…Own your own website and democratize where your content goes. If the Instagram outage earlier this year taught us anything, it’s that people who put all of their eggs into one basket, starve.

We often use the term “Influencers” to describe people with significant social media followings on platforms like Instagram, Twitter TikTok, Youtube, Linkedin and Facebook. Influencers have become today’s media titans, sought after for everything from product placements to timely trends. What’s the difference between influence and impact? Fans and followers? Sizzle versus staying power?

In this interview series, called, “How To Cultivate Community In A Click to Connect World” we are talking to influencers about how they define success and what we all need to discover about the true nature of influence. As a part of our series I had the pleasure of interviewing Cynthia Ruff.

Cynthia Ruff is a self-domesticated city girl living in Atlanta, GA, and shares how to DIY projects in your home, create heirloom recipes, and showcases places she loves in the South on her blog, Darling Down South. She’s currently learning how to install panel molding in her 1920’s condo and learning Python to continue building out her tech startup for the Creator Economy.

Thank you for making time to visit with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. How did you discover your career path and what got you to where you are today?

I am a true millennial- and like every millennial who grew up on Teen Vogue and the Hills, I wanted to be a fashion magazine editor. However in college in part thanks to the financial market crash and a realization that my skillset was better served in Finance than fashion, I changed career paths and started working at a tech startup in global sales operations after graduation. I still obsessed over blogs and when Instagram really took off in 2012, found myself in a rabbit hole of Gal Meets Glams and Atlantic Pacifics every day.

In 2013, the iPhone’s camera wasn’t quality enough to produce serious content so starting a blog came with a significant overhead cost of buying a DSLR camera and learning to edit. So I spent the $700 on the camera and editing software and launched my first blog all about thrifted fashion (which at the time of rewardstyle and affiliate sales in fashion blogging-was not profitable.) Two years later I rebranded to encompass recipes, home décor and travel. Then the blogging world took off exponentially and advertisers were coming to me left and right for product placement. It was a really wild time. I went from making $10 a post to nearly $500 a post over a 3-month period. Throughout this time of growing my blog, a little app called Instagram and Pinterest established itself as more than just a passing destination. I was fortunate enough to resonate on both platforms (more on Pinterest) and now some of my posts that I wrote 5+ years ago generate 1/3 of my passive revenue per year.

I also was able to take my skillset of (at this time) working in HR and Executive Compensation to negotiating better rates for my sponsored posts, driving more value to my branded partnerships by leveraging the upsell, and before I left my corporate job, was making 6 figures through my “side-hustle”.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way that influences how you operate now?

Be prepared for the valleys. When you go from corporate world of getting paid every other week to managing your own finances in an advertising world, you need to understand how cash flow works. There are four quarters of spend in every advertisers year and generally Q1 (Jan-Mar) and Summer break are when cash flow will be the tightest. This was a lesson I learned by trial on my first real year as a content creator. I didn’t budget for each quarter to be different and thought I would receive a XX% increase next quarter because of arbitrary historical numbers biased by my corporate experience.

As a content creator, you can’t live the high life year round, and those Holiday bonuses will run out if you’re not careful so you have to get comfortable with no money coming in during the slow months, e.g the valleys.

We’re all searching for some good news. How are you using your platform to make a positive social impact?

I walk the talk. Things that I promote on my channel (like composting and supporting the Free99 Fridge in Atlanta) are things that I actively participate in my life. I think there is a genuineness of passing off what you do during your “off-screen” time to when you inform your audience about your social impact when you carry on this way. I also challenge my audience to get involved as well! During holidays instead of saying “Happy Memorial Day”, I request for each person to comment on a specific post and each comment equals $1 donated to a corresponding charity. Through these movements, I’ve actually had followers reach out asking for my venmo so they could help donate more to the overall donation. It’s about being one with the community and engaging in what you care about off screen that really resonates and drives an impact, I believe.

Many of our readers are influencers as well. Others have tried and have yet to succeed. What words of advice would you offer to aspiring influencers, knowing what you know now?

I have so much advice.

One) Hoping that your content will go viral is about as good of a strategy for becoming a serious creator as wishing to win the lottery to fund your retirement.

Two) Don’t quit your job before you’ve been creating for at least 2 years. I see SO MUCH creator burnout in the first year because they become content farms for generating views and likes on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, which is not sustainable in the long run. If you want to be a creator full time, do it on the side for 2-years alongside your full-time job so you can learn the cash-flow cycles for your niche and grow you platform enough to start asking for serious money from brands.

Three) Those who shill for anyone, will get brand deals with no one. Be VERY selective about who pays you to promote their product. Every time you take on a sponsored post, your audience degrades a little bit. It’s a double edged sword because content creators rely on sponsored posts to make up the bulk of their compensation, yet your followers are less responsive afterwards. It degrades your audience which in turn effects the opportunity for future collaborations- especially when it’s off brand for your followers.

Four) If you think because you have XX number of followers that brands owe you ANYTHING- think again. Influencers are as interchangeable as a mall model now so you need to build relationships with brands before they want to pay you. The brand will likely just ignore you unless you’re Kylie Jenner.

Five) Content creation is more fun with friends. In a world of algorithm depressive disorder, you’re going to need a network of like-minded creators who you can collaborate with and commiserate with. Also, if you want to reduce the likelihood of creator burnout, I highly recommend starting a channel with a friend who has a different skillset than your own. It’s so nice to have someone else on your team amplifying your opportunity to create.

Success is often a matter of perspective. I’ve always resonated with Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” How do you see success — or define success — for yourself now?

Success to me is whether or not I learned the lesson. I constantly embark on some new venture with the goal of learning something from it. Maybe it’s s stair step to my next larger goal, like with my vintage resale shop I just shuttered. For 12 months, I collected, curated, inventoried, and resold beautiful vintage goods to my audience every other week. I had hoped that I would learn what my audience would be interested in buying so I could dive further into retail after graduating from my MBA. I learned a lot about my audiences buying habits, their price points, and the effect of free shipping. I also learned that retail by yourself is exhausting and I just didn’t have time to devote to it. It was a very successful failure and I’m looking forward to taking my lessons learned forward in the future to whatever concept I want to do next.

What are your strategies to make room for who and what matters most?

I time block to keep my day on track. Everything that I do in a day, goes onto my calendar for whatever time I can dedicate to it. It helps me prioritize my optimal work cycle. In the mornings I’m more creative, in the afternoons I’m more technical, during lunch I do something active. Time blocking helps me stay on task and get things done so that I can take my weekly riding lesson, walk my dog 3 miles per day, and have dinner with my husband every night.

How do you reduce or mitigate stress?

My therapist says “don’t pee on your day” which is my favorite analogy to conjure up when I’m starting to get stressed out about what I have going on. The analogy is supposed to make you think that if you have one foot on today and one foot on yesterday, and you think about what’s standing over today, you don’t want to pee all over it and ruin your day by thinking about what could or couldn’t have been. Having someone, like a therapist, to talk to is so crucial so as not to verbal diarrhea all over your friends and family with my emotional baggage. I don’t want to bring all of my stressors to those relationships, so I pay someone to help me work through those issues in a safe space. Carrie Bradshaw will eat peanut butter for Milano’s, I’d do the same for my therapist.

I’m going to try a few of your tips, and I’m hopeful our readers will, too. Now it’s time for the big reveal — the moment our readers have been anticipating. What are your “five strategies to cultivate a large & engaged social media community?’ Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Own your own website and democratize where your content goes. If the Instagram outage earlier this year taught us anything, it’s that people who put all of their eggs into one basket, starve.
  2. Always keep a pulse on new community based apps that could help you expand your reach because the next thing that may make you Kardashian-level famous might only have 1,000 creators on it right now and a chronological feed. That could be your ticket to leveraging a large audience.
  3. Employ the power of leveling up collaboration. Leveling up collaboration is a great way to build relationships and grow. The idea that you with 2,500 followers will be able to partner with someone who has 100,000 followers is unlikely (unless you’re besties, in which case go forth!) but the way you get there is by creating level up partnerships and cross collaboration opportunities for growth. If you are a vegan cooking blogger with 2,500 followers, find vegetarian bloggers of similar followings to do a recipe challenge where you both use the same item in two different recipes that can point back to each other.
  4. You only need 10 true fans to be a catalyst for your community growth. You’ll know them when they continuously slide into your DMs and comment on posts. Treat these people with the utmost attention because they will turn into evangelists for your brand. Send them thank you notes, gifts, shout them out, whatever to tell them you appreciate them and value their enthusiasm for your content.
  5. Be exclusive, i.e. be specific. Don’t’ be exclusive in the Mean Girls way, but be exclusive in what you talk about. Have a segment that you cater to and that you can establish yourself as a true visionary. I saw so many fashion bloggers blow up 4 years ago because they only thing they talked about what Loft fashion and how to remix outfits from Loft… it was so specific but it resonated so deeply that the content just went bananas. Be that specific, that exclusive, and your audience will follow.

What do you do to create a greater sense of connection and community among your fans?

During the pandemic, I picked up water coloring. I shared it with my audience and asked for the first 20 fans to drop me their address and I’d send them a postcard from the water color. It was a small touch that my audience loved and I got to create for the genuine love of creating and knowing that it would brighten someone’s day. I think that’s the key to connecting- genuineness and expecting nothing in return. I also reshare their content that they’ve shared with me of past recipes I’ve made and host workshops that they can come attend. Showing that I will show up for them has also been a great way to build community.

As an influencer, you are, by definition, a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think more establishments should reward school aged kids with freebies and discounts for good grades. I was chatting with a friend who owns a GF bakery in Atlanta how I would love to donate to a “Good Grade fund” at her establishment to pay for college kids to get a free meal in exchange for good grades. This way not only are we stimulating small business (YAY!) but also encouraging kids to achieving their highest potential. This next wave of kids to graduate are going to be game changers, so we need to invest in them where we can-however little of a contribution we can make. If it stimulates small businesses along the way, even better!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He, she or they might just see this. 🙂

If I could sit down with Martha Stewart, Guy Raz and Adam Grant I think we would be in for a great conversation and a helluva meal.

What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?

You can read my lifestyle blog here: https://darlingdownsouth.com

My personal website here: https://cynthiaruff.com

And follow me on IG @cynthiahruff

Thank you for these thought provoking insights. Here’s to your continued success!