Matt Nelson rates dogs of all shapes and sizes across social media — and he’s built up a following of more than 7 million.
9 min read
In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Matt Nelson launched his future from an Applebee’s.
It was 2015, and Nelson, then a college freshman — majoring in “professional golf management,” no less — was with friends and in need of some fast-casual fare. He had been playing around with the idea of a new social media account, where he’d post photos of cute dogs (read: “good bois”) accompanied by witty captions and ratings. There at the table, Nelson posted a poll on his personal Twitter account to gauge people’s reaction, and he recalls an overwhelmingly positive response: 87 percent yes. Nelson snapped a photo of his friend’s dog inside the restaurant, and WeRateDogs was born.
Three days after Nelson launched the WeRateDogs Twitter account (@Dog__Rates), he was receiving too many dog photo submissions to keep track. He enlisted four friends to come by his dorm room and help him sort through Twitter messages to find the best furry prospects.
Now, about three-quarters of the brand’s traffic comes from its Twitter account (current follower count is 7.37 million), with most of the rest attributed to Instagram (close to 600,000 followers). WeRateDogs also has a website, Facebook account and Snapchat.
Entrepreneur spoke with Nelson — who estimates he’s rated about 2,500 dogs — about how he got his start, his typical day and how he writes his trademark captions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get your start?
I had a personal account on Twitter, and I found a community of writers that would try to make their audiences laugh in less than 140 characters. I accepted that challenge. Then, I realized dogs were a hot topic — pretty universally loved — and they definitely generated more “likes” than my jokes that didn’t involve dogs. That’s how I narrowed down my topic, and it was a medium I could use for my writing to reach more people. Obviously I couldn’t spend all this time doing what I do if I didn’t love dogs as well — I’ve always had a golden retriever, and I have one sitting at my feet right now.
My parents have always been super supportive of the account — it was only the first three days or so that they were like, “Matt, what are you doing?” Less than a month after I made the account, I was interviewed by New York magazine, so that was kind of a wake-up call that this was a big deal.
To what extent do you monetize the account?
I had no intentions of monetizing it until I noticed I was spending full-time hours looking through dog pictures. So it kind of made sense, and in order for me to continue spending so much time doing it, I had to find a way to monetize. Now, I make about five figures a month. We started with little stickers that were based on some of our more popular posts, after getting permission from the owners of the dog photos, and we sold them for about $4. It was our first step into those waters, and everyone was very supportive — eventually, our audience really embraced that form of supporting us, so we expanded it into a full ecommerce store.
Now, we sell sweaters, shirts, magazines and stickers, but none of them have much WeRateDogs branding. I’m wearing one of the “I miss my dog” sweaters right now. But the writing is obviously the most fun part for me, and I’ve delegated pretty much every other aspect of this business to someone else so I can focus on the creative core.
I’ve found a little bit of passion in merchandise because I’m passionate about making something and delivering it to an audience — and in some ways, merchandise is like that. Since our audience embraces that, it’s allowed me to be picky when it comes to sponsored posts. I don’t have to sell out for things I don’t believe in or that have nothing to do with dogs. We’ve worked with Disney and Cottonelle on some campaigns, and that opened the door for more of those in the future. But a partnership really has to be a perfect fit for me to pursue that route.
Take us through a typical day.
I live at home — I moved back in with my parents in Charleston, W.Va., just over a year ago, after dropping out of school and quitting my job to do this full time. My days are spent with my own dog here, which is good inspiration for my other Twitter account, @Dog_Feelings. Now, most of my days are spent working on the WeRateDogs 2020 calendar. My entire manuscript for the calendar is due in three weeks, and I’m very drained creatively because we usually post on social media about twice a day, but now I’m writing captions for 313 dogs in a short timespan. There’s a day-to-day tear-away calendar and a wall calendar.
There are three of us on the team, and the other two work remotely. I’ve never actually met one of them even though I’ve worked with him for about three years, which is crazy. One of them oversees the entire ecommerce side — from design to customer service. I would be horrible at customer service because I’m bad at technology in general. Another individual goes through the submissions and condenses them from thousands a day to about 20 or 30 in text messages to me, and then I go through and pick the best ones. We probably get about 800 to 1,000 submissions a day in our Twitter direct messages, and on Instagram probably 100 to 200 messages — and the same amount of photo tags. It’s a good system.
What’s your content strategy?
Everything goes on Twitter first, and it appears on Instagram definitely within the week — maybe even the next day. On Twitter, generally, we do two posts a day — one around noon and one around 8 p.m. If we have enough content, we’ll post twice on Instagram per day, but lately it’s been just one post around 2 p.m. There’s not much emphasis on when posts go out because I don’t have to post at a certain time for my audience to see something. They’re passionate and often make sure they like every single post.
My caption format is consistent. It’s a formulaic style. The reason I fell in love with Twitter in the first place was that immediate gratification of a joke hitting or missing. So there was a lot of pressure, and I had to figure out what works. Through engagement I saw that people liked the dog’s name coming first, then the caption and the rating at the end — that was the ticket. The formula allows me to keep the captions fresh without being super repetitive.
What’s your advice for others looking to build a brand on the platform?
To be original, but that’s so hard to do. I mean, dog pictures aren’t original, and rating things is not original, but somehow the combination — with my voice — has turned into something original. Another reason the account has been successful is that there’s so much of me and my personality involved. It’s easier to see on Twitter because I interact and engage with the audience much more there, but even when I respond to the comments on Instagram, it’s clear that there’s a human being on the other side — and recently I’ve been doing a lot more on our story. There, you can easily identify my characteristics. I cheated because I’m using dogs, but a little bit of humor — and injecting a little bit of wholesomeness — is a good combination. Regarding advice, I would say to inject a lot of yourself into it, and people can see the genuine nature of that and will be more attracted to what you’re doing.
See below for five of Nelson’s favorite posts.
“Bill was actually up for adoption when we posted this. He received over 100 applications.”
“I just really love Argos.”
“This is a caption format I’ve used since day one, and everyone still really enjoys it.”
“Big animals next to small animals will always thrive on the internet.”
“Just because I’ve personally watched this thousands of times.”