For centuries, the retail formula has been more or less static: create a worthwhile product or service, drum up consumer interest, and try to parlay that attention into lucrative sponsorships and partnerships with other brands to grow even larger. This is the common sense approach to opening a new business that’s worked swimmingly for baby boomers, but are the old ways effective at capturing millennials’ hearts, minds and wallets?
Look no further than Dogs of Instagram for proof that a new kind of paradigm will rule the future of consumer retail.
Ahmed El Shourbagy and Ashley Paguyo Shourbagy, founders of the popular Instagram account, spoke to Forbes about how even though they have more than 2.4 million followers and a burgeoning boutique retail branch, the original purpose of Dogs of Instagram wasn’t to start a business, but rather to just share a passion for their furry companions.
“Rewind back to 2011,” Ahmed told Forbes.
“I was on Instagram and the first picture I uploaded was one of my dog. I didn’t have any friends on Instagram at the time, and I was just following these strange people because I liked their dogs. I put two and two together and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was one community on Instagram that you could follow and it would give you these amazing photos of dogs all over the world?’”
Though it might seem like a cliché in the post-modern retail world, the Shourbagys explained that there was no inkling of starting a business when Dogs of Instagram first began. Ahmed went on to say that he curated every single post to the profile in its early days, soliciting email submissions to cut down on what he called “lazy content” – photos of dogs that were of low visual quality or that simply didn’t live up to Shourbagy’s standards.
What has that curated approach done for the Shourbagys and Dogs of Instagram? Ten days after starting the account, it had more than 1,000 followers. A month later? 10,000. Six months after that? 40,000. Today? Several million followers and likely many more lurkers (Instagram users that view but don’t follow accounts).
Soon, Forbes explained, brands began to contact the Shourbagys, asking for sponsorship opportunities and offering big bucks in return for the account’s growing cache of consumers. Dogs of Instagram has even spun out its own line of boutique dog accessories with the help of partners under the Lucy & Co. brand umbrella. However, despite the fact that the Shourbagys have turned a passion project into a viable business, Ahmed told Forbes that Dogs of Instagram still operates on its original mission – to provide an authentic and high-quality community filled with the things that customers care about. Then, and only then, can retailers truly capture the millennial consumers who are quickly becoming their bread and butter.
“You have to court your customer,” Ahmed said.
“You’re not going to get them on the first date. It takes a few dates. We might have people who follow us for two years before they buy that leather collar and leash set. Because they have so many options out there online and consumers can get anything they want from anywhere in the world, I think they expect a little bit more in terms of relationship building.”
Ask any retailer if they’re committed to high-quality content for their consumers and the answer will be a predictable one. However, what makes Dogs of Instagram different was the way in which they went about creating their aura of authenticity. In fact, it could be argued that there would be no Dogs of Instagram without that dog lover’s mentality guiding the process and building a passionate audience. In effect, turning a profit and creating a business out of Dogs of Instagram was subordinate to simply giving millennials a place to share their love for pets.
While the Shourbagys and Dogs of Instagram aren’t the first to build a popular brand from nothing more than latent consumer interest, the experience could serve as an example in a troubling divide in accepted retail practices. According to a survey from The McCarthy Group, 84 percent of millennials detest advertisement and cannot trust the information they convey. However, what should one call posts to Dogs of Instagram if they drive sales toward winter booties and Halloween dog costumes?
The difference lies in how millennial-friendly brands like Dogs of Instagram rose to prominence. Instead of relying on the strength of a product or service, the Shourbagys instead fostered a growing community centered around passions that evidently millions of consumers hold. Only after the authenticity of Dogs of Instagram had been built up over several years did the Shourbagys turn to selling products – products that their dedicated base believes are coming from a business that cares first about dogs and only then about profits.