If Emily Steele were a bird, she’d be a hummingbird.
“You flit around and spread all your energy all over the place. And you’re like zipping everywhere,” Steele’s father-in-law, a bird aficionado, once affectionately told her over family dinner at Malo.
Steele readily agrees the winged animal fits her personality. But more important, it now serves as the inspiration behind her company’s namesake, Hummingbirds, Inc.
Hummingbirds is a platform that matches a community of hyper-local content creators — known as “hummingbirds” — with small businesses in Des Moines to drive brand awareness and sales. Through the business, Steele has connected more than 500 local social media influencers with more than 100 brands, including Hy-Vee, the Des Moines Botanical Garden, and most recently, a new Cookies & Dreams location in Ankeny.
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Launched in 2018, Steele says her company — an intersection of economic development, small business marketing and content creation — was shaped by her childhood and years of work in the nonprofit and marketing industry.
With a shortage of large retailers in her hometown of Pella, Steele said she grew up relying on local businesses, visiting Des Moines malls only once or twice a year. Today, uptown shops like Jaarsma Bakery and Smokey Row Coffee Co. hold a special place.
“There’s something in me that just fell in love with the small business world,” she said. “And I feel like it’s been there my whole life when I look at my roots in Pella.”
Steele was the first person in her family to graduate from college, earning a degree in marketing and public relations from Drake University in 2012. She began working in the nonprofit sector in Des Moines and helped launch a campaign called Viva East Bank, a community revitalization project in 2014. In the years following, she experimented with small businesses, launching POP UP YOGA DSM and expanding FemCity Des Moines, a women’s networking group.
It was in 2018, amid the rise of influencer marketing and personal branding, when Steele developed DSMHummingbirds — a concept that operates similarly to word-of-mouth marketing.
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If your neighbor tells you about a delicious new burger joint in town, you’re likely going to try it, Steele hypothesizes. And according to Nielsen, she’d be right: 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising.
“People, especially younger consumers, are looking to their peers to make decisions,” Steele said. “They’re hanging out on Instagram for hours a day. They’re influenced by their neighbors, their friends. They see everything.”
But instead of reaching one or two neighbors, Hummingbirds provides the opportunity for local businesses to reach thousands by capitalizing on one person’s positive interaction with their brand.
A business can use Hummingbird’s platform to create a campaign and select “hummingbirds” to help them build buzz around their brand — whether it’s an opening, event or a new product launch. “Hummingbirds” then post pictures and videos to Instagram or Facebook to share their experience with the brand.
“Hummingbirds are pollinators,” Steele said. “At the end of the day, that’s what this community of content creators is — they’re local pollinators spreading so much goodness in their social content all around the community.”
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Previously, Steele kept track of all participants on a simple database and matched interested “hummingbirds” with businesses in-house. Recently, Hummingbirds launched a new iteration of the platform where potential “hummingbirds” can create profiles and opt in to a company’s campaign if it looks appealing. Businesses can, in turn, recruit and select content creators they believe will fit best with their campaign.
Businesses pay $50 per influencer to Hummingbirds. Selected “hummingbirds” are paid with perks, like free admission, food and giveaways, by the company.
Hummingbirds has overseen more than 250 campaigns since 2018.
Multiple “hummingbirds” participated in a campaign for Christopher’s Fine Jewelry in West Des Moines in August to bring awareness to its permanent gold chain bracelet line, Sparked!
Erin Swisher, whose Instagram handle is @erinnotkaren_, shared a video of her in-store experience with her 2,200 followers. The video, captioned “Obsessed is an understatement,” shows clips of Swisher choosing one of the five bracelets and having it fitted to size.
“It’s so fast and so easy,” she said of the fitting process. “And when you’re done you have this cute bracelet you can wear every day.”
How brands select “hummingbirds” is subjective, though Steele says they have an opportunity to look at the person’s profile, which typically contains their gender (if they choose to share it), follower count and whether they have children. There are also links to the person’s Facebook and Instagram platforms where businesses can get a snapshot of their personality.
“Hummingbirds” don’t have to have thousands of followers. Steele wants to avoid giving the impression that influencers can’t join because they don’t have 10,000 followers or send a false message to businesses that the people amplifying their brand are celebrities.
“We’re trying to really level the playing field,” Steele says. “Everyone locally has influence. What happens when we all use our influence to elevate the remarkable people and businesses and things happening in our communities (is) social media becomes a much better place to hang out.”
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More recently, Steele has expanded her product to Omaha and Milwaukee and hopes to continue bringing her product to cities across the U.S.
“I’m super proud of where we are today. Having hundreds of people in Des Moines saying ‘I want to celebrate our city’ and ‘I want to amplify the good things here so my network learns about it from me,’ I think it’s really cool,” she said. “I think we’re contributing to the local economy in ways that we’ll never be able to truly quantify, but are really powerful and will only continue to grow.”
If Virginia Barreda were a bird, she’d like to think she’d be Hedwig from the Harry Potter franchise. Virginia is the Des Moines city government reporter for the Register. She can be reached at 503-399-6657 or at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.
Our Des Moines
Our Des Moines is a weekly feature on an interesting person, place or happening in the Des Moines metro, the kind of gems that make central Iowa a special place. Have an idea for this series? Contact [email protected]