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For some small businesses, Instagram has replaced word-of-mouth

It’s not about who you know, but who you follow

Jarema Osofsky’s apartment is an Instagram dream. Sunlight pours across soft, caramel brown wooden floors. A round, aging corgi named Topanga totters quietly after guests while Yo La Tengo filters through speakers a room over. Just beyond bags of dirt and potting is the main attraction: a room full of lush, leafy plants waiting to be taken home.

Self-styled as DirtQueenNYC, Osofsky got her start selling plants on a Brooklyn street. But like many Instagram users finding new ways to use the platform — whether it’s creating safe havens through secret finsta accounts, garage sale-style selling, photo fan-fic, or repurposing memes — she’s past posting flashy photos to the main grid. DirtQueenNYC is something else: a modern take on word-of-mouth marketing. “People post a picture of a plant that they got from me and tag me,” she says. From there, her service spreads among their friends.

It’s a long way from two summers ago, when she worked as an artist assistant and sold plants on the sidewalk. Depressed and feeling stuck, she found comfort in care for plant life. As the days wore on, she’d post photos to Instagram, updating her friends on how to find her, though most of her customers were neighborhood locals. She’d tag photos of her buyers — far more informal than subscribing to a mailing list, or passing along her contact info — which then made it easy for their friends to find. Cold weather eventually set in, and Osofsky took her business home, literally. Old customers reached out often. It was a natural step, she says, for her to start selling plants out of her home.

Today, you can set up a time to meet the dirt queen herself by messaging her on Instagram. Once over, Osofsky talks through topics like pets, maintenance, and sunlight setups over a cup of tea. “A lot of people are new plant parents,” she says. “We want to set them up for success and give them something that is manageable that they can actually take care of… I feel like I’m able to really give people a very tailored experience.” A small to medium-sized potted plant will sell for anywhere from $15-$45, while the larger items can range up to $175. Osofsky also sells handmade and vintage planters she modifies specifically for her plants.

And her services include what you could consider customer service and consulting: some buyers will DM her to ask about care or plant health. “In that sense, it has made it almost a 24/7 customer service experience,” she says. These days she’s trying to balance boundaries and stick to more regular hours. “Otherwise, I’m watching a movie with my boyfriend, and he’s like, ‘Stop messaging your customers.’ And I’m like, ‘But it’s urgent!’”

Social media criticisms often take aim at the impersonal nature of the medium. Instagram specifically has even been linked to poor mental health. For Osofsky, however, it’s allowed her to pursue a much more personal experience. “Instagram in general has made the whole shopping experience with me be more of an experience and less of a transaction,” she says. “It’s almost intimate.” Compare this to an in-store experience, she adds, where at best she’d ring someone up and send them on their way. “I get to know them.” And while you could conceivably call any plant shop and ask for advice, Osofsky offers the added benefit of communicating directly via DM — a comfortable, easy way to get what you need at your leisure.

Her services are by appointment only. Because so many of her customers have been friends of friends, Osofsky says she’s felt safe in welcoming strangers into her apartment. More importantly, however, being able to quickly view someone’s profile makes it easy for her to vet customers. “I can see what they’re about,” she says. “I usually feel pretty good about it. If I haven’t felt good about it, then I wait until I have a friend here with me.”

For now Osofsky is staying local, though she hopes to continue expanding her business. It’s her modern mom-and-pop shop, one that introduces her to more neighbors than she’d ever met. “It does feel like I’m getting a sense of community through doing this,” she says. It’s the best social media has to offer — accessible curation with an individualized touch.

Of every network today, Instagram is the most polished. Whether influencer or average user, people present their best selves. But DirtQueenNYC isn’t interested in an impossible, idealized life. “A lot of people’s feeds are filled with these sort of aspirational photos of vacations they’ll never be able to go on, homes they won’t have,” Osofsky says. “You see so many glamorous photos of people’s lives.” The DirtQueenNYC account, however, offers something more attainable: “Hey, here’s a plant on a shelf. Do you want to buy it?”

“It’s really not glamorous, I don’t think,” she says. “But I feel like it’s tangible.”

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