Written by Kristina Huhn
White teeth, firm abs, an impeccable tan and a contagiously positive outlook on fitness goals – meet Kayla Itsines, the latest social media sensation and fitness mogul who has gotten millions of women around the globe hooked on a fitness program that she calls “The Bikini Body Training Guide” (aka BBG). The comprehensive workout plan, designed specifically for women, was born out of a need that Itsines discovered while working as a fitness trainer in an “all-women’s” gym in Adelaide, Australia. The methods she was instructed to use were not producing the results that her clients were hoping for and so Itsines set out to develop her own fitness plan. The program was so efficient that her clients began spreading the word, making Itsines benefit from one of the most impactful forms of marketing: positive word-of-mouth (King, Racherla & Bush, 2014). In the search of a way to archive the transformation pictures of her clients, Itsines’ cousin suggested her to use Instagram. She then began uploading the pictures and rapidly attracted a follower base of hundreds of women who were turning to her for fitness advice.
In 2014 her fitness methods started to gain real traction, when she released two e-books, a training and a nutrition guide, that she now sold through her own website and primarily promoted via Instagram (bloomberg.com, 2016). In less than three years, Itsines has gained a fan base of nearly 6 million followers on Instagram and has built the largest female fitness community in the world (kaylaitsines.com, n.d.). Besides receiving the award for “Best Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year in Australia” (Ernst & Young Australia, n.d.), being named one of the 30 most influential people on the Internet (TIME, 2016) and breaking five Guinness World Records in just one day (Guinness World Records, 2016), Itsines also launched an App last year that is a true reflection of her remarkable success. Her App, “Sweat with Kayla”, skyrocketed up to number one in health and fitness category of Australia’s App Store within the first week of its release and managed to surpass Nike+ and Underarmour’s MyFtinessPal in generating revenue in 2016 (bloomberg.com, 2016).
How did Itsines manage to turn a passion project into a profitable global business in such short time? Some may argue that it’s about being in the right place at the right time. I would argue that in Itsines’ case it’s about being on Instagram and leveraging the platform’s advantages. Below I will present 4 ways that Kayla Itsines used Instagram to grow her business that you can also learn from to grow yours.
#1. BUILD YOUR BRAND COMMUNITY
One of the biggest strengths of Itsines’ fitness program is that it’s not just a workout routine, but also a big community of women from all over the world, who support each other on their journey towards a healthier lifestyle and a bikini body. Having a strong brand community, such as Itsines’ #bbgcommunity, comes with tangible business benefits. In addition to consumers being more loyal, brand communities often also translate into an increased likelihood of consumers actually purchasing a brand’s products (Dessart, Veloutsu & Morgan-Thomas, 2015; Kilambi, Laroche & Richard, 2013). With social media on the rise, brands are given a whole set of new and effective tools to create and shape brand communities and Itsines definitely knows how to use these to her advantage. Nonetheless, forming a brand community starts with having a clear and powerful message and an audience that can identify with it (Kilambi, Laroche & Richard, 2013). Unlike other fitness programs that are focused on weight loss and a predefined body type, Itsines’ philosophy involves positivity. Her message is clear and empowering: the BBG program is not about a specific body type, but about feeling healthy and confident from both the inside and out. She reinforces this message by regularly reminding her followers about it on Instagram.
Recent studies have also shown that strong communities on social media are formed, when brands encourage their customers to engage with the community (Latiff & Safiee, 2015) and also to co-create content for the brand (Roncha & Radclyffe-Thomas, 2015). Itsines’ use of Instagram is brilliant in this way. Besides asking her fans questions, such as “why do you work out?” and encouraging them to “comment below” the post, she also urges them to use certain hashtags. By claiming hashtags for herself, Itsines is able to unify her fans from all over the world and inspire them to join the conversation, support and interact with each other, which strengthens the brand community. As a part of her fitness program, she also encourages her customers to take pictures of their progress and share them with the community by using hashtags, such as #bbg or #bbgcommunity.
#2. LEVERAGE YOUR TESTIMONIALS
Sometimes we need to see in order to believe. In Itsines’ case it’s the before-and-after pictures of her fans that will instantly cause jaw-drops and make us believe that her fitness program works. The interesting part about utilizing user-generated-content, in the way that Itsines does, is that these users are real people who show real results. This phenomenon is closely related to the concept of word-of-mouth (WoM), where people share their experience with a product with their friends or family, which generates trust and credibility (King, Racherla & Bush, 2014; Armelini & Villanueva, 2011). With the help of interactive social media platforms, such as Instagram, it has become a lot easier to spread WoM fast and to a large audience, even between weak ties (King, Racherla & Bush, 2014). Itsines leverages this phenomenon of electronic word-of-mouth (eWoM) by encouraging her customers to share their progress photos with her, which she then uses as testimonials and regularly features on her Instagram account.
#3. IMPLEMENT A WELL-THOUGHT-OUT CONTENT STRATEGY
As some scholars have recently stressed, providing content on social media platforms is unique. Because consumers view these platforms as an environment where they can interact with other consumers, rather than with corporations, brands need to produce social media content that resonates with this idea. In short, the content should not be an advertisement. It should be more of a contribution to the community and inspire users to spread the message to their friends on social networks (Kilgour, Sasser & Larke, 2015). Itsines seems to understand this – she knows that her brand community is kept alive by reinforcing the idea of spreading positivity and offering health and lifestyle advice. Therefore, she constantly ensures that her Instagram content is inline with her brand identity and at the same time is relevant to her audience. As Tobias Pearce, her fiancé and business partner stated in an interview: “it’s purely about relevancy. We try to provide high quality but relevant content” (SmartCompany, 2015). Hence, her content on Instagram revolve around six central themes that I will present below to get an idea of how deciding on specific content themes could reinforce your brand identity:
1. Transformation pictures: serve as testimonials, but also as inspiration for community members
2. Kayla’s life: pictures of her family, her cleaning obsession and her dogs give a personal touch to her Instagram account and make her more relatable
3. Kayla’s body & mind-set: pictures of her abs show that she practices what she preaches. However, she often connects pictures of herself with a caption about empowerment
4. Health & fitness tips: pictures of healthy food and all kinds of advice regarding fitness, such as how to perform the perfect squat
5. Product insight: of course she also needs to promote her products. For example, by showing screenshots of her App and combining that with specific fitness advice, she keeps the promotion subtle
6. E-card type photos & vacation pictures: funny quotes and pictures of travel destinations that she wishes to visit lighten the mood and reinforce the idea of positivity
Besides having a well-thought-out strategy in terms of what types of content to post, it is also important to produce content frequently and motivate consumers to participate (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). On average Itsines posts 3-5 times on Instagram per day and she also makes it a habit to engage her fans on Instagram by urging them to join the conversation. As mentioned above, hashtags are one of the methods for increasing engagement that Itsines uses. She, however, also encourages users to like, comment or tag their friends in certain posts.
#4. KEEP YOUR BUSINESS IN MIND
One major drawback of Instagram for ecommerce is that it doesn’t allow clickable image hyperlinks. The only place where businesses can incorporate hyperlinks is in the bio section of their account. It comes to no surprise that Itsines has a clearly highlighted hyperlink in her bio that leads to her e-shop, which everyone who wants converge followers into customers should have. More interestingly, however, she also habitually incorporates the link to her e-store in the caption of every single picture that she uploads on Instagram, regardless of if it is product-related or not. She cleverly combines the link with a clear call-to-action, such as “Get your 7 day free trial at www.kaylaitsines.com/app”. Even though users cannot click on the link directly in the picture, they are constantly exposed to it and reminded that they could buy her products.
Another interesting way that Itsines is leveraging Instagram to drive sales is by creating excitement for new product launches. Months before the actual product is released, Itsines announces to her community that she is working on something new. She then gradually reveals pieces of information to keep her community guessing and engaged. By the time the actual product is launched, the excitement of her fan base will have gone completely off the roof.
Itsines has also understood that social media platforms offer businesses a great amount of valuable consumer insights. By actively listening to her fans’ feedback and wishes and turning them into product innovations, she is allowing them to become co-creators of her brand. This doesn’t only keep the marketing costs to a minimum, but enables Itsines to launch products that become automatically relevant to her fans (Roncha & Radclyffe-Thomas, 2016). In fact, the e-book, which caused her rapid success, was actually a request of her followers. As Itsines herself states, her followers always give her “awesome ideas” (Businessinsider, 2015).
WHAT CAN WE CONCLUDE?
In sum there are several things that we can learn from Kayla Itsines about using the advantages of Instagram to grow a business:
⁃ Brand Community: have a clear message and engage followers by claiming hashtags and encouraging them to create content
⁃ Testimonials: leverage eWoM by using the content generated by your fans as proof for the benefits of your product and share them through your account
⁃ Content Strategy: choose content themes that suit your brand and make sure to upload relevant content. Do it frequently and encourage followers to engage by liking, commenting, sharing or tagging a friend
⁃ Sales Strategy: add a link with a clear call-to-action to visit your e-shop under every picture that you upload, keep your followers excited about new product launches and incorporate them as co-creators of new product ideas
As her community grows bigger and her business stronger, it will be interesting to observe if Itsines will maintain the relatable personality that has contributed to her success. Does growing bigger automatically mean becoming more distant from your fans? And will her content come across generic, if she is not producing it herself anymore? This got me thinking of multi-billionaires, such as Mark Zuckerberg and Richards Branson, who are highly successful, but at the same time very intimate with their fans. Somehow it is not about the size of the company if there is a relatable person in the front, representing the idea of a company. In any case, it will be interesting to see how Itsines will tackle this in the future. Maybe we will be seeing more of her life and less of her abs on Instagram.
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