VenueSeen is working to crack the nut on Instagram advertising

In many respects, it’s the very things that users love about Instagram that makes it seem like it wouldn’t be a good fit for brands and advertisers. There are no promoted Instagrams in my feed when I log in. I have to follow a user to see any of their content. And if I steer clear of following brands on the service (which I do), I’ll see only beautiful photos from my favorite friends and photographers. It feels like a personal space free from advertising.

VenueSeen image gallery Instagram photos advertisingBut despite these hurdles, the app isn’t a total dead end for companies looking to gain traction on the service, and the relatively new startup VenueSeen is figuring out how to make this delicate relationship work, preserving what is special about Instagram while allowing brands access to the powerful platform.

Companies might be limited in how much information they can push to users on Instagram, but it’s the data that users themselves are creating that makes for excellent advertising. Just imagine how many San Franciscans have Instagrammed photos of Blue Bottle coffee or a Giants game or produce in Whole Foods — the key for those brands is identifying that enthusiasm and bringing it back to that brand.

That’s where the Ohio-based VenueSeen comes in. When you first meet him, CEO Brian Zuercher seems more like an Instagram ambassador than the head of an marketing company. He teaches brands that no, you can’t spam your users with content, you can’t re-publish their photos and strip off their usernames. And you can’t really force users to go Instagram your content. It has to be organic, he explains.

“We don’t want to ruin the Instagram experience, because we know we won’t be the only ones who do this,” he explained. “You actually have to have a meaningful message or people will turn you off.”

Once companies find people Instagramming their content, either through the company’s hashtag or if someone adds the photos to the public location on a map, VenueSeen allows companies to gather those photos and either re-publish them on their site or post a comment on the photo drawing a user to the company’s product, as part of a new campaign offered from the company beginning Wednesday.

Users can set their photos to private or opt out of having their photos re-posted to the brand’s site, and they must give permission for companies to use their photos for advertising purposes, but in all likelihood, Zuercher said he doesn’t think people will be irritated by the practice, especially if they’re already fans of the product or venue. He said they think it takes a considerable amount of natural interest on the consumer’s part to take a photo and tag it with a brand or store, and therefore most consumers won’t mind the photos circulating further.

As a frequent Instagram user, I think my reaction to the advertising would depend on the execution and frequency. If comments and links started to feel like spam, offering me the chance to enter contests and win prizes on all my photos, that could get annoying. But if I took a photo of my Starbucks cup and Starbucks wanted to re-publish my photo or give me a gift card (hypothetically), that targeted content around brands I like could be interesting.

“We’re giving them a way to subtlety enter a conversation with a customer and it’s more natural,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Come and like us on Facebook,’ because I think everyone gets that, but as a consumer, it’s sort of awkward. You can tell the difference between me liking something on Facebook versus taking a photo.”

But what about companies who don’t have users taking flattering photos of their products or brick and mortar stores? What if users hate your product, and are using Instagram to say so?  Zuercher explains that the service can be just as useful for monitoring your world-of-mouth and getting feedback, even if you don’t use their photos on your site. Companies like Buddy Media, which was acquired by Salesforce just this year and helped brands figure out their presence on Facebook and Twitter, have shown that companies who are successful in bridging the corporate/social media divide can do well.

“There are ways to formulate conversations around customers without them knowing that they’re in it,” Zuercher said.