Rachel Dunston of Rachel Makes It is having a good year. In just under 12 short months, this full-time mother of three has built a thriving cake business solely through Instagram, where she’s followed by nearly 6,000 loyal fans and frequently shuts down orders a month in advance.
She told us how she did it.
Let Them Eat Cake
“When I started building Instagram a year ago, I didn’t exactly know what I was going to use it for,” Dunston says. “I just needed a place to be creative. I came up with a generalized name and threw things at the wall—recipes, cooking, costumes, sewing, photography—until cake finally stuck.”
At that point, she had about 500 followers. She’d been posting to Instagram on a daily basis for at least three months. She stresses that it’s important that people be able to see that you’re not new to Instagram, and that anyone who visits your page should find an established history of what you’re about.
“If you start actively looking for followers before having a bunch of fun things to look at, you’re wasting your time,” she says. “And I get more traffic when I mix lifestyle with business—little glimpses into what I find inspiring, what my kids are up to, what I’m reading. Let your followers get to know you. Otherwise, they won’t care.”
Finding and Targeting Your Audience
Once you know you have something worth launching, it’s time to find followers. The protocol for Instagram is that you ask to follow them first. “You’re essentially requesting to be their friend,” says Dunston. “If they check you out and like what you’re doing, they’ll usually follow you back.”
But she isn’t looking for followers per se; she’s looking for customers. Cake is a spoilable product, and it’s not cost-effective for her to ship them at the moment. Her customers come to her house in Clovis, Calif., to pick up their orders—unless it’s a wedding cake, in which case she delivers it to the blissful couple personally. This means that that they have to be local.
“You have to decide exactly who your audience is, and target them and only them,” says Dunston. “I literally spent a year finding other Instagram feeds that were both similar to mine and close by. It’s a safe bet that 70% to 80% of my followers are local to this valley, and therefore people who can actually buy from me. If they can’t do that, I can have a million followers and it’s not going to matter.”
Taking No Shortcuts
To ensure that her customers are local, Dunston follows a simple but effective routine. First, she visits the Instagrams of brick-and-mortar stores that are unique to her area and that cater to her mom-friendly demographic. She also visits the Instagrams of local entrepreneurs who work from their homes like she does and who cater to the same audience. Once she’s identified the businesses, she proceeds to follow every single one of their followers.
It’s a painstaking process, because Instagram requires you to follow people individually in order to control spam. There are no shortcuts—you have to grind it out, one person at a time.
Another excellent way to gain followers, Dunston says, is to follow the followers of the people you found through the brick-and-mortar Instagram pages. Chances are that many of their friends are local as well, and that they like similar things.
To build a large, loyal audience, you should plan on at least a year of patiently seeking customers one by one. “It’s the kind of thing you do when you’re waiting in the pickup line at school for the kids, or standing in the grocery store line—when you have a minute or two, you just bust them out and carry on with your day.”
There’s a downside to following lots of people: The less you actively follow, the more established your business looks. “If I have 6,000 followers, but I’m also following 6,000 people, that’s not very appealing to customers—it looks kind of scammy,” Dunston says.
To stay on top of the numbers, she uses a third-party app called Followers. “It helps me keep track of who I lost this week, current trends, who I’m following that isn’t following me, and people who have blocked me.”
As soon as she is certain that a current follower is truly interested in her stuff and is here to stay, she unfollows them. With those who didn’t follow her back or blocked her—a much higher number—she uses the app to unfollow them all at once. Using this consistent, methodical approach, Dunston keeps the number of people she’s following to around 200—an excellent balance.
“The point of hashtags is that they make you visible to someone who’s searching for your product or service,” Dunston says. “Ideally, you don’t want to spend all your time searching for followers; you want followers to be searching for you.”
Hashtags are useless if you aren’t specific. If she uses #Cake, it’ll disappear into the void. #ClovisCake, on the other hand, will attract the attention of anyone in Clovis searching Instagram for local cake makers.
“You want to be both specific and general, and you want to hashtag everything. Anything you can think of that applies to you, hashtag it and put it on your pictures,” she says. “For example, I’ll combine the local area code with whatever’s relevant to my business—#599Cakes, #599Cupcakes, etc. Then I’ll do Clovis—#ClovisBaker, #ClovisHomeBakery, and so on.”
Once she has her hashtags, she types the list into a notes app on her phone and copies and pastes the whole thing onto each one of her pictures, averaging about 40 hashtags at a time.
Dunston mainly advertises through pop-up shops and shoutouts to other businesses on her Instagram. A pop-up shop is a short-term retail event where you go to an already established business like Pottery Barn and set up shop for a day. Pop-up shops are are helpful when you don’t have a storefront, because you get to occupy an actual physical space and meet your customers face-to-face.
To maximize their potential, Dunston contacts other entrepreneurs who are both local and popular on Instagram, and asks them to donate one of their wares for a free giveaway. She then tags them in everything relating to an upcoming pop-up shop, and they do the same for her.
Shoutouts to other businesses work similarly. Dunston snaps a picture of a snow cone truck adored by her children, for example, and recommends it to her followers on Instagram. She says that in most cases the owner will get back to her and ask if they can return the favor.
“If you create exclusive content, people will get hooked on it,” Dunston says. “Do whatever you can to excite your customers. Announce flash sales so that they keep an eye on your feed for a few hours while you post other things you want them to see before the sale. Words like ‘only’ generate buzz and emotion—I only have three of these amazing cakes. Most of all, be yourself, be patient, love your customers, and have fun.”
All images courtesy @RachelMakesIt
More answers to pressing questions
This article was originally written on September 27, 2016 and updated on February 2, 2021.