Updated October 2023.
Gretta Van Riel is a serial entrepreneurship and social media influencer who has built many an online business, like SkinnyMe Tea, The 5th Watches, Drop Bottle, Hey Influencer, and many more. The Australian ecommerce business owner is one of the biggest names in influencer marketing, with 16 million fans spread across her social channels!
In this interview, she talks to Eric about her ventures as an entrepreneur and ecommerce brand, how influencer marketing changed her business, and how to become an influencer.
About Starting SkinnyMeTea
Gretta Van Riel first founded SkinnyMe Tea while working full time in a digital marketing role at a print agency that was transitioning to digital agency. She had done a lot of detoxes on the market at the time and was out of new healthy cleanses to try. Here’s her story.
I’d always been really addicted to tea, so I started playing with my own detox tea blends. I was testing them out, making them at work, and doing my own little detox of tea. People started asking me what I was doing, wanted to try the teas, and then they would get really good results from the tea detox, and they’d let their friends know about these teas I was making.
So, I started getting some demand to sell the detox teas. I was getting a bit frustrated dealing with everybody over Facebook messenger and email. I thought: “There’s got to be an easier way to do this. How do I make an online business for this?”
Then one night in bed I had my ‘aha’ moment — the word “Teatox”. I had been trying to think of a way to describe a tea detox and now I had it!
Coming up with that term Teatox really sparked it for me. I’ve always been quite communication-driven, so I just had to pursue Teatox full-time after that. I got up the next morning, made my Shopify store, and we launched our ecommerce store. The first day, we sold four packs of tea to total strangers!
We can count on them to bring new ideas to the table consistently
How Influencer Marketing Platform Instagram Launched SkinnyMeTea
Instagram was still an emerging platform back in 2012, not many ecommerce brands (or any brands) were on there at all. To put your brand on Instagram, all you did was change your username to a brand name, so we just had an Instagram account called SkinnyMe Tea:
I’d had a bit of success growing my own personal Instagram already because I kind of liked the shift away from the friend-centric economy of the Facebook platform (or even a private Facebook group) to the business model-centric economy of Instagram. So, I started kind of building an audience around interests, rather than just around personal relationships, and I liked the idea that you could follow people that you didn’t already know, a bit more like a Twitter or something.
So, back in 2012, a lot of people did that whole follow, unfollow thing through automation… Well, not so much lately, seeing as a lot of the automation platforms have been shut down by Instagram, but basically, it was a matter of just doing things that didn’t scale. It was just interacting with the audience non-stop.
I would think, in terms of local lead generation, who is my demographic? And all my friends were really interested in the Teatox, so I’d follow all of them, and I’d follow all of their friends, and then I’d follow someone from a different city and then follow them and all of their friends until I seriously felt like I’d followed every single girl around my age in Melbourne and Sydney.
I don’t know, I just did it each night after work when I was watching TV or something, it was just a very manual task at the time, doing that stuff. You know, to do with customer service and stuff. I did our own customer service for SkinnyMe Tea for the first six months as we grew from zero to 600K a month. So, I learnt so much about our audience in that time, which was really, really helpful.
How Gretta Earned 16 Million Social Media Followers
I think that having an audience of 16 million has taught me about the importance of audience over product when it comes to having an online store.
Like, just the idea of product market fit, for example. I have a bit of semantic problem with it. I prefer the term market product fit because I think that it’s about finding your audience, growing and establishing your audience, and then developing a product. The idea that if market comes before product, you might focus on market first, just chronologically. Then it’s all about your ecommerce business and not the people you want to help with your product.
So, yeah, with Instagram, that audience has helped establish multiple ecommerce brands. We used that audience as well to help us launch our watch company called The 5th Watches, which grew even quicker than SkinnyMe Tea did. On launch day, we did $100,000 in sales, and on our first birthday we did $1,000,000 in sales in one day.
So, that was a really fast growing, really exciting ecommerce brand as well because basically, the way that it worked was it was through scarcity and exclusivity. We only sold our watches on the 5th of each month for five days. It was exclusive through time not by price, because the price point was quite accessible, as all the watches are under $200.
Well, my following’s quite diversified as well. It’s not just obviously on the one page, that’s my combined following across all my different accounts. What I’ve been successful in is building up accounts in the vertical that I’m interested in. With SkinnyMe Tea, I learnt this actually because our Instagram got hacked and deleted when it got to 200K at the start of 2013. So, I was like, “Oh god, what is the quickest way I can possibly grow this back?”
Building Vertical Accounts and Leveraging Viral Trending Content
So, I had to suddenly think of everything I’d learnt on Instagram and the way to hack that growth back as quick as possible, and that was mostly, for me, through growing vertical accounts, and then using those vertical accounts as a funnel into my main product accounts.
So, for example, SkinnyMe Tea, we have that Instagram page, but then we also have 10 others around the health niche, like detox tips, detox water, be-fit foods, be-fit smoothies, there’s just so many different vertical accounts for us. They’re closer to the top of the marketing funnel and then we keep moving people down the funnel:
In terms of the business model, the product pages are more for lead nurturing, and then once you get them to sign up to your email newsletter or across to your website, that’s more the conversion stage for us. So, definitely developing those vertical accounts has worked really, really well.
Vertical accounts are much easier to grow because you can do things like leverage viral trending content. The way that I would identify trending content, it’s pretty simple: follow some of the vertical accounts that are your industry leaders within your niche. You’ll be able to find them, they’re just large accounts. You can check in the top posts, in hashtags for example, to find them. Then, find their best performing content, say like usually they get 4,000 likes on a photo, and then one has like 12,000, that’s the photo that you want to repost and repurpose:
So, as you know, like in any kind of content marketing, when you do repurpose content, the next stage is all about the distribution. The best way that’s working for distribution right now on Instagram, and we’re actually releasing a tool for this on Monday, is engagement groups.
There are a lot of problems in engagement pods, but first I’ll describe what they are, for those who haven’t heard of them. Basically, pods are private groups of like-minded people that are willing to mutually interact with each other’s content in order to grow their accounts.
So, basically, you find other people in your niche with a similar-sized account, and within the first, say, hour (or whatever specified amount of time) after you post a post, you engage with each other’s content with authentic comments, likes and shares. You know, if it was a product hunt group, you’d up vote. If it’s LinkedIn, it’s mostly liking, commenting and sharing, if you’re comfortable with that.
How Gretta Van Riel Uses LinkedIn
I’m a part of some really powerful LinkedIn groups at the moment, which have increased my LinkedIn engagement by an insane amount. I used to get like 10-30,000 views, and I think my best ever was 70,000. Now I have 14,000 followers on LinkedIn, I get 100,000 views on every post, and my best post has close to 500,000 views — and that’s all from engagement groups.
To become a LinkedIn influencer, you create a group of like-minded people from within your niche. You just look for the people who are also posting and getting great engagement that you follow already, and then you just approach them and you can create a group together on whichever platform. The issue is, all engagement groups are across all other platforms and there’s kind of no way to discover where they are, unless you’re a part of the inner circle. Or unless you go ahead and create one yourself, but then a lot of people are already a part of them, and then they won’t maybe interact.
Hey Engage: Gretta’s Pod Discovery Product
Our product Hey Engage is a discovery platform. So, you can go in and you can discover the pods that already exist. You can also create pods through the platform, and you can manage your pod in the platform.
We have a few different things to help keep the engagement within your engagement group up, because, as you know, engagement’s most powerful when it’s received as close to the post being posted as possible. This is because the way that social media algorithms work is that the algorithm releases your post and determines who can see your post to a segment of your audience first, let’s say 10% of your audience first, and then how many people of that remaining 90% see your post is determined by how well the first 10% engage. So, that’s kind of the way that it works.
So, the most sensitive aspects in engagement groups are definitely time and niche. So, time: you want to engage as quickly as possible; and niche: because accounts engaging within your niche with your content will boost that out to your following (more so because platforms, like Instagram for example, classify all accounts into niche). For example, you might notice that if you like five photos in a row of a car in your newsfeed, then as soon as you go to the explore page, the whole page is full of cars.
That’s considered your niche interest. And that’s also the way that it works for engagement. If you are engaging with other people within your niche, you’re far more likely to get pushed out to their audiences as well on the explore page, and those audiences will also be more engaged and interested in your content, so you’re much more likely to get more engagement on your post from that.
It just makes sense: Somebody that’s interested in cars would rather look at a car post than a picture of a smoothie. So, our entire platform, Hey Engage, is very niche sensitive, it’s size sensitive in terms of matching accounts up of a similar size, and it’s time sensitive. We have things like engagement timers that you can set, and only the people who engage within that timeframe are counted within that engagement group round.
Hey Influencers: Gretta Van Riel’s Influencer Company
Hey Engage is the engagement group platform, which works for any platform, and Hey Influencers is my influence and marketing company:
So, one of the main successes that we’ve had in building our brands alongside my own social media audience has been obviously leveraging relationships and other peoples’ audiences through influencer marketing.
For The 5th, for example, apart from launching with my Instagrams, we also launched with 30 different influencers that we’d sent sample watches to in exchange for doing anything from content creation for us through to converting through to email signups, because our signups, obviously for a launch, were a big indicator of the sales that we thought we might be able to achieve.
Hey Influencer: A ‘Dating App’ to Find Influencers
Well, I’ve been doing influencer marketing for like five years on Instagram. With SkinnyMe Tea I first realized influencer marketing was really, really powerful when a girl with 1,000 followers posted on us and we had our biggest day of sales ever.
Every time I was going through and engaging with our audience, every time I saw a girl with over 1,000 followers who was quite health conscious that was engaging with us, I’d just screenshot her account, reach out to her, and send her some tea for free. And that was kind of just the way that we started doing influencer marketing back then.
Because nobody else was doing it on Instagram, you could get away with just product gifting. Now, of course, influencers, like larger macro influencers (and even some micro influencers), often expect a payment for posts, but yeah, back in the day you could literally just send it out and you had like a 90% positive response rate as well.
We take you through the entire process from campaign creation, which is a templated campaign creation tool, so you pick from one of three different goals, whether your goal is content creation, sales, or increasing your social following. And then we take you through the entire step of creating a campaign for an influencer marketing campaign as well.
So, then it takes you to the find stage where you can connect with influencers, and it works from two different ways, obviously you can either reach out to them, or they can reach out to your campaign. But on Hey Influencers, you need to have matched to then go and work together. So, both the influencer and the brand need to Hey each other before it take you though to the negotiation stage, which is kind of handy.
Marketplaces work really, really well for things like houses with Airbnb, or cars with Uber, but people can’t really necessarily be a part of the market place. The thing that brands need to stop trying to do is imagining that influencers are just like a number on a page, or a figure line in a budget sheet. They’re still people at the end of the day, and relationship building is the key to influencer marketing. It’s not trying to scale some sort of ROI.
The confusion between influencer marketing and performance marketing is becoming really detrimental to the influencer marketing space.
Tracking Influencer Marketing ROI
There are ways to track influencer ROI, and we’re building them into the platform at the moment. For sales, for example, it’s through using individualized discount codes, or cookie tracking.
For following, we are building a tool at the moment that can track like … Say an influencer posts on your brand’s page, it knows how many new followers you’ve gained off their followers. So, it’s able to kind of show that and it really helps with diminishing returns as well. So you can see something like, for instance: the first time this influencer posted on my brand we gained 50 followers, the second time we gained 20, now we gained 3, okay, maybe it’s time that we started cultivating a relationship with somebody else.
I’ve definitely been more so in the ecommerce store space until more lately. With Hey, I’ve focused on kind of the more multi-directional nature of influencer marketing, not just that kind of commercial relationship that’s from a brand working with an influencer, but also having understood the market from both sides, as a brand interacting with influencers, as an influencer interacting with brands. I know that 80% of your time as an influencer is spent in growing your own account, and maybe only 20% is spent interacting with brands.
Gretta Van Riel’s Business Model Growth Ideas
So we want to build growth tools that help influencers maintain the growth of their accounts as well, but definitely moving more into software and educational, maybe ecommerce courses. Because every entrepreneur knows that if they could just clone their brain and have two versions, or three versions, of themselves, their life would be a lot easier.
Basically, that’s the way that I see software, as a way that you are kind of able to clone your brain, or the information that is in your brain, and activate that at scale for a lot more people than you would physically be able to reach if you were just having one-on-one conversations.
Diversify Your Channels
I’ve always been very into diversifying the risk of my data. So, I wouldn’t just keep it all on Instagram, for example, because Instagram can change their algorithm, they can delete your account, you don’t own that data yourself. Email, yes, you do, but email open rates are going down and down over time. So, it’s just about going where the most eyes will be.
I’d say messenger bots and messenger marketing is the single biggest opportunity behind email marketing right now. I mean, we’re seeing open rates of up to 94% and that’ B2C, right? So, that’s crazy, you’d never get that unless it’s like email back in the day.
Using Facebook Messenger Bots
Facebook is definitely a huge opportunity. Many people who hadn’t been on Facebook in years jumped back on it. They’ve done something really smart cultivating these kind of micro communities through groups, and Facebook groups are just such a huge opportunity right now for everyone.
The other huge opportunity on Facebook right now is messenger bots as well. So, I’m playing around with this idea for messenger bots at the moment, which I’m calling 100 Days of Health, and you get a healthy tip to your inbox for 100 days. It’s just a different way to diversify your database of customers, or your database of leads, or whatever you’d like to call them.
My very, very favorite Facebook group is Badass Marketers and Founders, do you know that one? We actually met in real life recently, which was awesome. He’s a super, super switched on guy and amazing growth marketer, and he just has a really similar mentality to me as well about founders helping other founders.
All Things Social Media (ATSM) is another amazing one. I’m also loving Charm Offensive, this copywriting group, at the moment. There’s just so many that I’m a part of that I use non-stop all the time.
And I would say the book that changed my perspective of marketing the most was probably Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. That’s my marketing framework now. I literally go through and tick off certain parts from that book. I’m running a viral marketing campaign for referrals, so I’ll go through the book and be like: is there reciprocity in here? Is there scarcity? Is there social proof and liking? I honestly go through and check my marketing communications to make sure that those techniques are in there because they do work so well.
Follow Gretta on Instagram!
Listen to her interview on the Leveling Up podcast.
Gretta Van Riel FAQs
What businesses does Gretta Van Riel own?
Gretta Van Riel is a prolific entrepreneur known for founding and co-creating several businesses, including:
- SkinnyMe Tea (SMT)
- The 5th Watches
- Drop Bottle
- Hey Influencer
Through her ventures, Gretta Van Riel has managed to create a notable impact in the ecommerce and digital marketing space, earning recognition such as the Shopify Build A Business Award.
How did Gretta Van Riel start her business?
Gretta Van Riel initiated her entrepreneurial journey with SkinnyMe Tea (SMT) in May 2012 from her Melbourne home, fueled by a mere $24 and a passion for tea. Capitalizing on the underutilized business potential of Instagram at the time, she grew SkinnyMe Tea’s account to 200,000 followers by year-end, employing strategies like targeted influencer endorsements and deliberate stock limitation to spike demand.
Who is Gretta Van Riel?
Gretta Van Riel is a renowned Australian entrepreneur known for founding several successful ecommerce ventures including SkinnyMe Tea, The 5th Watches, and Hey Influencer. Leveraging innovative social media marketing strategies, notably on Instagram, she has significantly impacted the ecommerce and digital marketing spheres, also sharing her expertise through training courses to help other entrepreneurs thrive in the digital marketplace.
What is the story behind SkinnyMe Tea?
SkinnyMe Tea (SMT) emerged from Gretta Van Riel’s passion for tea and detoxing, which she blended into a novel product called ‘Teatox’, aids in weight loss and reduces bloating. She launched it from her family home in Melbourne in May 2012 and, despite a modest beginning with just $24 in her bank, Gretta harnessed the budding potential of Instagram for business growth, propelling SMT to gain 200,000 followers by year’s end.