In 2012, Susan Petersen was at a conference listening to a business speaker drone on about how important it is for companies to be where their customers hang out. As the founder of Freshly Picked, a company that makes tiny leather moccasins for babies, her target demographic was new moms. "I thought, my customers spend all their time breastfeeding," she recalls. "Instagram is the only social platform that lends itself to a one-finger scroll, so I'm going to put all my eggs in the Instagram basket."
She was onto something—moms have flocked to Instagram in droves. With its beautiful imagery and sparse commentary, the platform is the perfect escape for busy mothers who have maybe five minutes of downtime here and there.
Instagram recently conducted research that found that 93% of mothers in the U.S. use Instagram at least once a week, and 68% use it daily, checking it up to six times throughout the day. And given that one in four women over the age of 18 in the United States is a mom, that is a very large demographic. Women also tend to control the purse strings at home. Researchers predict that two-thirds of all consumer spending over the next decade will be driven by women.
Petersen realized early on that she needed to invest in attracting moms to her Instagram feed. Back in 2012, she only had 600 followers, but she decided to set the goal of getting 10,000 followers by the end of that year. Since it was an election year, she decided to offer a fun alternative to all the political messages on the site. She ran a post that said, "Election Schmelection. Who wants to win a pair of moccasins?"
That was an important tipping point. She landed 2,000 followers that night and in the next weeks, followers kept flooding in, sharing her content and tagging their friends to tell them about the brand. Four years later, she has over 690,000 loyal followers who regularly engage with her content and go on to purchase her moccasins. Here she shares how she does it:
Petersen realized how effective giveaways could be to bring in new followers, so she did several at the beginning to get her started. Instagram's research indicates that the 56% of moms turn to the platform to learn about products, and 78% take action from after seeing inspiring brand content.
But while Petersen was keen to grow her company, she didn't want her feed to appear overly transactional. "I was really looking at Instagram as a chance to build community," Petersen recalls. "Could I provide a space for new moms to come, to feel like they had company during what can be a lonely period in their lives? Could I make them feel like my brand got them?"
She's been cultivating this space for the last four years. What she's discovered is that in order to speak to a particular community, you need to do so in an honest and specific way. It's not enough to just share pictures of mothers or children; you need to show your followers that you understand the very particular struggles that they are facing.
"The things that I think about with my kids are sometimes painful," she says. "I'm never going to get back that moment that my daughter fell asleep in my arms. I'm never going to get back the last time I breastfed my baby. If there's a way for us to capture that in our pictures and copy, that's what we're trying to do."
Petersen and her team spend a lot of time thinking about their own experiences as parents. They try to capture little moments, like a baby's first steps, what it's like to get woken up by a baby's cries, story time, or grocery shopping with a little one in the cart.
Besides using pictures, the company also presents stories that new parents may relate to. "I love my children with all of my heart: they are my DNA," Petersen says. "But I have also never felt more sorry for myself than that time I was in my bed sleeping and I got thrown up on. Had it been an adult, I would have punched them in the face, but it was my kid, and so I spent the night attending to their needs before worrying about mine."
That said, succeeding on Instagram requires a mixture of authenticity and artistry. For many moms, Instagram is an escape from the grit of daily life, so they want these honest moments to be portrayed in beautiful pictures.
Freshly Picked's adorable, colorful feed does not happen by accident. Petersen spends a lot of time creating the world of the brand. At an overarching brand level, Petersen wants the feed to be all about capturing the special, fleeting moments of parenthood. But every week, her team also decides on a particular color palette that coincides with a color from the moccasin collection, then ensures that the feed reflects that look. "We want it to look very pleasing if you're just scrolling through our pictures in a quick glance," she says. "It's very deliberate, but we want it to feel organic."
They are also extremely strategic about when they post particular pictures. Their goal is to reflect what mothers are going through at each point in their day. Again, specificity is key. "We joke that the first picture of the day is the 'letdown picture,'" Petersen says, referring to the moment when a mother's breast milk comes in. "We include lots of cozy pictures of babies sleeping."
In the afternoons and weekends, they post pictures of kids outdoors. They save the funny parent quotes for the evenings, after the kids are in bed and moms might want a moment to decompress with a glass of wine before hitting the sack.
Petersen did all the work for the Instagram feed for several years, but as the brand has grown, she now has three people on her team who work on it, although she continues to set the artistic direction. It's very clear to Petersen that the same content does not work across social channels, so she has her team create very customized, carefully considered content for each of their streams.
Petersen points out that there is a very fine line between being honest and authentic, and going too far in tugging on customers' heartstrings. Her company receives lots of pictures from parents who are going through very difficult things, like watching their children suffer through an illness or realizing that their newborn child has Down syndrome. Sometimes, they want the brand to share these images, so that other parents who are going through the same thing will feel support.
While Petersen wants to reflect all the realities of life on her feed, she also wants to tread lightly, because she doesn't want to appear to be exploiting other people's experiences. "Cause marketing actually makes me a little uncomfortable," Petersen says. "But at the same time we want to celebrate these stories where our moccasins have made a big difference in someone's life."
For instance, she decided to include a picture of a little girl who went through cancer. She had to relearn how to walk and she wore Freshly Picked moccasins through that process. "Her mom, grandma, and aunts sent us these beautiful emails about how they will cherish the shoes she took those steps in," she recalls. It was an empowering message to other parents going through equally heartbreaking moments.