We chat with the gear and coffee bag Instagrammer GuruCaleb about how he grew his audience and tools for Instagram coffee success.
BY KATRINA YENTCH
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Caleb Stultz
As coffee culture continues through the digital sphere, specialty coffee becomes even more accessible and open to everyone. As we’ve seen from inspiring social media accounts like Black Girl Black Coffee, consumers have a say and connection with the technical world of coffee just as much as anybody who has worked behind the bar.
For many of us coffee people, it may seem like a dream to get paid to talk about our favorite coffee brands. That’s certainly the case for the quickly growing coffee Instagram account @GuruCaleb—otherwise known as Caleb Stultz (he/him). Some of you may recognize Caleb online as the endlessly curious coffee geek with photos of sleek brewing equipment, romantic lighting, and the coolest home coffee station ever. But dig a little deeper through his posts, and you’ll find tons of knowledge and captions that fuel discussions about home brewing, equipment reviews, and a desire to personally connect with every user.
Today, we chat with Caleb to learn more about how the Intuit developer got into coffee, ways that he focused this passion through social media, and how his own follower growth may help other aspiring coffee folks on Instagram to develop their own channels.
Katrina Yentch: How did you get into coffee?
Caleb Stultz: Thirteen years ago I was working at a summer camp. … We would just wake up in the morning super exhausted and that’s when I kind of started drinking coffee, because for the first time in my life I was like—I need something to stay awake!
It was really bad camp coffee. I just didn’t know any better and I had tried drinks here and there from Starbucks like frappuccinos, whatever. Nothing wrong with those drinks but I didn’t know there was more out there. One day a friend of mine brought in a bag of Stumptown Coffee and brewed it in a French press for me. I had never seen a French press and that was totally new to me, but he poured me a cup of this coffee. My friend was like, you can do whatever you want with this coffee! But try it by itself first. I was like, “Are you sure? Coffee is gross.” I just dumped a bunch of extra stuff in it so it was palatable and I could stay awake.
I tried it, and it was unbelievably delicious. I still kind of have that memory of the flavor. It was citrusy and chocolatey and that was the point in my mind where I was like—OK. There is something here. My mind was kind of open to the idea that specialty coffee is something I should pay attention to. It wasn’t until maybe out of college, years later, that I got my first pourover set for Christmas, brewing some coffee with it and playing around with it.
My wife and I ended up moving overseas to Indonesia for a few years, which is home to the island of Java. Literally. Coffee is pretty big over there. That is kind of where I started discovering a lot of little micro-roasters around the area we lived. That’s when I started paying attention to the origin of the coffee, the flavor notes, when it was roasted. From then on the interest just developed and continued and carried on when I went back to the States.
What made you decide to switch gears on your personal account from personal to coffee?
The startup I was (working at) previously, a lot of us were sort of like “generalists” and did everything at the company. Social media was one of the ways we did our lead-generation for new customers. So, I took on growing their Instagram profile and figuring out how to make that work for the business. I discovered that I really enjoyed content creation and collaborating with people and figuring out brands. I quickly grew their account from 1,000 followers to 18k followers in less than a year, so it’s not enormous, tremendous growth, but I was still pleased with it!
When I left that company I wanted to keep doing that in some way, but I decided to focus on something I already enjoy, which is coffee. I had my own gear and my own coffees I was buying, so I started out by just talking about basically what I was already doing, creating content and applying the same principles of what I learned of growing the company’s profile to my profile.
What did you do to increase your presence and stand out on Instagram?
That’s a really good question. Back when I started this profile, when I wanted to focus on building an audience around a personal brand centered on coffee, I just started doing research about what people were doing to grow Instagram profiles to see what was working and what wasn’t working. There’s always this talk around the Instagram algorithm and how to work with it.
I started looking at what was working and came across a user called Alex Tooby, and she has a lot of really great resources and videos sharing how to succeed at Instagram in the current moment. She’s up on the latest things of what’s working and isn’t working.
I used hashtags from the beginning, identifying 30 niche hashtags that were of an appropriate amount of posts so that my content wouldn’t get swallowed up in a hashtag with 10 million posts. I found hashtags that I would consider “best fit posts” were appropriate with 100,000 posts, so that there were a lot of eyes looking at it but not so much that it was competitive. I sat down and did quite a lot of work to find a big set of 60 that would work for my current approach … I would alternate them for each post and I would (do a) max of 30 to make sure I was getting the most bang for my buck.
For the most part, it worked really well when I first started as a smaller page. When I started doing this I had a personal account with around 800 followers. I just decided to start posting coffee content, and I figured if the people who were already there liked it they would stay, and if not they would leave. The hashtags were working really well for the occasional post. Over time I noticed that they became less and less effective.
So what I did to stand out and separate myself from others was trying my best to create really engaging content that wasn’t only visually engaging—creative angles and interesting lighting—but also focusing on high production value. But I was also trying to be engaging in the way my captions were written, trying to ask questions and get people talking about what it was that I was sharing about, whether it was a specific coffee or a brewing method or something like that. I wanted to get people talking so that engagement boost (would) basically be a signal to Instagram that this content would be engaging.
My goal is basically to get people talking about what I’m sharing and to keep them talking but not in a pointless way, a genuinely curious way. My goal is to get to know my followers better if they’re willing to engage in conversation with me. I think that sets me apart. Most other people I talk to on here will respond in one word or won’t respond, so my goal is to be a friend and a real person. Not just an “influencer.”
What are some ways you like to personalize your account to be genuinely you?
I think the engagement piece is something I really focus on, making legitimate connections. Since I started this profile I have made a lot of really cool friends around the world. If I travel somewhere I can find someone to get coffee with, and that’s why I do it. I really love that connection piece, getting to know people around the world, in a way, what makes my profile me.
I’m a firm believer that every person is a scarce resource, and that’s kind of a weird phrase. By that I mean there’s only one of you, and you bring something to the content creation that literally no one else could because it’s only you. Only you can do it your way, so by focusing on building relationships with people and your audience, my thought is that they will come back to your profile to engage with you even more than they would come back to engage with your content.
They want to come to hear my thoughts and come to me to talk rather than me posting pretty pictures. I want people to feel connected. Something else I see a lot of people, especially in the coffee space, do is that when they don’t like a product, they’ve very vocal. It almost comes across as too negative? Not necessarily constructive.
So something l like to do is if there’s a product I don’t like, I try to think a little more empathetically about it, who it might be good for. Like, if it’s not good for me? Then who might it be good for? That to me seems more constructive than objectively saying this product sucks, or this product is perfect. I don’t think there’s a 100% good or bad product. There’s sort of a give and take there. I keep that in mind when reviewing gear, and I think that comes across a little more successfully to my audience.
We will wrap up this conversation tomorrow.