How this Cincinnati-based startup is revamping social media marketing for modern platforms
As social media has expanded and platforms like TikTok and Reddit have gained popularity, brands are increasingly looking for ways to adapt their marketing to these trend-oriented platforms. While traditional social media marketing focuses on lengthy advertisement campaigns or recruiting influencers with large followings for brand representation, platforms like TikTok give accounts of any size the chance to go viral. So how can brands harness this new generation of social media? Navigating that paradigm shift is the expertise of Cincinnati startup Step Up Social.
“Many of us are current college students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio,” said CEO and Founder Emil Barr. “We’re essentially a social media agency that specializes in Reddit and TikTok marketing. We realized that there was a need for good social media, especially in these emerging platforms. We run ourselves like a tech startup in terms of pricing and how we’ve been focused on scaling, and we use a combination of a human approach and a tech approach for marketing social media on these platforms.”
The company was born out of the back of their college coffee shop when Barr noticed a lack of defined social media presence among many of the small businesses in Oxford. As students who frequently used sites like TikTok and Instagram in their personal lives, Barr and his team translated their knowledge of social media into an agency that offered those services for businesses. Now, Step Up Social has grown exponentially. Their clients include Fortune 500 companies and they are on track to make $1 million in revenue this year.
“I think that a lot of the college students we hire are hungry and ambitious to prove that they can bring value to the market,” Barr said. “And I think it’s really exciting that we’re helping brands connect with customers in a more authentic way. That’s a really cool feeling — to know that we’re on the brink of where social media is heading. In general, we try to keep innovation at the core of everything we do. We’re always trying to build that combination of validating young people and these new platforms, while at the same time trying to be innovative and not fall into the same patterns.”
At the core of that innovation is the company’s unique approach to platforms like TikTok and Reddit. Rather than designing their services after the traditional social marketing model of a lengthy campaign with one launch, the company focuses on keeping up with TikTok’s trending audio and posting videos every other day. On Reddit, they focus on community-building by sharing relatable content and answering customers’ questions.
“TikTok is very trend-based and the smallest accounts and new businesses can go on there and do a great job and get hundreds of thousands of views,” he said. “Typical agencies aren’t really used to TikTok and the sheer amount of content that has to be produced. Because the number one driver of growth on TikTok is trending audio and trending sounds and those tend to change weekly. Reddit is very user-generated and very community-based. If you’re a service-based business, we’ve seen Reddit is an extremely effective channel, both for B2B and B2C.”
Step Up is growing with the help of an angel investment from Tim Warren, CEO of Cincinnati’s Helium SEO. While the investment was critical to the company, Barr said that Warren’s expertise in the tech world, guidance and mentorship has been integral to growing Step Up.
“Tim gave a speech at Miami about marketing and growing marketing agencies, and that was the way we met,” Barr said. “His capital investment was valuable, but so was his expertise and knowledge of emerging technology and marketing. He knows how to actually sell and scale an agency. Having him as a mentor and advisor who is there to guide the agency has been huge in turning us from a college project into a functioning business on its way to making a million dollars a year.”
And with so much growth and high revenue projections on the horizon, Step Up Social is excited to continue expanding their company in Cincinnati. With the high level of young talent, entrepreneurial opportunities and business community, Barr said the city, and Ohio more broadly, is the perfect place to continue cultivating their agency.
“I think it would be much harder, if not impossible, to start Step Up Social in another state. I don’t think it’s that common to see this type of support and ambitious and passionate people elsewhere,” he said. “I think it’s that openness that you don’t see in cities on the coasts. There’s this sense of a Midwestern community where they want everyone to succeed, and that’s been really cool for young people trying to get into business. I just don’t think you see that Ohio spirit in other places.”