How one journalist created a viral Instagram franchise

Elizabeth Holmes turned her critiques of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle’s fashion into a must-follow

Journalist Elizabeth Holmes is somewhat of a unicorn in today’s social-media landscape: a former Wall Street Journal reporter with a thriving Instagram franchise—which she does strictly for fun. Holmes started So Many Thoughts (affectionately known to her nearly 100,000 Instagram followers as SMT), an ongoing series on her personal Instagram account in which she critiques Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle’s fashion, among other topics, in December 2017, essentially by accident.

“I started SMT while I was nursing my second son,” Holmes explained to Cup of Jo founder Joanna Goddard in front of a standing-room-only crowd during their recent talk at WeWork Now in New York. “I had moved from New York to California and had kind of a hard time adjusting to suburban life, and I spent a lot of time on my phone [while nursing].”

That extra screen time allowed Holmes to be at the ready when a major royals moment occurred. “I happened to be home in Illinois for the holidays and Kate and William’s Christmas card popped up on Instagram,” she remembered, “and I thought to myself, I have so many thoughts about this.

Holmes shared those thoughts on Instagram Stories in her now-trademark tiny-text-bubble style, which elicited an instant reaction from her followers. “Suddenly I got all these DMs from people that said, ‘That was really fun,’” Holmes said. “They said ‘Would you do more?’ And as the news cycle would have it, they served up Meghan and Harry’s engagement photos, which I thought, I have so many thoughts on these photos, too.” From then on, SMT was officially A Thing. “It wasn’t a strategic thing, it wasn’t planned.”

As a mom of two young boys (and with a baby girl on the way), Holmes is the first to admit that she isn’t the one breaking news with SMT; rather, she’s sharing her take on the royals’ fashion in a thoughtful and entertaining way. And at a time when criticism itself is being debated on social media (see: Olivia Munn vs. the Fug Girls), Holmes wants SMT to be a place where her followers can embrace the debate—ideally in a healthy way.

“I don’t know if it’s bloggers and sponsored content, or a sort of reaction to the trolls, but anytime people are critical they’re seen as [attacking],” Holmes said following the panel. “And the thing is, loving everything is not interesting, and it’s not true either.”

Still, as one would expect from a journalist of Holmes’s caliber, she has standards for how far she’ll go. “The line I try to draw is that there’s never a need to be nasty. I do hope the broader purpose of SMT is to help people think critically, to know they can not like something, and identify why they don’t like it, and be thoughtful.”

One thing that was clear at the talk is that Holmes has a devoted fanbase, and they’re waiting to see what she does next with SMT—which, again, she does for free. When an audience member asked if and how she’ll monetize the brand, Holmes implied that you won’t see any royal-baby #sponcon from her anytime soon.

“I think this is where the old-school journalist in me comes in,” she said. “I’m a journalist first, and I know the influencer world, but I don’t consider myself an influencer.” Still, she insists that if she had the time, she would cover other royals (like Spain’s Queen Letizia) and says she “would spend my whole day doing [SMT]—and I hope I can soon.”

While we anxiously wait to see where Holmes takes SMT next, here are three takeaways for building an Instagram following to borrow from her.

Don’t be afraid to do something untraditional for the platform. Holmes uses Instagram—a largely visual medium—to share her Many Thoughts, in text form. “I think people are hungry for substantive but entertaining content,” she said. “There’s a real opportunity [on Instagram Stories] to slip in something that has a little more meaning or thought.” And Holmes is committed to keeping them bite-size. “It’s not a dissertation—the number of words in an SMT post is not actually that many, but I try very hard to pepper in a few clever things and thoughtful things, and make it sort of a buffet.”

Have a goal, and stick to it. In addition to giving people an opportunity to think critically, Holmes emphasized that, ultimately, SMT is meant to be fun for her and her fans. “[I want] people to feel like, ‘Oh, I just stopped and read something and it probably took a minute or two of my time. And I was also entertained and I looked at some pretty clothes and a pretty person.’”

Give yourself a break—and don’t feed the trolls. When a fan asked Holmes how she keeps a clear head on social media, she admitted that it isn’t always easy. She once had to turn off her DMs after she opined that the Duchess of Sussex’s dress was too short when the latter spoke on a panel earlier this year—and Meghan fans had feelings. Holmes harked back to this moment after the panel, explaining why it’s a critique, not a bash. “I can like that Meghan wore this dress and I can also think it’s too short for the panel occasion that she was speaking on. Those two ideas can coexist, and you shouldn’t shy away from [sharing] that.”

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