Here’s the flashy version of my story: Last fall, I posted a Reel to my business’ small Instagram account and backed it with $75 a day in ad spend. Within a week, the Reel had over one million views. Now, less than a year after launching my AI-based healthy eating app, I have an Instagram advertising strategy that regularly leads to not only downloads but purchases as well!
Well, you know how they say it takes years of work behind the scenes to achieve an “overnight” success? I should start this article with a similar confession: It took me about six months of laying the groundwork to achieve those results. Which, frankly, is still pretty miraculous considering I knew nothing about paid advertising previously and barely even thought about social media when I launched my app.
I wish I could tell you there was a magic bullet when it comes to paid social media advertising. While I don’t have that, I do have a process that any business owner can replicate to find an advertising strategy that gets results. Here’s how I did it.
I used trial and error to find a winning video format for my audience
I’ve watched my husband grow and scale several companies using social media advertising, giving me a peek into what it takes to succeed. Unfortunately, this didn’t mean he could help me with my strategy—it’s a totally different business. What works for one product and target market isn’t necessarily going to work for another.
From his experience, I knew I wanted to create a specific type of video or Reel. First of all, I wanted it to get results—not just views on Instagram, but actual conversions to clicks, downloads, and purchases. I knew I also wanted to find a video style that was repeatable: that we could recreate over and over again with slight variation, and that somebody other than me could easily make.
I started trying anything and everything on our Instagram then paying close attention to the results to find our winning video format. First, I simply shared my story as a founder: why I started the app and the process of development. I also tried following trends for a while, doing TikTok dances and the like. Both of these got a surprising amount of traction in terms of views and new followers but didn’t lead to many downloads, showing me that the formats weren’t quite right.
I decided I needed to showcase my app if I wanted people to be tempted to download it. I tried doing simple screen recordings walking through different features, and while that garnered some interest, it seemed too much like a sales pitch to get the kind of views I was hoping for.
Around the same time, I had an idea to demonstrate how users can have a conversation with the AI in the app and filming reaction videos to the different ways it can support health goals. This Reel immediately took off, and I knew I had landed on our format. Not only was it obvious that my audience was reacting well to this style, it was something I could replicate in so many ways to show off different features or have other people reacting to the experience.
Finding a successful Reel format has been key to getting the maximum ROI for my advertising money. Every video we’ve created since then has been this same format, which has seriously streamlined our content operations. Moreover, we’ve been able to continue to hone the format to optimize for purchases—we’ve even stopped driving ads to the original Reel because we now have others that have fewer views but drive more purchases. Because I put time into finding a content format that works, we have decreased our cost per acquisition by almost 90 percent.
That said, eventually, this video style will stop performing, either because my audience gets tired of it or because social media preferences change. I’m going to keep doing the exact same thing until then, and then be ready to experiment and pivot again when the data says I’m no longer getting the results I want.
I optimized my funnel and my product alongside my social
Alongside perfecting your social videos, you have to make sure the customer experience at every step of your funnel is fantastic if you actually want people to purchase. If you skip this step and only work on your marketing strategy, your ads won’t convert viewers to users, making no amount of ad spend worth it. Sure, I thought my app was excellent, but it has to be next-level for strangers who saw my video on social media for the first time to be willing to pull out their wallets.
I paid careful attention to where I was losing customers at every step on the way. If people were converting from my social media videos but then not downloading, I knew something about my app pages needed to be changed. If they were downloading but then not purchasing, I knew I needed to improve something within the app, which led us to make improvements in our AI functioning and user interface.
It’s important to note that I didn’t wait for my app to feel perfect before I started promoting it on social media. Doing these steps in tandem was important for getting actual customers that I could learn from in the door and for accelerating the process of marketing my app once it was converting well.
I focused my small budget on ads and looked for cheaper ways to explore other marketing tactics
As they say, you have to spend money to make money. Even before I had my app and promotion strategy buttoned up, I started pumping some money into Instagram ads so that I could get some data to analyze and learn from.
That meant scaling back spending in other places. When I first launched the business, I was investing in event and influencer marketing as well, but I realized my budget was spread too thin to have any real impact on any given channel. So, I decided to focus my marketing money solely on social media ads.
This didn’t mean completely giving up on other avenues, just looking for creative ways to do them more affordably. For instance, we recently launched a partnership with nutrition coach Caitlin Spears. Instead of paying her to post, we offered to give any of her clients lifetime access to the app. Her clients now not only get to work with a Certified Nutrition Coach, but they get an app that uses AI to make eating healthy incredibly simple. For this, Actually Healthy gets paid a percentage per client.
Succeeding with social media advertising is no easy task, but it is possible, even without a lot of expertise. If you’re willing to experiment, adapt, and not give up, you’re sure to find an approach that works for your business.