ask an influencer | Feb 8, 2023 |
For Shavonda Gardner, social media is not about the numbers

In Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with Shavonda Gardner, the designer behind the interiors blog SG Style.

Shavonda Gardner’s upbringing was a survey on what it takes to make a place feel like home. Growing up in a military household, her family bounced across the country and spent some time in Germany, with the revolving door of new houses prompting deeper questions for Gardner about creating an intentional space. “I was always really interested in what home looked like, what it meant, the different ways that people live,” says Gardner.

Though she went on to enlist in the military herself after high school, her return home several years later also prompted a return to the question of home, leading Gardner to enroll in design school. Studying interior design at the height of the Great Recession meant that traditional pathways of design felt less accessible—though working at a firm, or even for clients, never appealed to Gardner anyway. The world of blogging was increasingly the place to be for up-and-coming designers, and Gardner was determined to stake her claim on an industry that lacked representation for designers like her.

In 2012, Gardner officially launched her design blog SG Style. The years to follow were a whirlwind: New platforms soon cycled to the forefront, making the digital arena a place where a successful blog could be leveraged into a full-time business. Along the way, she built a loyal community across platforms (including Instagram, where she has 169,000 followers) based on her design guidance that stayed true to her own style and ethics. Ahead, Gardner shares her strategy for growing a business while building audience trust, why she prefers working with brands over clients, and how she’s riding the waves of the ever-evolving social media industry.

What was the path to starting your blog?
I was in school at the height of the recession in 2009, when there was so much uncertainty. People were losing their homes, there was a huge housing crisis, and here I was trying to get this degree in something that felt like, “How am I ever going to use this? People can’t even afford to keep food on the table or pay their rent. Why am I doing this?” I decided maybe this was just going to be a hobby or a dream, but I thought I would focus on something more practical, so I wasn’t even in the design space for a while. But I just loved it so much, and I knew that I wanted to figure out a way to stay connected to it, but do it in a way that was different. I knew that I did not want to work at a firm, and I didn’t want to start my own. One day, I was scrolling online and I came across an interiors blog. I was so intrigued. I was like, “You know what, maybe I could do that. Maybe I’ll start a blog.” And that’s what I did.

But really, for me, it was more—like the fact that there were so many blogs out there, but I didn’t see any designers of color. I didn’t see any designers that were queer. And I certainly didn’t see any designers coming from a design perspective that was a little bit different. Everything was, like, shabby-chic farmhouse, everything was white, and I really loved colorful, maximalist, vibrant design. I was not seeing that, so that’s what I wanted to do. I’m kind of a “be what you want to see” person. That’s when I started my blog.

For Shavonda Gardner, social media is not about the numbers
Gardner launched her blog in 2012 to showcase design projects within her homeShavonda Gardner

When did you realize social media was an opportunity for you?
I got on Instagram in 2013- or 2014-ish, when it was really new. It was early Instagram days. But 2016-ish is when I started to realize that Instagram could [add] another layer to being a digital creator. [When I started,] blogging wasn’t really a business—we didn’t know about monetization. I started looking at it as a business around 2016, 2017, when I realized, “OK, brands and businesses are starting to understand that social media marketing is becoming a very important and viable way to gain customers, sell their product, reach audiences, all of this stuff. It’s the future of marketing.”

How has operating a social media presence and your blog evolved from then to now?
It’s different on the back-end, business side of things, but it’s not very different in terms of how I approach content—I’ve always put perspective, authenticity and just showing up as a person at the forefront, because even though it is a business, it’s also me. It’s my face, it’s my name, it’s my reputation. I’m attached to it, it’s not a separate entity. I wanted it to be one of those things where it’s a true representation of me, of who I am, and that’s pretty consistent. That’s always been there.

Now, it’s more about riding the waves of social media—like in 2016, TikTok wasn’t a thing. We weren’t a video-forward business. It was very much a photography-first industry, both for the blog and social media. It was about beautiful pictures and telling the story. Now it’s like videos and Reels and TikToks, and being on multiple platforms instead of just the one, and reaching all the different people in different ways. There are a lot more layers to it now than in the beginning. But for me, there’s not much difference between what I was sharing then and what I am sharing now—it’s just the way I go about sharing is a little bit different.

Anybody who came on to the social media scene after 2019—because we had a huge influx of people popping up in 2020 since everyone was home and bored—a lot of these content creators don’t have a website or a blog, I think because they were social media consumers first and then came into the space. They did not come from a world [where they witnessed] the evolution of social media.

For people like me, who started out as bloggers or writers, there was no Instagram. There was no TikTok. None of this was happening back in 2012. Those of us who are more what I would call the old geezers of the social media world, we started out having a blog or website because that’s all there was, and then our social media became kind of an extension of that. That’s why my blog is really like my portfolio: It’s an archive of all my work.

If people want to know, “Oh, I think I remember Shavonda did her bathroom remodel?” You can go to the blog and find every single detail that you want to know about the bathroom, including the before pictures, the after pictures, the knobs I used, the paint I used and how much—all of that stuff lives on the blog. It’s not going to go anywhere. It can’t get wiped away. For any of the big projects that people are going to want to go back to over and over again, I prioritize the blog for that. Because if the United States banned TikTok or something crazy like that, or if Instagram goes away, then all of that work, all of that content, all of that stuff just goes away. Having a website, a blog, an archive of all of that is really, really important. It’s very important that you have a website or place where your things are yours, and it can’t just go away overnight.

What’s your content schedule?
I’m honestly so terrible at this—I’m learning and trying to get it right constantly. But the planning, especially when it comes to my sponsored or branded content, is heavily dependent upon [that partner’s] timeline and contracts and what we have to post based upon their specifications. When it comes to my personal projects, it’s different because I adopt a very curated, take-your-time approach. My projects can take a long time because I’m really living in it. I’m allowing the space to come together. I’m allowing the space to evolve, and I’m sharing that process as it’s happening in real time. That’s very different than if I’m working on a project with Sherwin-Williams or something, and I only have like two weeks to do this thing from start to finish.

For Shavonda Gardner, social media is not about the numbers
When posting content from personal projects, Gardner adopts a take-your-time approachShavonda Gardner

What does the process of producing content look like for you?
If I’m capturing things for my blog, I always shoot with my DSLR, so I shoot on a Nikon D780, and I shoot any imagery that’s going on the blog. My blog is a lot more editorial, and it’s a space where [I can post] great pictures, along with telling a story. For social media, I’m shooting with my phone and I use editing apps like InShot to edit Reels or TikToks, and I always have a million and one different tripods [to capture spontaneous shots].

I don’t use any scheduling apps. I usually will have an idea of what the week is going to look like, but I post day to day. I’m also making sure that if I’m sharing something that I know people are going to want to purchase, I’m making sure that it’s linked through my affiliate program either through Amazon, ShopStyle or RewardStyle.

Is your social media presence a complement to design services?
I did design services for a while, but I don’t anymore. The number-one things for me are my sponsored posts and brand partnerships, because they’re a lot more lucrative, I have a lot more creative freedom, and I’m not dealing with the homeowner. I mean, I know it sounds terrible, but working with a homeowner is taxing. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, and there’s a lot to it. I love working with brands because I love telling a brand story, and I love doing it from my perspective and sharing that in a way that other people may have not been seeing. A much smaller portion of my revenue comes from my affiliate links, but that’s because I don’t link nearly as much as I probably should. I know folks that are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just from linking products—$10,000 to $15,000 a month just from links.

I don’t link a lot because I don’t do a lot of shopping. I really preach being a conscious and intentional consumer. I feel like the people that do really, really well with links are those that are [promoting] fast fashion or fast consumerism—people that are shopping at places like, on the fashion side, Shein or H&M or Forever 21. But I am not that type of consumer, and that’s not the type of content that I put out. One of my biggest mottos is “Buy once, buy well.” Spend the money on quality, and you won’t have to replace it. You will have something that will last a lifetime. That’s my thought process when it comes to interiors and design—reducing waste and reducing consumption. If I link to a chair or something, you’re going to see that chair in my room forever. You’re going to come to my blog in 2014 and then come back in 2024 and be like, “Damn, Shavonda still has that chair.” But it’s great quality, and it was purchased with the intention to be in my home for a long time.

To be fair, there are a lot more consumers out there with the means to buy the cheap thing, as opposed to spending money on the expensive thing and having it for a while. My ethos of shopping and living is a lot more sustainable, but it’s not something that the average person can do. So I have a very niche kind of buyer. I also run ads on my blog and I get revenue from that, and the more I blog, the more I get money from ad revenue, so that’s why I’m also trying to get more into that because it’s more people on the site and more clicks.

How do you work with brands?
It’s easier for me to work with brands [than individuals] because these are multimillion- and billion-dollar corporations, and I can negotiate higher contracts. I found that, especially as a mom, I needed to find a way to maximize my income by doing something that I really loved and that wasn’t going to stress me out as much. For me, this reaches more people. It gives me the ability to change and affect a lot more people’s lives than I would with just one person in their space. Social media for me is also very heavily rooted in my community, so I can affect and inspire more people this way, and maybe help them change their lives, give them a different perspective. I can change one person’s room and change their life, but this way I can share it with the world.

I’ve built such trust with my community. They know that if I’m telling you about something, then it’s the real deal and it’s good because I’m never ever going to recommend something that I don’t like, that I wouldn’t use, that I feel like is not good quality, or that I feel like you’re going to waste your time and money on. They know that. Being able to see that I’m using the thing, or see that it’s styled in a space, that helps people to know, like, “OK, she wasn’t just trying to sell me this because she’s going to make money off of it.”

For Shavonda Gardner, social media is not about the numbers
Gardner prefers working with brands over client-focused projectsShavonda Gardner

How do you decide what your rates are for different partnerships?
This is where you’ll notice the difference with influencers, because I don’t have management and I don’t have a team, so I do everything myself in-house. As far as setting rates, it’s just understanding and knowing the industry standard as a baseline for what you’re doing. Like, if you are a micro influencer—say, you have maybe 10,000 or 50,000 followers or whatever—what is the market rate for someone who has 50,000 followers, or someone who has maybe the same aesthetic, or who’s working in the same niche as you? See what other people around you are realistically getting, and then maybe that is the standard, but is there something about you that is different? Do you appeal to a different audience that maybe this brand isn’t already tapped into? Do you have a unique perspective? And maybe they come to you and they only want an Instagram Reel but you’re like, “The way I know this is going to be successful is if I do a Reel but also put it on my blog.” There are ways for you to negotiate with the brand based on your specialty.

If they’re absolutely not willing to work with you on your rate, then that’s a different conversation. Oftentimes, if a brand definitely wants to work with you, there’s going to be a way to negotiate. Maybe they are like, “Our budget is $10,000, and we cannot go a penny over that.” Maybe for you, that looks like, “OK, for that amount I can give you a Reel and six Stories. But I can’t give you exclusivity. I can’t give you usage. I can’t give you photography.” There are so many things that come along with it that will give you the room to negotiate in a way that is beneficial for both you and the brand.

I learned about that through trial and error. Also, I learned it the hard way because as a Black influencer, we were being grossly underpaid compared to our white counterparts who had fewer followers and didn’t have as much engagement, and who weren’t as tapped into their communities. These people were getting paid thousands of dollars more than what we were, so it really came down to understanding what you should be asking for and charging for, what should be negotiable and what should not be nonnegotiable.

How much of yourself do you show on social media?
That’s very specific to each person. I know a lot of people don’t want to bring anything personal into it. But for me, my “why” was really about representation. I share a lot of my personal life and myself with my audience. It’s a core part of my presence online. For me, it matters, and I share all of it because it’s about that representation. It’s about people seeing a queer Black designer, and I’m sharing my wife, and the fact that I’m a mom and I have kids, and the fact that I run a business. It’s about really showing up as my whole self because that’s what people need to see—that was an essential part of my entire entry into interiors and into social media.

How do you approach platform updates and algorithm shifts?
I just try to be consistent and show up and continue to put out the content that I feel is good, and that I love. I try not to chase the algorithm. Because for me, it’s not about the numbers. It’s more about being consistent and true to myself, and then that community will find me. I’m not jumping on every new trend or every new bandwagon or trying to chase the algorithm. It’s exhausting—very exhausting. Unless you have a back-end connection, it’s almost impossible to figure it out and keep up with it, or to understand what’s going to be happening next.

Did you feel pressure to transition to Instagram Reels or TikTok?
It’s a difficult thing because once you learn and cultivate an audience and get to the thing that everyone is asking for, now [the platform is] saying, “Oh, you know what, sorry, we don’t want that anymore. Now we want this.” Keeping up with that, it’s really tough. It’s taxing. But if I want to continue to work in this space, then I have to do it. But Reels were a drag for me. They really were. I much prefer long-form videos like YouTube vlogs. I vlogged my entire kitchen renovation on IGTV, and that was when IGTV was a really big deal. So for me, that felt really good because it was basically a long-form format. But IGTV is not really a thing anymore; now it’s Reels, and 20-something episodes of this blog series are now just sitting in the app—you can get to it, but nobody sees it because it’s not a Reel. It’s very frustrating, and it’s taken me a while, but I’m getting into it this year. I think it’s just finding your own style like with everything else: Not everyone is going to be dancing on the screen, and not everyone’s going to be doing crazy transitions. It’s really about finding what feels authentic and true.

Hompage image: Shavonda Gardner | Courtesy of Shavonda Gardner

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