social media | Nov 29, 2023 |
Julie Sousa has mastered the art of the social media hook

In Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with Julie Sousa, the interior designer and content creator behind @The_AvantGarde.

On social media, Julie Sousa’s objective is simple—to do away with the polished style that’s come to define the design industry online. In one of her top TikTok videos, she summarizes her perspective: “A majority of the time, it’s probably my first time working with something, so most of what I make is beginner-friendly. You won’t see power tools very often, and when you do, it’s probably the guy at Home Depot doing it for me. If you have expensive taste, like to DIY and have ADHD, then welcome, my friend.”

Sousa attributes the clarity of her social media messaging partly to her background in digital marketing. Despite an early interest in architecture, she spent her early would-be college years stuck in the long administrative process to obtain her green card in the U.S., having emigrated from Brazil with her family at age 5. After finally securing a visa, she went for the most lucrative, reliable educational route by attending business school for marketing, and entered the corporate world post-graduation.

That path changed in 2020, when Sousa started making videos on TikTok, where she established her candid, informational approach to home design. So far, the strategy is working: She currently has 2 million TikTok followers and 1.5 million Instagram followers.

Ahead, Sousa shares how a data-driven approach to analytics has bolstered her online engagement, how framing content with controversy hooks viewers, and how working with an agent has protected her time and boosted her revenue.

When did you find a strategy on social media that worked for you?
At first, I thought I would just share static images of how I decorate on Instagram, and it wasn’t getting any traction—for good reason. I decided to take advantage of the new [at the time] platform, TikTok, just to see where it would take me. I was absorbing more content there and realizing what people were going viral for, so I started trying the same things, whether it was providing educational tips or things I had learned online or [ideas from] interior design books. I also took a couple informal courses online and started sharing everything that I was learning as I was applying that to my own home, and it took off.

Was there a moment when you went viral?
The first video I posted that went viral was on how to avoid modern farmhouse. It was right around when [this was starting to be] a style people no longer wanted in the home, so it happened to be a trending topic. I was going out to dinner with my husband, and all of a sudden I looked at my TikTok and I have, like, 100,000 followers—it happened in a matter of hours.

How did you keep that traction going?
I was a digital marketer before this, so I can recognize trends when I see them. I am big into looking at my analytics, and I spend a lot of time making sure my numbers are correlating with my strategy. If the view rate was dropping off around X amount of seconds, then I knew that that was an issue I had to work on. I would just compare and test all the time with all my content.

I have a running spreadsheet—I look at everything. Not just impressions, but engagement as well, which would be adding up your likes, shares and comments. All of these things matter. There are also sweet spots for how long a piece of content or a video should be. And obviously, the whole algorithm is always changing. Now, they’re prioritizing longer videos. But just looking at your own analytics can show you exactly what you need to work on. If people aren’t commenting within the first few seconds of the video, was the hook not strong enough? … The way I look at it is: You have 20 seconds to engage someone—you want to keep people engaged the entire time, right? You don’t want to leave filler spaces or moments of silence, because all that counts. Every millisecond counts in 20 seconds.

How has your content strategy evolved over time?
Trends come and go, and even just with [video] transitions, there are things that aren’t really in anymore. Sometimes I’ll post a really old video if I don’t have anything to post that day, and I know it’s not going to do well because the transition that I did now comes off as very dated.

Also, the way that I go about my content is trying to be a little controversial but also thoughtful in the things that I post. … The script has to have some sort of negative connotation, [but should be framed as], “Will she be able to make this?” versus “I [made] this, but I didn’t like it.” Because that’s [ultimately] positive—it’s more like: “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this” or “Oh, my God, this happened.” For the viewer, it’s … almost like leaving you hanging versus saying, “I found the solution to this, and this is how I did it.” People are more inclined to watch something to see whether or not someone’s going to come out as a hero at the end of it. A lot of my viral videos are like that.

Julie Sousa has mastered the art of the social media hook
A nursery designed by SousaCourtesy of Julie Sousa

What does the physical process of producing content look like for you?
I use InShot for everything. I have a nice camera, but TikTok is all about the informality. [It’s] very millennial of us to want things that are very curated, but the new generation doesn’t want that—they want realness. The more production, the less it performs.

How do you feel about trying out new platforms?
Having been around since the Myspace days, this is my third platform where I had the opportunity of becoming an influencer. This time, I was like, “Alright, now we’re going to run with it.” I think the thing is, people are quick to jump to a new platform, but there’s a sweet spot to waiting for it. If you are on too early, there’s not enough users to make it interesting yet, so you’re going to get a bunch of repetitive content. TikTok is still new [enough] that people are still just starting to consume it, and it’s [continuing] to spread, so I don’t really think now is the right time for another platform to gain as much traction. … I think it’ll take at least another five years before we start seeing anything.

How did you start working with brands?
An agency reached out to me to partner with Amazon to travel the country to make over other content creators’ rooms, and the amount they offered me—I was, like, floored. I had about 400,000 followers on TikTok at the time, so I was telling my assistant, “Holy shit, what are we doing with our time? This is how much money we could get paid. We should be doing this full-time.” It was that first partnership with Amazon that I realized, “We’ve got to reroute here and change industries now.”

What kind of strategy shift did that require?
It was [about me] becoming more available, for sure, and [reaching out to brands]. I was doing both for a little bit, but then once I got an agent to help me out with collaborations and to negotiate everything for me, I was like, “Alright, this is it, we’re done with [design] clients,” because if you compare the hourly rate I was making on one versus the other, it was just out of this world. So that’s what we did.

Would you recommend working with an agent?
It’s amazing. I can’t believe I waited so long. I was so skeptical because, having gone to business school, I knew how to negotiate—and I got some great contracts. But the truth of the matter is, there’s connections and there’s politics everywhere you go. [Agents] have connections, they’re able to negotiate, they’ve been doing this a lot longer. Maybe the rate is the same that I could have negotiated, but the amount of [time I need to spend] is significantly less. That has been a game changer. Something that would have taken me perhaps four or five shots to redo because the brand would ask me to, I now only do one because, little did I know, it’s contractual that I should only have to revise something once. They negotiate much better rates too, and they do everything for me—they only come to me with the deliverables. Obviously, they also come to me with the offer, but then they’ll say, “Hey, for this video, the draft needs to be submitted by then,” and that’s all I have to do.

Julie Sousa has mastered the art of the social media hook
A biophilic-inspired bathroom by SousaCourtesy of Julie Sousa

Do you respond to comments and DMs?
My assistant responds to the majority of my DMs. I try to respond to the [Instagram] Story replies, but I don’t always have time. The main guideline is to [be clear about who’s responding], so she’ll always tell my followers that it’s her versus me.

When did you bring your assistant on?
Very early on, about a year after I started. When it was a design business, she would basically take on everything that was administrative—and she still does a lot of the admin work. For example, helping out with taking measurements from clients, setting up calls, managing my calendar. Now she helps me with filming stuff too—setting up the camera, taking care of materials and supplies, putting stuff away, etc. I realized really early on that I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do some of the administrative tasks if I wanted to make more money, so I started to look for someone who could help me with that stuff, and found her through my DMs.

Have you ever encountered trolls or negative criticism?
It took a little bit to figure that out and navigate. It definitely takes a toll on your mental health. I shifted my content strategy—maybe I was a little bit more nasty in the beginning, trying to just see what worked. I was sarcastically making fun of things. And it’s like, yeah, I also don’t want to be that person. I realized pretty early on that that’s not the direction I wanted to go in. Since then, it’s very rare that I get trolled, and when I do, it’s not stuff that bothers me, because they’re not necessarily attacking my character. It's often just attacking the decisions I make in design.

Does social media ever get overwhelming for you?
It’s definitely tough. I’ve never worked longer hours than I do now. I’m always working. And it’s tough when you love what you do, because sometimes putting a stop to it is almost impossible. I’ve tried to think less about it on the weekends versus during the week, when I’m more thinking strategy. I think that’s a learning curve as well—it’s something I'm still trying to figure out.

What’s the biggest challenge for you on social media right now?
Something I’m struggling with right now is coming up with new content—and sleeping. I’m not sleeping, and when I haven’t slept, it’s definitely the hardest to get myself to think creatively. It’s one thing to go to a corporate job and do a repetitive task—my brain already knows how to do that stuff. But to think creatively is so much harder because you’re coming up with things from scratch, and on your social media, you’re the only one that can do it. I don’t know if it’s because I have a 4-month-old, but some days, I get into a big fog.

I also don’t like to do the same thing that everyone’s doing. For instance, I could just put videos of me putting up my Christmas decor, but there’s not really anything fruitful from that. I always provide my followers with value. Whether that’s in the form of tips or educational content, or even if it’s a day in my life—it’s like, “Hey, I’m making the bed. What tip can I pull from making my bed that people don’t know?” I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to get good content out, instead of brainstorming ways to do something simple. Some people are better at it than others. I struggle with that a little bit, but I’m getting there.

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