In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Before she started devoting two hours each day to responding to her Instagram followers, let alone before she even had an account, Heidi Nazarudin used to sit in an office calculating valuations for tech companies. Straight out of college, she landed in an investment banking program for high-ranking Malaysian graduates at Citibank in Tokyo, where she was surrounded by the city’s high-fashion scene. Over time, she began to notice her attention wandering as she crunched numbers.
“You know you have a problem when you look outside the window, and you are spending more time analyzing what people are wearing than doing your job,” Nazarudin tells Entrepreneur. She quit her job, moved to Los Angeles and started writing about fashion. “I thought, ‘If everything goes wrong, at least I have beautiful weather.’”
She channeled her interest in fashion combined with her business background into a blog and brand, The Ambitionista. To this day, she says her posts are meant as inspiration for “boss ladies conquering the world.” Her average reader is a 32-year-old woman with a household income of $90,000, who spends $21,000 on fashion and beauty and takes four international trips per year.
Nazarudin says she was apathetic about Instagram when it started to gain popularity, instead gravitating toward Twitter, which she considered the ideal medium for a writer such as herself. But today, she has more than 473,000 followers on Instagram -- double what she has on Twitter -- and the visual medium has become her primary platform. As Nazarudin developed her Instagram presence and grew her following, a few women reached out to her requesting her help in managing their social media accounts.
“At first I said no, because I was like, ‘I'm not an agency, why would I do that?’” Nazarudin says. Then, when a friend showed her a report she’d received from paid consultancy, she concluded she might know better than some of the experts. She founded brand strategy and influencer marketing agency Marque Media, and today she and a team of 13 people manage more more than 100 social media accounts for 40 different brands.
Her role as a brand strategist has landed her speaking engagements at conferences such as TEC Summit, BlogHer and Lean In. When she’s not helping brands select influencers, or writing all of @theambitionista’s Instagram captions, she’s working on her newest startup, The Boss Box, a subscription box for women entrepreneurs, which she co-founded and launched earlier this year.
Nazarudin shared the secrets not only to @theambitionista’s growth and success, but also what she’s learned about how any brand can cultivate a following and identity via Instagram -- without relying on the platform as a sole source of income.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
A lot of the brands that I worked with as a fashion blogger, say when Instagram started, they were like, "Oh, that's great you have whatever amount of followers on Twitter, but how many followers do you have on Instagram?" And I was like, “Zero. I don't care.” I thought of myself as a serious person. I'm not going to post photos of myself. But after the tenth brand asks you, “How many followers do you have on Instagram?” and your answer is something very embarrassing, the writing's on the wall. I always use the analogy of the fax machine: Don't try to keep a fax machine when everyone's using email. So, I told myself, “Everyone's into Instagram. I have to get on Instagram.”
I hired a photographer off Craigslist, but my first two photo shoots were complete disasters. I thought I looked so hideous that I almost wanted to cry. I picked another photographer, off Craigslist again, and she made me feel comfortable. We had coffee, and she told me a lot of stories about herself and made me feel like a human being. Then we took photos, she gave me directions and the photos turned out better.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
For Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn combined, I probably spend two to three hours a week. Between myself and my social media manager, we find things that happened to me the previous week or will happen the coming week, such as events I’m speaking at. Or we find an article that’s trending in the news that's relevant to my audience. I give my social media manager content, as well as approve and curate the content she suggests. We have a dashboard that alerts me when I have direct messages or comments, and it doesn't take any time at all to respond.
3. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
I put the most effort and personal attention on Instagram. I spend about two hours everyday on my own Instagram account commenting, responding and going over the DMs. In fact, I do not hand off writing or responding on Instagram to any of my staff members, even though I easily could, because it's so personal. At events, a lot of them are so surprised when I remember them when they approach me and tell me their account name. At the core of it, I'm very grateful that I have so many followers, and it has enabled me to do so many things that, 10 years ago, I never even would have dreamed about.
When it comes to the inspirational graphics on @theambitionista, I ask my social media manager, "Can you find about 40 informational quotes from women for the month of November?” Then, I pick the ones I like, but I don’t handle the graphics and design. As for the caption underneath that quote, that's all me. I cannot delegate that to anyone, because that would feel inauthentic.
4. How do you promote your account? What's your number-one way to gain followers?
It depends on where you are in the growth stage and also depends on algorithms and stuff. But when I first started, we did a lot of Instagram takeovers. For example, if there’s a brand or blogger that I really like and that I know has the demographic that I want to target, I'll offer to take over their account and post. When that happens, I usually gain a percentage of their followers.
I'm always promoting my account, even at offline venues. I have little postcards that say, "Follow @theambitionista for more."
We also do giveaways probably once every couple of months. I would reach out to a brand and say, "I have followers who I know would love your product. Give me two sets, one for me and one for my fan, and I will ask them to follow me and you, and give them beauty products.” I'm very selective -- it has to be a product that I love. This technique is very low risk and low cost. Obviously, if you have a bigger budget, then that's when Instagram or Facebook ads come into play.
5. What's your content strategy?
@Theambitionista is a platform that caters to sophisticated working women. There are two types of women we target: One is the young college grad who's hungry, working and wants to know more about how to manage her time and what she has to do to get ahead at work. We also have a substantial amount of followers who are C-suite executives or entrepreneurs who are successful. They want to read content that they can relate to, like when I talk about how to dress for the boardroom, how to look powerful and how to sound like you know what you're talking about over the telephone. It's a first-person point of view they can relate to. It's all for boss ladies conquering the world.
6. What's your best storytelling trick?
I believe that my feed is a story. Obviously, once in a while something happens that we just have to play it by ear that day. But otherwise, I actually plan out my Instagram photos or videos in advance. We have an editorial calendar for the month. When National Coffee Day is coming up, I know I'm going to have to post something about coffee, because I'm a caffeine addict.
I always refer to myself in the third person when I'm talking to my team, because the Instagram, to me, is living on its own. It's an amplified version of me. Like, nobody really looks that fabulous 24/7. So we think of it in terms of, “What is Heidi doing this week?” Heidi has a meeting, but she has to walk across the street in a gorgeous boss-lady outfit to go to a coffee place. And it has to be an Instagrammable coffee place, very fashionable. She looks like she's ready to conquer the world, and the caption would resonate with that, like, “I'm drinking this coffee, I'm ready to go into my meeting -- wish me luck, guys!"
I love clothes. I love makeup, but if you look at my feed, there’s more to it. I'm trying to tell followers, “Go to sleep with a dream but wake up with a purpose.” That means, you look fabulous, but why? Because you want to look like a badass, where you can kill that meeting and get that funding or whatever it is you want to do. I'm trying to tell them, in a subtle manner, or sometimes in an overt manner, we are out there to kick ass, and we should look fabulous doing it.
And at the same time, I also know I repel a lot of people. There are a lot of women who don't want to follow my account, because they're like, “I just want to look at clothes.” And that's fine. It's really good to know your audience and be true to yourself and not try to be everything to everyone -- that never works. You can be an amplified version of yourself, but at the end of the day, you have to be yourself. When I first started blogging, I'd post photos of myself lying on the grass or something, just because I saw some other girl doing that, and she got 1,000 likes. Then I was like, “Why am I doing this? I don't even like lying around in the grass. I just want to do stuff!”
7. How do you set yourself apart on Instagram?
Instagram is how some bloggers make their money. They get sponsorships and brand deals. I'm not dependent on sponsorships to live a good life, and that gives me a sort of power. For example, if I don't like a brand, I'm going to say no. Whatever I say or do is because I really want to, it's not because I need to pay rent this month. I have The Boss Box, I have Marque Media, and these are businesses that are thriving without having brand sponsorships.
8. How do you leverage your Instagram, and to what extent do you monetize it?
When I only had The Ambitionista, I did feel that pressure, because I had overhead to run my blog. I was like, “I need to make at least X amount every month to live, and I need brand sponsorships, I need paid collaborations and all that.” I knew I had to grow my Instagram following massively to keep up with all the other bloggers. But I like to think ahead always, and I asked myself, “What will happen when I turn 50? Do I still want to be so-called hustling for money from brands?” The answer is no. So what do I need to do to make sure that I have a thriving business that, if I need to step away, I can?
You should not be dependent on any one platform for your livelihood. I had only Instagram, I would feel trapped. Like it's great to use Instagram as a platform, and then after you grow and evolve, you’ll have other things going on in your life because of your following -- instead of, forever and ever, you're this Instagram influencer and that's it. Because you have to ask, what happens if Instagram's gone?
I have friends who are so tired of Instagram, but they can't take time off, because it's their bread and butter. I have friends like, “I'm really feeling sick. I'm really feeling depressed, but I have to post two posts today.” That is a red flag. You should be able to just relax and not post, but they have to. But for me, sometimes I need time off, two or three days off Instagram, and it's completely fine, it doesn't affect me at all. You don't want to be beholden to Instagram. It should be your passion, but you also should be able to walk away from it if you want.
9. What advice do you have for other people who want to build brands on Instagram?
When you post, you have to ask yourself whether this photo is inspirational or aspirational. If it is neither, chances are it's not going to get a lot of traction. Instagram is essentially about beauty. So when you post, those photos have to, in a way, make people stop and go, “This is gorgeous.” It has to be something that your target group would resonate with. That can be different things, depending on what industry you're in, but it has to have that quality of making people feel something.
Second, your Instagram has to tell a story. If you're a brand, for example, let's say you're selling makeup. Every single post can’t be, "Product, product, product, makeup, makeup, makeup." I mean you will gain followers, but you will not gain fans. You will not gain brand advocates. What is great about your makeup? Who is wearing your makeup? Who are the founders of your makeup? Tell a story about what the brand is about, what the brand is for and who is behind the brand. These two things are essentially the DNA of all successful accounts, creating not only great follower rates, but also great engagement rates.
10. What's a misconception many people have about Instagram?
That follower numbers are everything. For example, there's a blogger who's about the same age as me. She has a million followers, and I have just under half of what she has. In terms of engagement and conversions, I beat her by 30 percent. If you look carefully into her comments and her likes, she has a lot of guys following her, and that's because she posts a lot of sexy photos. And that's fine. I'm just saying that the numbers are not everything.
We do a lot of influencer campaigns for brands, and sometimes I have to convince them to take bloggers with less follower numbers, because I know those bloggers have a lot of followers who would actually buy that brand's product or relate. Not just lurkers or guys who follow those bloggers because they're hot.
Click through the slideshow to see five of @theambitionista’s favorite posts.
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