Could the coronavirus kill influencer culture? That was the question posed by a headline in Wired magazine last month. The article examines the sorry state in which some influencers find themselves during the global lockdown.
It's become a popular narrative: social-media stars whose income depends on posting sponsored images in exotic destinations, or attending exclusive product launches, see business dry up as travel becomes impossible, brands cut marketing spend and launches are cancelled.
A survey by influencer platform Mavrck in March found more than one quarter of US influencers were receiving fewer offers from brands amid the pandemic.
Gordon Glenister, global head of influencer marketing at the Branded Content Marketing Association, which represents brands, influencers, influencer platforms and agencies, says the impact has been particularly accute for those who rely on scheduled events.
"I think it's the speed at which it's happened as well," he adds. "It's not like you could plan for it."
"There will be losers, and right now that appears to be travel and luxury goods specialists," says Lucy Hart, head of strategy and insight at Engine Mischief.
"They may bounce back, but with many facing financial woes for the long term they’re going to think carefully about tone. There’s also a problem in the nano and micro end of the market, as some of those campaigns they relied upon for income simply don’t exist as brand budgets are suffering."
Nonetheless, to suggest the crisis spells an end to influencers and influencer marketing does not match the reality, according to PR and social-media experts who spoke to PRWeek. Almost the opposite is true, they argue, as social-media stars evolve and exploit new opportunities. We could be entering a golden age of influencers.
Social media boom
Some highlight the surge in social-media use during the lockdown, giving influencers more opportunity than ever to engage with audiences.
The COVID-19 Impact Tracker from PR agency Tin Man found a 50 per cent increase in social-media use in the last week of April versus the same time last year; 27 per cent of the population are on Instagram at least once a day, and 60 per cent visit Facebook daily, the research found.
Influencer agency Obviously, which analysed 260 of its own campaigns, including more than 7.5m Instagram posts and data from 2,152 TikTok influencers, found a 76 per cent increase in daily accumulated likes on Instagram #ad posts over two weeks in March.
"People are spending more time on social right now, and brands and influencers have a – literally – captive audience," says Kate Matlock, deputy managing director of BCW's digital innovation group.
"With this increased visibility, and infinite time on their hands, influencers are feeling pressure to churn out engaging, topical content. It’s an opportunity for brands to be that creative sponsor and engage audiences authentically and with a dose of positivity."
Alexandra Galviz, the popular Linkedin influencer also known as Authentic Alex, is reaping the benefits. "There seems to be this preconceived notion that because we’re currently in lockdown, that businesses aren’t spending money. I’ve never been busier!" she says.
"Not only through my coaching and online workshops, but even with influencer deals, like working with companies such as Fiverr to create a month-long campaign of LinkedIn Lives, showcasing experts and valuable expertise. It’s about understanding what your audience needs in this moment in time and partnering with the right company who can support you in doing so."
The all-round skills of many influencers, who have been producing high-quality video from home for years, arguably make them ideal partners for brands during the crisis.
Glenister says: "They think about the content, they put it together, they write the scripts, they film themselves, they know how to build websites, they know about SEO – it's quite incredible how multi-skilled many of them are.
"If you think about big advertising campaigns in the past where you spend hundreds of thousands of pounds, you can pay a fraction of that with one influencer."
It's little surprise that the World Health Organization turned to a selection of influencers for its Safe Hands Challenge campaign to encourage the public to wash their hands properly to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Research from Obviously, published in April, found brands are bypassing production companies and asking influencers to create assets instead, signalling a new normal that is likely to continue well after the crisis passes.
Content is emperor
"Production is almost a luxury now," says Ed Brittain, social and influencer planner at MSL UK.
"When you look at TV, everyone is doing a video on their phone. Empowering influencers to make their own stuff in their own way – in a tried and tested way, as well – is proving really powerful.
"At the minute we've got a massive pipeline of new business and the word influencer is mentioned a lot more than it had been previously.
"When it comes to ideas, we're putting a lot more of the creativity in the hands of the influencer. So I'd say if anything, trust has gone up – trust they will create content that fits with their tone and is within the remits of what they can do.
"They can turn things aroud a lot quicker [than production companies], and they are great collaborators and partners."
Hart says: "Content producers can make high-spec content more cost-effectively than a 'bells and whistles' production, so when budget belts are tightened, and social distancing rules out certain content routes, this will stand in their favour."
Good influencers are, by their nature, experts in communicating to specific audiences with the right format and tone. While other media may struggle to adapt to the new realities of the lockdown, many influencers have thrived in it.
They have seemingly adjusted better than 'traditional' celebrities, many of whom appear out of touch and bereft of inspiration without their films, TV shows or concerts. The much-derided video of Hollywood star Gal Gadot leading a host of A-listers in a rendition of Imagine, John Lennon's ode to "no possessions", from their luxury homes typifies the problem.
"COVID-19 has accentuated the power of the influencer as audiences crave normality, connection and conversation," says Tin Man founder and chief executive Mandy Sharp.
"With lockdown preventing any professional, out-of-home content, lots of what we see on social is far more authentic – being filmed from living rooms with kids and family members featuring on camera where they might not have done pre-COVID. This means we’re seeing deep into influencers personal lives in a way we didn’t before and building even stronger emotional connections with them. Therefore, the brand partnerships these influencers choose become even more important and influential to their followers."
“If content was king yesterday, it’s emperor today," adds Sasha Marks, director at Brazen.
"Consumer behaviour has shifted and while we’re locked in and people have more time on their hands, the world is turning to the web for everything from learning and keeping fit to staying sane and wanting to be entertained.
"Rather than create that content themselves – which could be perceived as opportunistic, not to mention a challenge during lockdown – brands should be looking for genuine advocates to create that content and be the facilitators of meaningful conversations.
“Whether that’s demonstrating purpose, such as Dr Oetker’s #BakeARainbow NHS-appreciation campaign in partnership with actor Catherine Tyldsley and former Great British Bake Off contestants, which has launched with great success, or Nike’s 'Play for the world' campaign, where its roster of athlete endorsers have been showing how they’re keeping fit in lockdown, there’s definitely a place for partnerships."
We're teaming up with Cath Tyldesley to #BakeARainbow for the NHS and we challenge you to do the same! Head over to our Instagram to find out more... https://t.co/d0jGSmWknj pic.twitter.com/NzsNaLkPcy— Dr. Oetker Baking UK (@DrOetkerBakes) April 15, 2020
Influencers are also adaptable. Says Hart: "We are seeing influencers able to turn things around faster than normal. On a Wilkinson Sword campaign we just ran, content was briefed, shot and posted in a fraction of the time we’d normally expect, and going forward we’ll be wanting to keep this pace."
“Influencers are adapting to the new climate by pivoting the focus of their content," adds Matlock. "While shifting their priorities to cater to their audience’s needs, those doing it authentically are thriving."
Like others, she highlights Joe Wicks. The fitness guru has been arguably the UK's biggest social-media celebrity during the lockdown. PE class videos from The Body Coach, aimed at children stuck at home, have surpassed YouTube livestream records and reportedly landed Wicks a £1m children’s book deal.
To prove the adaptability point, this weekend Wicks announced he would return to leading the live PE sessions, as he recovers from an infection and operation on his hand, with his wife Rosie demonstrating the exercises.
Influencers have adapted in tone as well. As PRWeek previously reported, in recent weeks there has been a gradual shift in the tone of brand campaigns. Somberness is starting to take a back seat to fun and escapism as 'lockdown fatigue' sets in.
Tin Man's research found 46 per cent of people want online content to be light-hearted, funny or entertaining. Sharp says this is reflected in her agency's work with cleaning products brand Cif: a partnership with ‘cleanfluencer’ Lynsey Queen of Clean to help make cleaning fun during the pandemic.
Sharp explains: "Brands and influencers need to be nimble, creative and think carefully how they work with each other. Tone is the magic word. Try to get the balance right, because staying in touch with consumers has never been more important and in lockdown influencers are an even more powerful route to do this than ever before."
Like brands, some influencers have used the crisis to amplify their own wider 'purpose' credentials. Wicks pledged to donate profits from his YouTube PE sessions to the NHS. The same commitment was given by popular YouTubers Sidemen, whose channel hosted a video featuring social-media celebrities urging people to #StayHome.
Could the current trends signal a permanent shift in favour of influencer marketing when the crisis eventually subsides?
Oliver Lewis, founder and MD of influencer marketing agency The Fifth, thinks so: "Influencer marketing has taken a series of leaps in its evolution over the past five weeks. The coronavirus has expedited the channel towards purpose-driven marketing and it has propelled digital creators and talent into the mainstream consciousness as much as it has into the creative void left by exposed production crews.
"Where these two worlds collide, the upturn will likely see an increase in omnichannel influencer campaigns, and with it an entirely new interest level from across the media landscape. "
Brittain says the crisis may have strengthened the hand of the 'creator' – skilled at putting together original output – over the type of influencer more commonly associated with blagging 'freebies' and posting unengaging #ad pictures.
It's notable that, anecdotally, almost all successful influencer activity in the coronavirus era has come from the 'creator' camp.
"It's going to be something that sticks," Brittain says. "We'll be going into the world of creators a lot more... no longer just telling or parroting a message, or just saying something they've been told to say – not that we would ever advocate that way of working."
Glenister predicts a similar shifting of sands. "We will start to see the rise and rise of the professional influencer," he says. "Those that are really dabbling in it and not doing it very well will start to fizzle out."
He foresees another interesting trend: "We're going to get more influencers that come out of this – everyday folk who suddenly realise they've got huge followings through something comedic, or they've started to debate something. Then they start to follow other people who are doing similar things, and they think: 'Actually, I can do this.'
"This is a time to be authentic before you even attract the attention of brands – that is how influencer marketing started in the first place. It wasn't, [a case of] 'Oh, well, I want to be super-famous and I want to get loads of money.' No – it was actually about creating an audience and a following before you've even attempted it."
Glenister cites the many new Facebook groups promoting good causes and mutual support during the pandemic. "One hopes that they will continue," he adds.
Could the coronavirus spark a rebirth of influencer culture? That would be some headline.