Editorial by Michelle Bast, Pulley Media

I remember it like it was yesterday – and in fact, I’m kind of shocked at how long ago it was. A group of marketers stood in the kitchen of the agency where I was working. We’d heard rumblings of a new social media platform that was barreling through the younger demographic – but none of our clients were using it yet.

Together, we downloaded Instagram.

“What’s a hashtag?” 

“Wait, so you can’t even post to it unless you have an iPhone?”

“So it’s just photos? I can just post my photos on Facebook.” 

“Ugh I have to square-crop the photo?”

Instagram came out in October of 2010. We were having this conversation just 2 months after its release. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine a world in which “hashtag” wasn’t a regularly used search tool. Hovering over our phones that day, the team was nervous. The same feeling sat in each of our gut – this was going to be big, whether we liked it or not.

Of course, photos were important, and we knew we needed to take any rising technology seriously (just as a general rule for staying at the top of our marketing game). But… what was this?

Stories didn’t exist yet, neither did the auto-crop feature, or filters. Facebook hadn’t yet acquired the company, and Meta wasn’t even a thought in Zuck’s mind. The early days of Instagram involved cropping your photo separately, and uploading it with a collection of hashtags to help people find you. That’s it. No lengthy captions. Just a bunch of hashtags and you could easily grab yourself a couple hundred likes.

We could see the appeal in marketing. It was an opportunity to show the product. Show the brand. Let it speak for itself. Cut out the noise and show people the exact visuals they were looking for. Soon, we were all getting the same call from our clients: “What should I do about Instagram?” 

Immediately, we realized our strategy couldn’t be the same as Facebook. Stock photos weren’t going to cut it. Instagram was about a photo that was taken “on the fly”. Our clients were going to need to get their hands dirty, and start taking some pictures. Usually, the agency strategized and executed – the client’s simply supported our efforts. They didn’t need to worry about upholding anything on their end. We started making calls “hey… can you dedicate 1 day a month to just taking photos? We’ll tell you what photos to take, but we need you to do it.”

It’s exciting to be an early adopter, and exist on a platform before it’s really taken over. The clients that latched on quickly, really took off. They formed partnerships before the rise of the influencer, back when it was perfectly acceptable to trade a product/service for a photo on the gram.

We started to notice the growing trend of business owners taking photos of their own products and services, as well as pictures of themselves and their employees in an effort to give more personal connections with their customers. We noticed some businesses that were finding success even without a huge budget for content production by leveraging stories, hashtags, and influencers. It was no longer about having someone else take your picture or create polished images – it was about creating content in an authentic way. People wanted to see what made the company unique from others, and Instagram provided the perfect platform for small businesses to share this side of themselves.

Others followed. Google Plus emerged (June 28, 2011). Snapchat was born soon after (July 8, 2011). Vine came out (January 24, 2013) with short-form video content that laid the groundwork for short-form video that we all love today (TikTok, Reels).

We wondered. Without chasing our clients around with phones all day, would we be able to keep up? “The death of the marketing agency” is a myth that perpetuates. In reality, marketing agencies usually fall victim to a failure to evolve – not because marketing is dead.

When I formed Pulley Media, I made it a point to accept home-grown content with loving arms. Pulley Media recognizes that an agency can pivot from being “image makers” and become “storytellers” – or even better, story enablers. We help our clients tell their stories in a creative way, through the use of whatever platform they have available. It’s a win-win situation: our clients get more engagement and customers, and we don’t have to chase them down for every single piece of content. Letting go of control meant recognizing that everything doesn’t have to be perfect – it just needs to be real. That’s why Instagram was such a game-changer in the industry – it allowed anyone to become a creator and express who they are authentically through visuals.

Instagram changed the way we think about marketing and content – and the ripple effects of this revolution are still being seen today. With so many platforms available to create content, it is essential for small businesses to embrace the creation process authentically in order to stand out from their competition. To all the business owners out there: take control of your story and create content that is honest, authentic, and reflective of your brand. Get creative and let social media be the platform for you to tell your story – the sky is the limit!

So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started on telling your business’ story together. Your customers are out there, ready to hear it!