Let’s start this off with a simple list of Do’s and Don’ts. Then we’ll get a bit more in depth after. I’m taking a bit of a backwards approach here; I believe that when you find something you like on the internet, you have a few seconds to grab someone’s attention before they click out. So here you go. STAY, MY FRIEND. STAY. Especially if you’re a small business or blogger!
Do: Research your target audience. Find out who you’re trying to speak to. If you’re talking to everyone, you’re talking to no one. Are they younger? Older? A mix of the two? Where do they live? Are they middle class or upper class or both? And be real with yourself. If you’re opening a restaurant, don’t think “we want everyone to come in!” Like yes, in theory, of course you do. But your restaurant is most likely in an area that houses (insert the median age here) people who make roughly (insert median income here) and has a close proximity to (insert schools, businesses and landmarks here). This is how you should start to define your target audience.
Do: Ask questions. Utilize those Instagram stories! Use polls and the question box! If you want to build a community, you need to know who’s watching. Ask them questions that will help you plan your content. If you’re a blogger, you can start by doing a weekly Q&A or AMA (Ask Me Anything). It will give you some insight into what your audience wants to know about you, and then you can ask what they want to see from you. If you’re a restaurant, do polls on photos of various dishes to see what your audience likes better. Perhaps you have a lot of vegetarians and will want to start sharing more of those options.
Do: Share UGC (User Generated Content). There’s a special connection that happens when you do this. Even as a blogger, when people make my recipes and tag me, it gives me the warm fuzzies (and they love it when I repost them)! It shows that you’re paying attention. And if you’re a restaurant, not only does this create stronger connections with your current customers, but it helps potential customers see who is dining at your establishment.
Do: Answer your DM’s. Nothing is more infuriating than messaging a restaurant on Instagram to find out some info, only to be ignored indefinitely. Some DM’s can 100% be ignored (hate comments, for example), but if someone is reaching out with a genuine question, answer them! Even if it’s something that can be found simply on your website, just direct them there. A lot of people get their information via social media now. This same rule applies to comments: ENGAGE WITH YOUR AUDIENCE! Let them know you’re there to help them.
Do: Reach out to influencers/brands in a kind, professional manner and call them by their proper name. None of this “hey (insert handle here)” unless you really can’t find their name. Then ask if they would be interested in collaborating with you (AFTER you’ve researched them and can give a good reason as to why they would be a good fit). Doesn’t mean you’re going to get a yes, but they will respect your approach (and hopefully reply) if they know you’ve done your homework.
Do: Use hashtags. There’s a lot of controversy around hashtags and if they actually work. I believe that they do, but you have to use them wisely, and mix them up. Don’t copy and paste the same hashtags for every post. Check out displaypurposes.com – it’s a website that offers up hashtag suggestions based on what you enter into the page. If you type in “sandwich”, you’ll get a bunch of trending hashtag suggestions. Use a mix of niche ones and broad ones. If you’re a restaurant based in NYC, add “nycfoodie” or “newforkcity”. You can also use branded hashtags, like Thrillist’s “#forkyeah”. They do search their own hashtags for content to repost!
Don’t: spam an influencer’s page with “hey (insert handle here) we’ve just sent you a DM! Hit us up!” It’s a weird kind of pressure that you shouldn’t put on them, and it also sounds like spam. And if it sounds like spam, it’s going to be treated as such: aka not taken seriously, reported and/or deleted. Just don’t do it.
Don’t: message someone on Instagram and ask them to follow you. It’s needy and once again, it’s lazy. Sorry to be harsh but it is. I never asked a single person to follow me – they did it because they wanted to and that is the attitude you should adopt for your brand as well.
Don’t: post a photo or video without a caption. You don’t have to write novels like I do, but some background or descriptive info is important. If you’re a restaurant, I understand the need to post #foodporn, but you can still attach a message to it. Add your hours and location into the caption too sometimes. Remind people where you are. Subtle repetition is key to building a brand on social media.
Don’t: Post multiple times per day. This is a real easy way to get people to unfollow you, especially if you’re posting bad photos (blurry, dark, unclear product shots). Instagram, specifically, is about testing things out and experimenting with timing. If you find that posting twice per day is actually working for you, by all means, do that. But if you post once per week, you will likely not get a ton of growth. For me and my clients, the sweet spot is somewhere around 3-4 times per week. Again, experiment with posts and see what works for you!
Some questions I’ve received that are a little less black and white:
Should I tag publications in my posts? Here’s where trial and error comes into play. I do this sometimes still, but more often than not, I don’t. I used to do it on every single post because back when I started my Instagram, there were only a handful of food bloggers/”Instagrammers”, so it was probably less annoying to the brands that I’m tagging. Now, their tagged pages are probably flooded with posts from people, restaurants, food brands, etc. And thanks to the wonderful addition of Instagram notifying you whenever someone comments on a post that YOU are tagged in, it’s gotten extra annoying. Occasionally, you’ll get a message from someone asking to be untagged due to this reason. Cringe.
Here’s the gist: Tagging a publication now is a decent way to get a repost, but that’s likely all you’re going to get. It may help boost your followers slightly, but it in NO WAY does what it used to. If I got a repost from a big publication in 2015, I gained 1000+ followers in one day. This doesn’t happen anymore. I repeat: THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN ANYMORE.
Another point to keep in mind: just because a publication reposts your photo doesn’t mean they’re going to write a feature on you, or even remember you next week. MAYBE you’ll get them to follow you, but it usually means that you took a damn good photo and they just want to share it. If you want a publication to write about you, you have to pitch them. That’s where PR comes in and we’ll save that for a whole other convo.
“But wait, don’t a lot of people get discovered via Instagram and TikTok?” Yes, they can and they do, but it’s rare. And this mentality is exactly why this generation is so fucking lazy and entitled. Listen, I’m all for the “well if they can do it, I can do it” mentality, but I have always had the “work hard and hustle” mentality too. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me, or maybe it’s that I grew up thinking I don’t deserve anything in this world just because I exist. *shrugs*
I’m not as mean and cynical as I sound, I promise. I’m just a realist and brutally honest. I think it’s great if you have that level of confidence in yourself, but even with that in your back pocket, you’re still going to have to do some actual work in order to get what you want. And building a brand takes time, work, and patience.
Take me, for example. I didn’t post a bunch of nice photos on Instagram and then all of a sudden get asked to be on ABC or CBS, and write for Food Network and Thrillist. I worked hard to get to that point, and I also worked smart. I pitched the shit out of myself. I believe that you need to do both, but again, that’s just me. I started this blog in 2008 with ZERO expectations. I was working at Pfizer at the time. PFIZER. Doing what? HTML and CSS coding. You can laugh now, I won’t be offended. But guess what? I used that time and that new knowledge to build this blog.
As much as I am a realist, I also believe everything happens for a reason. It’s a little contradictory to my personality, but it’s true. If I didn’t get that temp job at Pfizer where I was bored out of my skull and had no idea what I was doing, I would have never had the urge to take a food writing class and then start my blog. The HTML coding came in handy too, because back then, blogging platforms were not as plug and play as they are now. I actually coded the main page of my blog and changed the colors with HTML. It was kinda neat, I was proud of myself. Either way, you get my drift. You have to look at your past experiences/knowledge and get the most use out of them.
If you’re a good writer, use that in your copy on social media. If you’re a great photographer, share some tips and tricks on photo styling/editing. If you’re a great chef with an interesting background story, share it! People will care more about what you’re posting if they care about YOU. And that’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give you to start building your online community!
Have more questions? Email me or send me a DM! Again, I answer most of them. firstname.lastname@example.org and @skinnypignyc