Thunder Bay

How beautiful cakes drew more than 80K Instagram followers to this Thunder Bay bakery

The top Instagram account in Thunder Bay doesn’t belong to a politician, the city or even a media outlet such as CBC. According to Ninja Influence, which produces software to help brands connect with influencers, it’s a bakery:  Milk and Water Baking Co.

Milk and Water Baking Co.'s content has been shared by Wilton Cakes and other massive accounts

Four women stand at a counter behind a tray of cupcakes and a cake on a stand. Next to them is a cooler containing more cakes.
Ellen Bright, second from left, credits Milk and Water's Instagram account with helping transform her hobby into a thriving business. (Supplied by Milk and Water Baking Co. )

The top Instagram account in Thunder Bay, Ont., doesn't belong to a politician, the city or even a media outlet such as CBC. 

According to Ninja Influence, which produces software to help brands connect with influencers, it's a bakery: Milk and Water Baking Co.

The company's original Instagram account, launched in March of 2016, boasts nearly 85,000 followers and features breathtaking photographs of cakes and cupcakes decorated with elaborate floral designs.

One digital marketing expert told CBC News it's a great example of choosing the right social media platform and posting the right content at the right time.

"I think it mostly took off because I just enjoyed arranging cupcakes and taking photos, and they just looked pretty, it's esthetically pleasing," said Ellen Bright, Milk and Water's owner, founder and CEO.

"When I started my account, there was like maybe 120 followers. And then I think within a few months, it was already at 10,000. And that was like, 'Okay, this is unreal.' … And then it just kept growing and growing."

Bright worked part-time as a clerk at the hospital when she started posting photos of her cake creations on social media. 

At first, baking was just something she did for family and friends. 

She would post photos on Facebook, which triggered some orders through her Facebook page. 

Before long, her hobby was a side business and then a full-time job.

Bright had no experience in social media marketing and didn't set out to become an influencer, but said she loved the process of photographing her creations enough to spend more than an hour a day working on it. 

Content shared on high profile social accounts

A number of high-profile accounts, including Wilton Cakes, shared her content and popularized her technique of using multiple piping tips to create elaborate floral patterns, all of which helped drive up the number of followers. 

Ultimately, she credits the Instagram account for helping turn Milk and Water into a full-time enterprise that recently moved from its 400-square-foot space into a 1,000-square-foot facility with seven staff.

"It got my product out there," she said. "And I just started getting orders … that and the fact that the cupcakes are good are like probably the two reasons why the business is successful."

Ironically, Bright's creations are so in-demand now that she has far less time to devote to photographing them.

When she first opened her shop five years ago, she launched a second Instagram account to showcase items available in the store. Earlier this year, she stopped posting to the larger account to focus on the local one.

The larger account was generating more direct messages than she could possibly respond to, she said, and creating demand she couldn't satisfy.

"People even from the States and stuff would ask for me to send them orders. And that was before I had the business even. And I was like, 'Oh, … I can't ship this.'"

The coordinator of Advertising Marketing and Communications Management program at Algonquin College said she typically encourages people not to divide their content across multiple accounts on the same social media platform.

But Liz Babiak said she can understand the motivation for doing so if an account is generating more traffic than a business can handle. 

Babiak praised Bright for cleverly selecting a social media platform – Instagram – that is focused on visual media because it's the perfect showcase for her creations. 

"These are just beautiful images," she said of Milk and Water's content. 

"They're not just always showcasing their products on the counter … they're actually taking the time to style these [with] beautiful things in the background, like photos or greenery, right? They're really bringing their images to life."

The company also makes strategic use of hashtags, which can still be helpful, Babiak said, even if they aren't as popular as they used to be. 

And by posting once or twice a day, Bright stands to keep showing up in people's feeds as they pause during the day to scroll, Babiak added.

As for other business owners just starting out on social media, Bright offers some advice.

"Authenticity is key … I think part of it is kind of a naiveté that I had, like, 'I'm just gonna do this, and it'll be fun.' Like when you're doing something for fun, I think it's always more successful than when you're trying to get a certain result out of it."