ask an influencer | Nov 30, 2022 |
Marissa Nelums on winning Instagram without losing her sanity

In a new series, Ask an Influencer, Business of Home explores the creator economy. This week, we spoke with Marissa Nelums, blog creator and interior designer of Glasshouse Interior.

More than a decade ago, Chicago-based designer Marissa Nelums was working as a visual stylist at Bloomingdale’s when she realized that her fashion-centric Instagram account was taking off, with a follower count that had steadily climbed to 10,000. After moving into her first apartment, she documented the design process, further fueling her growing platform. Pretty soon, her Instagram became a real-time portfolio of interior design projects in her own home and among friends and family, in turn drumming up prospective clients.

By 2016, Nelums left her styling day job and launched her own full-service design firm, which now includes a private label home furnishings line, a brick-and-mortar retail outpost and a sprawling online audience including 105,000 Instagram followers. Ahead, she shares the online tool she uses to set her partnership rates, her policy for posting design work, and why she’s personally staying out of the spotlight on social media.

What was the path to starting your own firm?
The job I did for many years at Bloomingdale’s involved styling all the cool store environments and window displays. Then I started to decorate my own apartment. Unfortunately, I posted photos of that on social media, and they were stolen and posted by a design firm claiming to have done the work for my apartment. But it struck something in me that made me feel like, if my work was good enough to steal and to post as a designer, then maybe there’s something to this world of interior design for me.

Marissa Nelums on winning Instagram without losing her sanity
Glasshouse Interior launched its Dubai pillow collection in July.Courtesy of Marissa Nelums

I started by asking friends and family to allow me to decorate their spaces in exchange for pictures for my portfolio—which was on social media. I began to post before-and-after pictures of all of the spaces I was able to muster up from friends and family. That continued until one day a paying client hired me to design a hair salon, and then less than a year later that turned into another hair salon, which was owned by someone who had a really big social media following. After they tagged us in a post-renovation post, I gained like 10,000 new followers overnight, and that really helped boost not only my portfolio online, but my local clientele, because the project was for a hairstylist in Chicago. It was definitely a trickle-down effect from the start of my business to now. Many of those things took shape after I formally launched the firm, hired a team, and we took on more clientele.

Did you ever get in touch with the firm that stole your photos?
I will equate the success of that story’s ending to social media as well, because not only was I able to publicly say something about what had happened, but many of our followers rallied behind us even though the other firm had a larger following. A lot of our followers reported the post and exposed what had happened, which ultimately led to the post being removed, and ended with me personally getting an apology from the owner.

When did you start to approach social media with a strategy?
When I first started the firm, a lot of our clients came from my previous Bloomingdale’s colleagues who had these gorgeous homes on the North Shore of Chicago. But social media quickly became the most dominant way that we received business—and it had everything to do with us basically capturing what people wanted to see.

Instagram seven years ago was very different than it is today. There was not as much representation for interior design as there is now, and pages were few and far between that could really capture an alternative to more traditional interior style. So I think it definitely shined a light on a different way to do things that quickly set us apart from a lot of the other firms.

How is your time divided between your firm and your social media?
In addition to having a business, I am a mother too, so splitting my time has become a ritual for me. It’s very black and white: I get up at the same time every morning, I post at the same time on social media, so I just really get into the habit of compartmentalizing things and giving them their own moment versus letting everything in my life collide together, because that would get pretty hectic.

I like to have a very structured schedule for when I am actually posting for social media versus doing work for the firm. During the day, I’m at the firm from nine to five and I am on my computer and running to site visits, so social media doesn’t interfere too heavily with that because during the in-between time I’m able to respond to comments and any of the engagement from a post. So it’s not that difficult of a split, but I also give myself enough grace to not force the whole idea of posting every single day.

Do you have a content schedule?
I know this sounds insane, but I don’t. I like to post a couple of times a week, if possible. It depends on our workload and our content—if we have a new project that we’ve just completed, that could give us maybe two weeks’ worth of content. Then for the next two weeks, we’ll run that content every couple of days until it’s out, and then we might take a break or recycle some pieces that we’ve done before until we’re at our next install, and then we release that content.

Marissa Nelums on winning Instagram without losing her sanity
Almost every post coming across in Glasshouse Interior’s feed is a different space they’ve designed, says Nelums.Courtesy of Marissa Nelums

I don’t like to recycle much; I do prefer to have fresh content. I don’t think a lot of people understand or give credit for the fact that everything you see on our page is our work. There is nothing that is another person’s work, and most of it is not recycled. Almost every post coming across in our feed is a different space that we’ve designed, so it’s incredible to have that visual display for our portfolio.

I always wanted to be authentic, and I never wanted anyone to mistake something that
someone else did for what we did. We have a very distinct style. We’ve always made it a point to be the source for this specific aesthetic, and you can’t do that if you blend other people’s work [into your Instagram grid]. It just becomes less authentic, in my opinion. So we have always strived to only make it about our work. That blends into more of the influencing side of things, because it also plays a huge part in the different partnerships we take versus the ones that we decline based off of our brand being the most important thing that we are promoting.

What does the process of producing content look like for you?
Very simple. I’m usually in my bed with a bag of chips, and I’ll just pull up the videos that we took earlier that day. I have a very big personality that I don’t get to show a lot on
social media because I am personally very private, but I like to showcase that in the audio and captions we use, so that people not only are engaged by a beautiful interior, but have something that can resonate with them—something that may be funny to them in addition to beautiful.

I guess I’d say we have an unorthodox approach to creating interior content. If you listen to a lot of our videos, you wouldn’t think that would be the audio we would use, but those quirky ways to go about editing a video have actually helped us go viral at different points.

How do you work with brands, and where do those relationships usually begin?
I initially allowed all of the brands to come to me. I’ve always taken a very organic approach with social media. We never bought followers, we never poached anything. It was all about organic growth. And the same thing goes for brand partnerships. We basically allowed them to come to us, and anything that I felt was fitting or that I really wanted to be a part of or was excited about, I would take. Then it got to a point where it did begin to interfere with my design work because the partnerships began to require more and more as time went on. And the rates that we were able to get were nice, but they were nothing in comparison to the mountain we take in for our actual design firm.

A year ago, I decided it was necessary to start declining a lot of the invitations we were getting from brands, because it was important that they spark joy for me. The most important thing that I will always be excited about is my brand. Spending time educating people about other brands is nice, but if it takes away from the thing that really brings me joy, then it’s not necessarily worth it, because that does take a lot of time away from the creative juices that I need to run a rapidly growing design firm.

Marissa Nelums on winning Instagram without losing her sanity
A custom tile fireplace by Glasshouse Interior.Courtesy of Marissa Nelums

How do you determine your rates for partnerships?
I have two different types of PR—one that handles press, and a social media strategist who basically came up with our rates when we were starting out. But if you actually search “instagram rates calculator” online, you’ll find a site where you can input our page, and it will estimate the amount that you should charge for any particular posts. I do like to use that little tool just to get a marker, although if I’m really busy that season, or just not in love with the whole idea, I will often range the rate accordingly. When negotiating, sometimes it could be as simple as throwing out that rough estimate to say, “Hey, it’s gonna take this to get me there to do this.” If it works, great. If it doesn’t, no hard feelings. It really all depends on what feels good at that moment.

How much of your personal life makes it onto your page?
I would say 20 percent—just enough so that you’re not blindsided by who’s coming to your house for a consultation. But I don’t have a personal page, so occasionally I’ll post a dinner with a friend on my Story (which eventually goes away) or I’ll do some professional [portrait] shots, in addition to any funny on-site Reels. But overall, no one is really there to see me—they’re actually there to see the work, and we want to make sure that’s always strong and understood from one glance.

I have grown to thoroughly enjoy not being chained to social media, so I am not mad about it. It’s a nice boundary to have. It just got weird for me when I first started and our following started to increase, and people would actually notice me in town. There was one time when someone actually approached my daughter in the grocery store with her dad while I wasn’t there and was like, “Oh, I follow your mom on Instagram!” Meanwhile, my daughter was an itty-bitty two- or three-year-old. That scared me away from social media.

I keep a very low profile for me and my family, because at the rate that this business is growing, I don’t know how long my face will be unnoticeable. So I’m just enjoying as much time as possible until this journey kicks it up a notch. I try to keep a normal life. I feel like if I fed into social media and made it about me, where I’m in all of the videos, then it becomes like a “me thing.” Whereas now it is just the brand, and I get to go home at night and live a very separate and private life, which I genuinely enjoy.

How have you adapted to recent algorithm and platform updates?
I used to get into these ruts where I would be like, “I’m not gonna post for a couple of weeks,” and Instagram is like, “Yes, you are.” Instagram’s [algorithm] does not like hiatuses, but I need those. We definitely noticed that when Instagram changed the algorithm, taking breaks was hindering our growth, and we stayed stagnant in about the 70,000 follower range for a very, very long time. I did not take for granted how important it was to post, so I started to post and post and post, and within a month we were reaching that 100,000 mark.

Marissa Nelums on winning Instagram without losing her sanity
In this oceanfront primary suite, Nelums opted for large scale pieces to compliment the sleek structure of the home.Courtesy of Marissa Nelums

Do you feel pressure to transition to video—either on Reels or TikTok?
It’s interesting, because I still hire a professional photographer for every single design project, and we just did one earlier this week, and I told him, “Hey, I need you to switch how you’re taking the pictures.” He was like, “What do you mean?” I was like, “We need it to be [vertical] for Instagram.” He was like, “OK, I’ll get tighter shots. A lot of people are saying that they’re not using landscape shots anymore because it just won’t do well on social media.” And he’s absolutely right.

Your chances of getting a picture to go viral are slim to none. Whereas you could put up a pretty mediocre Reel, and the chances of going viral are a lot better. We had to make that pivot, which makes our work even more instant now. It reminds me of when we first started and we couldn’t afford professional photography, so I just recorded on an iPhone and posted the same day on social media. As time went on, we started to take professional photography and wait for the photos to come back after edits, and it would take a little bit longer to upload to social media. Now we’re back to the original process, where we just pull out the phone, do a quick pan of the space and post on social media the next day.

How do you field comments and DMs?
I deal with it at a pace that’s comfortable. Typically, when we post, it is beneficial to respond to all the comments within the first hour of posting. Many platforms make your engagement rate visible on your page, so if people are reaching out, it’s almost an obligation to respond. We have a customer service team that keeps up with all of the emails and inquiries on our website that make it past social media. But the good thing about social media is it’s a lighter way to introduce the idea of what we’re doing and making people feel more comfortable with that before going to the next step and booking a consultation or one of our services. I think setting that initial relationship on social media can be very helpful.

Do you ever encounter trolls?
We get millions of views on Pinterest, and another reason why I tried to keep myself out of my social media presence is because the trolls on Pinterest are like no other trolls. Trolls on Pinterest are next level.

I got an offer from Pinterest to be one of their very first makers of Story pins, and the content I made got like 3 million views in the first couple days, but the comments were horrible. They were just shredding me apart. It was like, “Who stains a towel?” and “She looks like a cartoon character.” It was really difficult to read at first, to hear that and be publicly attacked for no reason.

How did you protect yourself from that moving forward?
Pinterest killed it for me with that whole experience because I had built a community on Instagram where we don’t typically have any nasty things being said—occasionally someone will whine, but it’s never an assault. I felt like I was assaulted on Pinterest. So unfortunately, even with us trending and performing very well, I did leave Pinterest behind due to the fact that it wasn’t a community that was familiar with us, and we were going so viral. It made our work subject to not-so-nice people, and I didn’t want that ever to be the case. I only want to cater to people who are happy to see our content and what we’re offering to the world.

Homepage image: Marissa Nelums | Courtesy of Marissa Nelums

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.