social media | May 15, 2024 |
How to tap into brand partnerships without representation

In Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with content creator @genevavanderzeil.

Roughly 13 years ago, Geneva Vanderzeil’s life looked a lot different than it does today. Then, she spent her days in London as a town planner—and came home at night to pour her heart out on her fashion and lifestyle blog. The idea that anyone would be tuning in still felt far-fetched.

“I actually had no concept of other people reading it,” says Vanderzeil. “I remember my friend calling me and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, have you seen? There’s 100 people who signed up to read your blog!’”

Within two years, Vanderzeil would rack up a million subscribers. Her life changed radically as she signed with U.S.-based talent agency DBA, wrote her first book and moved to Hong Kong with her husband. That’s where she began turning her attention toward interiors, pondering what it took to make a place feel like home. As she figured it out, she took her growing social media followers along for the ride.

A cane console table anchors this airy living area by Vanderzeil
A cane console table anchors this airy living area by Vanderzeil Courtesy of Geneva Vanderzeil

In 2017, her family bought a house in Brisbane, Australia, and kicked off a full-scale renovation. The more design knowledge she acquired, the more her social media presence took on the same bent, homing in on DIY projects and furniture upcycling. With the onset of the pandemic, that content shift went into overdrive—and the influx of new followers brought bigger brand deals, an opportunity to staff up and the release of new content channels. Today, Vanderzeil offers it all to an audience of 691,200 followers on TikTok and 1.1 million followers on Instagram.

Ahead, she shares how she balances virality with community-building, the best way to boost engagement through audience interaction, and why stepping away from management meant a new era of growth for her business.

Checks and Balances
After more than a decade of making content and sustaining a following, Vanderzeil prides herself on continuing to capture her audience’s attention even as trends and platforms constantly change. Her strategy? Boosting the volume of her output by posting unique content on a daily schedule, while allowing room for posts that target different goals.

Vertical storage adds functionality to a petite bathroom
Vertical storage adds functionality to a petite bathroom Courtesy of Geneva Vanderzeil

“I’ve had to evolve a lot over time to stay entertaining and interesting to the audience, because people’s tastes and how they like to view content changes a lot,” she says. “For me, it’s been about trying all the new different platforms that come up.”

In many ways, remaining on the crest of that wave has paid off—latching on to video early, for example, kept Vanderzeil in the spotlight while also providing the perfect format for her step-by-step design tutorials. But in a landscape where chasing newness can feel like a hamster wheel, she has also committed to serving her audience’s interests, no matter what the algorithm promotes. This practice has led her to design-adjacent passion projects that nonetheless resonate with her core audience—including a lasting foray into the niche-but-passionate world of dollhouse-building.

“Virality is the goal, but it doesn’t always equate to community. For me, it’s about doing both: creating videos that you know people are going to share and that are going to get 10 million views, and also nurturing your community,” she says. “You really don’t want to have one without the other. It’s about finding a balance.”

Crowd Work
As Vanderzeil’s audience has grown, so has her support staff—though if there’s one job she refuses to outsource, it’s responding to the thousands of comments that pour in each day. While tackling each one is the goal, finishing the task is not often possible. Instead, she developed a mutually beneficial method for filtering out top-priority responses.

“I always focus on answering anything that’s a question, like ‘How do I do this?’” she says. “The audience wants to feel like you’re hearing them. I’ve had my best ideas from that communication process.”

Not only does the strategy generate substantial engagement on her page, but it also provides inspiration for Vanderzeil’s future social media content and online courses for Geneva’s DIY School. “It’s a conversation, not just you putting stuff out there and moving on,” she says. “We want to feel close and feel friends with the people in that community so that they feel like they can ask whatever they want.”

Quality Time
Despite working with social media management agencies in the early years of her career, Vanderzeil decided several years ago that going it alone didn’t have to mean sacrificing her business’s growth. She felt well-equipped to handle contracts and negotiations on her own—and when it came to making connections, she thought she would be better served in the long run by investing her own time rather than relying on a third party. “Ultimately, I [figured] out that by working directly with a brand, you create this really close relationship,” she says. “It’s about creating friendships, and feeling like you have a personal relationship with a brand has been so key [to my business].”

Natural light floods a tranquil bedroom by Vanderzeil
Natural light floods a tranquil bedroom by VanderzeilCourtesy of Geneva Vanderzeil

The strategy has paid off. Around 2020, Vanderzeil began securing long-term partnerships with the main brands she works with, signing on to yearlong deals corresponding to monthly posts. The security she gained in the process has opened the door to new potential for her business.

“That allows you to have a bit more certainty in terms of revenue and finances, and therefore it allows you to hire—I’ve got an editor/videographer, someone who works on the back end of the website, and two people who help with shooting and sourcing,” she says. “It has definitely unlocked the ability to create incredibly high-quality content all the time.”

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