Discover how to grow your social media profiles from those who’ve done it before.
We interview social media and audience strategist Kassy Cho, who shares her experience growing @world, the fastest-growing news account on Instagram in 2018, and going viral on TikTok. A former Audience Development Editor at BuzzFeed News and Bloomberg, Kassy is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Almost, an Instagram-first media outlet focused on telling world news stories for young people. She also works with brands including Amnesty International, WaterAid, Human Rights Watch, Flo and Forkast News.
Read on to discover practical tips, tricks and tools to start, grow and scale your Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts.
Hi, Kassy, thank you so much for joining me on the first interview for We Scale Startups.
You’re welcome. Thank you for inviting me.
So, for our viewers out there, this is going to be the start of a series of interviews where we’re going to be interviewing a series of experts in their respective field with the goal of understanding how to market startups and small businesses more effectively.
So today, we’re very privileged to have Kassy Cho on this show. To kick it off. Kassy, why don’t you tell us a bit about who you are, what you do, and what you’re going to be talking about today?
Hi, everyone. I’m Kassy. I am an independent journalist, as well as an audience strategist. I am the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Almost, which is an Instagram first media outlet focused on telling world news stories for young people. And on the side, I consult as an audience strategist with companies like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Forkast News, Channel Four news, as well as Water Aid and a bunch of other brands, also including Flo, which is the period tracking and Women’s Health app. I previously worked at BuzzFeed news, and also at Bloomberg Quicktake as an Audience Development Editor.
While I was at BuzzFeed, I ran the fastest-growing news account on Instagram in 2018, which was BuzzFeed @world. And so today I’m going to be talking to you a little bit about how to grow and build an active and engaged and diverse audience on platforms such as Instagram, and TikTok.
So I think organic social media is often a very misunderstood topic. There’s a lot of content out there already. But I think there’s also a lot of misinformation, a lot of rumours about what works, and a lot of misunderstanding about what actually produces engaging content for people that are looking to actually grow their business using social media.
So today, we’re going to be specifically talking about Instagram and TikTok. The information should be applicable to other social platforms to some extent.
I will be talking about the overall strategy that you adopt and think about when it comes to organic social media. The bigger idea is, in terms of having a mission and consistency, and stuff that we would go into a little bit later, are definitely all things that can be applied across the different platforms, just maybe tweaks, specifically, depending on which platform you’re focusing on.
How did you end up helping these big brands with social media?
I’ve always been really interested in the internet ever since I was young and so I always was just spending a lot of time on social media and just consuming social media, which I think is a super important aspect of just like, if you want to work in social media, you should be actively spending a lot of time on these platforms and seeing what other people are doing and experimenting with like the new features and figuring out how you can go viral all the time. And so when I joined BuzzFeed, I actually joined in London, I joined as a global news reporter, and producer.
And so when I joined, our whole team’s task was to stay six months ahead of everybody else in the entire newsroom. And so our job was to experiment with new things. And so I was hired to try and experiment with news videos. And so we basically would just be like, Okay, how can we use video to tell new stories, and this was around the time that news videos really started kicking off around on Facebook. And so we were just whenever there was like a story, we’d be like, Okay, how can we make a video about this?
And so, we would go out and do weird things, like we went and bought a Supreme Brick for like £30 and then went super viral on Facebook, or we’d go and cover a protest live on the ground around the world where we’re live streaming, we’re interviewing people, or we’re taking photos of science and stuff.
And then, whenever we were covering a very big event, we would try and figure out a way to cover it in a variety of mediums. So it’s not necessarily just like, Oh, we do a video, for example. But we will do a long-form feature like an article or we’ll do an interview, or we’ll do a social news story. We’ll do a live stream, we’ll do some tweets, we’ll take some photos, and we’ll chop that into a mini-documentary, and then we’ll also do a short video.
And so it’s really thinking across platforms, and thinking about how we can produce the most amount of content from one thing to reach the most amount of people possible. And so I think after a year and a half of doing that at BuzzFeed, it was around the time that Instagram started kicking off as a platform.
And so someone at BuzzFeed was like, Hey, we have this amazing Instagram account handle @world and we’re not using it. It’s been dormant and nobody’s using it and maybe we should do something with it. Does anyone want to give it a go? And I was like, Yes, please, I would love to do that. And so they’re like, Yeah, okay, go ahead and just experiment and try out what you’ve been doing with BuzzFeed with the team that you were working with, and just try a bunch of stuff and see what works. And so I basically just started posting stuff on the world account.
So at first, I was repurposing the stuff that the World team was publishing and producing. But then I quickly realised that they were not really producing enough content for me to really grow the account. And so I started venturing into figuring my own content, and then being like, Oh, this could potentially work for Instagram, let me just make a post about it and see what happens. And so I basically did that.
And then it started taking off, I think, due to a combination of factors like timing, lots of big events, and also just testing and looking at the data, and then the account really started taking off. And I think, since then, I think I figured out an approach that works.
So Kassy holds the claim to fame of having the fastest-growing news account in 2018 on Instagram. Is that correct? So, because she definitely has great experiences. the goal here is to extract some of that information so that you can use it to help build your brand.
So talking about more actionable tips now, what would you say is the first thing someone should be thinking about when they’ve got a business, they’ve got an Instagram, they maybe have a TikTok. And they’re trying to think to themselves, how do we use this to contribute to our sales? What are the first things that they need to think about to hit that goal and achieve that objective?
I mean, obviously, when you’re first starting out, it’s always really exciting and I love this time because you don’t have a lot of followers. So it’s a great time for you to just try a bunch of stuff. And it’s not like you have a million followers that are going to be upset if you post something a little different. So it’s always a really exciting time to be doing different things and trying things out and seeing how they perform and then continuing to iterate on that. So if something works, then you can be like, That worked and I didn’t expect it to work, let me try and do that again. Or if it didn’t work, Oh, I thought it was gonna work. I wonder why. Maybe I can tweak something, maybe I can rewrite this headline, maybe choose another photo next time or we’ll even make it a video or something and see if that changes anything. But I think the most important thing is before you start out, it does also require a lot of thought, so I think it’s really important to have a mission in mind and a purpose behind it, like why do you have this account in the first place?
For example, on the World account and for a lot of my work, I focus a lot on informing young people about important things going on around the world. So that really, really helps when it comes to determining the types of content that I post on the account. So obviously, it would be important news stories that young people should know about. And so it’s really important to define your mission and say “My mission is to do this and this is the audience that I’m trying to serve.” Because having that big picture thinking in mind will really help you to choose and curate the content that you should be posting on the account.
Because if you think about it from a user’s point of view, where say, for example, they don’t follow you on Instagram or on TikTok. And they happen to see a post somewhere, maybe on the Explore tab, or someone sends them a post and they end up on your profile. As a normal person who doesn’t necessarily follow this account yet, you’re probably going to take a look at the profile picture, you’re going to read the bio, then you’re probably going to scroll down and look at a few posts. And if the posts are very cohesive and fall under a clear picture and brand, then people are going to be like, Oh, yeah, this is exactly the type of content that I’m looking for. I know exactly what I’m subscribing to. So I’m gonna follow them. Or there’ll be like, Oh this is not something that I’m interested in, so I won’t be following them. I think it’s really important to present that clear picture.
Because if all of the content that you’re posting is all over the place, there’s no unifying thing that’s tying your posts together, then people are gonna be like, I don’t really understand what this account is about and so I’m not gonna follow. So I think it’s really important that every piece of content that you post on the account falls under that mission or at least under your brand.
So it’s not like every post needs to look exactly the same in format and style, but it has to feel cohesive, I would say
That makes sense. So when someone has an account, the amount of content that you can add to it is a lot, you can add all sorts of stuff. So, how do you go about thinking about what kinds of content to produce, at least at the beginning, before you have any sort of data in terms of what works and what doesn’t?
I think a lot of it is thinking about what value you provide for your audience or your users in this case. So for example, for a piece of news, a lot of times we wouldn’t necessarily just post a photo that’s really beautiful, because we’re not really competing with photographers and photojournalists on Instagram, because the value we provide is the story and being able to tell those stories.
So all the work that we produce is stuff that helps us to share our story and provide that value for our audience and so it would be figuring out what value you provide to your audience or your customers, and then sort of showcasing that, rather than, necessarily say “Oh, look at this great thing that we’ve done”. It’s like a fine balance to preserve. I’m not a big fan of brands that are like Oh, look at this amazing thing, look at how great we are, and look at all the inside jokes we have! And especially on TikTok, there’s a lot of brands who tend to be like, Oh, look at us, we’re young and down with the kids and doing dumb TikTok dances.
One of the things that I like to say is not everything needs to be a TikTok challenge. There are ways to produce content that feels native to platforms like TikTok without necessarily having to jeopardize your integrity or the value that you provide.
What are the good sources that people can look at in order to identify good content or get inspiration for good content? For me, for example, if I’m creating a Facebook ad, for a client, I’ll use Facebook’s Ad Library, or one of the tools that I use is called Moat.com and that shows me what my competitors are doing, and also what other brands are doing. I find this really useful because this allows me to understand what other people are doing. I don’t necessarily need to do that, but it does give me some sort of understanding as to the context of what people are doing. Are there any resources that you feel are appropriate or useful for Instagram and Tiktok?
I actually think that I don’t really use a lot of tools like that, I usually just spend time on the platform, and I just look at what people are doing. I also like to look beyond just your competitors, or people in the same industry, I like to look at what normal people are doing on the platform. Because they are using it in a different way to how brands are thinking about it, and actually looking at the posts that are just doing really well, or posts that are interesting, or the posts that have gone viral created by ordinary people or just other smaller accounts. For example, in news,
I really like to look at meme accounts and activist accounts, even though they don’t necessarily align with everything that we’re doing on the news side. But it’s thinking about how can we use these formats that feel native to the platform in a way that makes sense for us? So how can we take these templates and all the ways they do things and then adapt them to serve our purpose or our audience?
What would you say are the most common mistakes that a lot of brands are doing at the moment? Do you see patterns?
I think that goes back to what I was speaking about earlier, where, people are just focused on getting a lot of content out, instead of actually thinking about the type of content that they’re putting out and just being thoughtful in general like, Why are we posting this piece of content on the account? What value does it bring? Does it bring any value first of all? And then if so, how can we showcase that value in a way that makes sense, versus like, Oh, we don’t really know, we just know we should be posting on social media, so we’re just going to post a bunch without necessarily thinking about it.
But as Facebook and also Instagram, and TikTok, and social media moves towards algorithms and timelines that are not necessarily chronological, it’s more about making sure that every piece of content that you post, hopefully, will be shown to someone. And if someone were to see this piece of content, they’ll want to engage with it, because the more that they engage with it, then the more likely the algorithm will promote it.
And so it’s making sure that every piece of content is just perfectly optimized so that when people see it, they want to take some sort of action on it, whether it’s comment on it, share it, or do something with it so that you can reach more and more people. So one of the big things is to make sure to optimise for how people share. So you want to write a tweet in a way that you would want to retweet it. So whenever you’re writing a tweet, for example, think “Is this something I would retweet?”. I think that’s a very good way to think about it
Also, you need to think “How will this look if somebody were to share it with someone else? If somebody else who doesn’t already follow my account or who doesn’t know anything about it gets sent this post, will they be interested? Will they understand?”
So it’s really thinking about optimising for shares and To try and reach as many people as possible and making sure that you are actually thinking about the types of content that you do. So I think quality over quantity, whenever it’s possible
So you talked about optimising content for shareability? Is that encouraging people in the content to share the content? Or is that ensuring that the content itself is shareable? And I know it’s putting you on the spot? But do you have an example that you can share?
I think it can be a bit of both. For example, when I worked with Amnesty International, we sometimes have a carousel explaining what’s going on around the world, or a particular event where some sort of injustice is happening in a country, for example, here’s what’s going on.
So you swipe along on the Instagram carousel, and you have an explainer. And then maybe the final slide, or even with videos, we usually end with a call to action, like share this video. And that tends to work on people, they do sometimes think “I can do something, I can share this video.”
And sometimes it’s how you format your posts so that when people see it, they’ll want to share the same way talking about writing a tweet that only makes sense for you, like you’re in thought or something, it’s thinking about how you would frame it in a way that would go viral. And obviously, that would require you to spend a lot of time on these platforms to be like, Okay, this is how people tweet. And this is how viral tweets usually offer it if that makes sense.
Okay, that does make sense. So one of the questions I get asked regularly is, someone has just created an Instagram account, for example. And there isn’t much content on there, and there aren’t many followers. So they receive notifications of people saying: “We can sell you a bunch of followers”. what are your thoughts on buying followers?
I would definitely say don’t do it. Just because in general, a lot of times these followers are not necessarily the most valuable ones, they may give you an initial boost, but then they usually turn into dead accounts or get removed by Instagram, and it actually really kills your interaction rate. And once that’s gone down, it’s really, really hard to get that backup.
And you do want to have as high of an engagement rate or interaction rate as possible, because the higher the interaction rate, the more likely your content is going to be seen by other people both through the algorithm and organic shares. And so yeah, I would say that, when you’re starting out, obviously, it’s really difficult.
I know when I started Almost, I felt like I’m working so hard just to put out one post, and then I get around 10 likes or I finally gained one follower while back in the day, I was getting like 1000s of followers.
But I think it’s always really important to build that really solid foundation. It’s important to get into that mindset because even though you just gain, say one follower, this is going to be a valuable follower, who is gonna be loyal and actually engaged and interacts actively with your content. And there may be someone who will want to share that with other people, because they really find this valuable versus like someone a follower who you bought, who doesn’t know anything about your brand and who’s just like, Oh, I’m gonna follow this and like the post, because it gets me some money or something like that. And so I think it’s definitely difficult starting out, but you just got to keep at it and just keep posting consistently.
And I do want to talk a little bit about consistency, I think consistency is one of the most important things when it comes to running a social media account. Everyone’s like, Oh, you’ve got to post a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a lot. It’s more about being consistent in general. So if you say you want to post once a week or if you say you want to post once a day, then post once a day, instead of being like, Oh, I’m going to post like five posts a day, then I’m going to go dark for three months, then I’m going to come back and I’m going to post five posts again, because people are first of all going to forget that you exist, the algorithm is going to forget that you exist. And so it is not good to do stuff like that, where it’s not consistent.
One of the things that you can do is to take a look through all of the content that you have available and estimate how much capacity and bandwidth or content you have to be able to put out consistently. So, it can be even once a month if you don’t have the capacity or the content. But that piece of content that you put out is thoughtful and you post once a month that is better than trying to bombard someone five times in one month and then two times in another three months.
It’s very similar to newsletters, so people often receive tonnes of newsletters every day. One of the things I see from clients in terms of newsletters is inconsistency in newsletters.
They often spend a lot of time producing a newsletter that gets good engagement, then skip a month or two and then send a newsletter of equal quality which gets a lot of unsubscribes. This comes from people forgetting who you are and what your value is to them. How regularly should people be posting?
I think it really depends on your resources and the amount of content that you’re able to produce. But obviously, I think in general, it’s good to have maybe at least one to two posts a week.
I think that’s pretty good for Instagram and TikTok. But I think because these platforms are not like Twitter, for example, where you just have a constant stream of information, you can be a bit more selective and thoughtful. And the type of content that you post on Instagram and TikTok tends to have to be of a higher quality as well.
In general, I would say it depends, because if you’re a news organisation, sometimes you’re posting up to eight posts a day. But that’s because they have the capacity to be doing posts eight times a day, everyday. So I think it’s always good to have a rough range. I post at least a minimum of once a day, that’s my plan. And then if I can I do two posts on the weekdays, and then one post on the weekends.
So trying to meet that minimum, as much as possible, I think is good. And there is no correct answer to this. So some people will want to post three times a day, and some people want to post three times a month. So it really depends on your own output and your own resources and how much you want to dedicate to your social media. Keep in mind that your content still has to be well-produced and thoughtful.
The more you post, the more likely it is that more people are going to see your stuff, and the more likely you’re going to grow. But also at the same time, if you don’t have the capacity to make sure that every post is up to scratch, then maybe it’s better to just do one post instead of trying to squeeze out three.
So in terms of content types, what should people be focusing on? So for example, I associate TikTok with just video. But with Instagram, you can do images, carousels and you can do video. What should people be thinking about when creating content? And how much variety should people use? Should people stick to one? Should people use variety? Should people occasionally use one? What’s your thought process in that regard?
I think there again, is no real correct answer really depends on your business and the type of value that type of service or content that you produce. And so with the format, it’s more thinking about it from the content itself. So you have this piece of content, what is the best way to present this piece of content? Rather than having a specific format and trying to squeeze the content into the format. It’s more about starting from the content and being like, Okay, so this is the story, for example, it’s about someone who was out running and saw a cute dog.
And so if you have, for example, a video of this incident, then that would obviously be a perfect way to showcase this because it’s about this moment of somebody encountering a cute dog, for example. But if you don’t have a video of the incident, but you do have photos, then yeah, that would also work. The thinking is more about starting from the piece of content versus obviously going from the format to the story.
But at the same time, I think that in general, you just have to think very visually. If you have something that you want to present on Instagram or on TikTok, you need to ask what are the visual elements? How can I present this visually, whether that is through a video of somebody talking, maybe you have footage, maybe you have photos, maybe it needs to be using text to design a cool graphic or something like that. But in general, in my experience, people really relate to people. it’s always good to just draw it back to a normal person.
Because for example, in news, you have these really big and serious complex events and topics, or just like ongoing things that are very, very invisible notions, almost. Brexit for example is so big but there are no photos. There’s no way to really illustrate this but if you were able to show someone who’s been affected by this, then you’ll be like, Oh, okay, so that’s what the implications of this massive topic have on everyday people.
Because we’re all human at the end of the day, and we have all kinds of feelings and emotions and so, seeing someone who’s been affected by any event is a really powerful and a much easier way for people to access and relate to a difficult and complex topic. And so focusing on people, as we’ve seen on TikTok where you find so many selfie-style videos, and people really do relate to people and seeing a face and a personality, and hearing people talking to a camera, that sort of thing.
How do you see Instagram and TikTok differ in terms of content of style,
I would say that content, in general, is converging towards the TikTok style, at least in videos, of authentic style versus super highly polished content. Because when stuff is super highly polished, especially videos on the internet, people don’t necessarily want to engage, because, for them, it feels too perfect, it feels like an ad. Except for YouTube, because people actually want to watch high-quality content on YouTube. I want to watch a mini-documentary on YouTube. And I want that to be super well produced.
But unlike platforms where it’s more focused on short-form videos, I think it’s more moving towards something that feels very natural, very authentic, and very personal. Because it’s like when you’re holding the phone and you’re looking at it, it’s almost like you’re on a call with your friend, and your friend is talking to you, for example.
And so I think on Instagram, there is still a bit more flexibility in terms of the different types of content that you can post. So, obviously, as we’ve seen through the past year with the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve seen TikTok, as well as Instagram, becoming a place where it’s no longer where you share your beautiful photos of your beautiful life and get everyone jealous, or, it’s no longer about curating your lifestyle, but more about being a place where people can get information and resources, and a lot of young people are turning to Instagram to get their news and information about the world. And so it’s not just necessarily in news, you see this in everyday life, people are turning to Instagram for what to eat and do. You start to hear “Oh, I saw this great place on Instagram that I think we could check out” or “this is a cool activity that I found is happening near us.” And so it’s treating it more as a place where you can share information and resources.
In terms of engaging with comments, what do you do about bad comments? And what do you do about good comments? Do you reply, do you delete? Do you hide? What’s your approach to it?
I think every organisation has their own different policies regarding this, but at least in news, we definitely don’t really engage much with the comments, we just leave it as a space for people to discuss and usually that’s one of the best ways to do it. In general, just let people have their own discussions and news.
In news, if someone is asking for more information, and we do have that information, then we will engage and we will answer the question. If someone asks why did this happen? Or can you explain this? Then maybe yeah, we will explain it. But we’ll write it as if we were writing an article. So that’s news.
So it really depends on your company and the brand. So if you want to be known for engaging with your audiences, then Yes, go ahead. And there have been so many brands that have gone viral for their amazing responses or clap backs to hateful comments and stuff like that.
But in general, I would say don’t delete the comments, even if they’re bad. I wouldn’t say you should delete bad comments, because it will come back to haunt you later, where people will be like, Oh, I can’t believe this company faced a lot of backlash, but they deleted all the comments and someone will be taking note because everything that’s posted on the internet will live on the internet somehow.
And so usually, I just leave them be. Really just focus more on building a good and engaged audience and building that community. When I was doing the world account we’d always get hateful comments, obviously, but in the end, because I managed to build this really engaged and diverse audience that really was passionate about the world, that if somebody left a hateful comment, everybody else would just do all the clapping back for me. Then a whole discussion would break out in the comments. And I didn’t really have to moderate because all of my fans were doing it for me and that is the ultimate goal. So it’s actually better just to leave them and usually, if you’re focused just on building that community of good users, then they will be able to do all of that for you. And it then becomes more than just a platform for you to get your message out but it becomes more of a community.
That makes sense. If you could give yourself three key pieces of advice when you started based on what you know now, what would those three things be?
There are so many things that I would want to tell myself. I think one of the things that I would say is just don’t be afraid to start something. And I think a lot of times people are very scared to start something. I knew I was really scared to start Almost, I kept postponing it because otherwise, I don’t know, should I do it? Is this, okay, what should I do? I don’t know, do I need to do it this way? Should I do it that way, and then you just get really caught up in this instead of actually doing it and you get trapped in this cycle.
And sometimes it’s better just to get started, and just try it out and then see what happens. And another thing that’s sort of related to that is worrying. If you’re starting a new account, for example, you’re starting something new, people get really caught up in naming stuff. And they’re like, Oh, no, should we name it this way? What should we name it? What about this name? Oh, I can’t find the perfect name, so I don’t know what to do, and so I should not start this. But sometimes it’s just better to get started, and then to start posting and start creating and sharing content, and then looking at the data and then being like, Oh, well, great, this did good, or this didn’t do good.
Also, in the beginning, I definitely was not as data-driven and focused as I am now. I think it’s just really important to constantly be keeping an eye on how your stuff is doing. Even if you’re not in front of spreadsheets all day, it’s just constantly checking to be like, Oh, this seems to be spiking at the moment, or like, this doesn’t seem to have performed as well.
And sometimes you’ll find that stuff performs well later on. And so I think having an understanding of data will really help you to make better decisions as to how you can create content that people will want to share. Obviously, you don’t want to be completely reliant on data, because sometimes on the internet, people want to click on stuff that isn’t necessarily the best stuff.
And so if you rely completely on letting data dictate your decisions, your accounts may not necessarily actually match your mission and your values anymore. That is also related to one of the things that I wish I had known from the beginning is that sometimes, back in the day, I would skip posts, because I didn’t know how to do them even though they made sense for the mission. Because I’d be like, Okay, this is a cool story. But I don’t know how to cover this. There are no photos, no videos, I don’t know what to do. So I guess we just can’t do it. And so that is actually a really big shame.
Because now I’m like, Okay, if this is a post that makes sense for our mission, and there are no photos, we should not skip it entirely. It’s our job to figure out how to present it to our audience, our audience should know about this. And so how can we figure out a different format or some way to let them know about this. And so obviously, that does require more work, you do have to, start thinking differently, and start being very resourceful in terms of how you create content. But I think if something really makes sense, screams “this should be on your social media, even though you may not have all the assets or all the things that you need in order to do this” you need to go out there and make it happen.
And actually, this is how innovation happens. Because, it’s when you’re faced with something that seems impossible to put on social media, for example, if you’re able to come up with a way to do it, and it works, then it becomes a brand new format. Awesome.
So thank you very much for all the super valuable advice. Where can people find you?
So you can find me on all of the platforms. I am @Kassy on all of the social media platforms on Instagram, except on TikTok, which is @Kassy.apple. You can also find Almost, which is my media outlet, that’s @Almost.co on Instagram.
Awesome. Well, thank you very much for taking the time, I do appreciate it. And please let me know your thoughts. And if you have any further questions, feel free to message us and hopefully, Kassy will be happy to answer one or two. Cheers. Thanks, guys.
I’m Daniel – a marketing & growth expert. I specialise in helping companies and startups acquire the right kind of high-quality users that are critical to your mission. I do this by deeply understanding who your customers are and by finding ways to bring them on board in a way that is scalable, predictable and repeatable by creating a Growth Machine. I have capacity to assist in advisory or execution roles, so do get in touch and let's see if I can help.
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