Elk Grove’s Faith Marie Lopez gets paid to make companies, products and even tourist destinations famous with Instagram. In a little more than a year, for instance, she’s expanded the Instagram reach of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau to 25,000 followers from just 200.
Lopez and millions of other people share their lives in photos via Instagram, a social networking site launched in October 2010 and acquired by Facebook in 2012. But not many Instagrammers, as the site’s users are known, gain quite so many followers as Lopez has at instagram.com/faithmari: 111,000 as of Friday afternoon.
As her following grew, so did her cachet. The German multinational Bosch paid her to take a ride on its eBike and post photos in her signature style. Tourism officials in Spain’s Catalonia region paid her to soak up their culture and share it with her followers. The Venice tourism bureau invited Lopez and several other A-list Instagrammers to do a photographic tour of its famed Biennale art event. The May 2013 Vanity Fair Italy put Lopez on its list of 10 Instagrammers to watch.
“I want to share the world’s beautiful places with as many people as I possibly can – with good, quality photos,” Lopez told me.
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A concert pianist trained at Sacramento State, Lopez spent the summer of 2013 playing at music festivals around Europe, she said, but she also was using her social media skills to promote tourist destinations there. Like many of today’s social media phenoms, she learned by trial and error. At first, she said, she used Instagram’s digital filters and borders to make her images stand out, but composition, inventiveness and sentiment replaced those tools as she grew more experienced.
After the summer in Europe, when Lopez returned home to the California capital, she thought, “Why can’t I do the same thing for Sacramento and promote the city that I love in a creative way?”
She reached out to the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau in an email explaining the successes she’d had, and within an hour, she’d received a reply from Mike Testa, the agency’s chief operating officer. From there, Lopez sat down with chief marketing officer Sonya Bradley and asked for the chance to show how the agency could benefit from retaining her services.
Timing is everything, Bradley said. The agency had only 200 followers on its account at instagram.com/visitsacramento, and the growth in the number of users was glacial.
“Faith offered to come in and do it for free,” Bradley said. “I said, ‘All right, give it a shot.’ My only rule was, ‘For God’s sake, don’t do anything that gets us in trouble or something inappropriate. Go for it.’ The next thing you know, the number of followers were growing like wildfire.”
The tourism bureau began paying Lopez for her services after six months, when its Instagram account had roughly 12,000 followers. By November 2014, the account had 20,000 followers. As of Friday, that figure stood at a little more than 25,000. Lopez did it by taking and posting images that followers couldn’t resist sharing. She would describe the subject of her photo – Christmas or trees or cityscapes or Capitol views – and she invited followers to post their images of the same subject and include the all-important hashtag and keyword, #visitsacramento.
When Lopez started, only 30 images had been marked with that hashtag and keyword, but now more than 50,000 images have been posted. Visit Sacramento’s followers have become the photographers, and Lopez functions as a curator, choosing the cream of the crop. She then ensures that fresh images go up each day when traffic is heaviest.
“She’s so unassuming, but she’s got the touch,” Bradley said. “A lot of her success goes to the passion she has for Sacramento and life here. She gets that we don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else to define who we are and what we are.”
The images have educated locals on just how much there is to do around the region, Bradley said, and they do what words can’t, showing the destination in fun, exuberant, authentic or sometimes artsy ways.
“The quality of images kept improving,” Bradley said, “and we’ve had professional photographers who have become guest Instagrammers on our site. They produce these amazing photos, and it actually gave us photographers to add to our pool for our promotional needs.”
By posting photos and comments, key influencers such as Lopez can make their followers aware of brands or places they never knew existed. Increasingly, they are being paid to do it as part of what is called an organic marketing strategy. That is, every follower decides whether a post merits being ranked among their favorites and whether they want to learn more.
“The Visit Sacramento Instagram site shows people beyond Sacramento that there are unique, quality moments that you only get here, and that is done through creative photos,” Lopez said. “You have to curate the right content to share with the audience.”
Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.