Emily Steele first noticed how slow foot traffic was at the East Village while shopping for a wedding outfit one afternoon. 

“The story in our city was that the East Village is a thriving community, that downtown should be just like the East Village and how do we make downtown just as successful,” Steele said. “The conversation I was having specifically with a woman at a store in the East Village — she said it’s the slowest it’s ever been in seven years, and if it wasn’t for the hotels and the guest visitors, they wouldn’t have visitors.” 

“People need a boost, and they need visibility,” Steele said. 

After Steele and Whitney Warne co-founded Brand Launch at the start of 2018, they turned to Instagram to fill the void. 

“I see influencers on Instagram. You see celebrity endorsements, all these kind of brand collaborations are happening with people who would very much embody the brand,” Steele said. 

Steele and Warne knew firsthand there are bloggers and social media influencers with a growing following and focus on Des Moines. So they launched the Hummingbird Project, a new marketing partnership between selected Des Moines “hummingbirds” and businesses. 

The hummingbirds — influencers who currently volunteer for the program in exchange for perks or rewards — are connected to businesses paying for one of three marketing opportunities based on share audiences the business and influencer might have. 

“Anyone can be a hummingbird; anyone can advocate for local business,” Steele said. “These are the people who are loud and proud Des Moines champions, and who are showing up at events right now.” 

So far, Brand Launch has partnered with about 25 influencers for the project and continues to take applications from more. 

“The concept of the hummingbird is to really cultivate a community of men and women who are kind of microinfluencers. So when they’re posting on social media or they’re giving referrals based on a Facebook post, people listen,” Steele said. “A lot of people have that kind of influence in their own little micro circles in Des Moines.” 

Greater Des Moines businesses working with the Hummingbird Project choose between three partnership models — one-day, event-based or long-term. From that partnership, if the business chooses to work with Brand Launch, Steele and Warne will create a marketing strategy to build on that publicity, Steele said. 

Currently, the influencers operate as volunteers in exchange for perks by the businesses, although they must pass an application process through Brand Launch. In the future, Steele said she’d like compensation to shift from perks-driven opportunity to paid, sponsored posts on the influencer’s platform, but the project is still in beta mode.

“These individuals have to already be thinking about going to these restaurants or these events, or it just won’t line up,” Steele said. “We don’t want these individuals to lack credibility.” 

There is potential for influencers to have a negative experience with a business, and Brand Launch has a road map to work with those businesses based on the influencer’s feedback, Steele said. 

“We will not post a negative experience about your brand, but instead, we will give you constructive feedback about this experience, and give you a chance to either redo it, refine what you’re doing or work with us to make your experience a little bit more excellent, more remarkable,” Steele said. “But they have to go into [the] agreement with us knowing that it might not be what you’re saying it is, and you deserve to know what these influential individuals think about you. 

“If you’re not open to feedback, we can’t work together. This has to be a partnership where we can be honest about it,” she added. 

Steele says the model could eventually shift the way businesses spend marketing resources, and expand to other cities as long as there are influencers covering the region. 

“This is already humming in people’s minds as an idea, they just have not had the place to go,” Steele said. “Now we’re saying, this is their hub. Come to us, and we’ll get you the right people.”