My relationship with social media makes me feel as though I’ve failed as a millennial. On the best days, it’s like-hate.
In 2019, it was all too much to keep up with, usually at the cost of time spent more productively or meaningfully. So, I took a hiatus as a New Year’s resolution in which I froze my personal and business accounts.
After a year and some change, it was obvious I needed to return to Facebook and Instagram to properly run my new business, Apply U. As a tech startup aiming to help high school students, Apply U needs a strong social media presence that caters to a young target audience. Alas, my strategy for marketing via ESP had some limitations.
Now six months in, the return to social media has been inglorious. The vast majority of my Likes still come from loyal friends and family — not my target demographic.
Despite coming of age during the internet boom, I’ve admittedly lacked the innate knowledge to produce a revenue stream through social media, or even to build a significant following.
I found myself wondering, “What mistakes am I making?” “How do people do this?” and importantly, “Do I have to make overtly narcissistic posts to gain traction?”
In search of answers, I asked four Tulsans who have thrived on various social media platforms: two whose Instagram followings have reached the 20,000 mark, one with more than a million YouTube subscribers and one with 6.5 million monthly viewers on Pinterest.
Some have embraced the identity of “influencer”; for others, the term is oil to their water. Still, with respect to social media marketing, all four are lightyears ahead of most business owners.
Their motives, approaches and journeys differ wildly.
For influencers, income generation can be active or passive, direct or indirect, or altogether nonexistent.
Women’s fashion blogger Amy Ann Arnold makes money on social media. She does this in three ways: driving traffic to her blog with relevant posts, which generates income through pageviews and ads; making a commission on sales using a unique link generated through her affiliate network; and through direct brand collaborations. “I feel blessed in the truest sense of the word that I am able to do this for my job,” Arnold says.
For Ryan Fitzgibbon, a creative consultant and entrepreneur who came to town via Tulsa Remote one year ago, “social media was just how I got the word out about my work, so I haven’t considered it as a driving revenue stream.” However, Instagram has been the source of many collaborations. “It’s nearly impossible to quantify the return on that,” Fitzgibbon says.
Photographer Tony Li uses social media platforms for inspiration, networking and to experiment with directions to take his photography and creative work: “It’s helped me get a gauge of what niches to get into.” As with Fitzgibbon, Li has used Instagram to make connections that could lead to business opportunities. He advises businesses to target audiences by partnering with other accounts that have similar interests and demographics and to create engaging content that fits their brand and sparks conversation.
Author and podcaster Brett McKay is mainly focused on publishing content on his website, in which he and his team are prolific. “Social media is just for sharing that content,” McKay says. For businesses like his, social media is but one aspect of a robust business model.
Nevertheless, some common themes about their use of social media should resonate for any business:
Whereas I have been throwing spaghetti at the wall for a span of several months, feeling exasperated by the futile slog of it all, followings like theirs usually take several years. Terribly impatient business owners like me might ask, “Are there shortcuts?”
Save the occasional TikTok-fueled, Gen Z sensation, the short answer is: no.
Arnold’s growth has been “slow and steady” since she began five years ago.
McKay’s website has been around since 2008. “Time, plus having a website that gets millions of page views a month, can allow you to grow large social media followings,” he says.
Fitzgibbon joined Instagram 10 years ago. His social media momentum has been building for nearly as long as the platform has been around.
The business account Fitzgibbon created as the founder of Hello Mr. magazine (@hellomr on Instagram) was featured on Instagram’s curated list in 2014, which led to an exponential increase in followers. “The residual effect rubbed off on my personal account, and the rest is history,” he says. A boon such as that would be much harder to recreate nowadays.
Similarly, McKay’s large following comes from being around a lot longer and having less competition in the early days, he says, adding that his social media efforts started about a decade ago, as well. Relevant content is a must, too.
“What worked for me 8-10 years ago probably won’t work for people just starting out,” McKay says. Besides an increase in competition, he points to the fact that platforms which boosted his numbers in the early days are now obsolete, and the ones still around have changed their algorithms.
Arnold’s blog has high referral traffic from Pinterest but hasn’t yet found a catch-all trick for Instagram. “I wish I had some secret or best practice that always worked, but the truth is I don’t,” Arnold says.
Since there is no silver bullet, McKay advises businesses to keep adapting and not to become dependent on any one platform. “Experiment. Don’t be afraid to try new things or drop things if they no longer provide enough ROI (return on investment) for you,” he says. “And accept that ultimately, you don’t have much control over this stuff. Focus on what you do have control over.”
One element McKay can control is the frequency of his posts. On Instagram, he posts about once a week. It’s about “brand awareness,” which he calls “a fuzzy metric” because it’s hard to determine the value brand awareness provides with concrete numbers.
Arnold says the foci for any new account should be consistency, authenticity and to have a theme.
I latched onto this, as the frequency of posts on my own business account resembles that of a pinball machine. “I’d aim to post a couple times a week at least so your posts are getting seen regularly enough to remind people why they want to check out your website (or whatever your goal is),” Arnold says.
As an influencer, Arnold posts much more often. “You are expected to have some type of content on your Instagram story each day.”
Arnold is “on and off Instagram throughout the day posting stories and responding to DMs (direct messages).” Especially while also trying to parent a young child and a newborn during a pandemic, this can be a juggle. “I try pretty hard not to be constantly on my phone when I am with the girls, so I usually do this during naps/rest time,” she says.
McKay emphasized perspective. “My advice is to not sweat too much about social media,” he says. “Don’t ignore it. It’s a great marketing tool, but don’t let it consume you.”
Perhaps one way to strike an equilibrium is to see social media as an opportunity for multifaceted return on investment. Aside from revenue, there can be other perks.
Li says he has made some incredible friendships with many people and businesses. Arnold has connected with a lot of like-minded women in her niche, which she says has been personally fulfilling and helpful for growth.
Refreshingly, the themes of openness and authenticity shine throughout these social media accounts.
Arnold describes the pain of her struggle with infertility. McKay puts forth his vision for redefining what it means to be a man in the modern world. Li talks about his darkest mental health challenges. Fitzgibbon has been increasingly activist-oriented, making posts about politics and social justice.
It seems I don’t have to follow any one prescription to gain a following. The revelation is, I don’t have to hate social media.
Fitzgibbon encourages business owners like me to jump in. “Give yourself permission to break your own mold and have more fun with it,” he says.
That, I can do.
Amy Ann Arnold
Women’s fashion blogger who also shares about parenthood
42.4K followers | 2,315 posts
Pinterest: 51.8K followers
10 million monthly views
Facebook: 3,029 Likes/followers
Twitter: 989 followers
Personal account of the creative consultant and entrepreneur, peppered with a little bit of everything
22.6K followers | 379 posts
Author, podcaster and publisher of men’s interest web magazine
Art of Manliness
203K followers | 1,235 posts
YouTube: 1.2 million subscribers
Facebook: a little over 1 million
Twitter: 167.1K followers
Photographer specializing in the creative industries
21.5K followers | 1,082 posts
Facebook: 894 Likes/followers