This Is How Social Media (Really) Works in the Trenches

Quality content, and lots of it, is the foundation you build a following on but to grow big, you'll eventually need a marketing strategy.
This Is How Social Media (Really) Works in the Trenches
Image credit: Granger Wootz | Getty Images

Last year, my Instagram account blew up, to put it mildly. It grew from zero to 100,000 followers in less than six months.

I attribute a lot of my recent successes --  growing Rich20Something, getting a major book deal, acquiring Under30CEO -- to the rapid surge in relevance that came from growing my Instagram account. Here’s how all that growth really happened, and what it did both short and long term for my business.

How I (really) grew the account.

My good friend Nathan from Foundr Magazine is a master at organic growth who taught me all about the Instaworld. Sitting in my underwear in my living room, I used his strategies to grow the #Rich20Something account to about 40,000 followers in a few months -- for free. What I’ve never mentioned publicly before is that I then paid a considerable amount of money on influencers to fuel that growth from 40k to 100k+ followers.

Here’s how it worked:

I already had a successful online info product, which I’d been selling to the tune of multiple six-figures per year. On my Instagram account, I used “Call to Action” bio link posts to build my email list, then sent those people through my automated system that pitched my course.

Recognize these? They work!

I took those earnings and spent a percentage of them on “shout outs” from influencers to grow more quickly and multiply the effect. How much did I spend?

I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’m guessing I spent at least $30,000 and maybe $40,000 growing the account over 12 months. In turn, that investment multiplied more than 20x’d it’s value. That’s a unicorn, if I’ve ever heard of one. And a much better strategy than Facebook ads.

The reason I don’t talk about this is simple.

If I mention that I spent a considerable amount of money growing my social media accounts, it will immediately become a barrier for beginners, because they’ll assume you can’t grow an account without money. Some will even accuse me of being disingenuous, a fake or a liar.

This is beyond annoying, and it’s also beside the point. In social media, money is only part of the equation. It’s gas on the flame, but first you have to ignite the flame.  

The mission of my company, Rich20Something, is to empower a million millennials into wealth, health and happiness.

Empowerment implies awareness.

If you want to play the social media growth game, you need to be aware that 99 percent of “instafamous” overnight success is backed by money. Often, serious money. This isn’t a barrier to you succeeding. But it is a reality to take into account. So how do you overcome the “money gap” on social media and get noticed?

Related: Here's How Much a Millennial Needs to Save Each Month to Retire With $5 Million

Rule #1: Message over medium.   

The platforms we communicate on will continue to change. That much is clear. There will always be a new app to share content.

Sometimes the medium is 10-second video bites. Sometimes the medium is a 2,500 word essay. Sometimes it’s a streaming broadcast.

There’s always another way to show, say or demonstrate what you’re feeling. But the feelings themselves will never change. We all feel joy, pain, happiness, sadness, confusion, elation, worry, doubt, amusement, lethargy and everything in between. These concepts are fundamentally human and universally recognizable.

Your job is to find one platform that really matches with your personality and production style, then use it to communicate those universal emotions at an expert level.

Some people like to write. That’s me. Some people like to draw. Some people like to make videos. Any type of hack or “gasoline” to accelerate growth -- whether it’s taking a course or spending marketing dollars -- is secondary to the fundamental purpose of social media: genuine connection.

Related: 10 Ways to Develop an Unshakable Belief in Yourself

Rule #2: Create a ton of content.

I’ve talked about this ad nauseum. You’re going to have to make a lot of content to stand out. Period.

You will be competing with other viral organic content, plus paid content, so your best bet is to create enough high-quality work to increase the odds of being seen by the right audience. The definition of “quality work” varies depending on the platform, but always be aiming to improve in the delivery and presentation of what you’re putting out there.

If you’re focusing on Instagram, then really study the aesthetics that are working well in your niche and try to be better than your competitors.

If you’re shooting YouTube videos, try to get the best picture and sound you can with the equipment you have, and at the very least have really intriguing thumbnail pictures and good keywords.

If you’re writing, you better be writing every day so that you get good at it. Don’t put mediocre work out there and wonder why it’s not getting picked up by TIME. It doesn’t have to be good at first, but you have to try hard to get better. And if you can’t create a masterpiece, at least create something that’s honest.

Eventually, you can turn up the production and start creating pieces of high quality work across multiple platforms every day. But in the beginning, stick to one or two platforms that you’re most comfortable with.

Don’t stand in your own way, either. Just get it out there.

Related: The Shocking Truth About Louise Delage's Instagram Account

Rule #3: Be a real human.

In a world full of avatars, there are ways to automate your social media presence so that you’re posting 24/7. Don’t do this. If you automate your avatar in the social space, you lose touch with the pulse of what people are going through. You won’t connect with them in a memorable way.

I try my best to thank almost every single person who comes into contact with my work. I go out of my way to find things my supporters and fans are doing. I find things I can comment on, contribute to or help with. I’m not just a talking head. I treat everyone like a close friend.

This is not scalable, and precisely because of that, it’s not copyable. Nobody can jack that swag or automate it. It automatically stands out because it’s just real.

Be that.

When you actually respond to people, you’ll build loyalty over time that’s unshakeable.

Most of us expect our comments, like and shares to go unanswered into internet oblivion. When we actually get feedback from the creator of the content we just interacted with, it creates a special dialogue. If I comment on your post and you respond to me, I’m going to feel like I got a reward out of commenting on your post. That means I’m going to be more likely to comment again. If you keep reinforcing that tendency, I’ll keep commenting.  

After months of continuing to respond to people, you’ll begin to develop a group of 50-100 “regulars” who you can count on to like, comment and share every post. That’s built-in social proof with everything that you do.

More shares. More reach every time. Just because you actually responded to people.

I have a lot more to write about how we need to be operating in the social space. This is an ongoing conversation — and an open-ended one, as well.