Brands like Pier 1 and Target regularly find Jessica Lighter, of The Celebration Stylist, through her Instagram posts. In fact, despite her accomplishments as a party planner and blogger, she says the community she’s made on Instagram is what she’s proudest of. Here she talks about how she built a following of thirty-thousand highly engaged followers.

“I always had all these fun business ideas but I never had an audience for them. I knew if only people saw the things I could create, they would appreciate them and support them, but finding an audience was the hardest part.

“And what’s a business without buyers right?”

Jessica Lighter has always been a woman of many talents. Creativity isn’t something she does, it’s who she is. Trying to find a job that encompassed her many talents wasn’t easy; as she says “They don’t offer ‘party throwing’ as a college major.” But in high school she worked at a mall store that specialized in children’s birthday parties, and while she didn’t expect that to become her career path, it sort of did.

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Jessica Lighter of The Celebration Stylist

She went on to open her own party store, but when she and her husband decided to have children, her focus changed. She closed the store and planned occasional parties for families around the neighborhood, working events around the schedule of a stay-at-home mother. Then she began posting pictures of these parties on Instagram.

“I had a personal (but not private) Instagram account, like most people do, and one day I got a couple of random strangers following me. It dawned on me almost instantly that somehow I needed to grow my Instagram account and THAT would be my audience.”

Growing her Instagram following became her focus. She knew she could find an audience there and maybe even people to buy her products. Not only that, but “People that were interested and invested in my journey and what I would create.”

She says it was the exact solution she needed.

No matter what I decided to do, I needed people to know about it if I was going to make it work on my own.

Instagram fascinated Jessica. She saw businesses and brands using it as practically their only medium for growth. Jessica has devoted a lot of time to studying how to build a business through Instagram, and along the way, she discovered that she also enjoyed writing, which made blogging about her parties a natural evolution.

“There have definitely been points where I felt I was failing at life, but it all sort of funneled into this. And this lets me stay home with my daughter, write, create – all of which I like to do. A lot of people think they can’t make a career out of what they love to do, but I’m here to tell you, you can. You might just not know how yet.”

Jessica says she had no idea before she started that there were companies, big ones, that would pay other people to create images for them.

Today, Jessica as The Celebration Stylist works with brands like Target, Shutterfly and Pier 1 to create styled party shoots for her blog and Instagram, in addition to planning parties for local clients. It’s a system that’s working so well for her that she says she isn’t accepting new clients at this point – she’s earning enough and is able to give her two-year-old all the attention she needs (which, being a two-year-old, is a lot!).

Unlike so many entrepreneurs, Jessica Lighter isn’t all about the hustle. Her priorities are her daughter, work-life balance, and spending what time she has (while her daughter is napping) doing what she loves. Not a bad way to do business, if you ask me.

In this interview, Jessica Lighter shares how she built an Instagram following of more than 30,000 highly engaged followers, works with big-name brands, and is starting a community of party-loving creatives all on social media.

Blogging for a living

Making a decent income off of blogging isn’t easy. It takes a long lead time of creating content and building followers, all so you can catch the eye of brands eager to tap into your audience. Bloggers put in the work well before reaping the rewards. But when your ‘day’ job is planning visually inspiring, jaw-dropping events, creating a blog to share them makes sense.

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Jessica Lighter: The Celebration Stylist

“Blogging has been around for a while, and it’s been evolving. People are turning it into their full time jobs. The majority of the money I make is from sponsored posts where I team up with Shutterfly, Target, Pier 1 – really cool companies. They’ll either contact me directly or I’m also part of different networks where you can apply for different campaigns.

“They’ll send me products and have me style them and take photos to share with my audience. There’s also some money with sidebar ads and affiliate links. And I still do plan local parties. I don’t really accept new clients at this point anymore though.”

Professional blogging is time-intensive. It’s very much running your own business. You’re a writer, photographer, PR person, and social media strategist all wrapped up into one – and that’s not even counting the projects and parties you’re blogging about. It can easily take over your life, but Jessica has a very good reason for maintaining balance.

“I have a two-year-old, and she’s amazing, but it’s a lot of work! I can’t work when she’s awake. I schedule everything during naptime, early in the morning or late at night when she goes to bed. She’ll be in school soon enough, so I’m just trying to enjoy this time and be with her.

“I’m a stay at home mom, so I’m very happy with where I’m at, for how much time I’m able to put into it. There’s nothing else I could do with the time that I have to make the money that I make.”

Flexibility, doing what you love – it’s nice work if you can get it, and as Jessica maintains, you can get it if you try.

Five tips to curate an Instagram feed everyone wants to see

Jessica’s focus has been her Instagram feed from the very beginning, which is unusual. Most people begin with a blog and then learn social media.

“I really am fascinated by Instagram. I attribute a lot of my success on Instagram to reading a ton of articles and ebooks on how to grow your Instagram following. I have a million different strategies at all times, that I do all at once. There’s not one secret way to grow your Instagram.”

There’s not one secret, true. So Jessica has shared 5 of her favorite not-so-secret secrets for creating an Instagram feed everyone wants to see.

1. Your pictures have to be good

I deleted some of my old pictures that I just couldn’t look at anymore (they were so bad!). I don’t use any fancy equipment, but there are a few tricks every Instagrammer should know about taking pictures with iPhones.

  • Clean off your lens. If you think about how gross your phone is, there is always something on there. Wipe it down!
  • If you go to take a picture and tap on what you’re focusing on and swipe up a little, the image gets brighter. (On Android phones it’s a sidebar that pops up when you tap to focus.)
  • Then I always edit the pictures. I think people are afraid to edit their photos because it makes them less ‘authentic’, but I always brighten and sharpen and add contrast. That’s the issue with iPhone photos, they’re usually too dark.
  • There’s an app called A Color Story that really makes colors pop, so I use that.
  • And don’t use flash. Never use flash.
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The Celebration Stylist: Instagram stream

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“I’m proudest of my Instagram. That’s my claim to fame. It’s my baby. I’m very proud of it – it sounds so stupid, but it really is. I love the community that’s on it. I love that 30,000 followers care about what I post.”

2. Frequency is important – you might have to get creative

I try to post on Instagram 5 times a week. But you can’t plan 5 parties a week, you’d lose your mind. So I try to find other things to post that still interest my audience. People who are interested in parties also tend to be interested in decorating, so I post a lot of lifestyle/design photos. Curating a console table or a bar cart and curating a party aren’t that different – you’re always trying to convey a theme.

The Celebration Stylist - Instagram

The Celebration Stylist: Instagram

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3. Use hashtags

Instagram is blocking some hashtags right now, so I’m avoiding them at the moment, but I’m sure they’ll make a comeback.

4. Do you own product placement

Take photos with branded products and hashtag them – the brands you feature will likely share or even feature you on their account. It’s a great way to build an audience and get the attention of brands you love.

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Jessica Lighter using product placement on Instagram: The Celebration Stylist

5. Interact with other people in your niche

People who like parties or whatever you’re doing. Like their photos; start a conversation. You want to build a community, which isn’t easy to do. It’s the same as building a community in real life: get involved, make friends, contribute something positive.

That last tip is key. Social media is just that – it’s social. It’s more about making friends and sharing passions than it is marketing, and it does its best work as a marketing tool when businesses remember that.

“Some of my really good friends that I text with and talk to, I’ve met through Instagram. We just talk. And we have a lot of things in common. And they see so much of my life on Instagram, especially with Insta-stories. One girl I talk with almost every day now lives just down the street – I met her on Instagram!”

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Brushes and Bubbly Event : The Celebration Stylist

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Pinterest with a focus on DIY

Jessica also uses Pinterest to attract the DIY audience. But instead of posting one beautiful image, as she would with Instagram, her strategy for Pinterest is very different – she creates long, multi-photo collages using Canva.

“Long images do better on Pinterest. People are intimidated by parties, so I try to break it down and make it easy.”

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The Celebration Stylist Pinterest post: Pineapple Party Ideas

And while she has a “strict rule against posting words or collages on Instagram,” (her audience doesn’t engage as well with those types of posts), Pinterest is where she does use those techniques.

“Instagram is a really visual platform and I think my followers want to see pictures, not really anything else. But Pinterest, my blog, Facebook or Twitter are great places for words.”

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Those Canva collages work well to bring in traffic from Pinterest. One of Jessica’s most popular posts is a superhero theme party which has spread across Pinterest like wildfire. Jessica says there’s room for growth on Pinterest for party bloggers – there aren’t many dedicated party bloggers on there, even though there are lots of party ideas.

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The Celebration Stylist Pinterest post: Superhero Party Ideas

As much as she loves social media though, Jessica offers a warning to would-be bloggers. If you don’t engage in it thoughtfully, it can be a huge productivity killer.

“You don’t want to get sucked into the social media rabbit hole. It’s fine if you need to go on and get business done, comment and like on other people’s things, be involved, but don’t get sucked in to the point where you’re scrolling down to what they posted in 1997 and then find yourself on their cousin’s page. Before you know it, you’re watching instastory after instastory, and it’s not getting you closer to any goal you had when you signed on in the first place!”

Essentially, go in with a goal and stick to it. Advice that’s much easier said than done when the rabbit hole beckons.

Growing Community (and why Instagram isn’t enough)

Like Twitter, Instagram is limited in its conversational abilities to just a few lines of text. It’s great for touching base with one person at a time, but when you want to hold a discussion with a broader community, you have to find another medium.

One of Jessica’s top performing posts isn’t about parties or products – it’s titled ‘How I Found My Calling and You Can Too.’

“Immediately when I posted it, I got a lot of hits on it, and I still do. Creatives want to learn from other creatives. I feel like they like to research and hear stories about other people’s journeys.”

The creative business road is not a fully paved one; it’s kind of a weird career path. I think creatives like to hear about other creative journeys and the strategies they used to get where they are.

“I’m gearing a lot of new content towards that creative audience. It’s very different than ‘look at this cute bar cart!’

“For me, I can get lost on other people’s blogs for hours reading that kind of content.”

She knew she’d hit a nerve with her audience, many of whom aren’t just throwing parties for their kids but want to make a business out of parties or blogging or both.

So Jessica created a space to discuss that on Facebook.

“I actually started the Facebook page specifically to grow a community for people to have open conversations with people interested in the same things. Instagram is my biggest audience, but you’re just writing a comment to one person, you can’t really talk to a lot of people at the same time, where different people can chime in on the same topics.

“There are a lot of people in there who are party stylists, or aspiring party stylists, who want to ask questions – or just party enthusiasts. They’re looking to learn and go deeper than pictures with a caption, or simple blog posts. They have real questions.”

Cultivating a group of like-minded people who support each other, share tips, ideas and resources is one of the most powerful (and least talked about) ways to grow a business. But community is so important. And sharing how to turn what you love into a paying career is important too.

From her post ‘How I Found My Calling and You Can Too,’ Jessica writes:

“I thought I had given up parties, I thought I would never be great at them. I didn’t see how I could make it my job, especially from home, but I did. I turned all of my favorite things into a job.”

That’s the dream as far as I’m concerned. I truly believe you can turn anything you love into a money maker somehow.

SaaS Consultant & Customer Success Evangelist. Founder at Authentic Curation. Moderator at @ProductHunt & @GrowthHackers. Previously: Growth at @Inboundorg. INFJ.