How Ames-based real estate agent Elli Jennings became a TikTok … – Des Moines Register

This is one in an occasional series on Iowa influencers who are finding new ways to tell the story of the state through social media.
Elli Jennings could easily be a newcomer on the upcoming sixth season of the Netflix show “Selling Sunset,” a reality television streamer about the drama-tinged day-to-day lives of agents at a Los Angeles-based real estate firm.
Except she lives and works in the Midwest. The Story City native is a second-generation specialist on her family’s legacy real estate team at RE/Max Real Estate Center in Ames.
“I always joke that there’s ‘Selling Sunset’ — in Iowa; we could call it ‘Selling Silos,’” Jennings said during an interview earlier this fall at Hobnob Coffee & Wine Bar in the Hotel Fort Des Moines.
Jennings uses the snappy video sharing app TikTok to showcase life and fun things to do in Iowa while offering home-buying tips and creating new revenue streams for Jennings Real Estate Team.
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The Iowa State University alum’s videos are set to surpass 1 million TikTok likes, and she boasts more than 32,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok combined.
Now, she’s turning clicks into cold, hard cash: According to Jennings, business has doubled during the past 12 months, and 70% of her new clients come from social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
Jennings grew up on a sprawling farm in Story City, a rural town about 20 minutes north of Ames. Her parents, Bill, a farmer, and Traci built an Ames-based real estate team during her childhood.
As a child, Jennings participated in theater performances that planted the seeds of an outgoing online persona that emerged years later.
She watched as her parents attended open houses with hundreds of clients and carried “for sale” signs through front yards, but never dreamed of that career for herself.
In May 2017, Jennings graduated from Roland-Story High School and enrolled at Iowa State with plans to major in a male-dominated field: agribusiness.
“I thought I was going to be a woman in ag sales because there aren’t a lot of women in ag sales,” Jennings said.
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In spring 2018, her parents asked her to run an open house, and she found two clients from the showing. Instead of passing the pair of clients over to an agent, Jennings decided to keep the leads and immerse herself in central Iowa’s competitive real estate industry.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions were confined to their homes, Jennings began posting on TikTok.
The video sharing app, featuring short “SNL”-style sketches and Generation Z’s dance trends, rose to mass prominence during the pandemic’s peak.
According to a June 2021 data report from market research company eMarketer, TikTok users between 35 and 54 years old jumped to 36% in 2021 — up 10 percentage points from 2020, when the pandemic began.
At first, Jennings was skeptical of the video platform, which was dominated by a mainly younger audience before the pandemic. She started by posting silly day-in-the-life stories on the app, with no plan to target clients.
In her first TikTok post, Jennings placed pillows on her bed before fluffing and folding her comforter in a cheeky influencer-style mockumentary guide to making one’s bed. The caption: “making my bed in 15282927261 steps!”
Hundreds of likes followed, and as attention grew, the 23-year-old saw business opportunities in Iowa-based content about hometown pride and metro-area home sales.
“I was still heavily relying on team leads or past client referrals, but once I started doing TikTok, I think I just have a knack for when I make content, and it kind of came easy for me,” Jennings said about becoming an influencer during the pandemic. “I’m not sure at what point I realized that you can generate business through this platform.”
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Jennings has created internet buzz by highlighting metro area homes for sale. Recent posts include a $280,000 Des Moines house, a $220,000 Beaverdale abode, or a 3,000-square-foot new build in Norwalk on the market for $510,000.
Alongside real estate content, Jennings interacts with TikTok users by adding sassy retorts to commenters who troll Iowa. In one video, Jennings responds to the comment, “I refuse to step foot in Iowa,” by pretending to rub her fake tear-filled eyes while a singer croons, “I’m heartbroken.”
The farmer’s daughter recently posted a video where she delivered a pink Crumbl Cookies box to her dad and his crew out in the field in early October during the start of harvest. The caption: “America needs farmers!! And cookies!” set to the Luke Combs track “Middle of Somewhere.”
“I don’t recall an exact moment, but I found something resonated from the people that follow me and I established a brand,” Jennings said.
According to Iowa-based social media marketing and real estate insiders, TikTok scrolls and Instagram swipes are crucial to generating client leads.
Jen Stanbrough, who leads the Des Moines Area Association of Realtors as board president, has been selling homes in the region since 2006 and said the use of social media as a marketing tool is growing in the industry.
“Across the board, if you want to grow your brand recognition, you’re going to have to use these trends,” the 43-year-old RE/Max Precision real estate agent said.
Stanbrough compared agents like Jennings who showcase their lives on social media to television stars on reality shows, such as the ABC dating competition “The Bachelor” or Bravo’s popular franchise “Million Dollar Listing,” which follows real estate agents selling luxury homes in major U.S. cities.
“There’s some kind of fascination that people have with gaining insight into other people’s personal lives or even their career,” Stanbrough said. “Social media is almost setting up a mini reality show.”
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Stanbrough, who started her own real estate career at age 27, said the sole negative impact of agents sharing private and public parts of the job is potential safety issues. She said agents should still be cautious when connecting with buyers on the internet.
Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communication assistant advertising professor Ryan Stoldt, who teaches about advertising principles and consumer awareness, said that across industries, 9-to-5 workers are turning day jobs into content opportunities as social media creators.
Stoldt said that by posting daily videos, real estate agents stay top of mind for potential buyers and sellers who are searching for a specialist. Influencers are able to create relationships with a younger generation of users that traditional advertisers cannot, he said. 
“We also see that traditional advertisements might seem a little more formal to that generation,” he said, “but influencers are built through a personal relationship.”
Stoldt said that how content is created could potentially change in America in light of TikTok’s ties with China as well as billionaire Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter, but prevalence among users is longstanding. 
“We’re going to see a place where creators can build relationships with audiences and those audiences are using that as a form of trust to invest,” Stoldt said. “It’s about establishing authority with groups of people.”
Jennings’ blend of a real estate agent’s personal and professional life — like sharing an inside look at one’s marriage proposal on TikTok or a behind-the-scenes tour of an open house — gives a next-gen lens to real estate’s future.
Her use of TikTok has the same effect as getting to know clients through introductory pamphlets, word-of-mouth recommendations or a website biography.
On her TikTok series “Instagram-able Places in Iowa,” the unofficial metro area tour guide gives followers a behind-the-scenes pass inside local businesses, such as Des Moines-based vineyard Jasper Winery and bouquet flower picking at The Vinery in Nevada.
Episode 1 of the digital series featured Boone-based Rail Explorers, the buzzy social media-friendly tourist attraction featuring railbikes on train tracks in the former mining town.
The post received more than 70,000 likes, 23,000 shares, 12,500 saves, and 1.4 million views while Jennings responded with safety recommendations, “There are seatbelts,” paired with a happy-faced emoji.
In one fall-themed post that generated 2,755 likes and nearly 21,000 views, Jennings toured picturesque Storybook Orchard in her hometown of Story City.
“It’s so charming this time of year with the fall colors,” Jennings said while picking up a pumpkin in the TikTok video. “But the thing I love the most about this family-owned orchard is that it’s quaint, quiet, and no admission fee.”
Jennings, who is engaged to Shawn Shindelar, garnered nearly 90,000 views for a point-of-view post about growing up while going to football games in Jack Trice Stadium and the prominent role that Iowa State has played throughout her life.
“POV: You were born in Ames, Iowa and brought home to a house behind Jack Trice Stadium — your family never missed a game. 23 years later, you are engaged, an ISU alum, and also bought a house right behind the stadium, so you walk to the games and it never gets old. ISU is home.”
Jennings and Shindelar met during their freshman year at ISU after Shindelar dropped his pencil in front of her after class. “It was on purpose, but Shawn will never admit that it was!” Jennings said.
In April, Shindelar dropped to one knee during a springtime proposal in their backyard at the home the duo shares on a quiet tree-lined street in Ames near the stadium. In May, the pair became business partners, Jennings said.
Next year, the duo will marry, and they expect friends and relatives to travel from states as far as Georgia. There’s no word on whether iPhone cameras for TikTok content will be present at the wedding.
Known for: Showcasing dreamy central Iowa homes and snapping back at commenters who make fun of Iowa
Day job: Real-estate agent, Jennings Real Estate Team at RE/MAX Real Estate Center in Ames
TikTok:@ellijennings; more than 25,000 followers
Instagram:@ellijenn; more than 7,000 followers
Jay Stahl is an entertainment reporter at The Des Moines Register. Follow him on InstagramTwitter, or reach out at


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