In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Leura Fine says she wants to help her customers change their lives through great design. As the founder and CEO of online interior design service Laurel & Wolf, Fine’s mission to take the uncertainty, cost and sunk time out of space makeovers. Her company connects customers with licensed interior designers to create their ideal space for a flat fee.
Since launching in 2014, the Los Angeles-based business has grown to a staff of more than 60 employees and raised $25.5 million in funding. It has an impressive 60.6 thousand followers on Instagram.
Fine says that given the integral visual component of her company, building a following on Instagram made sense in the startup’s growth plan. She says that Instagram allows her and her team to tell stories that draw customers in by inspiring them to take the leap for their own design projects -- and to seek out Laurel & Wolf’s help.
We caught up with Fine to get her take on how to authentically connect with your audience and why imperfection is an important part of figuring out your brand’s voice.
How did you get your start with Instagram?
From day one I really loved the platform, because being an interior designer, I'm very visually driven. Being an interior design brand, I thought it made sense. I think like most businesses, [we started] by just playing around with a bunch of different things, posting a lot of things that I'm sure [we] would be completely horrified about today. Nothing that you do in the early days of a business is as glossy or beautiful or strategic as you'd like it to be.
I think in the earlier days of our business, we definitely thought of Instagram as just another social media platform, a place where we could connect with people on a more personal level. We could be posting things every day and it wouldn't have necessarily a long-term impact or effect of something like a web site, for example. So I think that we just kind of jumped on it and started playing around and started trying to figure out how we were going to grow our overall presence.
What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram
We are on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. I think we spend about 30 percent of our time on Instagram vs. the other platforms. We definitely have a very engaged audience there. It's a really exciting place for us continue to play around with different formats. And for example video series vs. stories vs. still images. We're definitely spending a big chunk of our time on Instagram.
What makes Instagram a better platform than other social media?
We really feel like there's just this amazing diversity of storytelling opportunities on Instagram that allows us to tell a deeper brand story or figure out a way to connect in a more authentic way. So much of what we do is about changing people's lives through great design. The gallery views allow us to show before and after shots. The videos allow us [to incorporate] design how-to's so we can [teach] our consumers, which is something that's important to us as a brand.
We can tell clients' stories and have them talk about what it's like to work with Laurel & Wolf. It also gives us the opportunity to leverage other people's followings, [like our] celebrity and influencer clients that we've [worked with], and have them cross share [posts] with their audiences.
We've also started to play around with the Instagram Live and Stories. I think what's fun about that is it's not permanent. It's something that you can continue to fine tune to see how your audience engages with it. Because it's not permanent, I think it allows us to just play and test out new marketing hypotheses.
From a brand perspective, we do want to have a certain amount of polish and sophistication because we are a professional service. [We want our social presence to say] we're here to solve the problem of making your space what you want it to be and making it beautiful. I think that you need the credibility of beautiful imagery to reinforce that.
How much of your time do you devote to it?
I would say that we actually spend more time as a team on producing Instagram content than we do for any other platforms outside of our own site. We have a really incredible blog that we're publishing to seven days a week, which is where a lot of our time and energy is spent.
Our team has done an amazing job of thinking about -- essentially because Instagram is such a big, important channel for us -- how is this content going to perform, not just on the blog, but how could we also leverage it for our Instagram audience?
I would say it's definitely a big percentage of what our team is thinking about in terms of general content strategy. How is our Instagram audience going to react? And not just from a content perspective, but even from a partnership or influencer perspective. Facebook is probably our number two platform that we spend a lot of time thinking about. Luckily they’re in the same family.
How do you promote your account? What's your number one way to gain followers?
We are using Instagram insights to track what what our clients really like and what they don't. I think that that's a really helpful tool because, for example, we've seen that our audience prefers certain types of photos in terms of composition. Lots of white, the millennial pink, we can't get away from it -- as much as we try. They just love it. Some of those analytics are really important for us to figure the best times of day to post and that helps us just get better about building a business and an audience on Instagram.
Even in the earliest days of the business, we focused on doing a lot of partnerships with other brands and influencers. We definitely have huge bumps in followers through this strategy. Some of the influencers we've worked with, we've gained a couple of thousand followers after doing a project with them. We partner with different brands and different influencers to achieve different goals. We've seen that's a really great way of building our overall engagement from followers.
How do you engage with others on the platform?
For us it's all about just commenting and talking to them as we post different things. We're connecting [people with] our designers, we're highlighting them, people are asking where items come from. We're engaging with them and saying [where they can find those things] on Laurel & Wolf's platform. So many people see these beautiful, glossy images and they're inspired by them. And then they want to figure out how to action that. For us it's pretty simple. It's about continuing to educate them about how Laurel & Wolf can help themselves with their own design challenges. It is something that seems really simple but it's super important.
How often do you post?
One to three times a day. And then we upload a new story every morning.
What's your content strategy?
Our business is something that's relatively a new service. People know that they have this problem. They have an empty space or space that's not fulfilling their needs. It's not as attractive that they would like or if it's half furnished. It's also [a] really personal [problem]. When we're working with our clients, we're learning about them. Do they have kids? Do they have pets? Do they entertain? What do the like to do in this space? Why has it not come together? What's their budget?
Even though it's a digital experience, you're inviting this designer and Laurel & Wolf as a brand into your home. Our content strategy has really been about telling a story of why design matters. Why does changing a space help you solve a problem and change your life? Instagram allows us to tell the story of how design solves that problem.
Trust is something that's very important in our business. Word-of-mouth referrals are a big part of our overall growth -- people talking about it and sharing it, because it's such a new service. Even if [that person is] not an influencer, but one of our platform clients.
We hear the most hilarious stories about how Laurel & Wolf saved people's marriages. They were exhausted of fighting over end tables. I think that that is an important part of content as well. It's like, hey we all love seeing glossy photos of celebrity and influencer homes. But having the other side of, hey this is someone who is just like me. They're newlyweds, they're moving into their first condo. They want their homes to be beautiful and a reflection of them as a couple.
Being able to tell that story I think is really important for our brand in terms of building trust and confidence to purchase our design services, and work with an interior designer that is solely online.
How has your content strategy evolved as Instagram has added features?
Some of the newer features I think has really allowed us to balance what our brand looks like in a permanent, kind of everyday way. Certain things that are evergreen and that you want to make sure there are always look a certain way, that they have a certain amount of polish and sophistication. And I think that things like Stories and Lives allows you to have a lot more fun.
[For example, on my personal account] I am a lot more free and can post a lot more fun real-time things that are live, that I don't know that we necessarily want to live one forever on my Instagram feed and friends. But it doesn't mean that the people who are following my story aren't interested in seeing some of those more playful moments or that you know more real-time things of what's happening. And I think that that comes back to that balance. As a brand name is that you can achieve the same thing that you can in your personal life.
What's your best storytelling trick?
I think even though we have all these beautiful after photos, it's easy to mistake us for a furniture company or a shelter publication or something like that. So we're always talking about, as a content marketing team, how can we push the boundaries in terms of showing great design but also doing something that feels a little bit outside of the box?
I think the most unexpected wins on Instagram that we had was -- because we know people love puppies -- for National Dog Day we designed this really ridiculous miniature room for a puppy that was exquisitely designed. We've done a couple variations on this. For Easter this year we designed what the Easter Bunny's house would look like. I think it's really fun for us because obviously telling the story of great design is critical to what we do. We’re always asking the question of, how do we tell the story of great design? That is something that helps us stand out on Instagram.
How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
We've done a lot of really incredible partnerships and partnerships are big part of our brand DNA. I think that we like to see ourselves as like a brand uniter. We're really great at connecting our audiences with other people and other brands in really fun and engaging ways. [One example of that is], we created the best kid table ever for Thanksgiving. It was just super sophisticated and we did it with the Land of Nod. We also created a series that was Oscar-worthy home screening rooms with Sonos.
We're always thinking about how we can surprise and delight our customers. In general, we've heard from both brands big and small is that we do partnerships really well. Bringing people together, doing interesting content and doing fun programs that can live on through social is something that we think is really different than how a lot brands approach it.
How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
Everything we're doing in terms of building our overall Instagram following is to hopefully educate them about Laurel & Wolf services and drive them to either a piece of content where they can learn more about what we do as a brand and get excited about content and then come back and buy design services when they're ready. Or maybe we're testing them at the right moment and they're actually ready to just go and be connected with an interior designer.
For us storytelling does help with overall conversion. It's a really great opportunity to leverage a platform like Instagram to drive people to learn more about a client's story. They can to go the before and after reveal. They can go to the blog and be excited by reading or watching video on the whole process and then that will hopefully inspire them to launch their own design project.
What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands on the platform?
I think that it's important to remember this even though Instagram is a really important business tool, that it's still social media. Focusing on building and responding to your community in an honest and organic way is a really important part of building on Instagram. Don't be afraid to reach out and collaborate with other people, especially people that you feel are like-minded.
I think it's really exciting in that way because Instagram is a very collaborative platform and it's fun to be able to work with brands and people that you are really excited and inspired by it. [Also], don't be afraid to be imperfect. Authenticity is what people expect to see, especially in Instagram Stories. It doesn’t always have to be perfect and polished.
What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
I think that a common misconception is that you have to reinvent the wheel. But I think you do need a clear identity. You need to need to know who you want to talk to you, what you want to talk about and you need to have a sense of what you want your feed to look like. At the end of the day, our audience is inspired by beautiful spaces and that's what our business is all about.