In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Six years ago, Ella Mills was a university student who had no idea why she was feeling so sick. At 20 years old, she was diagnosed with a Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, an illness that affected her autonomic nervous system, making it difficult to control her heart rate and blood pressure, and left her battling symptoms like headaches, allergic reactions and chronic fatigue.
Feeling tired, sick and lonely, Mills decided to start writing a blog chronicling her learning how to remake her diet from the ground up -- out with sugars and processed food and in with the kale and quinoa. She began to feel better, gained inspiration and built an online community groundswell with her blog.
Mills and her husband Matthew have opened three deli locations in London. They started with a staff of four and now employ 70 people. Mills has written four books, released an app and the company has come out with three product lines. Her breakfast cereals, energy balls and oat bars are sold in 6,000 stores across the U.K., from Starbucks and Sainsbury’s to Whole Foods and Waitrose.
And Mills, who spends a significant part of her day replying to members of the Deliciously Ella community, is spearheading it all.
“We still don't have a marketing team. We don't have a marketing budget. It's just me. We've only been in stores for 12 months or so, and we're outselling our competition and our a rate of sale. That's all because of that direct communication we've had with people,” Mills tells Entrepreneur. “I think one of the things that often holds people back from starting a business is [the question of] how do you reach people? How do people know you exist? How do you connect with them? I think [Instagram is] a platform that people should absolutely use, because it helps you create a brand and individual identity and an understanding with customers.”
Mills shared her insights about how to make your brand stand out and build customer relationships that are a two-way street.
How did you get your start with Instagram?
I started to write in my blog in 2012. And I was enjoying that. I started it because I've been very unwell. I had been very unwell when I was at university with a condition that affected my autonomic nervous system. I basically reached a point where I really needed to find other things to help, and so I started writing the blog to teach myself to cook. And I was really enjoying it, and I was starting to feel the effects as well physically, which I was really pleased about. And then in early 2013 my friend was like, “Oh, if you're going to keep on doing the blog, you should do Instagram. It was good because I was looking for more motivation and inspiration to try new things. I thought this is great, because it will give me a push to try something new every day. So I always have a new picture. And I started that in early 2013 as Deliciously Ella. Quite quickly, I fell in love with the way they communicate [on Instagram].
What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them versus on Instagram
Instagram is our biggest platform and the one I spend the most time on. It's also the one where there's more ways to connect to your audience. So I am obsessed with our audience and the customer connection. With Instagram I try and go through the #DeliciouslyElla hashtag everyday, like everything and comment on everything. You have to tag pictures of you, then you also have the direct messages. I find that it takes a lot more time than Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest, for example.
How much of your time do you devote to it?
Across all the channels it takes maybe four hours. I try as much as possible to reply to absolutely everything. Lots of people have told me that is insane and not necessarily a very good use of time, but that's been maybe from a slightly older generation. I definitely say that from our perspective, looking at our rate of sale for our products in supermarkets, that is definitely not the case. It creates a genuine sense of community because there is a sense of care. It is not a transactional relationship -- it's a really two-sided relationship. Interacting on Instagram helped me learn so much about what people want, what they like and that's really helped shape and drive our business and make all our decisions.
How do you promote your account? What's your number one way to gain followers?
It’s really just organic growth through great content. I'm a big believer in the idea of a real relationship rather than a transactional relationship. So obviously, the business has grown, and we've done more things. There are things to promote, and there are things things to talk about. But, I want it to be a useful tool for people. People follow us, because they genuinely get something from it. They get great recipes or ideas of things to cook, meal ideas, inspiration, healthy living and positive thinking. That's that's a real focus, and I think that has been really important. And I think sometimes one of the things that people maybe don't get right on social media, especially for brands, is that it's all about product promotion. The audience isn't getting much from it, other than advertising.
What's your content strategy?
From the beginning, I wanted Deliciously Ella to be a useful tool. I wanted to create a business from the blog and do something bigger. I try to keep it personal so there's a real voice behind it, and it is my voice. I post everything. I manage all of our accounts, and therefore, you have a connection. In between all the food and healthy living, I try to have personal posts as well. I try to open up and deepen that connection. Otherwise, I try and keep the content super relevant. When you get to a certain size, people want you to be sponsored by this and affiliated with that and promote this product.
I was never willing to kind of make that compromise and that sacrifice. I think it is quite tempting when someone says I'll pay loads of money if you promote this. Again, that's not what the audience is looking for. If they follow you for healthy cooking, they don't want you to promote a mattress. If you're going to do a collaboration with someone or work with someone, it needs to be someone that your audience wants. So you must still continue to give them the content that they follow you for. And I think that's important. There is a reason they clicked follow. Yes. It's really important to ensure you continuing to give them exactly what it is.
What's your best storytelling trick?
I'm very informal. I'm trying to be very human and very open. I've always being quite vocal on social media as well about the importance of seeing social media for what it is: It's a phenomenal tool. I think it's an amazing space for inspiration and ideas. But at the same time, it's not real. It's a highlight reel. It's a snapshot. It's not a kind of blow-by-blow account of daily reality for anybody. And I think that's really important [to distinguish], and in terms of our communication style, I've always tried to be quite open with everybody about what it really is. Nobody's life is glossy and shiny and perfect.
How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
I think one of the things that really helped was timing. As it really started becoming mainstream, there weren't hundreds of thousands of other very similar accounts at that point. If people were looking for what I was doing, they were probably quicker to find me. That massively helped. Otherwise, it's that consistency. As it grows, sticking to your message is super important.
How do you leverage your Instagram, and to what extent do you monetize it?
We really use it pretty much solely for our business. A couple of times a year, I'll do a collaboration with a brand or a company that I feel aligned to, and I genuinely like that message. Our audience is very interested in not just food but kind of general well-being and natural living whether that's yoga or fitness or mindfulness, meditation, natural beauty. I would never do something that didn't have a kind of alignment that was close to our [mission]. Three or four collaborations a year with other brands.
Otherwise, everything on the channel is really just focused on content. Even with our own products, I try make it kind of few and far between. Because yes, people are excited if we get a new stock. We just launched into 2000 Tesco stores in the U.K., which is really exciting, and our audience is excited about it. But at the same time, if every single day you're like, “Go shop our products.” That's not what [our followers] want. I think it's important to find that careful balance.
What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands on the platform?
It's important to use it to create a sense of a brand rather than a product space, because I don't think people connect with pictures of product. They want to understand the deeper meaning behind it. Why are you doing what you're doing? Or if it is product, how do you use it? How can be a part of someone's life? A brand is so much deeper than purely sales. I know that has definitely been the case for us. When people go to a store, and they see our product next to a product that's been on the market for 10 years, they have connected to us. They've made our recipe. We are giving to them. I'm not just taking their money. It's not just a transactional relationship. You have to create something that will draw people in and connect with them. Having a personal touch [and connection] is really important.
What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
I think bigger or older companies might dismiss it as not being that important. But I think especially if you're talking to younger generation, that's how people communicate now. It's online, and and it's so targeted and so direct to the people that you want to be talking to, and that is really exciting.