It’s still possible to build a business on social media platforms like Instagram – but it is more difficult than in the ‘golden days’ of 2013.
Serial entrepreneur Gretta van Riel has a combined 16 million followers on Instagram across several brands, including SkinnyMeTea, The 5TH and Drop Bottle.
She started ‘tea-tox’ business SkinnyMeTea in 2013 after being pestered at work about the tea concoction she was using to detox. Van Riel built an eCommerce site for the business and used social media as an effective sales channel.
“After that first night (when we sold to people we didn’t know), I asked myself ‘if 200 people following us on Instagram means four sales, what does 2000 mean? What’s 20,000 going to mean?’” she said at PauseFest earlier this month.
Back in 2013, it was a lot easier to use social media as a sales channel.
“It was a lot easier to sell through Instagram back in those days,” van Riel said. “You’d basically post and you’d watch the sales spike through the online store.”
That early success led van Riel to win a Shopify small business competition – which came with expert mentoring and a PR boost – and it wasn’t long until that early success bred copycats.
“We got all of this PR suddenly and that PR was mostly targeted at the ‘wantrapreneur community’,” van Riel said.
“It was great, but it was a lot of people who were basically like ‘I don’t have an idea, I want one, what can I cling onto?’. Suddenly, they were like ‘Oh, if some 22-year-old chick is making 600k a month on tea, I can get on this’.”
But far from being a threat to her business, it provided a boost.
“I had this huge fear that it was just a trending product … but because all these competitors copied our product so exactly it created a market around the product,” van Riel said.
“So now there are 500 different companies and maybe five doing it well. It means that rather than being that flash-in-the-pan success, it’s increased the brand.”
It was a brilliantly creative feat for van Riel, and something she’s been able to replicate across several brands. But she says being beholden to the algorithms of a social-media platform can be difficult.
There’s been a lot of publicity around the likes of Facebook and Instagram changing their algorithms to prioritise posts from friends and family.
That means businesses hoping to turn social media into a sales-lead channel are going to find it more difficult.
But van Riel says staying ahead of the game is about two things: seeing what works elsewhere and collaboration.
“In social media, as a door closes a window opens,” said van Riel.
“Literally as soon as Instagram…makes it harder to get likes on a static image, at the same time they’ll open up another part of the algorithm – on live video for example.
“We’ve had some successful collaborations and giveaways where we’ve held competitions on Instagram Live for example, [where we] let the camera sit there and have ‘How to enter the competition’ on a poster on the wall.
“I saw another brand doing it and it killed it for them – they grew 20k followers overnight – so I was like ‘I want that’.”
The Hey Engage! founder also said teaming up with other businesses and influencers can be a great way to beat the algorithm.
“Pods are groups of engaged, like-minded communities that agree to mutually engage with each other’s content to boost that content on the algorithm – but in an organic way.”
“Let’s say you’re a fashion account; you would join a fashion pod,” van Riel explained.
When brands team up to engage with each other’s content on social media, it can be beneficial to brands who want to be top of mind.
“If you can get a group of people who are more likely to engage with your content that have larger followings like your own, then it’s going to be beneficial to your account,” said van Riel.
“It helps boost your post to the top of people’s news feeds and onto the ‘explore’ page.”