My husband recently took up photography as a new hobby. One of the first things he learned as a beginner is the importance of focus, which is often associated with a photo’s sharpness. But what he learned (and what I learned, as his excitement bubbled over into our dinner conversations) is that it’s about much more than that. Focus is what enhances a subject or object by making it stand out from its surroundings. Photography blogger John Watson says, “the right focus can create an emotional connection with the viewer.” VSCO founders, Joel Flory and Greg Lutze, know a thing or two about focus. Their photo-editing mobile app has over 150 million Android and iPhone downloads since it first launched in 2012. And while focus remains a critical fundamental in photography, Flory and Lutze have learned it’s also integral to the success of a brand.
When the two men first released VSCO in 2012, it was the app’s focus on creators that helped it stand out from others on the market. VSCO (then VSCO Cam) was unique in that the app didn’t include number of followers or allow comments on posts. Flory and Lutze believe this emboldens creators to try new things, share in-progress work and fall in love with the process vs. the affirmation of popularity metrics. And while the app has evolved over the past 8 years, the company’s main focus remains the same: giving creators the tools, spaces and connections to express themselves authentically.
Choosing the right focus continues to benefit VSCO as the app currently serves over 2 million paid subscribers—creators who value the tools and experiences offered up on their Feed, Discover and Studio pages. One of these experiences in particular has received a lot of love and attention from users and media alike: a photo collection titled #BlackJoyMatters, which features the work of Black photographers and artists.
Distinct from the app’s existing #Melanin Collection—which has helped Black creators connect and gain exposure since 2015—#BlackJoyMatters is part of a new initiative led by VSCO’s Director of Consumer and Product Communications, Shavone Charles, that aims to highlight Black people in moments of joy and happiness—a focus often neglected in mainstream media.
In a recent interview with female style and culture blog, HYPEBAE, Charles says,
“For Black people in America, trauma has always stolen our headline. Black communities have always been cultures that thrived amidst struggle, experienced joy and prevailed through creative expression — we’ve simply neglected to wholeheartedly express this side of the coin.”
Her aim for the #BlackJoyMatters initiative is to paint a more complete picture of the modern Black experience. Trauma and tragedy may be part of it, but it’s not everything. This doesn’t mean VSCO isn’t supportive of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. On the contrary, in early June the brand’s social team halted all planned content and dedicated their platform to sharing resources and amplifying Black voices.
— VSCO (@vsco) June 4, 2020
But in the official announcement of the #BlackJoyMatters initiative, Charles made it clear that “Black people don’t just deserve to be alive—we also deserve to be happy.” The campaign’s unveiling shared under the app’s Journal section kicked off the summer-long series and let users know what to keep an eye out for in the coming months, and how to participate.
First, a simple call to action: Create, capture and share your interpretation of Black Joy on social using #BlackJoyMatters. Submitted imagery can include first-person videos, photos and/or original art and will be featured across VSCO’s social channels and within the app’s new #BlackJoyMatters Discover carousel.
In addition to the imagery itself, the campaign also includes a strategy for amplifying these stories of joy (and the Black creative voices behind them) through brand and editorial partnerships, including Refinery 29’s Unbothered and Black Women Photographers.
Celebrating Black joy, seen through the eyes of Black women photographers.
— VSCO (@vsco) August 7, 2020
- Goals: The primary goal of the #BlackJoyMatters campaign seems to genuinely be about the amplification of Black voices and changing the narrative of the modern Black experience. Charles wants to empower Black creatives to take ownership of sharing their stories, allowing them to represent themselves and their communities in a light they can be proud of.The campaign also functions as a strategy for brand awareness and perception. Knowing that 70% of consumers say it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues, furthering the conversations around the BLM movement will attract an audience that shares the company’s values. And with the addition of new in-app content, it also serves as a strategy to increase user adoption and engage new subscribers.
- Offline connection: The insight behind this campaign—that we need more stories centered on Black joy—isn’t just a hunch, it’s backed by data. VSCO partnered with JUV Consulting, a Gen-Z-operated research company, to explore the emotional state of young people on social right now. 76% of survey respondents say they regularly or often see visual depictions of racial violence in their social media feeds, and that it hurts them emotionally. And nearly 90% of Black survey respondents agree that they want to see and celebrate joy on social media more than they do now. These numbers showcase the very real, tangible need for the work #BlackJoyMatters aims to engage in.
- Key channels: Instagram, Twitter and VSCO’s own social feed are the premiere destinations for #BlackJoyMatters content. The hashtag has been used over 10k times on Instagram alone. As mentioned earlier, you can find these images by navigating to the Discover page of the app and clicking through the Black Joy Matters carousel. Clicking on the images will then lead you to the profiles of the creators themselves to explore and follow. There also appears to be a significant media push behind the campaign, with coverage from multiple high-profile media outlets including Forbes, Teen Vogue, Essence and Paper Magazine.
While still only a few months in, I anticipate high praise for VSCO’s #BlackJoyMatters campaign for how it advances the conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that few brands have. Not to mention the seamless integration of their product and a message that feels strikingly authentic, and refreshing.
- Create an emotional connection by maintaining focus on your subject. Just like in photography, this takes a keen eye. We need to think more like humans and less like marketers in order to hone in on the nuances of a message or movement. And it starts by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience and asking yourself questions about what they might be thinking, feeling or needing. As Black women, the lived experiences of Charles and VSCO’s social media manager, Ashley Robinson, were able to provide that crucial insight (yet another reason diverse representation in your org is important). But you could also make use of tools like surveys and social listening.
- Consider not just what or who you focus on, but also when. Some of the most beautiful images ever captured have been in large part due to their timing. The same can be said about great campaigns. It wasn’t just that VSCO knew what to focus on for #BlackJoyMatters, it was also that they knew when. Thankfully, the BLM movement has a lot of momentum right now and that, paired with VSCO’s focused execution, meant more attention and more eyes on the campaign content.
- Don’t just echo a message—add to it. Corporate responses to the growing list of murders within the Black community have been highly criticized. While many were offended by the lack of a company’s corresponding action, others grew tired of the short-lived messages of support that crowded newsfeeds just a few months ago. The familiar silence on these issues is perhaps even more deafening than when we first waited with bated breath for brands to take a stand. So how do you keep this conversation going? You do what VSCO did—you listen. Stay plugged in to the right channels in order to hear from the right people. Then evolve your messaging and/or offering to tend to the evolving needs of your audience.
- Remember that your audience is made up of real people. In every interview about the campaign, Charles makes mention about how important it is to tell these stories in order to paint a more complete picture of the Black experience. It’s too easy for us to get swept up in archetypes, stereotypes and personas. ‘Consumers’ are people, with a complex set of emotions, personality traits and experiences. More often than not, the full story of any given topic has yet to be shared. Find those half-told stories and be the brand that brings them to light.
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