It all began on July 16, 2010, when Kevin Systrom uploaded a picture of his dog to a photo sharing app that he had been developing. Fast forward eight and a half years, and that app, now known as Instagram, has amassed more than 1 billion users and has become a power to be reckoned with in the world of social media.
Co-founded by Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram was launched for iOS in October 2010, featuring retro looking square photographs and easy to use filters. It quickly became the number one free photo app, with users also enjoying the opportunity to like and comment on friends’ pictures. Ironically, Systrom and Krieger had originally planned a check-in app called Burbn, but they changed direction after realizing that the concept was already in use by Foursquare, focusing instead on photography.
By 2012 Android users were able to join the Insta-party. Facebook acquired the company in 2015 for $1 billion. The upgrades continued to flow fast and furious, with a web version debuting in 2016 and new features, including messaging and stories, giving Instagram an even wider appeal. As the app’s popularity continued to grow, it became fertile business ground, with many jumping on the bandwagon and using Instagram as a springboard to launch their fledgling businesses or brands. The Jewish community is no exception, and while many have hopped on board the Instagram express, some have been blessed with tremendous success, achieving fabulous results by working long hours and using plenty of creativity to leverage the platform’s seemingly unstoppable power.
How is it that some have seen their business flourish on Instagram, while others just can’t seem to gain any traction? Several of the brightest Insta-stars from our community share their meteoric rises, rocketing from ground zero to very impressive heights through hard work, long hours and plenty of siyata dishmaya.
Humans of Judaism: Nikki Schreiber, 135,000 followers*
A ray of light in a world that is often mired in conflict and negativity, Nikki Schreiber launched Humans of Judaism on June 10, 2014 in tribute to her father, who had recently passed away. Schreiber had previously started a Facebook page titled Daily Spark in memory of a friend who had died suddenly and remembering how her father had been the page’s biggest fan, Schreiber took to Instagram to perpetuate his legacy, highlighting the wonderful things that happen daily in the Jewish community. Shortly thereafter, Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah went missing in Israel, and as their story unfolded to its tragic conclusion, Humans of Judaism become a source of comfort and strength to many.
Things evolved rapidly from there. By summer’s end, Humans had 10,000 followers, with fans submitting their own stories to Schreiber, hoping to see them featured on her page. She sees Humans as a welcoming place for everyone.
“I noticed early on that the way I was presenting things was being received in a great, unified, open way,” Schreiber, a Brooklyn resident, says. “We had Chassidim lighting candles and women in bikinis of a beach in Tel Aviv. We are all inclusive and that environment has really resonated with people.”
Schreiber believes that there are three ingredients to Instagram success: quality content, timing and mazel.
“I feel like Hashem runs this page and I just work here,” says Schreiber. “I could post the same thing as someone else, but I get a different engagement, baruch Hashem.”
Humans of Judaism has a full website and a Facebook page, and the brand includes Apps of Judaism, Communities of Judaism, Foods of Judaism and Memes of Judaism, among others. Schreiber has content available in Spanish and Russian and estimates that she has a reach of a 250,000 across of her pages. She cross promotes between them, and has taken creative risks, monitoring the results carefully to see what hits big and what fails to attract attention.
“I try to reach out in different styles and in stories and to engage followers with questions, meeting them where they are,” explains Schreiber. “If they are not seeing you on the post, then grab them with a story. Cover all your bases and put the content out there.”
Schreiber typically keeps her personal life private and she rarely appears on Humans, although she recently posted a picture of herself planting a tree in Israel, taking pictures using nothing more sophisticated than her phone’s portrait mode. While some of Humans’ pictures are submitted by photographers, Schreiber is equally amenable to using pictures taken by amateurs as well. She tries to post something new every day but admits that sometimes she wakes up with no idea what she will be using, while other days may feature multiple photos.
“I keep my eye on current events, my mood, and what feels right,” says Schreiber. “It is bad business advice, but it works for me.”
Her advice to aspiring Instagrammers is to set realistic expectations, noting that even big brands can struggle on the platform. She is a strong believer in identifying goals, posting consistent content and taking chances.
“Social media is an extension of brand marketing,” remarks Schreiber. “Don’t try to be Kim Kardashian with 10 million followers. Just put out what feels right to you and follow the results, see what people respond to. There is no wrong approach and you shouldn’t feel like a failure if you post something and it only gets a few likes.”
At the end of the day, Schreiber hopes that her posts will leave her followers in an upbeat mood.
“The goal is to get a smile on people’s faces,” says Schreiber. “My father loved to make people smile and he always had a smile on his face. This is all in memory of my dad and a zechus for his neshamah.”
Peas, Love & Carrots: Danielle Renov – 43,000 followers*
It was just slightly over three years ago when Danielle Renov’s life took a turn in the Instagram direction. It was the middle of the night and with her husband away, her brood snugly tucked into their beds and having seen food posts and recipes on Instagram, the thought popped into her head: why not pull out the cookbook full of original recipes that she had no intention of ever publishing, and share them on the blossoming social media platform?
At the time, Renov didn’t know that kosher food blogs even existed and after dreaming up the name Peas, Love & Carrots, she posted a few pictures of her creations that she had saved on her phone, writing simply underneath “recipe coming soon.”
“I didn’t even tell anybody, but my friends all found me and one said to me, ‘I don’t want the recipe coming soon, I want it now,’” recalls Renov. “I put the recipe on the post, posting dinner about four or five times a week.”
Within six months she had amassed 1,000 followers and when Instagram debuted stories in August 2016, Renov knew that it was a platform that was tailor made for her, giving her the ability to connect with her followers as they watched her slice, dice and sauté.
“I understood how to use stories and was doing demos and providing content,” says Renov. “Nobody else was doing it at the time and it was just right for me. It was the right time and the right place and it let me build relationships with people, because food is meant to bring people together.”
Renov, who lives in Israel, found that Instagram’s story feature allowed her to really gain traction far beyond anything she could have done through regular Instagram posts, driving her numbers steadily upward. She puts up stories and posts when the mood seizes her and not according to any particular rules.
“You can look online and get tons of advice and opinions on how to grow your followers, but I genuinely wake up every day and whatever feels right for me is what I do,” says Renov. “I don’t know about anyone else’s platform but I know that for me, the few times in the beginning when someone told me to do something and I didn’t feel good about it, I always regretted it later.”
It can take Renov 20 minutes to put together the wording of a post and another half hour to get just the right picture, although in some cases she has taken as many as 200 shots to get just the right look. She does her own photography, almost always on her cell phone, and considers social media to be a blessedly forgiving platform.
“You don’t need to be fancy and perfect, taking two hours to re-plate a spoon,” remarks Renov. “Social media, in a good way, leaves so much room for casualness, although you definitely want to avoid mediocrity.”
Renov feels that going into Instagram as a business is a recipe for failure, noting that the platform is a vehicle to share information or a business. She believes that if someone is on Instagram because they love what they are doing, then the numbers won’t matter.
“Go with your gut instead of trying to beat the system because otherwise you are literally spending your time playing a ridiculous game and setting yourself up for disappointment,” says Renov. “Do what you love, be passionate about it, work hard and be as authentic as possible and then remember that everything is up to Hashem.”
Yaeli Fine Art: Yaeli Vogel – 27,200 Followers*
Yaeli Vogel’s very first Instagram post was a shot of a painting she had done of the Kosel.
Not being overly familiar with the platform at the time, she posted it sideways.
“I didn’t know how to make it straight,” reminisces Vogel. “My sister and my brother contacted me immediately and asked me if I was crazy. I told them it wasn’t a big deal, people could just tilt their heads.”
The Lawrence mother of four boys has come a long way since that day, sticking strong to her commitment to learn the ins and outs of the platform and to become an Instagram leader. A self-taught artist whose vivid paintings are filled with color, movement and depth, Vogel focused her efforts on Instagram in 2016, trying to find ways to grow her relatively modest following of 1700 fans. She committed to both painting and posting daily, reaching out to others and spending her Sundays following people hoping they would return the favor which, thankfully, they did.
Unfortunately, that approach isn’t particularly productive these days, says Vogel, who considers Instagram to be a viable and vibrant marketplace.
“People are very interested and there are a ton of consumers just waiting to buy,” says Vogel. “I see for myself, I am happy to buy things on Instagram if they are sold the right way and if I am connected. I use myself as an example of who I am targeting and what I would want to see, and that is what I put out.”
Describing herself as an introverted extrovert, Vogel works hard to maintain the separations between her personal and public lives, and while she doesn’t often post pictures of her children, she tries to give her followers enough of a window into her life to see what inspires her. Vogel taught herself to use a DSLR camera using Google and YouTube and typically takes 12 pictures of the same painting, editing the best two until she finally chooses one to post. How long it takes to write a post can vary by day.
“Sometimes it takes 10 minutes and sometimes it takes half an hour,” says Vogel. “Sometimes I start a post and come back to it later. You can’t control these things and when the right words will come. Sometimes it just pops into my head when I am putting the baby to bed.”
Vogel doesn’t stick to a schedule when it comes to Instagram, using both traditional posts and stories, which stay on Instagram for just 24 hours, to share with her followers.
“Stories have brought major change to Instagram,” says Vogel. “It creates a personal touch, is more private and gives people the ability to see behind the scenes. People love being able to message you directly and to see quickly and easily what is up and then forget about it later. Not everything has to stay on the record.”
Her advice to aspiring Instagrammers?
“Take it seriously but like any other job, have fun with it,” says Vogel. “Don’t make Instagram your life’s mission so that you don’t get discouraged if you can’t accomplish something in three minutes. You can’t get to the top in a month – you have to climb across and network, network, network. Be smart and become real friends with people, don’t just network to get something from them.”
Metziahs.com: Faigy – 21,800 Followers*
By all rights, Metziahs.com never should have happened. Faigy, who goes only by her first name under the directive of her family Rav, had a knack for finding bargains, which she shared them with her friends. Throwing caution to the wind three years ago, she decided to broaden her horizons by posting her finds to Instagram, just for fun.
“My husband went to kollel the next day and didn’t tell anyone what I had just done,” says Faigy. “He told me a few days later that he was too embarrassed to say anything to anyone.”
Faigy’s friends shared her bargains and she slowly began to accumulate a following. Things weren’t easy in the early days and Faigy invested serious amounts of time in her business and while it wasn’t a real money maker at first, she kept on going because she enjoyed what she was doing. She found that quality content was the key to organic growth.
“What sets us apart is that I want to keep things simple because I understand how busy people’s lives are,” says Faigy. “No one has time to go looking for those deals or to go running to stores only to find out you missed the sales. The goal here was to streamline shopping, giving people the details and the sizing.”
The emphasis at Metziahs.com is on quality, not quantity. No one wants to be bombarded with dozens of posts for items that just don’t measure up, explained Faigy, who says that running Metziah.com is more than a full-time job. She finds that although many people are far less invested in Instagram than they used to be, they still follow shopping accounts because that is how they make their purchases.
“I don’t find anything as interactive or as magnetic as Instagram,” observes Faigy. “It provides immediate pleasure and when you see an image of something that is exactly what you need it catches your eye. When you are reading you are using your mind more, but Instagram takes less focus and concentration which is great for today’s busy lifestyles.”
While Metziahs.com originally started with women’s clothing, it now boasts several sister pages featuring goods for men, kids, expectant women and the home. Other members of the family include Metziahs Ali, which offers a hand-picked selection of items from Ali Express, while Metziahs Direct features items that are sourced or manufactured directly for Metziahs.com.
Although many Instagrammers are focused on getting a large number of likes on their post, Faigy finds that readers show their approval by placing orders.
“A really amazing shoe could get like 70 likes, which is fine because it is a shoe and there is no personal connection and no one getting insulted,” explains Faigy. “Our best deals get almost no likes because everyone is rushing to place those orders, although when we put up something personal, we get tons of likes. People like living vicariously through others and seeing how others live. They really enjoy being let into your home and your life.”
Faigy believes that it is much harder to hit it big on Instagram today than it was three years ago.
“Instagram is more flooded now which makes everything much more challenging,” says Faigy. “I think that in order to succeed you need to be persistent, to keep your account current and to leverage those stories which bring a real benefit. Keep your posts engaging and post things that are actually interesting.”
Still, at the end of the day, Faigy believes that Metziahs.com is thriving because she was in the right place at the right time.
“There was no one else doing this when I started,” said Faigy. “Sometimes Hashem just gives you guidance.”
*Number of followers as of February 6, 2019
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.