From the beautiful to the gritty to the just plain weird, what better place to showcase everything Atlanta has to offer than on Instagram? That’s what Co-founder and Executive Director of #weloveatl, Tim Moxley, was thinking when he was searching for photos tagged #Atlanta. He was surprised to find that he couldn’t find much that represented what makes Atlanta so… Atlanta-y. The imagery he found didn’t tell the story of the city, so he wanted to do something about it. He enlisted the help of local Instagrammers to tell simple and authentic photographic stories of their love for the city and the people that inhabit it, and the result was #weloveatl.

Recently we hosted Tim at our office, and he shared with us the story of #weloveatl and how it’s become ingrained in Atlanta culture while still maintaining its identity through massive organic growth.

Started in October of 2012 as a way to curate images from the Instagram community for a show at Young Blood Gallery, the #weloveatl hashtag has grown into a movement that celebrates the uniqueness of Atlanta through nontraditional gallery shows, installations and community photography events. They work to support and unify Atlanta photographers and artists while also benefitting nonprofits around the city.

“One thing that we’ve been very successful with is using the narcissism of Instagram and turning it on its head,” Tim said.

In their first gallery show at Young Blood, they expected 500 submissions but received more than 5000, and raised more than $3,200 for the Atlanta Community Food Bank. In just three months following that first event, #weloveatl went from 5,000 photos to 12,000 organically without any special incentives, offers or promotion. They currently have more than 600,000 images tagged and around 60,000 followers. They have a mobile #weloveatl exhibit, and also work with sponsors to create unique experiences using the visual arts curated through their community.

Our top three lessons from the creative juggernaut of #weloveatl:

1. Activate the Community

Our job as marketers is to find the passion of a community, build on it, and find ways to get the community excited. And that’s just what #weloveatl Instameets do. Photographers create relationships among themselves online and Instameets give them a space to meet in person while exploring the city. These organized groups gain (legal) access to rooftops and abandoned buildings for urban exploring that wouldn’t be possible on their own, producing unique projects like Abandoned But Not Lost, which showcases the historical buildings in South Downtown that are in danger of being demolished in the name of progress.

2. Trust is Key

We know people will usually choose to work with a brand they trust. So how do companies gain that trust? According to Tim, it’s about doing the work to show you’re worthy of trusting. An example of how #weloveatl earns trust is its work in Clarkston, Ga., which has the distinction of being the most diverse square mile in the country. A group of #weloveatl photographers spent three months building relationships within the Clarkston refugee community, listening to and learning from the individuals who left their homes in search of safety and freedom. They were invited to photograph the community for their project Southern Refuge, which resulted in breathtaking works representing people and cultures from across the globe.

The exhibition benefitted the Clarkston Community Center, and wouldn’t have been possible without doing the groundwork to build relationships first.

3. Know your Brand

It may sound counterintuitive to tell a marketer to say no to a potential sponsorship, but #weloveatl does it on a regular basis, which helps them maintain a strong, trusted brand presence. #weloveatl has created installations and gallery shows in partnership with the likes of CNN Center, MARTA and Art on the Beltline. With cohorts like that, one would think they’re ready to get into sponsor relationships and start casting a wider net of influence, but that’s not the case.

“We put experiences first…and do a ‘gut check’ on who [we] work with,” Tim said.

This means they turn down a lot of sponsorship opportunities – even potentially lucrative ones – if the brand image doesn’t fit with the community-first mission.

#weloveatl is still growing, and you can be a part of the story by following them on Instagram and checking out their website at www.weloveatl.org. As for us marketers, we must remember that people care about the story and want to support brands that are genuine.

“We’re just trying to do a good thing, and in the end, that’s most important,” Tim said.