July 15, 2019

Should firms use influencers to promote their design work?

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As a pop-culture enthusiast, social media influencers often creep into and even dominate the content I see online. While the original influencers were models and celebrities, and they still hold and wield that power on their own social media platforms, there is also a new crop of stars who built their empire exclusively on influencing the thoughts of others and built a tremendous Instagram following primarily because of their own manufactured authority.

Now, before I go any further, I should preface the remainder of this article with a little context on why this topic is relevant to me. For almost two years, I have worked as the marketing associate for Nadi and watched how the marketing landscape has evolved through new technologies, trends and processes. Often, I wonder how to blend these things into the promotion of Nadi’s work to keep the firm relevant in the marketing sphere. Social media influencers, in this case, remain a huge question mark.

A social media influencer has, as defined by the online marketing platform Pixlee, established credibility and audience, and who can persuade others by their trustworthiness and authenticity. Influencers, for the most part, pick Instagram as their platform of choice.

 

Instagram boasts “one billion monthly active users, and more than 500 million use the platform every day.” When brands use the app effectively, they can advertise their products to millions of people without spending any money (or at least nothing compared to the more traditional avenues of marketing).

Many architecture and design firms already use Instagram as an online portfolio for their work. However, while conventional promotional photography or renderings still work, they can also miss that human connection that promotes inclusivity and encourages engagement. So, could influencers bridge the gap between pristine photos of empty spaces as circulated by designers and the actual human experience of the space as perceived by its users?

In a previous article, I write about how we often attach our own narratives to spaces and places. With Hever Castle and Gardens, I imagined that Anne Boleyn used the courtyard and garden even though those upgrades had been built centuries later. In this case, Anne Boleyn acted as an influencer for me in this space. While I didn’t scroll her Instagram feed, I did scroll her biographies, and it made me want to visit Hever Castle to explore the grounds and be closer to this woman I had read about so intently and admired.

I imagine that people who follow influencers feel the same way. Now, an influencer is in no way a historical figure like Anne Boleyn—they are an entrepreneur whose business relies on their personal brand and how their personal brand complements the brand of others to sell to the masses. Moreover, influencers persuade their audiences to buy certain products, attend certain events and support certain companies to make a living—even if they don’t believe in them.

However, for many people who follow influencers, they don’t always view them as an extension of the product or service they’re selling. Followers will buy makeup based on an influencer’s review or visit a café because the influencer says it sells the cutest scones you’ve ever seen! Often, consumers buy a product because it makes them feel closer to the person who is promoting it.

An explanation for this is that many influencers position themselves as more reachable than the companies or corporations that sell the product. They often engage with fans, encouraging a relationship that extends beyond conventional consumerism. An influencer with an excellent reputation for trustworthiness or authentic spirit can almost twist the mind into thinking we are consuming this product or service on our own volition. However, it’s important to point out that as much as we like to think that with all the ways to now consume content and we have access to more information to make our own choices, we also can’t deny that content is controlled by algorithms and the person with the most followers or retweets reaches the most eyes.

I often wonder if the same rules apply to marketing with an influencer as say, advertising in a magazine—like does the audience make sense? It’s important to remember that influencers run a business as much as architecture and design firms do. It can be expensive to hire an influencer, and you want someone whose values match your own even if the brand as a whole does not. For example, with someone like Huda Katten, a beauty expert with 29 million Instagram followers may not feel like an obvious choice, but also who knows what type of people follow her? She might have an international developer who's a big fan!

The world is much more globalized—thanks to the proliferation of the Internet and social media. People don’t fit neatly into the boxes we created for them anymore—especially online. Someone who wields power in commercial development could also enjoy watching makeup tutorials or have a secret obsession with organic coffee beans. Who we follow and what we like online is an extension of ourselves. For many of us, we don’t exclusively follow people or accounts that reflect our professions, but a myriad of interests, hobbies and influencers who we like or admire.

In this case, speaking in social media jargon, the reach is as important as the post. So, word of mouth from people talking and telling one another about this new space or place is just as powerful as other advertising avenues. Hiring an influencer to bring that human element to the space and promote it to their legion of followers could produce unexpected results such as an international following or even influential fans that can elevate a firm’s reputation beyond the confines of the city where they’re headquartered.

Using an influencer to promote a project (and the following services used to create said project) is not a new concept, but I have yet to see it utilized in the architecture and design industry. Nevertheless, if we want to transcend traditional architectural and design photography, maybe an influencer could make that happen. The best influencers often attach a story to the places and spaces they visit, an anecdote that summarizes their relationship or feeling at that moment. Dreamy escapism is often the tone of choice, but it does set the scene, creating yearning, and possibly a little bit of FOMO (fear of missing out). From my experience working at a design firm, that’s what designers and architects want to evoke with our work. For people to see it and for people who don’t typically follow this industry to see it and think to themselves: “I want to go there.”

 

Designers and architects want people to feel joy and happiness when people use the spaces, they design and create. Maybe it’s outrageous to employ an influencer to communicate those feelings, but we can’t deny or diminish how their influence could transform the appeal of a space. Large corporations like McDonald's, Pepsi and Old Navy realize the benefits of using those with star power to shape and guide their brand. While I’m not arguing that a designer’s work can’t speak for itself, I am arguing that sometimes it needs something or someone else to continue the conversation along to a newer, broader audience.

Has your firm used an influencer to promote your work? If so, leave a comment and tell me about your experience!