The top dog of earning top dollar on Twitter
As part of #TheCreatorSessions, an inspirational education series by Creators, for Creators, Twitter talked with WeRateDogs and Thoughts of Dog Creator Matt Nelson about building a business by Tweeting about, well, cute dogs.
It’s no internet secret that cute animals = tons of engagement. From the very beginning of going viral and memes, furry friends have taken center stage (think the days of I Can Haz Cheezburger), and WeRateDogs and Thoughts of Dogs are no different.
But what is different about those accounts and their creator Matt Nelson, otherwise known as @dogfather, is how this unique voice and the comedic takes have translated into a community, advocacy, and revenue. From the start, Nelson knew that he wouldn’t be Tweeting about what he had for breakfast (though there’s nothing wrong with that).
“I wanted to make people laugh,” says Nelson. “I was interested in comedy in general, and the platforms that people were using to create. So Twitter was a place where I attempted to do that. Eventually, I honed in on a style and a voice that worked for me.”
Nelson noticed that Tweets about his dogs on his personal handle would have better engagement than other content, so he started the WeRateDogs handle in 2015 as a “very bored” college freshman (his words, not ours.)
“On day one, I imagined I’d walk around and take pictures of dogs, and those would be the dogs that I captioned and rated,” says Nelson. “But after the very first dog I posted, people started sending in their dogs by tagging the account or DMing us. I thought, ‘Well this is way better.’ Because it fortifies the community from the beginning, and it's a never-ending stream of content. Plus, the pictures are way better than the ones I could capture by just walking around.”
Nelson had a sizable following on his personal account, so he initially marketed his new project there, and WeRateDogs had 100K followers within the first week. He was, admittedly, a little overwhelmed by the handle’s success and the amount of DMs he received, so he also created a business email for the project. Then, less than a month later, he got a call from New York Magazine, and the opportunities started to unfold in front of him.
“One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, ‘How is this your job? How do you make money Tweeting?’” says Nelson. “In 2016, we started making stickers of the more popular posts. It was a low lift for us and a low commitment for our audience. These were, like, $3 stickers, $4 after shipping. It helped us test the waters of what we could do from a monetizing standpoint and whether the audience would support merchandise in general.”
Stickers led to hats which led to hoodies which led to a full e-commerce store. Next came a publishing deal for a book and calendars. Nelson says that the success of merchandise and the growing audience gave him the confidence to invest in his growing brand full time.
“One thing I've been very good at over the course of running WeRateDogs is understanding the analytics and measuring success,” says Nelson. “I remember when our first Tweet got 100 Likes in three minutes. It was a big moment because I knew I had never done that from my personal account in the years prior. That became a moving target as the account grew, but it was important to understand what was good and what was getting a reaction, then trying to hone in on the perfect account by using these analytics and audience feedback.”
Then, importantly, came the partnerships. As part of their mission statement, the goal is to “celebrate good dogs (they’re all good dogs) by sharing their stories, improving their lives, and helping the ones who need us most.” And the partnerships with dog care brands and GoFundMes for veterinarian care are an essential piece of accomplishing that.
“Starting with the first Friday of 2017, we decided to post one GoFundMe every Friday — that consistency and the gamification of watching a goal tick up was attractive to our audience,” says Nelson. “Our audience was waiting for an opportunity to help out, and they really embraced it. I'm not sure how we were able to cultivate a community that is so passionate, but it's amazing.”
Now, on average, Nelson says their GoFundMe campaign raises between $6K to $8K in a matter of minutes, which goes toward helping a dog with a procedure or care. He’s even recently launched a foundation called 15/10 Foundation that sponsors dogs whose behavioral or medical needs makes it difficult to find forever homes. This dedication to care for the dogs that make up their content led to long-term partnerships with brands like dog insurance company, Trupanion, and Just Food for Dogs, a nutrition-focused label.
“I think it's hit or miss when it comes to influencer partnerships, but we've recognized it works well when you stay within your audience's interest because it’s really the community commenting on a Tweet that makes a post what it is,” says Nelson. “I've always taken an analytical approach to the content, and it's helped me talk to brands. I can go back to a brand and say, ‘Hey, this is how many impressions you got,’ and then make sure they understand what that means for their business.”
But it’s not always all work and no play — like the handle’s partnership with Hozier.
“Hozier was doing a Q&A on Twitter to promote his album, ‘Wasteland, Baby!’ and someone asked him to rate their dog, and he gave them 11/10,” says Nelson. “I decided to comment and said, ‘I don't know. I'd go 12/10.’ He Quote Tweeted that and said, ‘I've been firmly put in my place by @dog_rates and rightfully so.’ [Our interaction] had the most engagement of his entire week-long promotion of his album. So minutes after the exchange, his label reached out and was like, ‘Hey, can we do something together?’ And we did. That interaction could not have happened on any other platform.”
As Nelson’s accounts continued to grow, he also had to figure out how to handle burnout and spread out his daily tasks. Now he has a team of strategists and writers, and of course, his new CEO Doug, an 11-year-old German Shepherd.
“It was a big learning experience, in the beginning, to relinquish some control and delegate effectively,” says Nelson. “I’m still not great at it, but it helps keep the wheels turning, and it has been necessary to prevent burnout. It allows me to focus on the creative and not deal with the things that I'm not as good at.”
So what’s next for these paw-sitively adorable accounts? Nelson hopes to take his brand IRL in a post-pandemic world.
“We’ve had a lot of fun being invited to events like a dog surfing competition and the Royal Canin National Dog Show,” he says. “But we would like to host them this time because we've been lucky enough to find some great partners who would help make it an incredible experience. I'm looking forward to hosting some events where you can bring your dog, and we can all have fun, especially since we've all not done that for a few years now.”