social media | Apr 3, 2024 |
Stuck in a social media rut? This designer recommends courting a bit of controversy

In Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with designer and social media manager @celenabrownie.

Celena Browning lives a double life. By day, she’s creating videos from inside one of the most enviable apartments on the internet—a colorful, plant-filled oasis in Los Angeles, complete with cozy armchairs and a floor-to-ceiling gallery wall. When she’s not in front of the camera, she’s on the other side of the industry: helping major brands launch their own online followings, social media campaigns and influencer partnerships.

It took a while to strike a balance between her twin talents. Despite an early interest in design, she graduated college with a communications degree in 2018, working briefly in marketing for a major music label before realizing her true passions lay elsewhere. By 2020, the opportunities for creatives online had transformed—and a few TikTok videos of her former Brooklyn apartment earned Browning 10,000 followers in one week. “That’s when I took full control,” she says. “I was like, ‘Alright, I’m doing what I’ve been wanting to do my entire life.’”

As Browning built up her own online presence, she began to take on freelance social media management jobs for major clients like Paramount Plus, Disney Studios and Amazon Prime. Then came a third arm of her business: TikTok design clients who wanted a vibrant home paradise modeled after her own. Nearly four years in, she’s seen nothing but growth across all areas of her business—and with more than 87,000 followers on TikTok and her biggest project to date on the horizon, she has no intention of slowing down.

Here, she tells BOH how she learned to get comfortable in front of the camera, the equipment upgrade that can instantly elevate your content, and how she expects the market for brand partnerships to change in the years ahead.

When did you find a content strategy that worked for you?
My early videos were about plants and plant care. A lot of people don’t take plants into consideration, but [they’re] a huge part of home decor. My mom also loves plants—she’s from Panama, and she has so many plants back home, so my initial videos were about [that]. But I knew that I wanted to make more videos with home decor, so I slowly started being more strategic about the kind of content I was producing, and switched from plant care to home decor tips and inspiration videos.

I only recently found a strategy that works for me—it wasn’t until 2024 that I really decided that this is what I’m doing, and this is how I’m doing it. It took a lot of trial and error. Now I finally feel comfortable where I am and excited for the future. My advice is that you’re not going to [figure everything out] in a year—I’m in my fourth year of making content, and I finally found where I’m happy. In the social media landscape right now, people want to see your personality: If you’re not making content that is authentically you, the internet is going to sniff that out really quick. When I first started making content, I was so scared to put myself in it, and I was doing a lot of voice-overs. Then I told myself, “OK, voice-overs can only go so far—you need to put yourself in it, and you need to start talking to the camera directly.” I’ve learned to let my personality shine.

Do you have any tips for working up the courage to step in front of the camera?
Start off slow. You’re going to get there one day, and it’s not going to be tomorrow that you’re fully comfortable. The first step is making videos that you don’t even have to post. Just make it and see how you feel—start with voice-overs, or even just text overlay without your voice. Build it up. For the first year, I was only doing voice-over and making test videos. I was so scared to put my face on it. But now in my fourth year, I’m fully comfortable.

A colorful corner of Browning’s home boasting an orange couch and colorful gallery wall
A colorful corner of Browning’s home boasting an orange couch and vibrant gallery wallCourtesy of Celena Browning

What are your strategies for improving engagement?
I try to make content that’s “controversial” in the interior design space. There’s only so much you can be controversial about when it comes to interior design, but I try to make content that is a little spicy—or that will make somebody comment something like, “Oh, I don’t agree with that,” or “I never thought of it like this.” I try to provoke conversation. I made a video about my interior design “icks,” about things that I see in homes that can be done a little differently. People were getting so mad at me in my comments—like, “But I have this in my home.” But there’s probably stuff in my home that people hate, too. I never try to offend people—I’m not here to do that. I consider my content to be inspiring, feel-good content, but I do have an opinion and I’m definitely entitled to express it.

I’ve actually helped grow a lot of TikTok accounts for brands, and I [also recommend that] they try to push the envelope. A lot of brands try to play it safe—they have legal, they have stakeholders, it’s a long chain of command, and you never want to offend higher-ups. But social media allows for a lot—especially in 2024—so I think it’s OK to make riskier content for the brands. There are so many creators and brands; there’s so much competition. What are you doing to set yourself apart?

How did your design business grow out of social media?
That all started when people saw my gallery wall and were like, “I would love it if you could help me build a gallery wall.” I hadn’t even put up my website yet when I started getting clients through TikTok. Because most of my TikTok videos were filmed in my studio apartment, a lot of people with studio apartments reached out to me. They were just in awe of how I was able to structure my apartment to make it functional and livable—because living in a studio apartment can be tricky. And they want my aesthetic. They want to infuse some color, because I think a lot of people don’t even realize that a lot of colors look good. They see my home, and they’re like, “Whoa, I didn’t know that a home could look like this. I want my home to look like that.” We’re so used to seeing beige homes, but I’m like, “You can make this however you want—as crazy or as colorful as you want.” I’ve done a ton of [rental apartments], and I’m now actually working on my first project for a friend who owns a home. There’s a lot more wiggle room [when it’s not a rental], and I’m really excited about it.

Do you work with brands?
Once I found a niche—maximalist interior design with a specialty in plant design—that’s when I really started getting partnerships. Everything is super intentional. For example, I built a really good relationship with Ruggable, and I’ve made multiple videos with them. Whenever they have something [to collaborate on], they’re like, “OK, let’s reach out to Celena because she will answer emails, she’ll make the video and she’ll get it done.” [Having worked] on the brand side, I think a lot of people on the company side are shaky because [they think,] “Influencers ghost us,” or “Influencers will make the crappiest video because they don’t care.” Relationships are so crucial to these partnerships. I worked with this one company, and they don’t reach out to [hire contract] influencers anymore—they have their pick of influencers that they know they can count on, and they have them on payroll. So people need to tighten up and get their relationships right.

How did you set your rates for brand partnerships?
I began setting my rates based on metrics. I recently had a conversation with my mentor, and I think we as influencers need to start incorporating the editing process in our rates. When I worked on the brand side, and we would reach out to freelancers or editors, they would give us their rate [and explain], “I have to take the time to edit this, make it look good, put text over it.” I think brands are kind of lowballing influencers [by not accounting for all of those steps]. Not only am I shooting this content, I’m also editing it. Brands will say, “You only have X amount of followers, so we can only give you X amount,” and I’m like, “OK, but you also have to take in consideration that I’m taking on the role as an editor, so you have to pay me for that time.” But brands are definitely getting more strict. When I first started making content during Covid, brands were just willy-nilly reaching out to everyone, paying out all these rates—now they’re [pulling back]. That’s why relationships are so important nowadays.

Do you still track your metrics?
Not really. I do this little series, “Quick Hacks for Elevating Your Home From an Interior Designer,” and the first one went crazy—it’s about to hit a million views. But the last one I posted only got like 5,000 views. I’m going to keep doing it because I enjoy making this series and I really like giving people advice. I’m not in it for the metrics, I’m in it to build a brand—and building a brand is forever, whether a video gets two likes or a million likes.

How could a designer or content creator stand out to brands?
By making high-level content. Learn how to do cool text overlays, learn how to elevate your videos. Anyone can go in front of TikTok and talk into the camera and post, but I think it takes a little bit more finesse to create an aesthetically pleasing video. Those are the people that brands want to work with—people that have an eye for how an elevated video should look. Take that extra step to really sharpen your editing tools.

Do you have any suggestions for equipment or editing software?
I would definitely invest in a microphone—I use a Røde microphone. [For editing,] I only use CapCut. I definitely think it’s creator-friendly. There are other ones through Adobe—if you’re a real editor and that’s your job, you’ll use those. If you’re an editor as an influencer, use CapCut.

Do you pay attention to algorithm changes and platform updates?
It’s definitely worth paying attention to. I know TikTok said that they’re prioritizing videos that have photos in them, where you see a photo and you swipe. I made one or two videos, just to see how it does, and it did well—one of my videos that had photos got a lot of engagement, but I’m not going to completely shift my social media plan for that. I still have a lot of ideas that I need to get out, and if it happens to be a video that has photos, cool. But that’s also where a lot of brands go wrong. They see one change, and they say, “We need to make so many videos with photos.” It’s like, “Maybe make one, but you don’t need to change your whole plan.

What’s something you’re working on right now with your business?
I just moved into a new apartment, and we own the place, so we’re going to do some major renovations, and I’m going to film it all. I just want to put all my energy into my content right now. I am definitely being more intentional this time around. This is my biggest work that I’m doing so far.

I’m really just hoping to expand. I am currently working on my website and I want it to encapsulate everything, so I want to have a section where people can book their services with me, and I also want to have a section [advertising that] I can work for your brand. I am building something so much greater and I know I’m not there yet. I just need to continue making content so I can get there. And for anyone who is trying to find their identity in interior design and find their taste, I think our personal style is way cooler than any trend that’s going on right now.

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