It was another perfect day in Bermuda. Clear-blue water, pink sand beaches, and attendants delivering rum swizzles. My son, Reuben, just seven months old, equal parts enamored and frightened by the changing tide. And on either side of us, an influencer was getting her wings. One sprung up from her seat at the beachfront cafe to dig her thighs into pink sand as her lunch date snapped photos. The other balanced atop sharp coral, posing for her iPhone wielding friend on the sand below.
We’d arrived in Bermuda after a few days in Manhattan, which might be the epicenter of influencers. From the Lower East Side, to Little Italy and SOHO, we walked like tourists through an Instagram museum - the pink painted storefronts, the hashtagged murals, and the influencers, striking their best poses in triangle-shaped sunglasses and faux fur. As I pulled a pair of sponsored sunglasses out of my diaper bag, it hit me: I’m one of these people.
Even if my version is typically off-the-beaten path destinations across the world or at home in Bend, Oregon, I’m cut from the same cloth. I’m an influencer.
How did that happen?
I didn’t suddenly wake up to Insta-success. I started my account in late November 2017. My goal was to drive traffic to my blog, the creative outlet I needed because I was feeling stagnant at the time. Within two months, I’d hit 500 followers organically.
Two years later, I have 40k followers on Instagram - hundreds of likes, comments, and sponsorship opportunities. On an average day I have 500-600 likes on my posts, but it never feels like enough. I look at other accounts like mine, and they’re getting more. So what is going on?
Does Instagram hate me, many people with 40k followers wonder. My posts aren’t getting seen, we lament. Maybe it’s the algorithm that’s not showing my photo. Or maybe Instagram is acutely aware of all of the things we’ve done to grow that follower number in record time.
Maybe Instagram knows that shortly after I hit 500, I used the follow/unfollow method to grow to 10k followers in three months, and hit 20k six months after that. Taboo? Of course. Insta-success though, isn’t that what it’s all about? If followers were what I need to gain sponsorships, and if following gave them a chance to see my account and decide whether or not to follow back, then what’s the harm? The harm is that these followers haven’t found us on their own, they’re not invested in us or our content. This could be why so many influencers have lots of followers, but low engagement.
If I’m painting a bleak picture, it gets worse. I can count the people who truly engage with me - the community I’ve built - on not much more than two hands. Let’s just say if I wanted to stage a pretty picture with sprinkle-topped donuts, I could feed my real Instagram community with one big box. I should add that the ones I’d share my donuts with have become real friends. Smart, savvy women with a love for travel. One sent a handmade gift for my son’s nursery and another is pushing for a group trip to Disneyland with our babies in tow.
And yet, more and more new accounts on Instagram are reaching out to ask me how I grew so fast, and what’s my secret? Well, you can find it all in a Reddit thread, but probably not by enrolling in an Instagram growth course. I’m writing this post because I wanted to answer that question honestly and hold myself accountable. It’s a cautionary tale for those just dipping their toe in and it should help others who are already knee-deep rethink their growth tactics.
Here are five more things I did in the past that helped me grow to 40k followers on Instagram, and what I’ll be doing differently this year.
I sacrificed content in favor of trendy photos that often made no sense at all.
My writing, the whole reason I got started, took a backseat to my Instagram page. This past year, I wrote 10 blog posts and posted 92 photos on Instagram. I should have focused on my blog because that’s truly what I love to do, and on growing my blog subscribers, which hover under 100 today. But if you’re not actually writing blog posts, what’s the point of having subscribers?
On the other hand, I had 40,000 Instagram followers. But an Instagram follower is not the same as an email subscriber. Instagram followers have only subscribed to Instagram, and there’s a good chance my followers aren’t seeing my posts due to Instagram’s ever changing algorithm. Which is a nice way of saying Instagram knows that most of my followers probably aren't actually even interested in my content.
Instagram was supposed to drive traffic to my blog, except that Instagram is designed to keep users scrolling on the app. In order for an Instagram user to get to my blog, the user would need to find my post in their feed, read my caption down to where it says “link in bio,” then head to my profile page, and finally click the link. It’s a multi-step process and guess what? That means very few clicks through to my website.
I learned very quickly that with a fraction of the effort I put into Instagram, I could get more traffic from Facebook, and even more from Pinterest to my blog. And yet, the lure of becoming an influencer kept me glued to my phone in what little spare time I had as a new mom.
Instead of writing, I was busy on Instagram, comparing myself to others and finding inspiration from bigger accounts like mine, while my website sessions dipped because I wasn’t carving out time to write. I traded writing good content for snapping photos that were trending on Instagram.
Yes, that’s me with a beach blanket floating over my head circa winter 2017 on the tail end of this trend. Not pictured: all of the sand in my eyes. What I should’ve been doing instead: writing about our nightmare Hotel Tonight experience the evening prior, or a photo essay about the chickens we encountered in Kauai.
And oh yes, that’s me too. Sitting on a step with my feet jutting out to make the rest of me look smaller. That’s me covering one eye with a prop and making a kissy face. I’m a monster! I should’ve been writing a blog post about Bermuda, a truly amazing trip after some recent misses.
This year, I’m trying to write every day, even if it’s just a paragraph, which is a lot more than I’ve done in the last two years since joining Instagram. I have a backlog of travel experiences to write about including Barcelona, Valencia, New York City, Bermuda, and even Bend, Oregon, the gorgeous place I call home.
I’m also working on creating a legitimate community of mom travelers. This may take the shape of a website, a podcast, and yes, even an Instagram feature account to create a real community of moms who love to travel. I’m talking real conversations, real questions, real followers, real engagement. If you’re out there, drop a line or subscribe to my blog and I’ll keep you informed.
2. I spent a lot of money on massive giveaways to grow fast, instead of a little money on Instagram’s ad platform to actually target my niche.
I’m kicking myself now, but in the last 12 months, giveaways seemed like the best and fastest way to grow that follower number. I’ve probably grown 15k from giveaways in the past year. Why is growing so important? One brand paid me $800 to post two photos to my feed because I had 40k followers. Not to say that 40k is a magic number. It’s possible to start getting paid with 10k followers, and to get free products in exchange for posting with just a few thousand followers.
At my goal of 50k, I imagined that hotels would come knocking at my door offering penthouse suites and Dom Perignon welcome amenities, but then it hit me: I work for hotels, and very few of them have budget to stock their hotels with Dom Perignon, let alone marketing budget left over for influencers. Influencers who, thanks to the methods outlined above, aren’t as influential as they seem.
This year, I’m putting my money where my followers are likely to be: I plan to use Instagram’s ad platform to sponsor posts to my target audience (don’t worry, this blog post is not #sponsored by Instagram). I want to get my posts in front of new moms who plan travel for their families and are interested in the destinations I’ve visited or plan to visit. This is marketing 101, paying to get in front of the right audience, with the right message. Blanket or umbrella marketing to masses might create impressions and even grow follower count, but it’s not going to benefit engagement or performance. In fact, it will hurt those metrics overall.
I will also be pitching unsponsored travel stories to publications I admire. Getting a byline for a travel story has always been a dream, and this year, I’m carving out time to pursue it.
I will also leverage my growing blog and my Instagram account in its current state to seek out partnerships and develop campaigns related to travel, including sponsored trips to places I’ve always wanted to visit.
When it comes to giveaways, I will steer clear of dedicated giveaway accounts. There are too many unknowns.
How could I pay to participate in these giveaways whose accounts were vanishing after giving away what I now realize were likely fake prizes to fake winners? And didn’t that mean that many of the followers I was gaining, and the likes, were also probably fake, too? No wonder my engagement was getting worse as I grew from these giveaways.
3. I joined communities of other travel bloggers and comment pods.
In each group, we’d engage with each other’s posts with a like and a five-or-more word comment. But very few community members took the time to read my captions, whether they were short, long, funny, serious, you name it. I tried everything. This led me to believe that my captions weren’t important or good enough. The consensus among the communities commenting on each other’s posts was that less was more when it came to captions. There was also the belief that an amazing photo could go viral on it’s own. So, I became hyper-focused on my photos and captions became an afterthought.
This year, I’m thinking about the user experience. I’m thinking about the way I scroll through Instagram, and the way people who are similar to me probably scroll through Instagram. I read captions. Even though many don't, I do. So I’m getting back to quality caption writing. I’m no longer writing captions for my fellow travel bloggers to drop a five word comment on - I’m writing captions for my engaged audience. Maybe it’s one or two real comments today, and five or ten tomorrow. I’ve got to start somewhere.
In addition to reading captions, I also spend a lot of time watching Instagram Stories. They’re more engaging, more real, and there is something about a live, in-the-moment video that’s more in the spirit of Instagram than photos shot months prior and edited in Lightroom (I’m guilty). So this year, I’m serving more real Stories.
4. I sold my soul to the highest bidder. Well, almost.
Sponsored product posts are everywhere. Who knew so many millennials use watches to tell time? But there is something about that email or DM message, “You’re (insert compliment)! We think you’re a great fit for our (insert product). We can send it to you for free in exchange for a sponsored post,” especially when you’re working hard to grow that following. They found me, they like me, and they’re willing to send me stuff for free!
Influencer beware: is your time to shoot, edit, and share the product worth the cost of the product? What about your followers who probably aren’t following you to get product pitches? I always said I’d only do sponsored posts that really spoke to me, and that I’d only work for payment, not trade.
Fast forward to December 2018, when I completed a paid post for diapers (I do have a baby in diapers, and we travel with a lot of diapers these days), a diaper bag for trade that I had been coveting for years (fair enough), and a watch for trade (wait, what?). Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d done the exact opposite of what I was preaching in my captions that no one was reading: that experiences were much more valuable than things, and that the less I had, the happier I’d become. This is true by the way.
I didn’t need a watch. I can’t even wear a watch right now because I’m constantly holding my baby and it creates a bump under his butt. How could I sell a watch to other new moms who probably couldn’t use one either? So despite being on a roll with sponsorships and saying yes, yes, yes, I reached back out to the watch company and said no.
I’ve re-drawn the line in the sand. I’m turning my focus back to travel-related pitching and partnerships, which goes back to why I started my blog: to write about my travel experiences.
5. I compared my real life to other travel bloggers’ highlights reels, and tried desperately to keep up.
We all do it, and we all know comparison is the thief of joy. And yet we all still do it. We aspire to have their life instead of our own. We feel like our own life, house, marriage, baby, lifestyle, or travel itinerary, will never stack up. I look at other larger female travel accounts and wonder how I’ll ever get over to Bali and the Maldives, while smaller accounts are looking at mine wondering the same thing with a different beachy backdrop. We need to stop.
I’m going into this year acutely aware that I can’t paint a picture-perfect image of motherhood and carefree vacations with an infant. I’d love for my life to be worry free, care free, tear free, but it’s not. Knowing that others might think my life is perfect and in turn feel bad about their own life, doesn’t sit well with me. By the same token, I need to stop comparing myself to others.
My content is changing. By staying true to myself, my stories will become less inspiring and unattainable, and more relatable.
So How Does The Traveler’s Journey End?
Oh darling, it’s just beginning. I have many more stories to tell. I still choose destinations I’ve always wanted to visit, off-the-beaten path or at least the off season, like Sardinia, Tel Aviv, and the Canary Islands.
I’ve always kept it honest on my blog—with beautiful photos sure, but also true stories. Like 6 Things No One Told You About Sardinia, my favorite travel-related blog post from the past year.
I’ll also keep posting pictures of my son on our trips, because seeing the world through his eyes is how I muster up the courage to book another flight with him.
Finally, I’m finished growing on Instagram for a while. It’s time to refocus on telling my stories.
Did you enjoy this post, and would you like more behind-the-scenes details about what it’s really like being an influencer? Let me know in the comments below.
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