How brands and agencies are avoiding covidiot influencers

What marketers have learned from Arielle Charnas.

PR agencies and their clients have an established checklist for evaluating influencers, searching for risk factors such as foul language, unpredictability and a mismatch on core values. They’ve added another red flag, looking for tone-deaf or inappropriate behavior, during the coronavirus pandemic. 

More directly, has the influencer behaved like a “covidiot,” or someone who has acted selfishly or insensitively about COVID-19. Tesla CEO Elon Musk was characterized as one this week for demanding the country immediately return to business as usual. So has Instagram influencer Arielle Charnas, who has been derided as what “privilege looks like in the age of coronavirus.”

Charnas’ followers became so incensed by her entitlement of using privilege to get tested for COVID-19 that they tweeted angrily at one of her former brand partners, Nordstrom. 

“Our partnership with Arielle Charnas ended in 2019, and we have no foreseeable collaborations,” the retailer responded. 

On the other hand, influencers who are adapting to a changing world and helping their social media followers will be held in greater regard. 

“While many debate the perilous situation of the influencer marketing industry, the real question is whether COVID-19 has created a shift in culture and what consumers value, or has it simply strengthened [consumers’] resolve to expect more from brands and those that represent them?” asks Chad Latz, chief innovation officer at BCW. “The research we’ve conducted for brands shows that the pandemic has shifted priorities and concerns of consumers in a way that will likely have long-tail impact.”

So what is being shunned now, and could be for a while? “Content that historically powers influencers’ Instagrammable moments,” namely, displays of luxury and privilege that are hard to stomach in “stark comparison of forced austerity, minimalism, record unemployment and climbing death rates,” says Latz. 

BCW has amped up its influencer-vetting process. “As many brands are considering when to resume their proactive marketing efforts, we now have our teams looking at influencers’ COVID-19 content as either a positive or negative indicator for potential future brand engagement,” explains Latz. 

This quick change in values also has been a boon to short-video platform TikTok, which just reached more than 2 billion downloads, fueled by recent growth, and may have gained an edge over Instagram.  

“TikTok is attracting influencers and users who produce and prefer a more authentic and unpolished style of content, compared to the crafted perfection of Instagram,” says Latz, who notes that influencer marketing is a two-way street. “Influencers might also evaluate the suitability of brands for partnership based on how they handled the crisis.”

Many influencers are promoting health, safety and PSA messages for COVID-19, with 1.5 billion engagements on 480,000 posts, according to Influencer Marketing Hub. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for brands and influencers to work together to help during the pandemic. 

“Influencers who are using their voice to give back and help their community will receive the support of their followers,” says Ida Kay, VP of comms and lifestyle at World Surf League. She joined the governing body for surfers in April from Red Bull, where she was brand comms director. 

“From a cause perspective, this is where influencer marketing hasn’t necessarily changed,” says Kay. “The brand is using their leverage to do good and the influencer is using their voice to amplify.”  

‘Does this make sense in the new world?’
To prevent campaigns from going to market tone-deaf, influencer marketing firm Fohr paused all client work in response to the pandemic’s growth in the U.S., says founder and CEO James Nord. Fohr’s clients include Sephora, online meditation company Headspace and retailer Neiman Marcus.

“We proactively put a hold on everything and talked to clients and influencers and looked at every single brief and asked ourselves, ‘Does this brief make sense in this new world?’” he says. “Most of them didn’t, and so where we could, the brief was changed so that it made sense.” 

Before COVID-19, Fohr averaged 200 sponsored posts for 90 influencer campaigns a week. After a big drop in March, “it has slowly been going back up,” he says. “We have 120 sponsored posts this week.” 

But the numbers aren’t rebounding to exactly the same place. Nord says subject-matter experts will thrive more than aspirational influencers. 

“It will be less about the influencers who say, ‘Look at me, look at my glamorous lifestyle, don’t you want that?’ and more about influencers who give advice and help people to improve their lives,” he predicts. 

Nord is bullish about influencer marketing’s rebound over the next 12 to 18 months, given social distancing norms. One reason is that social distancing makes big product shoots a challenge, but one that could be remedied by sending products to an Instagram influencer. 

Most Americans plan to avoid sports and other live events like concerts until there is a proven COVID-19 vaccine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. An influencer could be a bridge for a brand to reach fans in the absence of sports and other live events. 

Vanessa Spagnuolo, group account director and head of accounts at influencer marketing agency Viral Nation, notes “gaming influencers on streaming platforms are seeing a huge increase in viewership.” 

“People are still looking for entertainment during this time, so content creators who are true to their craft and are committed to producing valuable content on a consistent basis have the opportunity to capture new audience attention,” she says. 

The economic downturn that has resulted from the pandemic is also affecting how influencers do business. Compensation agreements are being modified with promises to deliver more for the client and to back it up with deeper, more meaningful metrics. 

While Carmichael Lynch Relate isn’t “looking to lower fees” from influencers, agency VP Jamie Tanker says, “we’ve found a lot of our partners have graciously increased their deliverables in light of today’s climate and the strength of our relationships.” 

With every element of marketing under scrutiny, showing return on investment will be crucial to maintain and grow influencer budgets. That is why Tanker says they are “driving partnerships to be even more strategic and transparent with an added emphasis on data-driven assessment of results.”

The firm has seen some sectors postpone or cancel influencer campaigns, but Tanker says Carmichael Lynch Relate’s “home and design practice has been a particular bright spot” with “increased inbound requests.” 

When more sectors return, Tanker says, “We’re curious to see if there will be greater shifts to nano- and micro-influencer programs given risk of exposure from marco and celebrity-level partners and also given the possibility for tighter budgets.” 

Michael Cree, SVP and head of NY Influencer at Edelman, says it is difficult to know exactly what influencer campaigns will eventually look like, saying, “We’re still in the midst of trying to grapple with what the post-COVID world will look like.”

“Audiences trust the opinions of their favored influencers, and had been looking to them more and more for their honest take and assessments of products and services,” he says. “In a post-COVID world, that honesty could be even more important.” 

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