buzzfeed-esque sites. Not ideal.
I remember the moment my first ever panic attack came. I sat, staring at my screen, then to my wife to try and explain everything that was happening... what would happen... how I would never be able to undo posting the image, how I lost control of my intellectual property, the fact that there were some people out there that believed I was a fraud... and the knowledge that I had a golden, fleeting-as-we-spoke opportunity to capitalise on this attention... with no idea what to do next. I knew that there was money and opportunity to be taken, but I also knew that (due to my panic and lack of ideas about what to do) it was not going to happen. My speech started accelerating as the need to explain and vocalise became a higher priority than breathing, until finally my vision blurred a little and my wife had to pull me to the bed to calm down.
After dampening the pillow with a few tears, I managed to sleep
The next morning, I decided to approach my screen once more after I was sure that I was ok. I did not have much of an idea about what to do next, but I accepted that I would be able to come up with some ideas, and that it was okay to not have all of the answers.
So with a deep sigh, I took stock of what had just happened.
Calming Down and Working Through
My website had been visited by 23,000 people, yet I’d only made four sales.
Perhaps the majority of Reddit’s users just wanted the photo for their desktop backgrounds… I’d matched the knife-maker in sales quantity, but I wanted more.
Clearly more needed to be done, and to a different audience.
Luckily, I’d just experienced something quite extraordinary: an engineered boost in my traffic, and a great deal of copyright-infringement fallout. That meant there was another story to tell.
A fairly lengthy write-up of my experience got noticed on a photography forum, and the editor of Petapixel.com reached out asking to feature it. If posting the photo to Reddit was setting the tinder, this feature article would be the spark. The day Petapixel posted the piece, my website views skyrocketed to over 125,000 unique visitors in one day, and my Facebook page jumped from 500 to 1,300 likes, thanks to the backlinks I had insisted on in exchange for Petapixel using my guest blog.
Riding the Wave
From there, no more prep-work needed to be done. Suddenly, I was being contacted by press agencies, photo magazines angling for an interview and (most amazingly) Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York fame, who gave me his best wishes and bought a print.
By pushing just the right buttons and a lot of luck, I had achieved that elusive accolade so many marketers aim and struggle for. By creating interesting content and putting it work, I had successfully engineered a product of mine to go viral. I continued to ride that wave for almost two months (during my panic I thought it would only last for 48 hours), and three years later I still enjoy the occasional bit of direct income from it.
To date, my image has been featured in close to 70 worldwide print magazines and newspapers, shared a countless amount of times (with and without my permission), exhibited, and most amusingly, discussed as part of a Flat Earth Society debate. Apparently something about the horizon in the photo proves the Earth isn’t round. Who knew?
I can’t claim to know how to make lightning strike twice, but this experience has taught me to think big and approach each marketing scenario with an open mind. Sometimes, what you need to get results isn’t a campaign worth tens of thousands of pounds. Sometimes, all it takes for you to get results is a little bit of engaging content, in the right place.
... And perhaps some breathing exercises.