In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Growing up, Jawad would be in the kitchen helping her mom prepare dinner. But instead of acting as her mother’s sous chef, cutting vegetables or mixing ingredients, Jawad’s job was to “plate” the food. With the cue from her mother -- “Plate it for me!” -- Jawad was in charge of the aesthetics, organizing the food in an attractive and creative way.
Jawad’s childhood memories eventually helped inspire her to share her passions with the rest of the world. After joining Instagram in 2013, Jawad began sharing fun pictures of aesthetically pleasing food. However, she eventually realized she needed to expand her expertise beyond just the setup, so she learned how to cook.
“Early on, I would take my photos outside -- I would take a smoothie and place it on a leaf outside on a rock. I mean it was really getting artsy with the food," she shares with Entrepreneur. "Then I thought I needed to actually learn to cook better too. So I learned from other people, reading books and magazines and eventually I grew to love it."
Today, Jawad's Instagram account has more than 2.1 million followers and she also runs a blog offering followers recipes and how-to guides. She’s leveraged Instagram as both a platform for sharing her passions, giving an inside look at her own life and for making money through sponsored posts.
“I truly believe that whatever you do -- you might be a dentist, you might be a carpenter -- you should be online [and] exhibit your work,” she says.
We caught up with Jawad to learn how she’s been successful with the popular social app.
How did you get your start with Instagram?
Pretty quickly after Instagram launched, I had a personal Instagram. But I noticed every time I shared food I was making, I would [not] get [any] Likes. They were more interested in [my] family and the trips I was taking.
So in the summer of 2013, I decided to create a page [to] put all the food pictures [on]. I [got] inspiration from other people [and] I set a goal for myself to learn new recipes, how to eat healthier and how to cook for my family.
I've always had a passion for how things look on the plate. My mom would have guests over and she would cook and then say, "Yumna, go ahead and plate it for me!” And I would take the chicken and organize it in a way, and I would put the potatoes and the garnish with the parsley. So it was more about the way it looked on the plate.
Early on, I would take my photos outside -- I would take a smoothie and place it on a leaf outside on a rock. I mean it was really getting artsy with the food. Then I thought I needed to actually learn to cook better too. So I learned from other people, reading books and magazines and eventually I grew to love it.
What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
I'm on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, [but] Instagram is the majority of my time. Snapchat was really big a couple of years ago -- I was very active there and before Instagram had their Live Stories, that's where my followers really loved and cared about me and my day-to-day stuff.
I never made any money on Snapchat and it's OK because, to me, it was never about making money, it was more of a tool for people to follow my daily life. Any fun announcements that I had for my blog or Instagram would go there because those were the people who really cared.
What makes Instagram a better platform than other social media?
I started out on Instagram so it's kind of my comfort zone. I have the most friends there and that's how I’ve connected with other bloggers. Instagram has made it very easy to connect with anybody and everybody you want to connect with.
If you want to post a picture and not be social, you can do that. If you want to direct message people [or] go Live [and] just share a long story -- there are so many touch points. It's not like Twitter where you're limited to 140 characters. There are so many limitations with some of the other ones; Instagram is more free and let's you be creative.
How much of your time do you devote to it?
In the six hours that my kids are in school, I'm usually testing recipes, cooking, taking photos [and] sharing it on social media. And then in the evenings, my kids go to bed [and] from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. almost every night, I'm sucked into it. I probably end up spending about 60 hours a week doing it. It's more than a full-time job [but] it's fun and I think I'm obsessed with it.
I can be at soccer practice with my kids and uploading a photo or responding to comments. It's just an ongoing thing and for me -- there's no division of work and life.
How do you promote your account? What's your number one way to gain followers?
In the beginning there were not a lot of food brands on Instagram, so we would all help each other. We would do food challenges, like who had the nicest smoothie picture and whoever wins, a big account would shop them out. One hundred different pages would participate, we would submit our photos through hashtags and people would “Like,” and they would base it on whoever [got] the most “Likes” or whoever the judges thought. It was a really cool way to grow because it was so organic -- people gravitate because they love[d] something that I shared.
And then once I started getting bigger, there was something called “sfs” -- shoutout for shoutout. A shoutout for shoutout would be if I had 50,000 followers, somebody else had like 60,000 and we had similar types of engagement, they would share a picture of mine [and] I would share a [picture] of theirs.
That's kind of how I grew to 2 million followers because organically at the time, it wasn't as easy to get that big. I wasn't famous; I didn't have viral videos or anything like that. Then I stopped that a couple of years ago and now it's just letting my work speak for itself, friends tagging each other [and] trying to get good content that goes viral so that you can show up on Explore.
How do you engage with others on the platform?
On Instagram, Kik was very popular four years ago -- all of the influencers would talk to each other that way. And I still speak with other influencers through Kik -- it's just a habit. But now that there's a direct message, a lot of people communicate through that. I read all of my direct messages. Every day I go through them and if there's vulgarity or something, I delete them. But I always try to reply to people and that takes a lot of my time. Also, if you look at any of my posts, I always comment back -- as long as it's about a week old. It's so important to continue to connect and let people know that you're a real person.
How often do you post?
It's three recipes so three times a week. It's really hard to do more than three recipes when it's original content because things burn in the oven [or] sometimes lighting is terrible. So I try about four recipes a week -- sometimes things are all great [or] sometimes only two of them are good.
What's your content strategy?
I try to find out what's trending [and] what's popular. I read a ton of magazines and I'm always on Twitter and Pinterest trying to figure out what the hottest thing is right now. So if something is, I'll try to make it right away and post it immediately.
But meanwhile, I usually have about 15, 20 or sometimes even 30 recipes that I haven't even edited or written the recipe on. Three nights a week I'll sit down and try to figure out [which] is the hottest right now -- I'll look through my photos and figure what I need to post. Or, I'll realize there [was] something I made in August that people loved and are asking for the recipe. I download all [of] my pictures once a week from whatever I've taken and do folders based on what's already posted and what's not posted.
How has your content strategy evolved as Instagram has added features?
Now it's not as much about the food as it is about the foodie behind the food. With Instagram Stories gaining popularity, people are looking to connect with brands or bloggers on a personal level. Although I don't share a lot of personal photos of myself on my actual Instagram gallery, I'm constantly on Stories, [showing] how to cook [a] recipe or show[ing] behind-the-scenes of what I'm cooking. The more personal [I am], the more direct messages I get.
It's all about the person behind the pictures. That's what people care about.
What's your best storytelling trick?
Shamelessly, it's using my kids and using them for taste testing. With the taste testing, you never know what's going to happen. My kids are so honest -- I'll make cookies out of quinoa and they will be like, "Yuck, Mom! This is so gross." Sometimes, if I make a cupcake, you might get a dance -- even if it's a healthy cupcake. I just love the honesty of it. None of it is staged.
I think people enjoy that and they like to see someone actually taste testing and trying [the recipes] out.
How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
The food space is so saturated right now and it is kind of hard to stand out. But other pages that have [2 million] followers are built on curated content and not original content. You look at their page and it looks like a Pinterest board of pretty recipes from a variety of bloggers. So having my original content, sharing myself, sharing my family and my kids humanizes the page and makes it more personal.
I also try to give my content a consistent look and feel. I try to have [my pictures] be bright and fun so you look at them and you're excited to make [a] recipe. I try to capture their attention with that visual aspect of Instagram because that's what everyone sees first.
How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
I started out monetizing my page through shoutouts. After two years, I had about 175,00 followers and somebody [wanted] to pay [me] to post [an] ad for this new protein powder. Basically you post something on your page -- a brand will give you a video or a photo -- and you delete it after one hour.
I realized [if] I'm charging X amount at this rate, if I have a million followers I can charge more. There [were] a lot of brands that were paying to have five or seven posts a week for these one hour shoutouts.
Then I realized that I needed to actually build my brand of who I am and focus more on my recipes, my blog [and] my personality vs. somebody else's brand. Now, for the last couple of years, the way I've been monetizing is through sponsored content. I'll work with a brand like Zico Coconut Water, for example, and they'll want [me] to come up with a fun, creative recipe and share it on [my] page. So I made a mango avocado salsa using coconut water to stir it all together and it was just fun, builds their brand awareness and then I make money. It's much more natural, organic and believable.
What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands on the platform?
Be authentic, find a niche and offer something that no one else is offering. You can't be in it for the money and you have to pick something that you're extremely passionate about and then to commit to it. You have to commit to posting every day or have a regular schedule.
I truly believe that whatever you do -- you might be a dentist, you might be a carpenter -- you should be online [and] exhibit your work.
What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
A lot of people believe that if you weren't one of the early adopters of the app that it's too late to start building a brand or making money at this time. And that is a huge misconception. It's definitely harder to grow now [and] it is more saturated, but if you have a good idea, a good work ethic and something you have a passion for it, it's easy to go viral. It's easy for other people to catch your passion and realize [you're] good at what [you] do. You can literally go from zero to hero overnight as long as you're actually passionate.