Three years ago in a North Carolina Applebee’s, former Campbell University student, Matt Nelson, tweeted about the “petability” of a Japanese Irish Setter who supposedly lost an eye in Vietnam.
Literally overnight – and several hilarious tweets later – Nelson’s @dog_rates Twitter account garnered about 500 followers. By the end of the month, that number grew to over 100,000. Little did Nelson know, his “WeRateDogs” Twitter account would change the direction of his life – and digital doggo culture – forever.
With over 6.9 million followers on Twitter today, @dog_rates has become one of the most successful pet-rating accounts on social media. But the brand reaches far beyond Twitter. Since his fateful Applebee’s tweet in 2015, We Rate Dogs has become a full-on brand, adding a merch line, publishing a recent Amazon best-selling calendar, and Nelson leverages speaking engagements and has even partnered with established brands, like Disney, to continue growing the brand’s powerfully loyal following.
Here we have a Japanese Irish Setter. Lost eye in Vietnam (?). Big fan of relaxing on stair. 8/10 would pet pic.twitter.com/BLDqew2Ijj
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) November 15, 2015
How It All Started
It was his love for comedy – not just dogs – that first drew Nelson to develop the @dog_rates account.
“I started using Twitter as a creative outlet when I was a junior in high school. I wrote jokes and tried to mimic the styles of the different creators I looked up to,” Nelson said. “Initially, my jokes were horrible, but I set a dedicated time each day to write them out, and eventually, I started sending tweets to bigger creators.”
Writing around 30 jokes per week, Nelson soon became part of the growing Twitter comedy community. As he established his personal brand and gained about 10,000 followers, Nelson quickly learned that jokes involving dogs seemed to do much better than others, simply because of the strong canine-loving communities on social media.
“I had some go-to jokes I was known for; I did an ‘Animals on Dates’ series, and that became something people really enjoyed. But I soon recognized that if I wanted my writing to expand past my following at the time, I would have to utilize dogs. And somehow, rating them was not something that was already being done at the time.”
Nelson then polled his Twitter community to see if a “We Rate Dogs” account might work for them. They loved the idea.
“So, I made the account, retweeted the first post on my personal, and woke up three days later with more followers than my personal account. I created the account in November of 2015, and the rest has been a blur,” Nelson said.
This is Goose. He's a womanizer. Cheeky as h*ck, but also deep. Tongue slip game on another level. 13/10 will steal your girl pic.twitter.com/V2WlACRJCN
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) June 16, 2017
From Part-Time Hobby to Full-Time Career
A freshman at Campbell University at the time, Nelson had been going to school for professional golf management. But school soon took a back seat to his greater passion – digital media.
“I soon became obsessed with social and digital media and the creative outlet they offered,” said Nelson.
Not wanting to be “that guy” who created multiple parody accounts and stole other peoples’ content, Nelson said he truly became invested in the writing and humor aspects of content development.
“There are plenty of cute animal accounts out there, but from the beginning, I went out of my way to make my posts humorous, and to try to give the account a real personality. I think that’s what made We Rate Dogs so refreshing. I can’t argue that the pictures don’t drive the audience — they do. But I have developed a style that allows the image and the caption to lean on each other in a creative way,” he said.
Nelson has now made a career out of digital content creation, sometimes spending hours writing and reading tweets before they’re posted.
“I often laugh that I’m basically telling the same joke over and over again because every post has a caption, rating, and a comment. That’s it. But every word has intent behind it, and the picture and caption have to go hand-in-hand,” he said.
This is Napolean. He's a Raggedy East Nicaraguan Zoom Zoom. Runs on one leg. Built for deception. No eyes. Good with kids. 12/10 great doggo pic.twitter.com/PR7B7w1rUw
— WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates) June 4, 2017
Contrary to popular belief, most of Nelson’s time isn’t spent writing out tweets or taking photos of dogs. He consistently engages with his loyal community and remains an active participant in the digital doggo conversation.
“Eighty percent of my time is spent reading tweets and other digital content, poring over analytics and being connected to my audience,” he said.
Nelson even attributes the success of his other dog-themed account, Thoughts of Dog, to community engagement.
“That account was only possible because I’ve been in this ‘internet dog’ culture community for the last two years. Like I couldn’t just start that account and magically know what people want immediately. I know what people are looking for because I’ve already been on that side of things for a while,” he said.
i had a long talk. with my fren. about how to spot. a fake ball throw. the optimal strategy. is to follow the ball. with your eyes. instead of your heart
— Thoughts of Dog (@dog_feelings) January 27, 2018
Community, humor and original content are just a few reasons the @dog_rates earns roughly 8,000-12,000 new followers each day. And they’re also why Nelson’s other endeavors, like his recent Amazon Best-Selling calendar – have been so successful.
But along with hard work, Nelson attributes much of his puppo prosperity to good fortune.
“My initial success has been just pure luck. The biggest thing for me lately has been the commitment to drop out of school and make the side hustle, the real hustle. It’s definitely new territory, but going “all in” has given me the chance to chase my passion. It was the right call for me.”
Nelson highlighted the importance of following a dream, though sometimes working a regular job or going to school may be required to see it through.
“The traditional path is not the only path. College isn’t always the next stop, and it’s definitely not the only path to success anymore. There are so many different roads. The field is truly even if everyone has internet access, and a little bit of creativity goes a long way as long as you don’t ignore that passion.”