In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Murad Osmann had already abandoned his photography career a year before he captured the shot of his then-girlfriend, now wife, Nataly, that would change both of their lives.
It was 2011, and Murad had finished a shoot in Barcelona with the production company he still works for today. After it wrapped, Nataly flew in to join him for a vacation. As the couple was exploring the city, Murad held a camera in one hand and Nataly’s hand in the other as she led him toward a graffiti covered doorway. He snapped a picture and uploaded it to Instagram. In the months following, the couple began posting more photos in this hand-holding style.
Today, the Osmanns have three Instagram accounts, all which fall under their #FollowMeTo brand: @muradosmann (4.6 million followers), @natalyosmann (1 million) and @followmeto (476,000). Their YouTube channel has 8.2 million views. They also use other social networks such as Facebook and Snapchat, and they even have a TV show on Channel One in Russia. They also have a jewelry line, two travel books and are working on other merchandise.
Across mediums, the couple aims to “show the beauty of the world with a touch of a romantic love story.” Their followers are interested in learning about other cultures and vicariously experiencing places they’ve seen only in movies through the Osmanns’ eyes. They’ve expanded far beyond their signature hand-holding gesture. Nataly, who is a journalist, frequently features video interviews with fashion designers on her account, for example, while @followmeto is the couple’s way of giving their followers a behind-the-scenes look at how they produce their content.
It is a rigorous process that involves a small team and sophisticated equipment such as 360-degree cameras and drones. Murad tells Entrepreneur that, in a way, #FollowMeTo is a marketing agency, because it creates wide-ranging campaigns for brands. The couple has collaborated with Macy’s, Samsung, Google, Clinique, Levi’s, Michael Kors, Cartier, Dior and more. #FollowMeTo photos have been displayed in Times Square as part of a Michael Kors charity project, as well as featured at international art fair Art Basel in Miami.
“We don’t just go take a camera and shoot whatever we see,” Murad says. “Our projects are scripted. We know what to offer to the brands, what they want and how to integrate them within ourselves and our projects.”
In addition to their staff, Murad and Nataly have been calling on their community of followers to create content in the #FollowMeTo style. They’re trying to scale their brand into a movement, Murad explains. Here’s how they’re doing it.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
We were one of the old guys on Instagram. We started back in 2011, when the platform was just evolving. A lot of our friends had just started using Instagram. It was the new thing. Facebook was getting older, and among the other social platforms, it was the new kid on the block, I would say.
We used it mainly like everyone else uses it, for day-to-day sharing of what you do right here, right now. Then I developed it a bit more into the platform of my photos and then gradually we started this project spontaneously with Nataly in Barcelona. We posted one photo, then, in a week, another one. Throughout some time, several more photos. We were doing this for one and a half years before it looked like a project, like a whole series of pictures. And only then it gained popularity. It was already an established visual form of a project, and only then some popularity came after that. It wasn’t just one photo or two photos.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
What we try to do now is we try not to stick to one single platform and be the prisoners of it. I mean obviously, Instagram is our major force behind the whole project, but we are developing YouTube, and in different ways. With Nataly, we’re doing more vlog formats, with #FollowMeTo we’re doing more inspirational videos.
Before, it used to be that you could post one amazing inspirational video, and you’d get a lot of views and attention. Now, you need to be devoting a lot of time not only on inspirational but also on the vlogging formats. Vlogging is more towards the younger audiences, and inspirational is the older audiences.
You should be able to talk to different kinds of audiences and give them what they want, and I think we’re one of the first ones to do that as a couple in that field. That’s why we use a lot of platforms, such as YouTube, Instagram, Instagram Stories, Facebook -- and Snapchat as well, but in a way, it’s the same mechanics as Instagram Stories.
3. What makes Instagram a better platform than other social media?
They were losing touch a bit with the whole Stories part. I don’t support them using the same mechanics as Snapchat, but they really needed that to attract younger audiences. I think now, as a platform, it’s really, really good in terms of promoting yourself or sending a message to your audience, because you have instant videos, instant photos that delete after 24 hours, and that one demographic watches them. And then you have your front page being your Instagram feed. And then you have videos. You have the livestream, so that offers a lot more toward talking to your audience.
So, now, I think Instagram has a lot of mechanics that will be able to help you promote yourself and your vision and to talk to your followers. YouTube limits you, in a way. People feel attached to you, but they can’t really talk to you directly.
4. How much of your time do you devote to #FollowMeTo?
I would say that I have two jobs. Fifty percent of the time is working as a producer, 50 percent of the time is working on the #FollowMeTo project. It’s difficult, because people think that all we do is travel and just have fun and sunbathe, but in reality, all the time, we’re both on laptops, working, 24/7 -- even when we’re in Maldives or some paradise island. All of the free time is devoted to the #FollowMeTo project.
Now, we are building a community around this project, the whole #FollowMeTo movement. In the future, what we want to do is become a sort of new-age production in terms of content. So it can be us producing the pictures, or it can be our network of people that are like, friends of the brands, I would say. That’s how we will talk to the brands, through us and through our community. Because it will be difficult to scale it only on us. There’s a certain amount of time that we have. We’re not robots. We can’t be like that for 20 years more.
5. How do you promote your account? What's your number-one way to gain followers?
Before, it used to be generating content on a steady basis. I’ve made mistakes: Sometimes I’ve waited for like three weeks [between posts], which is wrong, because you should constantly generate content for your followers and audience. With huge gaps, you will see the decrease in attention and steady growth. Now, the constant generation of posts and content works mostly only on YouTube, it doesn’t really work on Instagram because of the new mechanics and algorithms.
We don’t pay for promotion, but I’m sure that works for some people. What we try to do is cross-promote with different influencers, go on different trips and generate the content that our audience wants. Our strategy at the moment is to communicate with our followers a bit more and increase the reach of our existing followers.
6. How do you engage with others on the platform?
We recently had a contest where we had people post photos in our style and write text about where they met their loved ones or how they met, their love story. Then we traveled with the winners. So we got really good engagement with that. This type of contest involves more difficult mechanics than a giveaway of equipment. A lot of people would want to have free equipment, but then they’d all subscribe to your content and unsubscribe as soon as the contest was over.
Obviously, we read all of the comments and communicate via stories, follow our hashtag comments on people who are doing photos in our style and encouraging them to do more. The communication works well when we talk to them and when we understand what they want. A lot of people write to us with suggestions of where to travel and which country to visit.
We had a lot of people asking us to visit Taiwan, and the offer came from a local brand in Taiwan, and we accepted it on the basis that, it’s a new country, a lot of people wanted us to come there -- locals. After visiting this country and doing this project and building a massive PR around it, now, for example, our Taiwanese base is really big, and they’re amazingly communicative. As soon as they see the flag of Taiwan, they always comment and they engage. There are many places where we open the doors knowing that we have a loyal base there.
7. How often do you post?
The project is a bit like, with Nataly, she posts sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes even three times a day, because her audience looks at her as a constant feed of inspiration. What she’s doing now, they want to know. With the project, we don’t really want to bore people with a lot of photos, and on top of that, it’s getting more and more difficult to get the photos constantly on the same level of complexity.
All of the photos are really difficult to do, it’s not just grabbing a camera and doing it. Sometimes we post once a week, sometimes once in two weeks -- which is really bad. The aim is to do one in two or three days. Not everyday content, but at least two photos a week, this is our aim and what we want to do in the near future.
8. What's your content strategy?
If you look at our #FollowMeTo photos, they aren’t only just travel. It’s about two people, it’s about love, it’s about inspiration, culture. All of these things might not be in one photo, but if you look at them as a whole, there are a lot of messages within.
Within our @muradosmann account, we’re trying to fit in different strategies, sometimes doing backstage photos and videos and trying to figure out what works well. In reality, when we only have formatted photos, that content strategy works better with @muradosmann. With Nataly, people want to see more inspirational -- this girl traveling around the world, touching the travel and fashion topics. That works with her well, where we have her talking to designers, going to fashion weeks, going to cultural places exploring them in different outfits. Like a modern-age travel, that’s what we want to showcase with her.
With #FollowMeTo, it’s about a couple traveling and the whole community we have. With the people who do the same type of photos as us, we sometimes share them once or twice on a two-week basis to unite the community.
9. How has your content strategy evolved as Instagram has added features?
We sometimes use the gallery slideshow feature to tell a story. That actually works well with brands, where you can have a main photo being the #FollowMeTo, and then the brand collaboration can go under the slideshow. This way, it fits organically within our brand, and the audience who loves that photo, they can scroll and look at the other photos that can be connected to the brand. That works well for both parties, us and the brand.
Instagram Stories works more as a call to action when you’re working with brands. With a post, you can’t really say to your followers, “do this, do that.” Whereas in the Stories, when you communicate, it feels like you’re communicating directly with the people. It’s difficult for brands to understand this whole Stories section, and Snapchat as well. They prefer working with your main feed, but in reality, the results sometimes even surpass the feed.
With the Live feature, you can set the dialogue, you can discuss something. There are a lot of possibilities of exploring what Nataly and I can say and what we can communicate. With the feed, anyone can be attached to it, anyone can feel that they can also travel by looking at the pictures, but they don’t know who Murad and Nataly are. With these features, they now have a chance to understand who we are. We’re not using Live often, obviously with the limitations of the internet connection. Some places we go, like the Himalayas, we want to put on the Live and show everyone, right there, but the internet is not working. When it works, we want to show followers where we are and ask them what to do.
At the moment, we’re unfortunately only using it about once a month, but we want to do it more often. We’re figuring out what to do with the Live section so that people might be interested in what we have to say, even in Moscow,
10. What's your best storytelling trick?
With us, I think the storytelling works really well with the inspirational videos that we do on YouTube. The one that we did in Myanmar, or in Japan. This whole story just drags you, and you want to travel to this location. In a way, it works better, especially when it’s complemented by the pictures. So, when we go to these places, like let’s say Myanmar, we shot the #FollowMeTo photos, but then complemented with the video where we share the whole story about our travel. As a whole, this product looks really well and relates really well to the audience.
11. How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
In a way, it’s the aesthetic, it’s the project. And it’s the way we work with brands. We both understand that there’s a huge responsibility behind this project and that we have to work to develop it more and more. When we gained popularity, we didn’t just sit and say, “Oh, cool, now let the brands come to us.” We developed this strategy to go to the brands ourselves and create our content, rather than just working with what we have and whatever comes our way. I understand that everyone works, but we do really consider this as a job, so we do spend a lot of time on it, and not just travel and have fun only. It sounds boring for youngsters, but it’s the reality.
12. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
We mostly do the 360 campaigns. We don’t believe in one-off posts, working with an ad. The market is so saturated now. You have so many people just doing posts and promoting it. Whereas I think the brands need a marketing strategy, rather than just a one-off post. They need to understand that they’ll have a photo, they’ll have a video, they’ll have this product showcased very well.
So, there are a lot of things involved with us working with brands that are not typical and that we offer to them by going to them directly. And creating a script for them using the features that they have, not just working by receiving a script from an agency. In a way, we are, ourselves, like a small agency, where we go and talk to brands ourselves.
13. What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands?
I would say that they have to be really picky, because running after all the brands and all the money instantly might be well paid, but as a long-term strategy, it doesn’t work. They should develop their own unique style, and that also covers working with brands, because they have to distinguish themselves from the countless number of people nowadays on social media who do the same, so they have to be unique in that sense.
14. What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
I don’t know, maybe that everything is easy? Or maybe like, some brands have this misconception that, when they’re working with inspirational content, that they’re going to get sales straight away. Some people can drive sales instantly, but some of them have such unique content or such unique strategies, that the actual sales, they will come, but a bit later. Or they might think that working with someone who has 50 million [followers] will instantly give them huge popularity or a lot of sales, where, in reality, working with 10 people for 100,000 followers will drive them a lot more sales and a lot more results. So, they have to be really smart about that as well.
Social media doesn’t solve all the problems. Marketing is still marketing.