How Inspirational Quotes Became A Whole Social Media Industry
"Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present."
"It’s the journey, not the destination, that counts."
"Live, love, laugh. (And don’t forget to share and subscribe!)."
Motivational quotes are endemic on social media, with Facebook and Instagram in particular riddled with “profound” messages, often set against a whimsical background. You know the type – those pictures of waterfalls and sunsets with sayings like “You can’t have a rainbow without the rain” that your aunt keeps sharing with comments like “So true”.
They might make many cringe, but so popular are motivational quotes online that, for some, they can be big business – liked, shared and monetised to create a whole inspirational quote industry.
Shawn, 45 from Canada, runs several popular quote accounts on social media as well as his own quote-filled website. His Twitter account, @motivational, has 669,000 followers; his Facebook account @quotesandsayings has over 4 million. His interest in motivational quotes has proven lucrative, and while he still has a day job in the wireless technology industry, he says that he’s recently been taking home two to three times his regular income from advertising on his website. “I could quit my day job from the advertising revenue I’m getting.” he says.
Shawn recognised the appeal of motivational quotes early on. One day when he was a teenager, he was browsing in a book shop and came across a small book of famous quotations. Something about these pithy sayings appealed to him, and he started to compile his own collection of quotes that particularly resonated. In 1998, he started a “thought of the day” email mailing list and registered the web domain HappyPublishing.com (tag line: “Helping you think thoughts you’ve never thought before”), initially intending it just to be an online home for the pocket book he’d put together.
A few years later, he started reading about internet marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO), and managed to get his website among the top search results for the phrase “motivational quotes”. Then, a Google algorithm change cause him to nosedive down the rankings. Two major algorithm changes in 2011 and 2012, referred to as Google Panda and Penguin, targeted many of the SEO tricks people (including Shawn) had used up until that point to game Google’s rankings, in an attempt to de-prioritize low-quality content.
“That’s when I kind of quit the internet,” Shawn says. “I was so frustrated, couldn’t regain my ranking, and just closed everything down – even my 35,000-subscriber email newsletter, which was one of my big mistakes.”
In many ways, the history of the online motivational quote industry is the history of how we use the internet. When Shawn closed his mailing list, social media was on the rise. He had around 40,000 Facebook and Twitter followers, and told his email subscribers to follow him there instead. “Dumb me, I thought everybody would just do it,” he says. “Fast-forward a few years and you realise the reach on social media isn’t that great all the time.”
For a long time, says Shawn, his Facebook follower number was stuck around 45,000. Originally, he was just posting text quotes. He realised that the algorithm rewarded regular posting, and he suddenly started to gain thousands of new followers a day. He also started to do “share for share” deals with other popular quote pages, posting content from their pages in return for the same. One of these fellow quote enthusiasts advised him to move away from just posting text, and he embraced what he calls “quote pics” – the now-ubiquitous social media trend of inspirational quotes overlaid over images of sunsets and landscapes. He makes his own images using apps such as Word Swag – although he notes that many accounts seem content just to take and re-use quote pics they find elsewhere if they don’t have a name attached.
What makes a truly inspiring inspirational quote? “To tell you the truth, I really don’t like a lot of the stuff that’s out there on the internet right now,” says Shawn. “It’s like a dopamine hit where you’re searching through a whole lot of crap and then you find something that’s great and it hits you. You get this euphoric feeling, almost like a drug. I like to call it the ‘wisdom buzz’. You get a buzz of wisdom and it feels as if your mind has just expanded and you’re open to a whole new idea that you’ve never before conceived of.”
His own preference is for longer, more esoteric quotes, from writers and philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Arthur Schopenhauer – but that’s not usually what his followers respond to. “It’s always fascinating to see people reacting out of proportion positively towards some really basic piece of junk quote that you think is the worst thing ever,” he says. “Then you’ll see something online that’s great, it’s fascinating, and it gets no attention at all. Everybody’s at different levels in their own development, and you’ve got to realise you’re edging humanity along inch by inch.”
He says he now tries to find things that resonate with people – which tends to be quite simple one-liners – rather than what he most likes. Over the years, he has gathered together a collection of around 4,000 quotes, and he often reposts the same ones with new filters. He also runs a chatbot on Messenger that sends a quote of the day out, and films a livestream video every evening (recent topics: “Can you ‘be there’ for everyone all the time?”; “Do you follow your bliss?”). He hasn’t quite yet cracked Instagram, where he says the 53,000-strong following for his account @quotesandproverbs is ”embarrassingly low”, and he makes money by directing people to view more quotes on his website, where he runs advertising; other popular quote page owners also earn revenue through selling e-books or life coaching.
It’s not just quote pages that are capitalising on the motivational quote phenomenon; brands are also turning to the format as a good marketing tool. In 2018, copywriter Laura Belgray, who runs New York-based company Talking Shrimp, gained viral fame after she wrote a piece published on Money.com with the headline “I Get Paid $6,000 a Day to Write Inspirational Quotes for Instagram. Here’s how I perfected this dream job.”
Rather than sharing the same old quotes you see in your feed every day, Belgray makes up her own. She initially just wrote them for her own Instagram, where she has 33.5k followers, as a way of showing off her copywriting skills. “Something that says something is way more repostable than a picture of my feet on the beach with a laptop,” she says. Her quotes often contain an element of humour and frequently reference the copywriting industry and her work lifestyle. Recent posts include “It’s OK to change your story. (Unless you’re under arrest.)” and “‘Charge your worth’ doesn’t mean your worth as a human. No one can afford that.”
Then, one of her clients, psychologist and life coach Sasha Heinz, asked Belgray if she could make some quotes for her too. Heinz would send over a sentence with the sentiment she wanted to convey, and Belgray would come up with a snappier way to put it. Belgray doesn’t advertise this service per se, but came up with the $6,000 figure based on her usual day rate at the time – though she clarifies that very little of her time is spent making quotes as opposed to other forms of copywriting, and she doesn’t usually work a full day.
In Belgray’s world, originality is critical. “It’s pretty hard to stand out by quoting ‘Be yourself, because everyone else is taken,’ et cetera – and it’s often ironic to quote that one.” She says that effort is not necessarily proportionate to the result – sometimes she’ll spend all day thinking of something and people won’t be interested; another time she’ll dash something off and it will strike a chord.
What is it that makes motivational quotes so appealing to some (and so repellant to others)? The format is arguably designed for shareability – originally by word of mouth or in books like the one Shawn found as a teenager, and now on social media. Gordon Pennycook, a psychologist at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, whose work “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2016, found that some people are more likely to ascribe profundity to nonsense statements than others, and that these people are less reflective and lower in cognitive ability, as well as more likely to hold supernatural beliefs and endorse complementary and alternative medicines.
To be clear, Pennycook’s work used statements made up of nonsense buzzwords as opposed to actual motivational quotes, which do at least make some kind of sense (usually). But in one study where participants were asked to rate the profundity of both these ‘b******t’ sayings and actual motivational quotes, those who rated the quotes as more profound were also likely to rate the actual motivational quotes as more profound, and Pennycook sees a similarity between the made-up b******t he and his team used and some of the more cringeworthy quotes that pop up on social media. One common characteristic is using floral language to make a sentence appear more important or impressive than its actual meaning. “In many cases it’s pretty trite,” he says. “Most self-help books are very elaborate ways of saying ‘You should try harder’ in different ways.”
Ultimately, Pennycook says, we tend to share things that pull on our emotions – whether that’s fake news or inspirational quotes. And while it’s easy to mock people who may read too much into trite platitudes, being too skeptical can also have its downsides. “It does pull some of the magic from the world,” he says.