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Nick Topel: “As you grow, engage with your audience”

Invest time in the organic growth of your audience. Your social media following is the most valuable audience at your disposal. It’s warm traffic that you own and that you don’t have to pay to access. These people already know you and they’re willing to listen to what you have to say. 60–70% of your […]

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Invest time in the organic growth of your audience. Your social media following is the most valuable audience at your disposal. It’s warm traffic that you own and that you don’t have to pay to access. These people already know you and they’re willing to listen to what you have to say. 60–70% of your activity on social media should be focused on developing rapport with your audience and allowing them to get to know you.


As a part of our series about How To Leverage Instagram To Grow Your Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Topel.

Nick Topel is an American fitness model, social media influencer, professional bodybuilder and serial entrepreneur. He was named to Fit Media’s 2019 list of “World’s 10 Hottest Physiques,” is a co-owner of the men’s health and wellness brand Model Trainers and has made appearances on FOX Television, BravoTV and 15+ magazine covers. Nick graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in mechanical engineering and worked as an analyst in the petroleum industry before focusing on fitness, modeling and entertainment.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I actually fell into social media pretty organically. I started my Instagram as a sophomore in college so I could follow a particular sorority girl that had caught my attention (ha!).

Once I was on Instagram, I started to follow more and more celebrities and found myself focusing on the fitness niche for my own personal inspiration. I began to post my workout routines as my confidence grew and quickly found that people really enjoyed the informative content. A few years later I did a photoshoot on Miami Beach and my following exploded overnight.

As a millennial with an engineering degree, I’m pretty keen on the power of technology. Social media is a powerful marketing tool that can add value to any business and who doesn’t want to have the luxury of working anywhere at any time?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

At the time I was first getting into social media, I was also traveling Europe. I remember walking into a gym in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the guy working the front desk knew me from when I had competed at the Arnold Classic in Columbus, Ohio. Needless to say, it was pretty cool to be recognized by name on the other end of the world. The gym let me train that week for free, and five years later, we still stay in touch.

More recently, I was in Las Vegas and someone from my audience reached out for a personal training session. He told me that he was a long-time follower and couldn’t pass up an opportunity to meet. I learned that he had been suffering from Guillain-Barre disease and almost overnight had tragically lost control of most of his body. He told me that I had inspired his recovery to lead a healthy lifestyle and to regain motor control of his body. We met at the gym where I helped him out of the wheelchair and he took some of his first steps on the treadmill. It was one of the most humbling and motivating experiences of my life.

When you’re connected to hundreds of thousands of people at the push of a button, the possibilities are essentially limitless. It’s really quite exciting.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve always been a big time Disney fan! And, when I joined social media, I was pretty embarrassed about my secret. The internet can be a mean place and I thought people would make fun of me if they knew this hulked out bodybuilder listened to the Mulan soundtrack on repeat at the gym. At home, I would always try to be super macho and hide any trace of my Disney stuff before getting on camera. One time without thinking I jumped on Instagram Live and started speaking — with Pocahontas playing really loudly in the background. Nobody listened to a word I said and within minutes I received hundreds of messages about how much all these other people enjoyed Disney too. At first I was embarrassed I had exposed myself, but when I saw how many other people shared my interest, it was eye-opening.

This experience changed my thoughts about social media and taught me to not care so much about what others thought of me. Once I started accepting who I was and embracing all of my quirks — my social media growth took off. People might not be able to verbalize exactly what’s out of place, but people are smart and most of the crowd can sense when you’re being fake or disingenuous. On the flip side of that — people can also sense authenticity pretty easily. Authenticity is key for your audience to establish a deep connection with your brand.

Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. For the benefit of our readers, can you explain why you are an authority about Social Media Marketing?

Sure! I reach upwards of 1.7 million people on a weekly basis through Instagram and consistently report 10–11% content engagement (the industry standard is closer to 2.5–3%). Nowadays, my influence is in good demand and I’m getting offers for brand deals and promotions 3–5 times a week.

I also co-own the Model Trainers company and we provide online wellness coaching to hundreds of clients across the world with most of our traffic coming from social media. We’re branching into the Amazon marketplace with stellar fitness equipment and having access to hundreds of thousands of organic followers has proven to be extremely profitable.

Social media is a wild west of sorts. It isn’t like calculus or physics — it’s constantly evolving and you can’t just study a bunch of books or take some college courses to become an expert. I remember one of my brand sponsors hired a guy with a Harvard degree to educate us on social growth and monetization. He had a long list of credentials speaking at some big universities about social media marketing. I sat through the presentation and towards the end I thought, wow… they paid this guy to present on things for an hour that I could have covered on the back of a sticky note in 10 minutes?

Successful marketing on social media is about making organic sales by understanding your personal brand inside and out. The real experts are the ones who have discovered growth strategies through personal experience and built their audience one person at a time. It’s hard for large businesses to understand, but sometimes the best person to sell your product on social media might really be that 16-year-old girl from California who’s amassed millions of followers posting selfies at Dunkin Donuts.

Which social media platform have you found to be most effective to use to increase business revenues? Can you share a story from your experience?

The best social media platform for your business depends on a lot of things, but my niche is Instagram.

The user experience on Instagram is optimized for quick and instantaneous engagement with your audience. That, paired with the ability to embed links and swipe-up redirects on your content, is great for directing traffic out of the app and to your business both quickly and efficiently.

Instagram stories can’t be longer than 15 seconds for instance, so most feed content is designed to leverage the short-attention, quick-acting, “I want it now” mindset. This makes Instagram an A+ utility for lead conversion which is often the hardest part of acquiring an e-customer.

If you’ve built your audience properly, Instagram is also great for direct sales. It’s a social playground of sorts so if you’re constantly engaged with your following, your audience feels they know you personally and are much more likely to buy something from you.

Let’s talk about Instagram specifically, now. Can you share 6 ways to leverage Instagram to dramatically improve your business? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Invest time in the organic growth of your audience. Your social media following is the most valuable audience at your disposal. It’s warm traffic that you own and that you don’t have to pay to access. These people already know you and they’re willing to listen to what you have to say. 60–70% of your activity on social media should be focused on developing rapport with your audience and allowing them to get to know you. Even if you’re not “selling” a product, you’re selling yourself as a friend and improving the value of your future recommendations. At minimum, you should make a permanent post at least once a day during peak hours and supplement your daily content with at least three IG stories. Even if it’s a mundane day at the warehouse, or if you’re just grabbing a quick cup of coffee — you want to stay present with your audience.

2. Encourage engagement from your audience.

Encouraging engagement from your audience has two main benefits: first, it gives you an opportunity to learn more about the people who follow you which can be used to tune your marketing, and second, the engagement drives organic growth by triggering Instagram’s algorithm to bring more traffic to your page.

Focus on creating unique content that sparks discussion, or ask a direct question to your audience in the caption of your post. Instead of posting a candid photo wearing a nice hat captioned “lazy Sunday,” consider asking “Who likes my hat?” or “Looking forward to being on the couch all day! How do you relax on Sundays? ”

3. As you grow, engage with your audience.

Engage with EVERYONE on your social media. Instagram is uniquely special in that you can flip to Taylor Swift’s page at any time and see what she’s doing today. You’re connected. You can live her life with her. She doesn’t know your name, but you’re “friends.” That’s powerful.

Imagine how you’d feel if T-Swizzle personally responded to your comment on her most recent selfie. Not only would it make your day, but now you’re DEFINITELY friends and you’re probably buying whatever she’s selling.

Building an audience that’s worth its weight in gold is tricky, but it can be done. Remember that you’re supposed to be social on social media. Responding to comments and showing people that you’re a relatable human being is important for creating the social connection.

4. Cross promote to grow the value of your audience.

If your goal is to improve your business with social media then all followers are not created equal (and paying for social media followers isn’t the way to go). You want people following you who are interested in your brand and that are likely to spend money on you. Of course, you have to put out specific content that attracts the crowd you want, but there’s also more you can be doing to hack your growth.

Cross-promotion with similar brands is critical for sustainable and organic growth. Organic growth is what adds the value to your social media. Find brands or large influencer accounts that produce similar content as you and work out a deal to promote each other to your pre-filtered audiences. To find these people, start by doing a hashtag search on Instagram with hashtags related to your business.

If you’re looking to hire, this includes brand ambassadors too. Just because so-and-so has 500,000 followers on Instagram doesn’t mean they are the best ambassador for your brand if you’re running a fitness page and all they do is post memes.

5. Offer worthwhile commissions to your brand ambassadors.

Incentivize your brand reps to do actual work. Early in my career I had some poor brand deals that motivated me to rethink the growth and revenue models when I got to working on my own business. At Model Trainers, we offer 30–50% commissions on sales to our company affiliates.

Here’s why: we’re willing to give up more on the front end of the transaction because those sales are actually triple payouts on the back end. Instead of us having to pay to acquire John Doe as a client through a Facebook ad — if John Doe comes to our company through an affiliate working for commission, John Doe is now paying us to give us his info. Once we have John Doe’s information we can retarget him with digital ads for more sales, and the new follower on social media adds to our social proof which helps to attract even more followers (i.e. potential customers that we also didn’t pay for).

By offering a worthy commission on sales to your affiliates, this motivates them to feel like a true part of the company and to push for much higher sales on their end.

6. Ask your loyal audience to leave reviews.

Now that you’ve spent all this time organically building your audience and developing rapport, you’re primed to weaponize that for massive success with the big dogs (Amazon, Ebay, etc.). Product reviews are absolutely huge when it comes to e-commerce and most of your audience will be willing to leave you a nice review on something if you just ask.

With a loyal audience, you can formulate aggressive launch strategies that force explosive growth on the marketplace. Get on your IG story and speak to your audience about the newest product you’ve been working on. Ask them to help out with a nice review and include a direct swipe-up link to your product. Try offering a rebate or throw in one of your digital products for free in exchange for a positive 5-star review.

Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be great to inspire a movement that empowers people to just be themselves, unapologetically, on Instagram. Social media gets a bad rap for being an exclusive highlight reel of your life. People are always photoshopping their images, using all the filters, or pretending they own a nice car that was really just rented for a photo — and it perpetuates this negative energy that you can’t be proud of who you are unless you’re a super-star.

Sure I do a lot of professional modeling and it’s my job to look good with the shirt off, but I also make a point to post the random not-so-classy moments of my day, unfiltered selfies showing my crooked teeth, or just dorky stuff that I love like the Rubik’s cube or Disney movies. After I stopped apologizing for being myself on social media, it was like this weight was lifted off my shoulders and my life felt much more fulfilled. I want more people to share that energy with me.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the top of my list. I admire the way he’s built his life — from immigrating at a chance of the American dream, to his bodybuilding, acting, political and philanthropic careers — he’s a role model in so many corners of my life. As a little kid I grew up idolizing his image in the magazines, then as I matured, learned to appreciate his social impacts and philanthropic works. I see my life and career evolving similarly to his and no doubt Arnold is the man with the winning lottery ticket.

Thank you so much for these great insights. This was very enlightening!

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