In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
It’s June 28, 2017: Jessica Hirsch’s last day of school. She’s spent the last seven years as a full-time math teacher.
As a teenager, she thought teaching was her calling. (Her mom is also a teacher.) While she says she’s loved the job, when she started her career, she never could have imagined the other passion she would develop — Instagram and its ecosystem of influencers didn’t exist back then.
Then about two and a half years ago, she started posting food pictures on a personal Instagram account. As she consumed more indulgent meals and treats and posted images of them, the foodie Instagrammer lifestyle began to consume her. She found herself working on her account during any free moment she could find during the school day, then spending all evening on it once she got home.
Today, Hirsch has 351,000 followers on her main account, @cheatdayeats, and more than 7,700 on another, @yourroomservice, which showcases luxury travel experiences. She also has a blog as well as Facebook and YouTube accounts, but Instagram is where she built her brand and is the platform she remains focused on. Brands she’s worked with include Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt, Kellogg’s, American Express, Delta Airlines, Uber, Samsung, Oreo, Godiva and more. She recently became the first food photographer on a team of about 80 Sony camera brand ambassadors.
“Every day, I look forward to it. I’m excited about it. It’s never like I’m ‘having a bad day at work,’” Hirsch says. “I don’t even realize that I’m working, but I’m constantly working.”
Entrepreneur caught up with Hirsch, who shared tips for Instagram success, common misconceptions about sponsorships and how she’s evolving her brand.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
I had always been weirdly the person of my friends who took pictures of their food and was obsessed with where they were going next, and no one really related to me. So when I saw that there was this whole world who did the same thing, I was like, wow, I need to be a part of this. I remember the first year was pretty slow, and then once I hit 10,000 followers, it shot up to 100,000 within a few months. I was just showcasing who I was, and I found that people really related to it.
My first paid post was like, “OK, wow, this is something interesting. I’m getting paid for something I probably would’ve done for free.” I didn’t realize the potential and the worth my brand had. Then, the first time that a brand that was outside of the food world approached me, I realized a different level of my audience, and how much a brand could reach through getting featured on my feed.
The world that I’m really focusing on right now is travel. The press trips since September have been nonstop. When I was invited to my first press trip and I was on it, I was like, “I’m in Bermuda right now and seeing this water and having this experience, all because of Instagram.”
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
Instagram is my main focus. I do have Facebook. I just usually send posts over to Facebook. And I have Twitter also, but I feel like Twitter’s not really relatable to what my feed represents, because my feed is very visual. I do have a blog, and in the last few months, I’ve been focusing on it more. When I’m 100 percent, I’ll be pushing people towards that, too.
I am really interested in developing my YouTube channel, for which I’m also creating a lot of videos currently. So once I get that basis on there, that’s something that I’ll be focusing on also. I’ve been approached by a lot of people in television, and I just want to have the content up there for reference.
3. What makes Instagram a better platform than other social media?
Instagram basically has it all, now that it has taken over a lot of the aspects that Snapchat has. You could see my story, you could see my entire feed, you could see my one post. It’s well-rounded. It’s really visual, it’s a good place to tell a story, and the audience will get a full experience with the person that they are watching. I think Facebook is visual still, but it doesn’t have that storytelling aspect to it as much as Instagram does. If I’m posting a video on the Cheat Day Eats Facebook page, it kind of stands alone. It’s not part of the whole entire feed, like in an Instagram Story.
4. How much of your time do you devote to it?
Any time I had free time at work, I was spending it on it. So probably an hour during school and from like 3 to 10 p.m. each weekday. There’s typically an event every night. On the weekend I would say literally, that’s all I do. I go to brunch, which might not seem like work, but I’m photographing from brunch, and I’ll go to a few places during the weekend, so I can get a lot of good light. I go to two to four places. They might not all be sit-down restaurants. They might be more of like a grab-and-go or a bakery, and I’ll take some stuff home. And then, I’ll probably edit for the rest of the night. I use Photoshop. I also use Snapseed on my phone.
5. How do you promote your account? What’s your number-one way to gain followers?
Tagging the right people. For example, if I post something that I think would attract attention of let’s say, Food and Wine (@foodandwine), because it’s a beautiful shot, and hope that they would regram me, and they have a couple million followers, then reposts are going to help build and attract new followers. I’ve seen accounts who don’t tag, and I’ve noticed that their growth is actually a lot slower. It’s an annoying thing to do, but I think it’s worth it. Plus, sometimes people might look to see who’s been tagging @foodandwine. So it’s kind of like a search engine.
Hashtags are a good way, also, for a search engine, although I’ve been hearing lately that they could not be helpful, because a lot of them have been banned or something. So there’s a lot of back and forth about that.
6. How do you engage with others on the platform?
I read all my comments and I try to respond to them, even with just a little smiley. Now Instagram allows likes on comments, and that’s a great way to let people know that I see what they’re saying. I want to make sure that my audience knows that I’m interested in what I think about the photo or if they want to know more, I’m always happy to answer it.
People DM me, or direct message me, all the time. Sometimes they ask me about my recommendations, or what I thought of a dish, or, if they’re coming to New York, I have a lot of people who are always saying, “What’s your favorite place?” or “Where should I go in New York?” So I actually read all of my direct messages also.
In terms of engaging with my peers, the food community is pretty small. It’s a big community in New York City, but I’ve met so many different people in different worlds. I love meeting different people and seeing how they work and what they do. Some of them have already worked with a lot of brands, so I like seeing how they’ve done it and what has worked, how I could apply that to my brand, too.
7. How often do you post?
I typically post two to four times per day. Usually three, but if I’m traveling, sometimes it might be a little harder, if I can’t get Wi-Fi. I try to post during the high-volume times. Saturday mornings are usually good, and then maybe Saturday night. Sunday is kind of a busy day, so I’ll post maybe four times, because I know a lot of people are on the platform then and they’re going to see it.
It’s really interesting to post and see what does well when. I see Instagram Insights through a business profile. You have to connect it to Facebook, so not everybody has it. Insights tell you so many things. They tell you engagement, how many likes and comments, who’s following you from what cities and so on. It’s really helpful information. Working with brands, they want to make sure they’re targeting the right audience, so that’s a really helpful tool.
8. What’s your content strategy?
My content strategy is trying to execute a photo or video that really showcases an experience. Showcasing who I am and what the food is, and maybe where I am and when. Every photo that I post is a little different depending on what it is and where I am, and obviously I don’t want it to get dull, so my content strategy differs based off of that information.
As my brand has evolved, my content strategy has changed dramatically. Originally, I was posting straight up food porn, like chocolate dripping, and of course I still do that, because I still love it. That’s who I am. But today, I try to incorporate a lot of lifestyle photos and pictures of me and have my personality really shine through on my feed. So it’s kind of a mix.
9. How has your content strategy evolved as Instagram has added features?
I always try to incorporate any of the new features that they have. With Instagram Stories, I was so happy, because I was on Snapchat and on Instagram, back and forth, and now this one platform has everything. I probably took 1,000 photos the weekend I was in Toronto alone, and I’m not going to post them all on Instagram, so I can put a bunch of them on Instagram Stories, kind of like a “best of.” On this past trip, I tried to incorporate videos as I went through each day. I originally started with a focus of food videos, and now I’m kind of taking a step back, and I constantly am taking videos of myself.
10. What’s your best storytelling trick?
Obviously a photo tells a story, but a video gets more in depth, and it really gets the audience involved and lets them see a little bit more to what I’m doing. I love to post how-tos, or show how a dish is made. I think it gets people much more interested in the video than if it was, let’s say, just a cheese bowl. The more of the experience that people are able to have themselves, the more traction it’s gonna get. I try to do it as much as possible, but it’s hard to get into the kitchen sometimes.
11. How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
I think @cheatdayeats is really relatable. I find that I get audiences from all over the world and all different types of people. It’s because, at the end, everybody loves food, and I think everybody loves to have an indulgence. It’s kind of like a combination of luxury and indulgence, and I think people really love to see that.
There are other people who have 350,000 followers, and, at the end of the day, are they paying attention? Are they engaging? And my audience is. And I think that’s because I’m engaging back with them and I’m paying attention to what they want to see.
12. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
Every partnership’s a little bit different, but what’s important to me, at the end of the day, is that I’m working with brands and destinations and products that I love. I’ve learned, and I’ve spoken to many people who have said this also, that the money’s not worth it if it’s not gonna be part of who you are and what your brand represents, because you’re going to lose people in the end.
I’ve worked with a few different airlines, a few different destinations, credit cards, food brands, restaurants. When opportunities come to me, it’s very humbling, and I’m very grateful. I think they see something in me, and obviously they see I have a large audience, and I think that they see that my audience is paying attention.
13. What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands on the platform?
Be true to who you are. Post things that you love and that you want to share, because if you’re just posting things that you think are going to do well that don’t relate to you, no one’s gonna relate to them.
And networking: I’m constantly trying to meet people, and work with different influencers, different brands. That doesn’t happen out of nowhere. I’m constantly trying to network at different events and go out and meet new people, because you never know where it’s gonna lead.
14. What’s a misconception many people have about Instagram?
That a sponsored post is just someone getting paid and that it doesn’t relate to who they are. A lot of people have that negative connotation with “sponsored” and “ad.” I had posted recently, about Oreo, and it wasn’t an ad, it was just a post about Oreo. I’ve posted for Oreo a bunch, but I’ve also posted about Oreo a bunch where it hasn’t been an ad. But someone was like, “Oh, I thought this was an ad. Good thing it’s not.” And I was like, “Why wouldn’t I want to work with Oreo? I love them!” I’m not going to not post Oreos unless it’s a paid one.
So I think the most important thing is helping the audience and the followers realize that an ad and a sponsored post is the way that I’m going to be making my living, I’m staying true to who I am, the brands that I want to work with are the brands that I actually love and I’m sharing them because I think that people would love them, too. That’s the bottom line. I think eventually, that’s gonna be more accepted. I think the negative part will go away once people realize that, the people who they’re following, if they trust them, that is the case. Obviously, some people are gonna just take any opportunity. I want them to realize that’s not who I am.