social media | Sep 6, 2023 |
Brand partnerships are the bedrock of Anne Sage’s business. Here’s how she did it

Design was always a natural fit for Anne Sage, who grew up sourcing rugs and decor alongside her mother and grandmother for their shop in Reno, Nevada. Design school, however—not so much. After graduating with an English degree from Stanford, she pursued her interior design masters at Pratt in Brooklyn, before realizing six weeks later that the program was simply not a fit. She settled in New York anyway and took up a job at a small advertising agency, where she learned to develop strategies for bringing a product to market (a skill that would prove useful later).

Still, her interest in interiors remained. “I was living in New York and I wanted to be working at a magazine, but this was in the mid-2000s when it was still very much a closed door for that world—if your mom’s best friend’s college roommate wasn’t an editor somewhere, then you were out of luck,” she says. “That’s when I decided to start a blog at the suggestion of a mentor, just to have some creative outlet.”

In 2008, Sage joined a rising tide of design bloggers and soon caught the eye of local designer Crystal Palecek. Together, the pair launched Rue magazine in 2010, leading a new wave of digital-first shelter magazines. Even after she left the publication two years later, Sage’s design journey continued—she took private design clients and published a book, Sage Living: Decorate for the Life You Want. Throughout it all, she’s documented her triumphs, hard times and everything in between on social media, garnering a following of 201,000 on Instagram. In 2021, she moved into the Reno home that her grandparents built in the 1960s—a shift that also marked the start of her next act as a full-time content creator.

Ahead, she shares the brand partnership approach that’s developed into a full-fledged business of its own, why she’s featured in exactly half of her content, and how she overcame the learning curve to producing video—and found virality on the other side.

When did you start approaching social media with a strategy?

That was the intention from the very beginning, [but] I realized that there was an opportunity to turn it into my full career when I left Rue in 2012. Around that time, the first few agencies started popping up for brokering paid content between brands and content creators, and began to represent content creators and manage them. I got management two years after that, around 2014, but there was just this general energy—it was becoming an industry rather than just a bunch of passionate hobbyists who were having fun online.

In December 2013, my book proposal went up for auction, and the offers were sizable enough that I could focus entirely on writing the book and maintaining my blog and Instagram, and not have to worry about picking up a ton of side jobs. Granted, it was really lean financially, but that was the point where it was like, “OK, this is something that I can make work if I’m smart and careful and diligent and consistent.”

Brand partnerships are the bedrock of Anne Sage’s business. Here’s how she did it
Sage’s social media career kicked off shortly after she secured her first book dealCourtesy of Anne Sage

What was the trajectory of your growth?

It’s been a pattern of slow and steady, and then there will be a big jump; then slow, steady and another big jump. Certainly, the biggest jump that resulted in where I’m at today was from about January 2022 to September 2022—that’s when I invested all my energy and time into creating video content. It was also a golden time in terms of the Instagram algorithm because it’s when they were really pushing video. If you were doing Reels, the algorithm was rewarding you with growth.

I had been doing Reels prior to that, but not with my nose to the grindstone, every single day, hopping on audio trends. I was like, “This is the crest of the wave. I’m going to get left behind if I don’t get on it.” It became very clear that if you weren’t focusing almost exclusively on Reels, you were not going to grow or see engagement, because photo posts were just crashing and burning. That was the impetus to [make more videos]. I reached a point in summer of 2022 when my Reels were going viral probably once a week. One of my most-viewed Reels by the end of that period hit 16 million views. It was a funny mom observation reel—it was kind of rough, but that was a time when everything was just exponentially exploding.

Then, my understanding of what happened is that users were seriously annoyed that Instagram was pushing video so hard, so around the fall of last year, Instagram pulled way back on just how much unsolicited video they were putting in users’ feeds. It was like overnight, that huge exponential growth—where I was getting tons of new followers, tons of people who genuinely seemed excited to have found my content and were really into it—just stopped. I know for many others as well, we’ve just been limping along in the last year. It’s impossible to get straight answers. I think so many people are super, super over it right now, and I can count myself in that group.

Was the transition to video difficult for you?

I would not say it was difficult, but it definitely required a lot of trial and error on my part, and just being willing to do it in order to get better at it. It’s like anything—like working out or learning any new skill. The only way to actually do it is just to do it. In my early videos you can definitely see the learning curve. For a while I was really focused on the tricks and the fancy transitions and the gimmicky funny audio, and now I’ve reached a point where I don’t really bother with any of that stuff. I just focus on, “What’s the message I’m getting across? What’s the story I’m telling, and what’s the best way to tell it?”

The ones that always performed best were the ones that had nothing to do with design, because they were usually the ones that were funny or quirky or had that kind of sticky quality that goes viral. In terms of the design-related ones that did best, it was always where there was something a little controversial or shocking. One video I did that had 10 million views was actually in partnership with a brand that I have worked with frequently over the years, Crypton Fabric. All I did in the Reel was stare straight at the camera and then pour a glass of red wine on my white sofa. That went viral for obvious reasons: the shock factor, and the fact that it was pretty short, just five or six seconds.

As far as content that’s done well at a medium level but that people seem really interested and engaged with, that’s anytime I break down my styling techniques into a formula. I have some coffee table styling formulas where I’m breaking it down by the numbers so that people can easily digest it and re-create it at home. I’ve reached a point where I don’t want to just be adding to noise—I don’t want to just be doing something because it’s sensational. I’m down to use humor and I’m down to show my personality, but not just as a gimmick to get people to watch a video.

Now, I’ve started incorporating carousels back into my content a little more frequently. Before, I was not posting still photos at all, because why bother? No one would see. Now, I’ll post carousels maybe once or twice a week, and I’ll really try to use that tool in a way that feels appropriate for that particular format, like a great before-and-after swipe or a roundup of all the times I’ve styled a gallery wall.

Brand partnerships are the bedrock of Anne Sage’s business. Here’s how she did it
Sage’s brand partnership experience has spanned from industry brand likes Crypton fabric to fashion houses like H&MCourtesy of Anne Sage

What does the process of producing content look like for you?

I create all my videos on my iPhone. The only time I will shoot video on something other than my iPhone is if it’s a super dark and cloudy day and I’m on a deadline, so I can’t wait for a sunny day—then I will pull out a Canon 5D, so I can dial up the ISO and get better quality video in low light than I could on my iPhone. Whenever I shoot interior photos, that’s also what I use. But other than that, it’s all iPhone. I have a ring light, but I don’t really ever use it—it’s an absolute last resort I use to fill in shadows. Then I have two tripods. One is a heavy-duty super-sturdy tripod that I use most often, but then I do have a little $20 travel tripod that I got from Amazon that I’ll use if I’m just shooting a casual unboxing for Stories.

For video, I edit with an app called Splice, which I’ve found to be super intuitive. Like anything, there’s a slight learning curve, but just get in there and play around—you’ll figure it out. For editing photos, and sometimes video, I use the Lightroom app on my phone. I find the Instagram editing tools to be kind of clunky, and then also there have been so many times when I’ve been editing a video on Instagram and the app crashes and I lose all my work. So I edit in Splice and then I’ll upload it to Instagram Reels, and that’s where I’ll do my text overlays because the algorithm—at least this is what I’ve heard—picks up the text and then uses it to categorize your video, whether you offer design tips or nursery ideas or whatever.

Do you have a content schedule?

That’s one area where I’ve always wanted to, but I’ve never gotten my act in gear for that. I fly by the seat of my pants. I think in large part that’s because it’s always just been me. I don’t have external help. I don’t have a team. But certainly, I always have an ongoing list of ideas, and then I also have ongoing, bigger projects that I’m working on, so I know that when a project is done, I’ll be getting pieces of content out of it as far as having a plan and structure and shooting well in advance.

When did you start working with brands?

I have been working with brands for almost as long as I’ve been in the content space. I can remember some of my first brand collaborations, way back in 2009, when it was very casual—people were just testing ideas, throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. One of the very first brand collaborations I ever did was something with Coach—they were a really early adopter in the social space—but it was literally just a line of code that they gave us to put into the back end of our blog, so that, like, the Coach logo and a flower motif would “grow” in the margins of your blog. I don’t even remember if I received anything in exchange for that. I was just so thrilled that this amazing, huge brand that I admired wanted anything to do with me. In terms of paid content and product trades—because I hate the word “gifting”; it’s not a gift, I’m doing work and giving brands access to my following in exchange for receiving products—that started when I was at Rue. We had an ad sales manager for the digital magazine, and around that time I signed up for an online sales network to include ads on my blog.

In terms of really sizable brand partnerships where I was able to create original content, that started in earnest around 2012. I remember, for example, shooting some video for H&M to promote their clothing recycling program in 2013, then doing some stuff with West Elm where I was creating three different entryway setups using products that they sent and getting paid for that. Around that time was when the brands that were early adopters started jumping on.

Brand partnerships are the bedrock of Anne Sage’s business. Here’s how she did it
Working with a management team has freed up Sage to focus on design and content creationMonica Wang Photography

How much of your business are those brand collaborations today?

That’s my entire income now. I have a management team, an agency called Socialyte, and they are my backbone, because I hate the administrative side of all of it, and I hate the negotiation side. I am not historically great at advocating for myself, so having someone else to be like, “These are the rates. This is what you’re asking of her. Therefore, this is how much you will be paying her for that”—that is worth it. They take a percentage commission out of every deal they negotiate, but that commission is less than the increase [in my rates] they’ve been able to create just by them being the ones handling it all. Because also, of course, what that does is free up my time to just be focusing on the content. There’s only so much I can turn out if I’m also having to field a million emails and get on calls with brands to flesh out concepts and all of that. I’m able to just create the content and focus on that, and they handle all the nitty-gritty that was sucking up a ton of my time.

How do those relationships usually begin?

At this point, it’s been 15 years of just never quitting. In the early years, unfortunately, it [involved] being willing to take on a lot of work that I was either not very impressed with or [received] no pay for. [I had to be] my own proof of concept for the legitimacy of the industry. I don’t think it’s tooting my own horn to say that I’ve been here since the beginning, and I’ve been one of the case studies for how influencer marketing can be extremely powerful, especially when the quality of the content is also very strong. The feedback I always get from brands—and this goes back to my background in consumer strategy [at the ad agency]—is that I really hear what their needs are; I’m very professional and very thorough. I read the brief, I understand their goals, and then I’m able to layer my own voice, creative perspective and understanding of my audience on top of that. The things that I take away from that are that consistency counts for so much; behaving like a professional counts for so much. Standing up for your own worth is really, really important, but so is realizing that it is a business transaction and your client has goals as well. Striking that balance is really important.

How do you choose which brands you’ll work with?

I’m fortunate in that pretty much all the brands that approach me, especially in the last couple years, feel like a good fit. Certainly, there have been some partnerships where over [time] it’s become less of a good fit, largely [whenever] I’m being micromanaged from a creative perspective. But other than that, the brands that are coming to me have thankfully already done their vetting process. They’re familiar with my content, my style, how I approach brand collaborations.

I get lots of emails and DMs from brands that aren’t a good fit, but usually they’re cold-calling me or it’s a mass email that I don’t even necessarily need to reply to. So I’ll delete that, but everything that’s coming through my agency or landing in my inbox that feels directly addressed to me is a good fit. Also, because of my background, I’m able to get creative and figure out, “OK, maybe this doesn’t necessarily look like a fit on the surface, but how can I make it a fit with some unique perspective from my point of view?”

How do you decide how much of yourself makes it on to social media?

I try to be in at least half of my content, because I do want followers to see there’s a human behind the content—both for my own sake and so they feel more of a connection when they are seeing the face of the person making it. But also, anytime I’ve created content where I’m not in it, especially when Reels were going viral a lot, you could tell that users were not really seeing me as a person. They would start fighting among themselves and calling me “she” rather than specifically addressing me in the comments. It’s super unsettling. It’s like, “Hi, I’m here. I’m reading this, I’m a person.” So I really try to be present in at least half my content.

In terms of personal life, I’m not sharing everything personal all the time. I don’t think I’m ever going to be one of those people who’s crying on camera. But I share family life—last night, I went on a date with my husband and I posted a picture of him with his giant margarita. If I went through something difficult, I’ll talk about that. My kitty cat died earlier this summer and it really sucked. I was very open about the fact that we had said goodbye to him, but also what I was experiencing as a result of that, because I do take it seriously that I have a platform and a voice. And I therefore have the opportunity to kind of normalize a lot of the messier human experience, and pet grief is certainly one that so many people go through. We don’t necessarily talk about it as much as we can. I try not to go crazy overboard with it, but I also am not just a closed book either.

Brand partnerships are the bedrock of Anne Sage’s business. Here’s how she did it
Part of her strategy involves including herself in at least half of that content posted on her profileMonica Wang Photography

What’s the biggest challenge for you on social media today?

How incredibly demoralizing it can feel that it doesn’t matter if I do really great work—it’s not necessarily up to me who sees that and how it gets distributed. The algorithm is not only a mystery, but a changing one, and I know that a lot of my colleagues are in the same boat. There’s a sense of powerlessness and a sense of, “What’s the point?” I’m creating some of the best work in my career lately, and it just goes out into a void. That’s really frustrating.

I’m also working on the Embello’s Living by Design virtual showhouse. I was with Laiza Cors when she started [design marketing platform] Embello, and we did it ourselves, just the two of us, for a little while, before I kind of realized I’m trying to do way too many things and I need to step back. This is my second year doing the showhouse, and it’s been so fun to have no budget and to be [told], “Here are some great sponsors with beautiful products—now go play.” I’m really excited to see it launch. I think my space this year is very representative of my style, and people are going to think it’s really cool.

Is social media ever overwhelming for you?

Totally. Especially this summer, which has been kind of emotional on the personal front, I have backed off. I try to post five times a week to my main grid and every day to Stories, but this past summer I just have not had the capacity. In addition to the kitty cat dying, my husband and I have been having some relationship growing pains. It’s all good and we’re working on it, but I’m not thinking about Instagram when I’m in couples therapy or whatever. This summer, for sure, I have backed off a little bit, and it’s been nice to give myself permission to do that. I’m also hoping in the fall to pick back up again, just because it is my job and I do get a lot of pleasure and creative satisfaction from it. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s an ebb and a flow. It’s important to be consistent, but also not at the expense of mental health.

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