We will be featuring blog posts from Conner Galway periodically. Conner is the Founder of Junction, a Digital Communications Company based in Vancouver with whom we partner. Here, he shares the story of a small business which successfully grew a substantial Instagram following and customer base without an advertising spend.
Getting started on social is hard. You’re literally posting to no one at first, and there are just so many good accounts out there, how do you break through? Throw in an algorithm and competitors with big ad budgets, and some people are starting to suggest that it’s not even worth starting new accounts now, that we’ve missed the boat.
Then there are the stories that offer a glimmer of hope. They effortlessly create, build huge communities with every post, and show up on Stories and blog posts all over the internet. Unless you’ve been on a digital detox all summer, you know that one of those hopeful examples right now is @HeyKokomo – that new vegan bowl shop in Chinatown with the pink roll-up door.
Kokomo seems to have appeared out of nowhere, exploding onto the scene and doing the impossible: They’ve grown their IG channel to 3,500+ well engaged followers, and earned mentions or regrams on just about every influential account in the city within their first few months of launching, with no spend on advertising, influencers, or large-scale PR.
How is that possible? Where so many other brands are following all of the best practices, posting daily, scheduling content, using the the right hashtags, etc., how did this little side-street shop get noticed and keep that attention? I happen to have a unique perspective on Kokomo, and it’s no accident that I’m writing about this particular success story here: The restaurant is just down the street from our office, the founder (Katie Ruddell) is a good friend, and she also happens to be one of the best people who you’d like to know.
It’s been pretty incredible watching her set her goals, find her real estate, take the leap from a great job to the uncertainty of business ownership, and now being the hottest lunch in town.
Clearly, my judgment when it comes to Katie’s business is clouded by my cheerleader-status, but it is objectively one of several social-success-stories that provide some serious insight for anyone looking to similarly build a brand, get the word out and develop an army of brand advocates out there telling your story for you.
My hope for this blog is that we’re a community of people who are actively engaged in creating outstanding digital experiences, communicating great stories and pushing our industry forward, so I believe that one of the best things that I can do to achieve those goals is to expose people doing great work and help to spread the lessons that they’ve learned along the way. Here are a few learned from Katie and her social-fuelled business: @HeyKokomo
It starts with the story
It all began outside of digital, with real people in real life. – Katie Ruddell
All “overnight social successes” seem to have two things in common: They were the product of a lot of groundwork, and their explosion onto the scene was the result of one compelling story being told by a lot of people.
It may be easy to write off the initial buzz as a brand that was in the right place at the right time, but consider the story: Katie started getting her community on board years before she launched, and her bandwagon grew as she, and her people, started telling others about her passion for tasty vegan options and the lengths that she was going to perfect those first recipes. She used her personal account to post while she sampled, tested, and especially while she shared her first experiments with friends.
The story was one of a girl with a dream who wasn’t content to simply open another lunch spot, but wanted to break the mould, creating a space for like-minded people to share in the results of all of her hard work. And of course it had to be summer-themed. When it was finally time for her to throw the door up for the first time, she had put in the legwork to have a base that couldn’t wait to share what she had to say. Kokomo is not alone. For a couple more examples of local brands with a great story to tell that helped to propel them out of the gates, check out:
Good people help, a lot
One thing that you’ll notice in the examples above, and is certainly true in the case of Kokomo, is that the founder is a magnetic person who other people want to help and support. Of course, you don’t have to be Richard Branson to gain some early traction, and none of the people above are. In fact, the founders: Katie, Keighty, and Steve/Mike are hands-down some of the nicest, smartest, most generous people who you’d ever be lucky enough to meet – and very different in their approaches.
The Postmark guys, for example, keep themselves almost entirely off of their own feeds, instead working in the background to build a dynamite community and bring talented people together.
Keighty from Tight Club, however, is very much the face of her brand. She offers real, unpolished looks behind the scenes with her Stories, and even her posts are about capturing the moment more so than making sure that the lighting and composition are perfect.
Their respective successes suggest that the law of attraction is a very real thing, even if only because it means that people can’t wait to tell their friends about you. So what’s the lesson? It’s not that you must be the nicest person on the block (although, that’s not the worst idea). It’s that people get on board with stories about people. We gravitate towards a founder’s struggle, or a mission to create something new in the world, or to bring people together towards a common goal. People’s stories are so much more interesting to us than brands are.
Channel selection: There’s just so much good stuff
I asked Katie how she picked Instagram to not only be her social media focus, but to be her primary communication channel for the entire business. She explained: “One of our core brand values is ‘human’, and stories are the perfect place to share this human, raw, real, unfiltered, not pretty, unrestricted side to Kokomo.
The feed is essentially our website. It’s where we curate and showcase our brand vibe/look and feel, where people who have just heard about us can get a feel for what we are all about. Our human side also shows up in our feed, but is also balanced with our other brand values: Brave, Warm, Free.” Instagram just matched what they are up to. For you it may be Pinterest, or Facebook, or YouTube, but one of the main reasons that social media has come so naturally to Kokomo is because Katie hasn’t concerned herself with the next shiny thing.
Sure, there are a lot of other channels out there with engagement opportunities, but what she’s set out to do is to create stories for her people and have a conversation. For her, that best takes place on Instagram, and she’s committed to it. It’s easy to look at the guys next door and see what they’ve been able to achieve on the channel-of-the-day, but real, sustainable community growth is about people first, and focusing on a primary channel makes it easy for those people to find you – at least in the early days.
Behind the Scenes
But what does all of that really look like on a day to day basis? Brands like Kokomo must spend hours planning out their next posts, right? Katie shared that, for her, inspiration is everywhere and that she’s spent the past couple of years absorbing as much knowledge, as many ideas and the best tactics that she possibly could to create something special for her own brand.
That’s allowed her to just create in the moment. “I don’t have anything scheduled or pre-created for social, so if we are so busy at Kokomo, I may be mid-series in an insta story and I won’t be able to finish the series because my attention is needed at the shop. When I finally get back to the story hours later, it is no longer relevant (ie. a food special). Whoops!”
I can share from having spent some time in the shop that social media is just a constant: Photo opportunities and stories to be told just happen as the day progresses, and there’s always someone there to capture it, whether it’s something as simple as a perfectly manicured CocoWhip, or Chef trying something new, or old friends coming by the shop.
This week, @katieruddell checked a goal off her list by opening the doors to her vegan restaurant, @heykokomo. Hints of her passions—from growing up in Singapore to her love for healthy, delicious food—are woven through every detail. Think: inspired smoothies, a colourful plant mural and plenty of power bowls. With the help of her chef, @marksingson, Katie’s goal was to create a healthy space that felt comfortable, approachable and like summer, 365 days a year. Safe to say—they’re right on the mark. (2/2) #foundin📍
It may just be that raw, unpolished realness that draws people in and cuts through a sea of perfectly-styled food photos. Most of all, her Instagram success has been the product of a lot of non-digital relationships: She met her now-chef on Instagram, she tested her menu by enrolling people she knew would give her real feedback, and is now reaping the benefits of the fact that people can’t wait to tell their friends, and the friends of their friends, about what she’s up to.
Want to hear more from Conner? Follow @Conner_G on Twitter and sign up here to receive his weekly emails.