The 27-year-old most known for her Bikini Body Guides is adamant she still is that personal trainer from Adelaide.
Only now, she and her fiance business partner Tobi Pearce, 26, train millions of women and girls from around the world through their premium fitness app community, SWEAT.
A lot of SWEAT’s success is attributed to Instagram, the social media platform Kayla first used to start her online community.
In a keynote presentation at Advertising Week APAC on Thursday attended by Mamamia, the entreprenuer explained how her almost 10 million-strong following was built (at least in the beginning) by accident.
“When we say it was accidental… my little cousin – this is so embarrassing – I was scrolling through my phone, as you do, trying to find photos to show her and she said ‘why don’t you use Instagram? [I asked] ‘what is Instagram?’ and she said it’s this cool app thing you can put filters on your photos and upload them with a caption,” Kayla said.
Like many of us with younger cousins, siblings or even tweens who have grown up online, Kayla at first didn’t really know anything about Instagram or how it worked, let alone how her younger cousin did.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll do that’. [Once I set it up], she asked me ‘are you going to reply to people?’ I didn’t understand what I would be replying to, but she said you have followers and you need to reply to them. So this is how we started this ‘accidental community’ on Instagram.
“We never set out to use Instagram to start a business – now, it’s a fundamental tool. But at the time, it was just an app that we used, a community group and that’s how we grew that community into the largest female fitness community in the world.”
How the Kayla Itsines brand and SWEAT following grew to be not only so big, but also so engaged and motivated was by no means an accident, though. It was a result of a deliberate choice Kayla made long before her first e-book.
Scroll through her Instagram feed and you’ll find hardly a single shot of Kayla posing with a product that’s not her own – all of her photos are either of her client’s transformations, or herself in active wear (essentially showing her product, which is her body), her face covered by her phone.
“[Tobi and I] are personal trainers at heart – I’m a personal trainer from Adelaide who thought I’d made it once I had a few of my own clients. I didn’t start my social media accounts to start a business, I started to upload transformation photos of my clients. That’s why, when we first started, we set clear boundaries,” she explained.
“I said, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to set hard boundaries now. I don’t want to be too controversial, but in the fitness industry there are a lot of boundaries that are pushed…
“Sex sells, in other words, is the opinion of other people,” Tobi added.
Kayla continued,”So, we don’t do that. And I said that from the start, I will not… I think you know what I won’t do by looking at my profile, but I won’t do the ‘following things’ [other influencers do]. I want to be authentic and I want to talk about family, so we set these [boundaries] and built our content around them. I think it’s done really well.
“People will say they started following me four years ago and I’m the same person, that they haven’t seen me get a big head or advertise cars or houses or whatever else people advertise when they get a bit of money. They haven’t seen me hold up water bottles and advertise things I don’t believe in.”
Expanding on Kayla’s point, Tobi said the reason their brand doesn’t favour some brands and bash others, or do sponsored posts comes down to playing the long game rather than chasing short wins.
“A lot of people think putting up something controversial will get them more double taps, more likes and shares. But we’re of the opinion – and we have the data to back it up – that that type of user interaction doesn’t elicit purchasing behaviour better than not doing that,” he said.
“Other women looking at a whole bunch of girls in G-strings and lingerie isn’t actually, in many ways, that motivating. But focusing on things that they can do to improve their own wellbeing that are realistic in an authentic way is empowering.
“The other interesting thing that’s happening at the moment [in the influencer market] is all of the businesses that use influencer marketing are becoming a lot more intelligent. What that means for influencers is you can longer say ‘I’ve got 10K fans and I want $X for one post’. Previously, it was a little unequivocal as to how influencers would commercially validate or quantify their value, now businesses have better ways to track how their getting value from influencers and whether all of their fans are real or engaged.”
Kayla added, “A lot of people are focused on what’s cool – this is cool, this is trending now – but over time that doesn’t work because things go out of fashion. We have a thousand things we want to do, but we pick two and make them great, and then we’ll chip away at the rest rather than pushing out content that’s not relevant to our community.”
Overall, both Kayla and Tobi acknowledged starting a business on Instagram in 2018 is very different to when they first started in 2013. That said, Kayla believes you should still ground your approach in some kind of core purpose, other than wanting to make money.
“Don’t start [a business on Instagram] because you think you’ll make money. You have to be passionate about it. And make sure you’re not trying to be someone else on Instagram, because you cannot maintain that forever.”
Do you think the influencer industry still has the power to sway what you buy, or have sponsored posts lost their shine?