Instagram at 10: The Brits who built their businesses on Insta

As Instagram turns 10, Campaign looks at its growth from niche photographic space to business-building platform, and talks to five UK entrepreneurs, including fitness guru Joe Wicks, about their experiences of using it to grow a brand.

"You’re joking. Instagram has been around for 10 years? Ten years?” That was the reaction from the business owners who spoke to Campaign for this feature about the social media photo-sharing app’s first decade.

When computer programmers Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched Instagram on 6 October 2010, the iPhone had only been around for a few years and the front-facing camera to take selfies had just made its debut.

Instagram was a minimalist online space for people to share and “like” photos. There were no business accounts, sophisticated advertising platforms or ecommerce tools to enable in-app payment transactions.

Some business founders may assume Instagram is younger, because its $1bn acquisition by Facebook in 2012 – which now looks a bargain price – has transformed the app from a niche space for creative expression (more akin to the way Pinterest is regarded today) into a commercial powerhouse.

Instagram now accounts for more than 25% of Facebook’s global advertising revenues – upwards of $20bn a year, according to Bloomberg.

The photo-sharing app has become known for the photogenic celebrities who use it, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Ariana Grande and Kendall Jenner, with hundreds of millions of followers.

But Instagram and Facebook have become a vital and, in some cases, pre-eminent growth vehicle for many small businesses.

“One in three UK companies that have Facebook or Instagram pages even say that they have built their businesses on these platforms,” according to the Advertising Association’s 2019 Advertising Pays report. 

Facebook’s Ads Manager (which Facebook makes users employ for Instagram ad buys, too) is seen as an essential tool for small businesses because of its sophisticated targeting capabilities. Entrepreneurs can select the specific location and demographics of their target customer, such as age, gender, relationship status or educational qualifications. 

The AA’s report found that more than half (55%) of small or medium-sized businesses in the UK said they had increased their sales as a result of Facebook’s ad tools.

“I think a lot of people who aren’t heavy users of Instagram don’t realise that this is the new economy,” Bloomberg News journalist Sarah Frier, author of No Filter: the Inside Story of How Instagram Transformed Business, Celebrity and Culture, tells Campaign

“This is the way people are building the foundation of new businesses, this is where entrepreneurship is happening. If you’re a baker, if you want to launch a make-up line or a fashion line, if you have a craft business, if you are building a new distillery, for any small business, Instagram is where you really have to be. We tend to trivialise Instagram business as all about influencers and vapid, narcissistic content – and there is a lot of that – but even that is a huge business.”

For SMEs and start-ups, social media has, to an extent, levelled the playing field when it comes to competing with bigger and more established brands.

“The huge potential of social media to reach new customers is clearly evident,” the Advertising Pays report states. “More than four in every five people (82%) on Facebook in the UK are connected to one local business or another through the site.”

Growth driver

Many of today’s best-known influencers and emergent celebrities owe their success to Instagram. 

Joe Wicks, the fitness instructor who won a big following during the coronavirus lockdown with his regular video workouts, first rose to fame thanks to Instagram launching video in 2013. 

That helped him to treble his Instagram following for his account, @thebodycoach, to 1.8 million in just over a year.

“I was reluctant to do it because I thought it was just girls posting selfies – I didn’t really understand it,” Wicks admitted to Campaign in a 2017 interview.

Three years on, he stresses that engagement – directly interacting with his followers – is equally as important as creating interesting content. “Even now, I still spend hours every night replying to DMs and sending voice notes to my audience,” Wicks says. And now his Instagram followers have more than doubled to nearly four million.

It should not be a surprise that attractive people posting selfies or professionally produced videos would be a winner on social media, which helps explain the particular success of gym and fitness brands. 

Gymshark, which was co-founded by Ben Francis and Lewis Morgan in 2012, is one of the biggest UK Instagram success stories. The Midlands-based fitness clothing brand has harnessed the platform to gobble up followers across more than 100 countries and works directly with Facebook’s in-house creative team to amplify its marketing. In August, Gymshark was valued at £1bn after receiving investment from private equity firm General Atlantic.

Other personalities have reinvented themselves on Instagram. Davina McCall, a TV presenter for more than a quarter of a century, has turned herself into a Jane Fonda-esque fitness instructor who can communicate directly with her more than one million Instagram followers.

Big brands have discovered, sometimes belatedly, that they ignore Instagram at their peril, even when they are sitting on a massive cache of brand loyalty and marketing expertise.

Les Green, the former global brand director of Nike Sportswear, who is now vice-president of marketing at social commerce platform Teespring, recalls how there were “a lot of varying opinions” within the clothing brand about the merits of social media around the time that Instagram was taking off in 2012, and Nike lost ground to rival Adidas. 

It took three years for Nike Sportswear to catch up on Adidas Originals in terms of followers and engagement on Instagram.

“Nike has always been focused on innovation and storytelling, so you’d think that a platform like Instagram that allowed for shareable content” would be “automatically” part of a marketing plan “but it really wasn’t at first”, Green explains. 

“For Nike Sportswear in 2012, our following was dwarfed by Adidas, they were way more active and I think it was a little bit of over-confidence – we owned so much of the sneaker market.

“Finally, that shift was made strategically to focus on building an engaging audience through authentic content, consistency and leveraging all the things that make you a leader.”

Crucially, Instagram has become a driver for ecommerce, and that has intensified in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic forced millions of us to work from home amid a range of social-distancing measures. 

Enders Analysis data shows that between April and June, the value of online UK sales grew by 55%, and three months of lockdown had “accelerated ecommerce uptake by four years”. 

Nicola Mendelsohn, vice-president of Facebook in EMEA, says that, during Covid-19: “We definitely saw a really big shift in small businesses coming onto our platform.” A “broad” range of SMEs increased activity on Instagram during lockdown, she adds, citing personal trainers doing video sessions, B2B food wholesalers selling boxes of produce direct to consumers and “traditional” high-street shops that “converted” to online sales.

This is likely to continue in the post-lockdown future and, as more retail activity takes place online, Google, Amazon and Facebook stand to benefit, by, according to the Enders report, “pulling adspend from other ad and marketing budgets that were aimed at driving in-store behaviours”.

The shift from offline to online retail has been particularly advanced in the UK. Enders estimates that the UK’s retail ecommerce expenditure per person is £1,868, higher than any other country in the G20. In addition, both online ad expenditure and internet retail expenditure have almost trebled since 2010. 

A major driving force behind this has been the availability of fast mobile internet. Growth in ecommerce retail spend doubled in 2016, which happened to be the same year that 4G internet access became available to almost half of UK adults. 

The UK also has a relatively high proportion of women in the workforce (57%), which increases the household spending power, and a high number of non-cash transactions are conducted here (33% of all the European Union’s card transactions took place in the UK in 2017, for example). 

Instagram is likely to grow in importance as an ecommerce platform. After all, Facebook already dominates the social media advertising space and is energetically taking on Amazon and Google (not to mention traditional retailers and brands themselves) in the online shopping space. 

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook, signalled this shift last year when announcing that the company’s four online media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, would be knitted together behind the scenes and enable users of each service to communicate with each other for the first time.

Facebook “is doing a very sharp turn to ecommerce now”, Frier observes. “Within five years you’re going to see a mega-network, with Instagram, Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp all integrated, so if you’re a business owner on Instagram, you can take your orders on WhatsApp and post about it on Facebook.”

So far, at least, Instagram has been largely immune to the doubts about brand safety and hate speech that have dogged Facebook in recent years, although a handful of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Leonardo DiCaprio, stopped posting on Instagram for 24 hours in September as part of the StopHateForProfit campaign.

There is no guarantee that Instagram will continue its rise as new competitors emerge, notably TikTok, but that is a story for the future.

Campaign asked five British entrepreneurs of varying sizes how they have built their business on Instagram and what they have learned.

This feature is also published in the upcoming October issue of Campaign, but we're making it available for online subscribers today to coincide with the anniversary. 

Vicky’s Donuts

@vickysdonuts
Founded 2015
Name of founder Vicky Graham
Number of Instagram followers 95,500

Former content marketer Vicky Graham launched Vicky’s Donuts five years ago, having previously channelled her love of fried dough through home cooking and blogging. 

She decided to “turn her whole flat into a bakery” and formed a business plan driven by a frustration that “everything became all Krispy Kreme”. Before the coronavirus pandemic, she had even set up a Covent Garden-based kitchen, and begun taking corporate orders and moving into events catering. 

Having started using Instagram as a place to post delicious photos of sweet treats, Graham has tried to seize on the features the platform has added over the years as well as be proactive in reaching out to like-minded people, as opposed to just creating content. “[Instagram] is particularly great for finding people in your community and sourcing small businesses around you to collaborate on projects. The geo-tagging is really useful… it’s important for people to know exactly where we are.” 

The platform quickly became indispensable – after two years, Graham found that 90% of Vicky’s Donuts customers were coming to the brand via Instagram. However, with more than 95,000 followers (only about 12% of whom are in the UK), she estimates Instagram traffic now accounts for only about 10% of sales and she finds herself having to post a wider range of content for an international audience, such as recipes and less London-centric videos. 

“Instagram is still really crucial, though,” she insists. “People expect every brand to have a consistent feed that’s updated regularly.”

Graham does not believe you need to pay for sponsored posts to be successful as an Instagramming brand, but you do have to appreciate how the platform’s algorithm tends to serve wider Facebook goals. “You just have to try stuff, you have to post a range of different things: your [picture] grid, stories, and create a reel. When Instagram launches a new feature, they need content for it and are more likely to boost what you do. Instagram Reels [a playful, short-form video feature in the mould of Snapchat and TikTok]  is a good example of that.”

Top tips
“Carve out a clear brand and be consistent with brand guidelines. Make sure if you decide to post pics of everything you create, that it looks good. Be active: comment on other people’s posts, DM people and introduce yourself, reply to all the comments you get, and most of all, be genuine. 

“Also make sure you get a business account. It’s crazy how many businesses don’t have one and don’t put where they are as a location. It enables people to see they can buy from you – the ‘shop facilities’ and buttons on your bio so people can contact you.”

What not to do
“Don’t be obsessed with followers. They are there to give us business and the whole point of this is to sell your product. Trying to gain followers by paying for them is just pointless. You might get your following up a bit but those people will unfollow you after a while – you just need to remember the sole purpose is to sell the product.”

Prick

@prickldn
Founded 2016
Name of founder Gynelle Leon
Number of Instagram followers 35,300

“I couldn’t believe one didn’t exist,” Gynelle Leon recalls, after a Google search revealed no London results for a cactus shop in 2014. The former banking-fraud analyst and masters graduate in forensic science was then inspired to open her own shop, which she did in July 2016, after taking up part-time work in a florist to learn the trade. 

Despite having a plethora of unusual plants to photograph, Leon is less enthusiastic about posting images to “the grid” as much as using the Instagram Stories format to show behind-the-scenes videos, using Instagram Live for tutorials about how to  repot plants, or running special sale events on the platform. 

Leon is clear that demonstrating her love for the products and sharing the knowledge she has gained is what sparks engagement with the 35,000-plus followers she has amassed to date. 

“Sometimes I get a flurry of followers if an influencer has posted about us or if we posted an image that gets a lot of reshares, but I don’t tally up followers to our performance, because you could have 100,000 followers but only 10% of them buy from you – conversion rate into sales is most important. Engagement is also important, something that’s thought-provoking or a conversation starter is also just as important – it’s not always about the coin.” 

Top tip
“Start the Instagram page before you start the business so you can document the steps you took to get there. If you scroll back far enough on mine, you can see when I was painting the shop and when I built the greenhouse. There’s a lot of ‘process’ there rather than ‘Bam, here’s a lovely shop’.”

What not to do
“Do not rehash the same content over and over again. When you scroll on someone’s page and you see the same content come up six or seven times… If you posted it a year or two years ago and you want to throw back, that’s understandable, but reposting after a couple of months is a bit excessive.”

Hype

@justhypeofficial
Founded 2011
Names of founders Liam Green and Bav Samani
Number of Instagram followers 308,000

Having won a T-shirt-printing competition on Facebook in 2011, ex-high-street retail suppliers Liam Green and Bav Samani launched lifestyle clothing brand Hype as a counterpoint to the “lad culture” then dominating men’s fashion. From opening a shop in London in 2013, the duo’s floral clothing brand has grown to now operate from a 52,000-square-feet distribution centre in Leicester, been worn by Cara Delevingne and Tom Hardy and is sold in major retailers, such as John Lewis, Asos and Next.

While a visual medium such as Instagram provides an important shop window, it’s the communication with followers that best sums up how Hype uses the platform. Samani says: “Priding ourself on creativity is what we strive for. We’ve recently started using Instagram Reels to showcase new product and relaying that into everyday-life outfits.”

Green and Samani used to run all Hype’s social accounts themselves, but now employ a team of people who use the “brand DNA” to create campaigns, influencer activity and relatable content for Hype’s more than 300,000 followers. ”Our Instagram used to be pictures of what we got up to on a daily basis whatever that might entail,” Green says. “We were using influencers before we even knew what influencers were. We gifted product to people we thought fitted in with the brand values.”

Top tips
Green: “Don’t overthink it, be genuine and don’t go for the hard sale – build a community.” 

Samani: “Influencer and celebrity activations play a huge part in Hype’s Instagram success, [but] if no-one is wearing the brand and you have a million followers, where is the relevancy?”

What not to do
Green: “We don’t measure Hype’s Instagram success on followers and engagement as you never know what modification [Instagram will make to its engagement algorithm] next. We measure its success through insights, setting goals to ensure the numbers are improving each week.”

Sincerely Nude

@sincerelynude
Founded 2018
Name of founder Michelle Asare
Number of Instagram followers 15,700

Sincerely Nude was founded by London nurse Michelle Asare in 2018, and she continues to run the business in her spare time. Having noticed that existing offerings of nude clothing were “the same shade of beige”, Asare also discovered a wealth of accessories and make-up products were not serving a diversity of body colours. “So I decided to be that change that I wanted to see in the world,” she says. 

Having joined Instagram in 2012 with a personal account, Asare had spent years looking at how small and big businesses began to use the platform as a marketing tool. While using hashtags and paid Facebook ads have helped people discover Sincerely Nude, Asare is clear that setting up a business account has been crucial for enabling people to “tap and shop” for products. 

“We’ve worked with Instagrammers who do it as their full-time career to help reach more people. We can’t call up Rihanna and her stylist, but we can engage with a lot of people who support what we’re doing and Instagram is a great platform for that.”

Asare estimates that 70% of her customers are driven by Instagram traffic. 

Top tips
“Learn about Instagram and tips and tricks to use to help with your business. You should definitely start a business in something you’re interested in, because it can get tedious and you have to love the type of posts that you want to put out there and to not compare yourself with others. There will be brands that have been doing it for years and have amazing content – just stay true to yourself and make the content that your customers will just love, don’t try to compare or see yourself as ‘not doing flitzy glamorous’.”

What should you not do?
“Don’t buy followers. It’s the worst thing you can do. Especially if you have a brand that sells things. Even though it looks good to have 30,000 followers, those people are not real. They can’t buy anything from you, they won’t engage with your pictures, you won’t have the real people on your IG and, to be honest, it’s really obvious.”

The Body Coach

@thebodycoach
Founded 2014
Name of founder Joe Wicks
Number of Instagram followers 3.8 million

Joe Wicks’ meteoric rise to household-name status during the pandemic, thanks to his wildly popular YouTube videos, is just the latest chapter in a successful online fitness coaching career that was born and raised on social media. 

The Epsom-born 35-year-old is now a bestselling author and TV presenter and, this year, was awarded a Guinness World Record for “most viewers for a fitness workout live stream on YouTube”.

It all started on Instagram, Wicks tells Campaign. “Instagram is at the heart of my brand and joining the platform was a massive game-changer for me. The real turning point was when they launched video. I started posting 15-second video recipes (you could only share 15 seconds when video first launched) of healthy meals you could make in 15 minutes.”

The use of the hashtag #LeanIn15 proved to be the spark that propelled Wicks’ Instagram fame, helping @thebodycoach reach about 50,000 followers before he was offered a book deal. Lean in 15, published in 2015, has now sold more than three million copies.

Wicks then called in his older brother Nikki, a former journalist, to take charge of his social-media strategy. Nikki is now an integral part of The Body Coach as chief operating officer and creative director. Nikki has learned over the years that certain types of content work best on different platforms. “Instagram is a great place for food content, but longer-form workouts are much better living on YouTube,” he says. The brothers agree that Instagram remains the most important platform.

Top tip
Joe Wicks:  “I’ve never had a content calendar or a schedule. I post when I feel like sharing something. You need to be consistent and always try and share content that’s valuable. Never stop engaging with your audience.”

What not to do
Nikki Wicks: “Instagram is an incredible platform. But if you’re building a business, I would say to never focus purely on one platform. Focus on creating great content that has value and then figure out how to use that content across different platforms.”

This article first appeared on PRWeek sister title Campaign

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