Build Your Business:

Effective Social Media for Custom Apparel

Screen-printers, embroiderers and heat press professionals can’t just post product shots on social media: use this 2024 strategy instead

By Jenna Warriner, Contributing Writer

March 15, 2024

So, you know you’re supposed to be on social media, but you sit down at your computer to write a post, and the blank screen stares back at you menacingly, the cursor taunting you with its rhythmic blink. Your fingers hover over the keyboard begging each letter to type itself!

Your next obvious move is to post a product shot. Seems like an easy enough default. You have products you want to sell, so why wouldn’t you post them? You cruise through your archives, looking for an old photo or AI-generated model posing in your gear and slap a caption on it that says something along the lines of, “Buy my stuff. Please?”

You tap publish.

You hear crickets.

You wonder how long to wait before trying again… An hour? A week? You worry you might be annoying your followers or “selling” too much. Then you panic because your post isn’t getting any engagement and that marketing expert you saw on TikTok says you need engagement…and hashtags…and strategy. At this point you’re so overwhelmed you close your computer and dream of the day you have the budget to outsource all this stuff.

Am I close?

Jenna Warriner social media marketing coach decorated apparel

According to Warriner product shots alone won’t do the trick. What you need to do is create engagement. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

Hi, it’s me, that marketing expert you saw on TikTok recently or on that podcast you listened to. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, settle in, and by the end of this article, you’ll have a whole new strategy for approaching your social media content.

Here’s your first assignment: Brainstorm for a second the differences between your local grocery store flier and, say, EatingWell magazine.

The flier lists products, prices and a couple blunt bullet points about each item. Great, thanks, next stop: trash bin.

By contrast, the EatingWell is an experience. You flip through the pages slowly, mouth watering at the expertly photographed platters. You clip out recipes to make later. The occasional thought-provoking article transforms the way you look at meal planning. Next thing you know your vision board is smothered in focaccia recipes, and you’ve signed up for a monthly subscription.

In 2024, treat your social media like it’s a magazine, not a flier.

It makes perfect sense that most small business owners start out with social media accounts that look like a flier or a catalog of products for sale; however, the businesses that are savvy enough to become true “content creators” are the ones who grow fastest and stand out.

Building Your Decorated-Apparel Brand

That’s because you’re thinking of social media as “advertising,” when really it falls under the umbrella of “content marketing.” The way to get the most out of your social media efforts is for you and your business to become a creator. The content you create must draw your audience in and give it something to consume, not just to buy.

Here’s your second assignment: Think of any massive product-based brand you aspire to be like. Don’t choose a competitor on your current level—think big, choose a brand with an empire. How about Nike? Head to Nike’s Instagram page and look at how many of its last 15 posts are product shots, vs. how many are some sort of entertaining content piece they’ve created. No, seriously, go take a peek…I’ll wait while you do.

Now that you’re looking at this brand’s social media with a more critical eye, take your assessment a step further: If you had to categorize Nike’s last 15 posts into smaller groups, what would the topics of those groups be?

Can I take a stab at it? I’m willing to bet their content falls into three distinct categories: growth, nurture and sales.

Fundamentally, every social media strategist worth their salt is saying the same thing: You need to post some content designed to grow your followers, some content designed to make those followers fall in love with you and then, finally, some content designed to make sales.

If any piece of that formula is missing, you end up missing out on the massive impact social media can have on your business.

Before we go too much further, let’s address the elephant in the room: the algorithm.

Leveraging Social Media Algorithms

The algorithm is not a teenage girl dead set on stealing your boyfriend and ruining your senior prom. She doesn’t have a vendetta against you, and you aren’t “shadow banned.”

The algorithm is just a computer code that’s programmed to send users posts based on certain triggers. This is why you’ve been told “engagement” is so important – because engagement is one of the main triggers that indicates to the algorithm that your post is “good enough” to show to yet more people.

Whatever social media app you’re using, be it Instagram, TikTok, Facebook or Pinterest—they all have a common goal: To keep users on their particular platform as long as possible. Because that’s their goal, they reward posts that hold the attention of quick-scrolling-thumbs and encourage interactions, like comments, follows and shares (aka engagement).

So, what do you do with that information? You figure out how to get people to touch your posts. Basically, any time someone touches one of your posts, it counts as engagement, so when I work with small businesses, we’re super intentional about designing our posts to be touched. We don’t just cross our fingers and hope someone interacts with our content—we strategically encourage them to.

Now, to be clear, there are way more triggers that the algorithm is looking for, and unfortunately, we (marketers) only know about some of them. That said, if we knew all of them, someone somewhere would hack the system, the biggest businesses would dominate the platform and social media wouldn’t be a fun place for the public to hang out anymore.

Therefore, instead of looking at that as unfair, recognize it as an opportunity. Or to put it another way, right now, you have access to as much knowledge about how to grow on social media as Nike does. Not only that, but with all the current trends leaning toward more authentic, entertaining content shot on an iPhone or created in Canva, you’re using some of the same resources as them, too.

Fancy graphic design and professional photography are no longer mandatory tools for successful marketing. Just look at mega-viral brand Duolingo or ask the 17 million people who follow Starbucks on Instagram. Most of their content is the same caliber as posts and videos that you are 100 percent capable of making with your smartphone and some sunlight.

We also know that social media platform algorithms love consistency, although it’s not clear exactly what “consistency” means. For the most part, the consensus is that businesses should be posting at least a few times a week, every week. I know that’s broad, so for clarity’s sake, I recommend you set a goal of posting at least three times per week. The more you post, the more data you’ll collect, the more practice you’ll have, and statistically speaking, the more opportunity you must figure out what kind of content really resonates with your audience– so you can make more of it.

More Social Media is Definitely More

After working with hundreds of small businesses, it’s also been my experience that the less you post, the more pressure you end up putting on yourself to be perfect: pressure that only leads to frustration and the feeling like nothing is ever going to work; the exact same kind of pressure that can end up making that blank screen so daunting.

For what it’s worth, if you ask me, the temporary discomfort you’ll feel when you fight the blinking cursor, and finally post some content is way more constructive than the stress you’ll feel when your only post for the week falls flat, and you don’t make any sales.

Ready for your third, and final assignment?

This week don’t try to sell any products on social media. Instead, create three posts that are just fun! Maybe you show your followers some behind-the-scenes action at your shop. Maybe you tell the story of why you got started in the decorated apparel business. Maybe you simply post a dog meme. The goal of these posts is not to sell anything, it’s to create content that grows your following, captures their attention and makes them fall in love with you.

Then, once you have their ear and their trust, your posts designed to sell will be 10,000 percent more likely to work. To be clear, you’re still totally allowed to post product shots on Instagram. Just don’t only post product shots and expect to make sales.

Good luck out there, boss. I’ll see you online.

Ed Note: Jenna Warriner is owner of the social media company Parkdale Republic, a marketing coach and host of the Shiny New Clients Podcast. Find her on Instagram and TikTok sharing daily tips on how to use social media to build your business at @JennasPaige. To see Content Director, Adam Cort’s, interview with Jenna as part of the “Ask the Experts”  video series, click here.

Updated March 27, 2024