Shifts in consumption of influencer content during COVID-19

Could expertise content from science and medical professionals overtake mainstream commercial influencers?

A paediatrician in Shaoxing, China recorded a video on Tiktok to spread knowledge about various diseases
A paediatrician in Shaoxing, China recorded a video on Tiktok to spread knowledge about various diseases

One could argue that this moment should be a shining one for influencers, a moment where they could put their platforms to good use to spread messages of hope and solidarity.

Mimrah Mahmood, senior director and partner at Meltwater, told PRWeek Asia that mainstream commercial influencers are actually taking a backseat from COVID-19 conversations, and it's shifted the spotlight to a different kind of influencer.

"From a global perspective, the kind of influencers people want to listen to in this COVID-19 pandemic are those who have authority and expertise on the subject and are able to provide credible information they can trust. These kinds of influencers are who I call 'domain experts'. For example, the US has domain experts like Bill Gates and Dr Anthony Fauci, who have been at the forefront of COVID-19 conversations," said Mahmood.

'Domain experts' share insights, share original opinions on a subject, and contribute to knowledge within the community. Their goal is to educate audiences, and their involvement is usually long-term.

Mainstream commercial influencers, on the other hand, might reinforce existing ideas and opinions around COVID-19, and their goal may be to generate engagement. Their impact on existing conversations around the virus is low, and their involvement is short-term.

"In Singapore, there seems to be a vacuum in the influencer landscape for 'domain experts'. There are many health experts involved in Singapore's response to the pandemic but we do not see many of them representing themselves online to share their personal opinions on the matter," said Mahmood.

"One possible reason could be that there are stricter employee social media guidelines in the healthcare sector in Singapore, or these guidelines may not be as clearly communicated to employees, so they might choose not to speak on public platforms at all. On the other hand, we have the people on taskforce—who are politiciansas spokespeople that Singaporeans can and will listen to."

This vacuum in Singapore that Mahmood refers to has contributed to mainstream influencers stepping in to "fill the void". Commercial influencers can be seen carrying public causes by amplifying directives from the government through their content, such as urging people to stay home.

An example is the #DoTheLifebuoySG challenge on TikTok where influencers perform a short dance to remind their followers to wash their hands.

"Another way influencers are connecting with their audiences is through sharing activities or products to help consumers make use of their time at home. For example, we see more fitness influencers sharing their workouts on live-stream, or recipes their followers can easily make at home. Many people are on the lookout for entertainment during this period and would look to influencers for fun ideas and activities to do to pass the time," said Mahmood.

Also a shift in the last few months has been the rapid increase in support for frontliners and healthcare workers. These stories, Mahmood said, contribute to a 'collective acknowledgement' of the hard work and dedication that goes on behind the scenes.

"Mainstream media such as Straits Times, television and radio broadcast channels often amplify support and appreciation for our healthcare workers, and we also see the virality of social media posts, where users share individual experiences and interactions with healthcare staff when they are taking the tests for COVID-19, for example," said Mahmood.

An example of an organic campaign is #clapforSingapore. The campaign was created locally by British migrant Martin Verga, and the movement gained traction across Singapore.

But one blind spot in Singapore has been the lack of personal stories of frontliners. Mahmood said that in Western markets, there has been a rise of content around healthcare workers detailing their experiences whereas in Singapore, this area has fallen short.

"As such, media attention on healthcare professionals is much more heightened in these societies than Singapore. Sengkang general hospital's show of support to migrant workers has been the one that's gone viral so far," he said.

Another trend that has surfaced is more people across all sectors becoming more comfortable with producing content on social media, according to Mahmood.

For example, in the field of education, there are teachers creating YouTube videos to share their curriculum or ideas on how to conduct virtual lessons," he said.

"Lockdowns and quarantines open up an opportunity for 'domain experts' to share their knowledge and skills as more people are hungry for things to learn and pick up to fill their time. As such, while mainstream influencers are still producing content to entertain their followers, they may face more competition from this new group of content creators who are experts in their field. Plus, many influencers, such as beauty influencers, have to pivot their content or risk not being relatable to their audience who are staying at home."

From a separate interview with Emma Thompson, founder and managing partner of healthcare PR agency Spurwing Communications, she said that there's been an uptick in healthcare workers using social media to educate and empower.

One example is Jason Campbell, a black US-based doctor whose dancing TiKTok videos have inspired young black folks to take up a career in medicine.

"The days of excess spending, perhaps encouraged by the pre-COVID genre of influencers, is probably going to be [mellowed] a little bit," said Thompson. "I think there are people who are going to be more open to following influencers with self-care as their key message."

To ensure that this outpouring of support for our frontliners extend beyond COVID-19, Meltwater's Mahmood said companies and governments need to continually remind the public of their efforts through personal stories.

"For example, the transportation industry ran a campaign to show the difficult work that their employees put in behind the scenes to ensure our transport systems are operating smoothly. The campaign managed to humanise the company and the public has continued to show appreciation for these workers," he said.

"Without the support of these organisations, this 'newfound' appreciation in the media would definitely slow down."

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