In this series, Instagram Icon, Entrepreneur speaks with the individuals behind popular Instagram accounts to find out the secrets of their success.
Melanie Garcia has lived with epilepsy for nearly a decade, but about four years ago, she was having seizures frequently. As doctors worked to treat her, the Los Angeles resident had to quit her job working with kids with special needs, move in with her family and come to terms with losing much of her independence. She was bedridden much of the time and looking for something to bring purpose to her life while she was out of work.
“It was hard to get out of that funk and try to motivate myself to get better,” Garcia says.
One day, Garcia was talking to one of her best friends about her situation, and she suggested that Garcia get a pet. That led Garcia to adopt Hamlet, a pot-bellied pig. Not only did Hamlet immediately bring joy to Garcia’s life, she says, but to her family and friends’ lives as well. Rather than send her loved ones texts and emails with photos and videos of her new piggy pal, Garcia decided to start an Instagram account for Hamlet. As her initial followers shared her posts with others they knew, Hamlet’s presence grew quickly.
Today, about three and a half years later, @hamlet_the_piggy has more than 306,000 Instagram followers, who come to check out the pig and her massive wardrobe that includes wigs and props such as a pink convertible. Garcia and her boyfriend take Hamlet on adventures and do photoshoots with her once or twice a week — bringing Hamlet to life online is now her full-time job, with sponsored posts for products such as carpet cleaner.
In an interview with Entrepreneur, Garcia explains why Instagram is the perfect platform to give Hamlet’s fans and followers a sense of her diva-ish personality. Not only is Garcia able to convey the attitude of her beloved, 40-pound pet pig, but she’s able to connect with a millennial community that shares her love of pop culture and silly sense of humor. Not to mention, Instagram is an outlet for hundreds of pet pig owners who send her endless questions about Hamlet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
1. How did you get your start with Instagram?
After a month or so of having Hamlet’s Instagram, we started to get thousands of people following Hamlet. It was snowballing very quickly and reaching people that I never expected it to. That’s when I realized I just wanted the account to be about Hamlet’s life and her adventures.
I’m constantly thinking of ways to keep everything in Hamlet’s voice and Hamlet’s perspective. It’s fun, and it’s a different way to express myself that I didn’t realize that I had.
2. What other platforms do you use and what percentage of the time do you spend on them vs. Instagram?
I spend probably 60 to 70 percent of my time and energies on Instagram, and 10 to 20 percent on Facebook and Twitter. Most of the time, I don’t create brand-new content for Facebook and Twitter, but sometimes I will. Hamlet also has Snapchat, and she actually has a pretty good following on there.
In the past couple of months, I have been trying to focus on a blog. There are a lot of pig owners and pet owners that are very interested in what Hamlet’s life is like. I get flooded with emails every day. Because we get so many questions, it seems easier for everyone to access. I would say I have invested 5 to 10 percent of my time in the blog — time that I previously would have invested in Instagram.
3. What makes Instagram a better platform than other social media?
Instagram was the main social media platform that I used on my own before Hamlet. I like Instagram more than other social media platforms, because it kind of has everything the others have already. It’s so multifaceted. You’re able to express yourself through captions and posts, Stories and a live feed. And it has slideshows. So, there’s a lot of room to be creative and do things to keep interest.
Instagram itself has its own account, and every weekend, they have another way to bring the community together. They do these things called [Weekend Hashtag Projects], and they’ll have a theme. Recently the theme was movement. So all these people are going out there for the weekend just to capture movement, and then they all post using one hashtag together. So it’s interesting to see how they are continually bringing people together and trying to foster creativity and interest.
4. How much of your time do you devote to Instagram?
I quit my full-time job almost a year ago just because, I was turning fun things down as new opportunities were happening because of Hamlet. I couldn’t do both without doing one halfway. Now, in a week, I usually spend anywhere from 25 to sometimes over 40 hours coming up with content or going to meet new friends for events. Usually I’ll plan a couple posts with different costumes. A bunch of little things add up to my full-time job, essentially.
I spend time engaging, scheduling things and figuring out what’s the best time to post during the day when I can interact with the most followers and Instagram community members. I’ve watched Photoshop tutorials and other YouTube videos, and I’ve read a lot of blogs to try to figure this out on my own. But I continue to learn.
5. How do you promote your account? What’s your number-one way to gain followers?
The Instagram community is a community, and I feel like, the more you interact with the community, people and followers see that. Be a part of the community, make it organic and have fun with it, is really my philosophy. I don’t do something specific to promote, but it’s just about engaging every day.
I try to do events so that we can go and actually meet these people and that comment and love Hamlet, so that we can put a name to the face. We’ve done some Instagram get-togethers, like a pool party where Hamlet and I were in a fashion show that donated the proceeds to no-kill shelters. We’ve done office visits at different magazines. So we’ve gotten to meet fun people in different ways whether it’s, “Hey, come visit us and make our employees smile,” or we just will plan our own meet-and-greets at a park or at a restaurant.
6. How do you engage with others on the platform?
With every post, I like to go back and look at what the comments are and see if anyone’s asking us questions. I try to always comment and respond back to people, so they’ll know that we are just as invested in them as they are in us. I’ll also go back to old posts and see if anybody has any questions or is looking to engage or respond in any sort of way, as well as check Hamlet’s direct messages. That’s why I started the blog, to be able to just send links and engage that way, vs. having individual conversations with each person who has the same question, like, “How big is Hamlet going to get?” or “Where did you get her?”
But I also love going to the explore page and finding new pet accounts. That’s where I get most of my inspiration. Ideas pop up when I am engaging and when I am meeting new people on Instagram and following different accounts.
7. How often do you post?
I usually will post anywhere from once a day to twice a day. Usually no more than that, just because when I follow someone, if I see a whole bunch from them all in one day, I’m like, “What is going on with this person?” I usually only do two posts on my highest engagement days. Sometimes it’ll be Thursday and Friday. I’ve noticed on Saturday and Sunday, it’s kind of hit or miss. Sometimes on weekends, people are just not on their phones. They’re doing other things.
To schedule a post daily, I go by the analytics that Instagram provides as far as times when most of my followers are going to be online. And if I posted at 12 and it says that engagement is going to be really high until 6, I’ll try to engage throughout those times.
8. What’s your content strategy?
I’m not sure if I’d call it a content strategy, but I’ve always thought, “I need to always keep this fun.” It always needs to be about Hamlet and about what she’s like and her personality. Living with her and being with her all the time, I know her pretty well and have seen her reactions to different things. She has a very distinct face and sometimes facial expression. So that’s why I kind of go with her being a diva. She can be a little bossy, which pigs are. She’s mischievous, she’s talkative. So I just kind to go based off of her body language to come up with what she would say or what she’s actually thinking.
As far as her interest in pop culture, I watch stuff, like, for instance, Bravo’s Real Housewives, and she watches TV, too! It’s funny because she reacts to different things. For whatever reason, her ears will go up really high when she hears NeNe Leakes’s voice. She’ll move, and she’ll wake up for certain characters.
Insights definitely helps you know who’s your target audience. Most of the things I post on Hamlet’s account are things I’m interested in, like pop culture. The things that she watches, I watch. So, it’s just interesting to see that the age group that follows Hamlet is my age group, and so I know, “OK, this is going to be funny to my followers,” or, “this isn’t.” Maybe they won’t get a Grease joke or a joke about Johnny Carson.
As far as her content that has costumes and things like that, I see something on Instagram or YouTube, something going on in pop culture or a commercial, and I’m like, “Oh my god, I have this idea.” I’ll write it down in my phone, and then, about once or twice, my boyfriend and I will take Hamlet out, we’ll go to the park or on an adventure, and then we’ll go take some pictures. It’s always relaxed and fun, but planned. I put all of her little outfits together. I do have a whole area in my house that is completely organized and has all of her T-shirts. I re-use a lot. And I make most of her costumes — I know that sounds crazy. She’s such a good sport and a relaxed animal, and she just wants to be with us, be held and be social.
9. How has your content strategy evolved as Instagram has added features?
[Stories and live video] have really changed our interaction with the Instagram community and Hamlet’s followers, because now they can ask us questions live instead of commenting. I can post on her Story that we’re going to go live in five minutes. Or I want someone to watch Hamlet’s video of “A Day in the Life of Hamlet,” I could go ahead and put a link to that on the Story as well.
Showing behind the scenes of what goes on in our lives has just really changed what I post. I like it because there are new ways to be more creative and it keeps our account, and I think Instagram in general, from staying stagnant.
10. What’s your best storytelling trick?
I try to tell Hamlet’s story, or the idea that we’re trying to get across, sometimes by the environment, what she’s wearing or if there’s food in front of her. The blog has been nice to easily connect to Instagram, whether it’s a link to an Instagram post on the blog or a link to the blog on a Story. On a live feed, I can talk to different followers about things they want to know, then address those questions in a blog post. So it’s nice to have all these different ways to tell our story.
11. How do you set yourself apart from others on the platform?
Well, Hamlet’s a pig, A, and B, I think you can really tell that we’re just having fun with this. It’s like a hobby for us. It’s just fun and silly and honestly just another way for us to spend time with Hamlet and be social with her and just to have her around. I also think that her likeness is really different. I’ve seen other pigs, obviously. She does different facial expressions. And everything is posted from her voice. It’s not my Instagram or what I think of what’s going on in the picture. It’s her perspective, as if she were posting everything.
12. How do you leverage your Instagram and to what extent do you monetize it?
Usually I will only do one to two sponsored posts a month. I try to partner with brands that make sense to pet owners and to pig owners — brands that I feel like they might benefit from or that I know I’ve benefitted from. The one that I think has aligned the best is StainMaster. They have a pet stain remover.
Hamlet is obviously a pig, and she is just like a dog: She lives indoors and outdoors (mainly indoors). She eats lipstick. She’ll get into your purse. She’ll chew gum. She gets water everywhere. She opens the fridge. She knocks over the trash can. She comes in with a muddy face or one or two muddy hooves. Totally fine — we expect it. So it makes sense to have her be involved with a brand that removes pet stains.
I’ve been working with a pig rescue in San Diego called Penelope’s Purpose. They save pet pigs from getting euthanized, because people are buying these pigs not realizing how much responsibility they are and then they abandon them or surrender them to animal shelters, and no one’s walking through the animal shelter looking for a pig. So everything that we make, we give them a portion of it. We’ve done a couple campaigns for them where we sell a unicorn Hamlet hat, and all of that money goes to them.
13. What advice do you have for other Instagram influencers or people who want to build brands?
I think the most important thing is to be yourself and try to focus on why you want this account. What’s your endgame, and what’s your goal? Is it to show your photos or your trips that you go on? Or do you just love your kids and want to show their adventures? Know your goals, be yourself and be authentic. I feel like, once you do that, you’re going to enjoy it and it’s going to happen organically, whether your goal is to be Insta-famous or to share your artwork with other people.
14. What’s a misconception many people have about Instagram?
I think sometimes, people think that you post something, and that is what your life is like. I recently posted a blog post of what Hamlet’s daily life is, because I think some people think Hamlet is just in costumes all day and taking pictures and riding in a pink car down the street. I think some people have the misconception that Instagram is reality, but in reality, she’s just this one pig who is super loved and eats grass and fruit all day.