For the uninitiated, finding success on social media may feel like striking gold—impossible to plan, but incredibly lucrative for the lucky few. In the home and design realm in particular, social media has transformed in just a few short years from a place to casually blog about home improvement projects and connect with other design aficionados to a career of its own—in some cases, one that’s successful enough for certain designers to abandon client work altogether and focus solely on content creation.
Stepping into that world, however, can feel like falling down the rabbit hole—the influencer industry (and a designer’s place in it) is constantly evolving. While it’s true that some factors involved in growing an online following are more alchemy than science, there are countless content creation tips, partnership strategies and general best practices that can easily turn even a modest following into a real source of revenue.
At the inaugural Meridian Experience in Bellevue, Washington, last week, design influencer Albie Buabeng set out to provide attendees with a road map to the complicated world of content creation, organizing an event tailored specifically to interior designers in the online sphere. The conference hosted a group of experts in the virtual design space—including Carmeon Hamilton, Dabito, Orlando Soria and Emily Henderson’s design team—with the goal of educating emerging creators on how to best leverage their platforms to both bring in revenue and develop an online brand. Read on for key insights from the event.
Making Brand Connections
Brand partnerships are a primary source of revenue for many online creators, and influencers Rashida Banks and Ashley Basnight took the stage to talk about how to connect with the companies and individuals in charge of those opportunities. Their primer on pitching started with the biggest initial hurdle: finding the right contact for a brand. Their advice? Sometimes, it’s as simple as Googling the brand’s name and the title “influencer marketing manager;” in other cases, they suggested directly messaging the brand’s official account with an inquiry or reaching out to an already-partnered friend to make the introduction for you.
When it comes to putting together a compelling pitch, the pair presented a variety of strategies to help creators demonstrate their value while promoting a company’s products to their audience, regardless of its size. Building out a pitch with statistics, they explained, makes it much more appealing to advertisers—one easy (but integrated) way to conduct your own research is to poll your followers through Instagram’s Story feature, which can be as simple as posing a “yes or no” question. (Basnight’s example included asking followers if they had the same air-conditioning problem she had and that she knew could be solved through a particular brand’s products.) From there, a creator can cite the percentage of their audience impacted by the issue in their pitch while demonstrating that the brand partnership would be a solution.
Other pitch-improving methods covered searching online for a company’s annual financial report and specifically scanning the document for the “competitive strengths,” “strategy” and “risk” sections. That might sound dry, but if your content or partnership could offer a solution to a company’s challenges, that information could be used as context to develop your content pitch. Checking out a brand’s existing online ad library (easily searchable on Facebook) also offers a quick glimpse at the particular products or campaigns they’re currently promoting.
The duo also stressed the importance of protecting yourself in contracts. Beware of the phrase “in perpetuity”—if a creator wants to work with a brand’s competitor in the future, things could get contentious. Instead, setting a clear time frame for partnerships and content usage is advisable. In advance of contract conversations, it also helps to conduct some preliminary research into the kinds of advertisements a brand may want to introduce—“white listing,” for example, is when an advertiser boosts a branded post that originates from an influencer’s account, while “dark posts” refer to targeted ads on social media that appear as sponsored content directed toward specific followers.
Useful tools: Hunter.io is a website that compiles an index of corporate email formats. If you have the name of an individual you’d like to get in contact with, you can try plugging it into their company’s format to reach their inbox. Loom allows users to send video pitches—and also provides data like unique views to convey if a clip has been watched.
Drilling down to the process of creating the content itself, Joanna Hawley-McBride and Sara Ligorria-Tramp hosted a photo creator lab to share their expertise as designer-photographer influencers. The duo outlined several practical tips for documenting interior spaces when armed only with an iPhone, including capturing the best perspective (to make the space inviting, the camera should be positioned at eye level or just above, with the photographer on the opposite side of the light source to avoid casting a shadow). Personal touches—an open book, a steaming mug or a hand entering the frame to grab a drink off a tablescape—can also spruce up a lifestyle shot for brand partnerships. When photographing products, both overhead angles and close-ups are favorable to advertisers; portrait mode is helpful here to bring an object into focus.
When photographing branded products, the company’s logo should be clearly visible, and the item should only be used as intended—additionally, creators should be careful not to feature competitors’ products in the shot. The pair advised coordinating with the brand ahead of time to determine the company’s intended use for the image, and the appropriate payment for that usage. A creator may consider charging higher fees depending on whether their content will be used as an ad, put in an email newsletter, on websites, in print or in magazines.
Useful tools: The photo-editing app Snapseed includes a tool that allows you to get rid of outlets, light switches and cords to make a space look cleaner. Another app, SunCalc, tracks the sun’s movement and phases during the day at a given location—a feature that can help with planning lighting needs when photographing interiors.
Introduction to Affiliate Marketing
Buabeng herself led a lecture on affiliate marketing, which allows creators to earn a commission on sales generated by posting links to a product’s purchase page. As Buabeng described it, creators are reaching consumers “at the bottom of a funnel”—they’re already primed and ready to spend, as opposed to needing to be introduced to the brand. The influencer, then, is essentially earning a finder’s fee.
Various affiliate marketing platforms can serve as liaisons between brands and creators to generate links quickly. Buabeng laid out three of the most common, all of which require applicants to submit to an approval process that vets their social media accounts. In the Amazon Associates Program, creators can expect to hear back on their approval within a week of applying and can then generate links based on the e-commerce giant’s variety of partnering brands. The Associates Program is also often a segue into Amazon’s more exclusive Influencers Program, which offers a whole new host of perks—a unique vanity URL, a specialized Amazon storefront and livestreaming abilities among them. (Buabeng herself spent four years at the associate level before attaining influencer status.)
ShopStyle Collective is another entry-level option for affiliate marketing with a relatively low threshold for approval, meaning creators with even a modest following are likely to gain access. Though this platform has a smaller circle of available vendors, Buabeng noted it does provide a better interface than other providers for displaying unique product assortments in carousels and shoppable feeds.
The most selective platform is LTK, formerly known as RewardStyle, with an approval process that sets high standards for a creator’s average likes, engagement and follower counts, primarily because it yields the highest commission across brands. The platform also offers a robust vendor selection and the option to request new brands, as well as widgets you can embed within a blog or website and a useful feature called a “money spot” that links a collection of products to a corresponding page where they’ll be grouped together.
While affiliate marketing is a difficult revenue stream to plan for when setting financial goals—primarily because commissions vary from category to category and platform to platform—Buabeng argued that it can be a great metric to use when courting future brand partners. If your engagement is good, your audience will get in the habit of clicking links, feeding back into the cycle of strong engagement on sponsored posts—and providing a major selling point when demonstrating your audience’s buying power to brand partners.
Useful tools: Amazon Associates, ShopStyle Collective and LTK are three of the largest affiliate link generating platforms, with varying approval levels for creators of all sizes.
Converting Blogs into Business
Clocking in at nearly a million Instagram followers, Henderson and her design team guided attendees through operating a blog as an income-generating business. The trick to keeping a blog from languishing in a forgotten corner of the internet, Henderson explained, lies in using it to educate readers, leverage content with design projects, work with brand partners and monetize through advertisements and affiliate links.
The perks of monetizing an independent blog site mainly come from the amount of additional control a creator enjoys—on existing social media platforms, influencers are forced to contend with constantly changing features and mysterious algorithms in order to distribute and make money off of their content. A blog offers a more straightforward platform where posts won’t get buried in a timeline-based feed—an attractive point when working with brands, which often want sponsored content to have a permanent place on the internet to open the door to longer-term performance. Henderson’s team also explained their pricing structure—instead of issuing a flat rate for content, they negotiate every partnership based on parameters like deliverables, scope of work, marketing needs and how aligned it is with their brand.
Publishing content independent of an existing platform’s timeline also means that posts can generate passive income indefinitely—as long as they’re formatted in the back end of a site to produce the most searchability on engines like Google. The team extolled a few tips on boosting search results in order to reach a wider, more consistent audience, and by extension become more attractive to sponsors: In content management systems like WordPress, pepper the title, keywords and slug sections with popular search terms (that are still relevant to the content, of course) like “trend,” “budget-friendly” and “affordable.” For bonus points, placing relevant SEO terms in your Instagram bio—Henderson’s had “stylist,” “author” and “founder”—can boost your own name and profile in search results as well.
Taking a step back—and echoing Buabeng’s point about elusive financial targets—the team also shared some insights from the business strategy side of things, which included a nugget of wisdom about long-term planning in the content creation field—namely, that it’s extremely difficult to do. Beyond mapping out posts in accordance with key stages of monthslong projects, any attempt to align content creation with a five- or 10-year plan is “fruitless,” in Henderson’s words, due to the constantly changing nature of online trends and terrain. Instead, she suggested, focus on leveraging existing design work on blogs and social media sites before making a financially shaky leap to a full-on content creation career. Taking one day or even just a couple of hours out of the week to batch content, then “sprinkling it out throughout the week,” is one way to save time while building a following. Additionally, picking a main social media platform or blog to develop your online presence, then repurposing that content across other platforms, is a time-saving way to broaden your reach without overextending yourself.
Useful tools: Looking to cash in on your content? AdThrive, Adsense or Mediavine are all popular management platforms that allow bloggers to monetize content through online advertisements posted on self-hosted blog sites.
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