“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”
― Sun Tzu,
I've been wanting to write this post for awhile now. Since I first downloaded Instagram in 2011, I was engulfed with the thought of sharing tidbits of my life if only with myself, as back then, I didn't have any followers. The creative person in me was excited at the thought of editing and writing thought-provoking captions. Flash forward several years when I was living in Calabasas, California, I fell into a dark place, which, little did I know would be the first of many. Surprisingly, Instagram led me to an outlet which proved to be a positive thing that really helped my state of mind.
# 1 0 0 H a p p y D a y s
I found this challenge on Instagram called "#100HappyDays" and/or "#100DaysofHappiness". My goal was to find one thing in each day that brought me happiness and post that thing on Instagram. I thought it'd be a piece of cake, but as the days lingered, I realized that there were only so many wine pictures I could post before looking like an alcoholic (I don't say that lightly). Soon enough, I began to realize that I needed to search deep within to find the things that truly brought even the slightest of happiness to my day. I remember that there was one particular day that was gut wrenchingly difficult. I had been working a 20 hour babysitting shift over the course of a Saturday and Sunday and my back was in serious pain (I'll get into that later). I had to work overtime which didn't allow me the opportunity to catch my Sunday night sunset which I tried to catch at least once a week as a mind remedy. The gas station was sold out of alcohol, and all of the elements of life had caught up to me in a discombobulated mess. My mind had no control over its thoughts; I was a college dropout babysitter in debt with no prospects for a career or desire to want kids or marriage. At that point, I realized while maybe I had a purpose, I did not have a will to live. I wanted my life to end right then and there. Sharing those times of darkness on my platform which again, at the time had only a few followers, made me feel good for some reason. I was forced to be open and transparent about my struggles, instead of keeping them in. And in turn, my few friends were very supportive.
I learned to cultivate experiences that would make me happy while using as little money as possible, since I was a full time babysitter making low income (even qualifying for food stamps). For this challenge, in search of happiness, I had to find ways to satisfy that hunger despite my income. First began the little things; like starting to take care of myself by investing in my health, buying vitamins, using the local pool to go for daily swims, and whipping out the old Bianchi passed down from my mom passed down from her friend, so that I could go for rides. I bought books in hopes that they'd guide me in the right direction for my career. I then registered for the California Coast Classic, where I was to raise funds to bike from San Francisco to LA to raise awareness for Arthritis. The cause hit home for me, as several years prior I had been told by doctors via an MRI scan that I had a degenerative disk in my lower back. My dad had to get a hip replacement, so did my aunt and so did my grandpa. Arthritis runs in the family and it was only a mater of time until it became debilitating enough for me to not compete in distance races. Sadly, I was not able to raise the funds, and I also was experiencing excruciating back pain riding long distances whilst training. This led to my inevitable failure in participating in the event. I also registered for an Olympic Ironman race in Boulder, CO, which I also never competed in. Flash forward four years later, registering for IM Boulder, resulting in the same downfall.
I took a solo camping trip to the Sequoias, then Tahoe, then I looked into getting my Private Pilots license and I began taking trips to Santa Barbara to fly with my friend who had his PPL. I registered for Krav Maga, took up surfing, took advantage of cheap Groupon deals like sailing, that got me outside and with friends. I started to enjoy the little things in life life fresh goats milk, baking, and playing my brothers guitar. I started getting back into triathlon training and found the beauty in giving to others. I bought my boss and her husband my favorite bottle of cabernet that I had only tasted once at my previous boss's parents house while I was nannying for them one weekend in the Hamptons. The bottle was a 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet, which put me back roughly $100 dollars, nearly a paycheck at the time. But it felt good to give a gift to the people who believed in me enough to provide me with a job.
Sometimes, even though I wanted meet new friends and hang out with old, I found it to be too financially taxing. At one point I traveled to Santa Barbara to see my friends Kalon and Serena. We would all go out to eat and they'd bring their friends. It was fun, but when it came to the bill, they honored the policy of splitting the bill between everyone, which really worried me. I always tried to order the cheapest thing on the menu, knowing that I could barely afford it but I knew that the social interaction with my friends was worth the sacrifice. I thought it'd be too embarrassing to tell them that I couldn't afford to split the entire bill among us all, and that I'd be paying way more than my expected budget for my one meal (sometimes, I wouldn't even eat), so I didn't say anything. But because of this, I wasn't able to hang out with them anymore, simply because I couldn't afford to, and was too embarrassed to admit it. There were lows of this
experiment, but there were also highs.
The most important one being that I had quit my job, and began planning what would later be, Expedition 196.
W h e r e D o e s D e c e p t i o n C o m e I n ?
Six months prior to the finish of my Expedition, the media picked up on my record attempt, and my story went viral. Suddenly, I went from the 9,000 followers I'd accumulated between 2011 and 2016 (mainly from my international travels), to over 350,000 followers almost overnight. I remember waking up one morning during a break on my Expedition (Guinness Records allows breaks no longer than 14 days during the attempt where essentially the clock was paused but those days added to your overall finish time), and looking at my phone. I had hundreds and hundreds of notifications and comments. When I opened my Instagram, I had accumulated a substantial audience who was interested in what I was doing with my life. It was so bizarre, exciting, and scary all at the same time. I didn't know what to do with myself, and I felt this sense of responsibility rush over me. Suddenly, 350,000+ people were looking at my every move. I decided that gone were the days of cursing in my captions or posting photos of me drinking wine in the bath. I thought that if there were young girls watching me, I wanted to be a positive and professional role model to them. Suddenly, within a matter of a month as my Instagram continued to grow, I started to put more time and effort into my posts and captions. I still posted what I wanted to and at the time, didn't care what anyone thought of me if I posted a picture of my cat, a landscape or myself. A major wake up call was when I posted a picture of me in Lahore, Pakistan that a photographer friend I'd met there had taken of me. To this day, that photo is the most liked photo of all on my Instagram, with 19,000+ likes.
While I don't know whether it was the caption or the photo itself that garnered so much attention, I took it as a wake up call. Either people liked my deep and profound captions, or they liked pictures of me, or both. So I began to shift my attention away from culture and nature photography, or, being behind the camera, to instead taking center stage. The point of this shift wasn't necessarily to garner more "likes", but I began to realize the business of Instagram, and the positive impact I could have depending on how I position a photograph or author a caption. Instagram became a form of escapism and art, and a way that I could finally be heard. This, made me very grateful.
Contrary to what most people might have thought, I made zero dollars off of Instagram at the time, and I was completely naive towards the business aspect of it. It wasn't until I started getting approached by big companies to promote their products, hotels, and services, in exchange for money, that I began to take this more seriously. Immediately, I turned them down in fear that my genuine account would suddenly become an advertisement and I'd lose my profound and engaging audience who listened carefully to my words of truth. After signing with ICM as well as a schlep of other agencies, production companies, etc., I was informed that I could make a decent income from my account, and to start taking branding deals. I reluctantly agreed, knowing that I was in debt and without a job after the immediate completion of my 196 country, financially taxing, Expedition. But as soon as I posted ads, though still using my own voice and photography, I began to lose my audience, and we're not talking ten or twenty, but thousands. People began to see me as being unauthentic, and I don't blame them. No matter how hard I tried to continue to share my wealth of knowledge in travel and fitness for free on my account through posts and stories, it never really did make up for those rare ad posts that seemed to push them away. Despite the several ads I did post (which hardly made any money either, even more disappointing), they stirred up quite the controversy, and I was left with the decision to either not post ads and continue to be an authentic account, or to shift my account to that of a business one, while still keeping its authenticity in tact as best as possible.
I went with the latter, knowing that I would never be able to gain back the love for those who chose to leave me, so to speak, and I am never going to be able to please everyone. I also needed to pay rent and pay back my debt, still, from college. I tried to develop a happy medium whereby yes, my photos would be more carefully curated but I would still offer the same, genuine and deep captions and stories that I always had. I tried to make my audience understand the business of Instagram, and that I was never in it for wealth and money, but rather, if only to be able to pay my rent and debt, but still, the message was hardly received. At one point, I decided to let go and whoever saw the true me would stay, whilst the others who saw what they wanted to see, left.
At least several hours goes into each post for Instagram; from picture taking to editing to caption curation; finding the perfect quote to fit my mood, to geotagging and tagging, and I pride myself in this art show that I've been able to display to either inspire, uplift, educate, or make someone's day. The great majority of the individuals who take part in my life via Instagram, are incredibly supportive and understanding of both who I am and the business of it all, and it's their support that keeps me posting. But of course, it's the selective few that can really bring down my day. Oftentimes it takes a mental reality check for me to realize why I continue with the app and social media in general when I could easily be selfish and delete it all, something I've greatly considered on many occasions. But I keep being brought back to that picture in Pakistan with the powerful caption that confirms the potential positive impact I have on our world. The power to help others and to positively enhance their point of view on certain topics that I'm passionate about most. And most importantly, to educate them on the power of responsible travel.
C O M P E T I T I O N
Social media and Instagram specifically, can be a pretty competitive place, with brands hiring only those who are able to accumulate the highest engagement, followers and views. Oftentimes for us women, this means bikini shots involving busting breasts and behinds on the forefront. I've always tried to steer clear of this, mainly because believe it or not, I'm pretty conservative, even knowing that it would garner more attention and therefore, more income. I always see women who have generated millions of followers, but their photos show so much of their bodies in a sexual way. While I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it certainly has me thinking about my photos. Just last week on rare occasion, I decided to let my guard down and post my first distinguishable bikini "booty post". It has been one of the highest "liked" posts on my account all year. While it's still not too cheeky, it makes me wonder whether I should continue, if this is how I'm able to get my words across to whomever is listening or in this case, watching.
In the past year, I've had the opportunity of speaking to a handful of well-known influencers; some with the same amount of followers as I, and some with millions. I can't begin to tell you how disappointing this world is in real life. It doesn't matter how many influencer events I attend, they're all the same curated events with individuals who are reluctant to sharing their "instagram secrets to success". It's very disheartening to feel like I live in such a materialistic world, but here I am, part of it. Instagram is a fairly new platform, and there is so much for a novice Instagrammer to know. Since you likely won't find this information on any other Influencers blog (unless you have to pay up), I'll share my top tips here with you for free. This is a wonderful platform that offers so much opportunity for those who are willing to commit themselves and be consistent. But knowledge is also key, so how are you going to learn if no one shares these things with you?
M Y T I P S
Q. How do you get followers?
- Take quality photos and be consistent with them for a good year at least. Develop a visually appealing account by using presets and establishing a "theme" or color scheme to attract attention. You want your account to look clean, professional, captivating and better yet you want your captions to be engaging. Put a solid year of work into your account, develop a website, get your other social media accounts going, and use it as a primary platform for your business or hobby. Make it your brand, and make it your voice.
- Get in the media. Set yourself apart from others in your industry, and get a press release out. Big name media mentions is how I was able to garner attention to my IG account. But no amount of media will attract people to your account unless you have something good to offer in the form of photography, video or captions.
- Go on podcasts and get some mentions on blogs. Being mentioned on blogs never helped me, but it is a good start if they have a large audience. Podcasts with major audiences do help in my personal experience.
Q. How do you get verified?
- Hire a publicist. PR Agencies can accelerate the process so long (as far as I know), as your Facebook account is connected to your Instagram account and your FB account is already verified. Mine was verified years ago, and I thought my connected IG account would go hand in hand, but it didn't. Do not be tempted by people who approach you to do it for you for $200 or even $10k dollars. Trust a publicist, not a strange person online.
Q. How do you make money on Instagram? Do they approach you or vice versa?
- I didn't make a dime or even attempt to until I made an outright effort to accept deals to be proactive about obtaining them. I don't know if it matters to have 5k followers or 5 million. Engagement is key, and that's what companies look for. If you have 100,000 followers and only 5 people are liking your photos, that's a bad sign. I forget the percentage but you can Google this one. Engagement percent is important. But securing Instagram deals is like securing sponsorship, in my opinion. In the beginning, it takes a lot of output, proving to them that their business will benefit in exchange for money or free product. How will you be able to benefit them? If it's only via your Instagram audience, you might want to think again. What else are you doing in life that they could benefit from? A book release? A documentary? A press release for something? Go beyond Instagram and really provide them an analysis and past examples of what you've been able to produce. This is done through a Media Kit. If you go to www.canva.com, you will find tons of Media Kit templates. Plug your numbers in there, and send that off to potential brands. Send clear and concise e-mails and DM's (which include your e-mail), and follow up, follow up, follow up!
Hope those three tips helped. While I have many more that I want to share with you, I've spent the past five hours writing this blog and need to go train for my Ironman. I'll make an effort in adding more in another post. Until then, have an amazing day!