How to 'blow up' on social media

I rail against the negative effects of social media all the time, and for good reason. If you haven't read it yet, go read my blog post, "I built a brand." In that post I outline my personal reasons for leaving social media, whereas, in other posts I've given more of a rational argument about its effects on all of us.

I ended up deleting my Instagram account, in part, because I found I couldn't handle that level of scrutiny and attention—from the unintentionally invasive comments of people genuinely interested in my life to the unexpectedly caustic comments of trolls.

But what I learned about social media over those three years has become invaluable to me from a marketing standpoint, even if I never go back. Here are a few things that I learned about how to 'blow up' on social media.

I'm using that phrase a bit tongue-in-cheek, I hope you see.

Do one thing well

Have a niche. On this blog, I talk about theology and philosophy a lot, but my audience wants the guitar stuff. So I know that I have to talk about guitar stuff 80% and theology 20. I often fail at that. If I were really trying to grow again, I'd go hard in one area alone.

I'm helping to produce a podcast with a nutritionist, a Christian woman who is also deeply intrigued by theology and by the God-honoring lifestyle. My coaching to her was, be a nutrition podcaster primarily, with the secondary goal of discussing Christian lifestyle stuff.

In other words, do one thing very well, and you'll be given more and more license by your audience to slip in a bit about your other passions.

I listen to Joe Rogan every week. I don't follow much MMA fighting and I've never shot a bow, but I listen through his fightcasts and bow-hunting bits because the people he interviews—professors, biologists, anthropologists, historians, doctors, scientists—are so consistently fascinating.

Here's another aspect of doing one thing well: You have to simplify your product offering and make your work as accessible as possible.

Think about this: When there was one model of iPhone, the iPhone, and it cost $199 on contract, everyone in the world bought it.

Apple didn't grow to 700 million+ iPhone users worldwide by doing what they're doing now, offering the iPhone 8, the iPhone 8+, the iPhone X, the iPhone SE, whatever else… all ranging from $499 to over $1,000.

No, instead Apple grew their user base by offering the one best phone they could make at their lowest possible price.

There was the iPhone, then the iPhone with 3G. Then the iPhone with 3G with a better processor and camera and battery, then the iPhone 4 which was better still. The iPhone 4S, better still. The iPhone 5, even better.

It wasn't until 2013, six years after the release of the first iPhone, that Apple released two different iPhone models in the same year. The 5C and 5S—budget and premium—set the standard for their offering today. They released a model 8 and a model 10 within two months of one another, confusing their market and forcing their own products to compete.

I know I'm harping on this a bit, but think about that idea for a sec. You competing against you through the diversity of your product offering.

What I do now is the perfect example of what not to do in this regard. My "product" was guitar gear news and gear advice via social media, but then I started talking about just whatever interests me: Theology, philosophy, social media and its impact… and I lose readers when I don't deliver what they expect from me.

To put it another way, IHOP makes pancakes. This International House of Burgers thing is going too far.

Upload consistently

Keep a consistent posting schedule. Even when my regular audience was only one or two people, they grew to expect an update from me on my established schedule.

My posting schedule was daily at 10 AM on Instagram and weekly, Monday night at around 7 on my blog. If I didn’t post on time I would get texts asking where I was from those few people who expected me.

And on Instagram I grew to a pace of nearly 50 followers per day partly by posting just before people's lunch breaks. They saw my stuff and gave shoutouts and reposts around that lunch hour primarily because they weren’t busy with morning work or busy with evening family stuff. They had a moment at work to hop on Instagram.

Be real and be kind

Be honest and authentic with people. I 'blew up' partly after I admitted that I struggle with comparing myself to other guitarists. I admitted that I struggle with envy and a consumeristic spirit and I found many others who share in that sentiment.

It was one act of honesty that began drawing people to my content.

We get so hung up on chasing degrees of higher perfection. What's going to make me look better? Feel better? Be more well-received? What's going to open the world to me? How can I hide this flaw or that? What does he or she have that I don't?

But while perfectionism is worrying over metrics (think about all that producer-speak about demographics: "You're huge with the 18-34 crowd but middle-aged single mothers between 35 and 50 would like for you to smile more." I hate that), kindness and authenticity build genuine relationships and facilitate genuine, genuinely helpful conversation.

Honesty is an agreement that you make with your audience. Enough with the two-way fakeness. Don't bullshit me and I won't bullshit you.

Be like Kleenex

People don't reach for a tissue when they're about to sneeze, they reach for a Kleenex. They don't drink soda, they have a Coke. They don't need an adhesive bandage, they need a Band-Aid. They don't write in permanent marker, they write in Sharpie.

These are brand names that have become so ubiquitous that all similar products, from other brands, live in their shadow.

How did Kleenex become the name we call every paper tissue? How did they develop such ubiquity? I don't know exactly, but part of it has to do with consistency of brand. Kleenex makes bathroom tissue, facial tissue, feminine products, and diapers—but it's all Kleenex.

Have a consistent brand. Make it so that people know where to find you. I was JOSHGUITARS on Twitter, Facebook (for a little while, not long, hate Facebook), Instagram, and I have the dot com. People knew if they want me they just have to search "Josh Guitars."

And brand cohesion boosts SEO, so people found me easier over any other Josh who played guitar. Even searching Josh Guitars now, you'll find remnants of my deleted accounts.

JOSHGUITARS grew to be more well-known than even my full name within my niche. People even called me Josh Guitars publicly. I got recognized back stage at an American Idol event—this guy comes up and goes, "Hey! You're JOSH GUITARS!"

Now imagine if I had been @josh.guitars on Instagram, @JoshPlaysTheGuitar on Twitter, and JoshOn6Strings.com. People wouldn't know where to find me across other platforms, and my brand would lack that ubiquity.

Engage with your audience

Reply to comments. That gets me follows all the time. Guy asks a question, and even if I don’t know the answer I’ll reply and tell him I’m not sure, and that generates 3 or 4 followers from people who read the comments.

And if I give an informed and quick answer, I’ll get 10-15 followers and a bunch of “I didn’t know that” or "Thanks for the info" messages.

It seems simple but you'll find that consistent engagement over time is highly rewarded. People will follow you because you're more active than the next guy. They can see that you're hustling.

Fill in the gaps

Identify what content is missing from your body of work.

If you’re a photographer, what shots are missing? What techniques? What angles? What types of edits are missing from your work? Do you have a “magical” photo from every angle—one that you’re proud of in each category? Is there a subject you have yet to shoot, that would balance your portfolio or educate your audience?

I shoot concerts from time to time. When I send my portfolio, I send photos I took from big stages to small, close to the band and far away with a telephoto, wide angle images of the full stage… In my portfolio, I keep a favorite photo of mine from every angle.

But it's more than just what's technically missing from your work. No—What are you passionate about, that you have yet to call attention to? What's intrinsically missing? Speak to that passion. Inform your audience. Show a different side of yourself.

Then identify what content is missing among other creators in your field. Is there something they’re afraid to say? Is there somewhere they’re afraid to go? Is there something people should be talking about, but aren’t? Is there a niche within your niche that only you could fill?

For me, again, I started growing when I got honest and authentic about my struggles with consumerism within the guitar community. Everyone else was boasting about the latest and greatest boutique gear, and there came a point where I just admitted, I can't keep up. Other cats started coming out of the woodwork to say, "Hey! Me too!"

Stay hungry

It's like you're a tribesman fighting to find his next meal. You gotta want it, you gotta hustle for it, and when you get it, you can't let up and take a break. You have to keep hustling. You've got to beat the lions to that juicy gazelle carcass. IDK what that means, I'm talking in platitudes here, now.

In all seriousness, I found that I hated the pace and the work of networking. I had to post more often than I was comfortable posting, I had to mine other accounts for strategic new hashtags, and I had to keep an eye on analytics everyday. If I let up, took a weeks' vacation, it seemed like I'd lose 20 followers or more.

When you go quiet, people lose interest.

Perhaps worst of all, I had to speak to every trend and all of the news within my community just because there were people who expected my 'take' on things, and sometimes that meant speaking when I had nothing of any real value to say. I wasn't ready for that, mentally.

You have to enjoy the work. You have to work everyday. And when the work sucks, you have to do it anyway. You have to keep a positive mindset. You have to trudge through the awful to get to the awesome some days. Some days it pays off and other days it really, really doesn't.

You have to hustle even when things suck. That's how you grow.

There's not a silver bullet for success. You can buy followers but you can't buy real influence online. Success is earned, over years. Again, it took three years of strategic effort for me to hit even 6,000 followers.

And I believe that you've got to set some ground rules for how you think about social media. Start with my digital detox plan.