Why the COVID-19 crisis has elevated influencer marketing

Influencer marketing as a channel has been transformed by the crisis as consumers have turned to digital and social channels in their homes to connect. We investigate

It was 12 March 2020 when Elma Beganovich saw the world suddenly change. As co-founder and chief operating officer at New York-based influencer-led digital marketing agency, Amra & Elma, she had been monitoring rising concern regarding the COVID-19 health crisis among the global influencer community and their followers.

“12 March was the beginning of it all,” she says. “A lot of clients put campaigns on pause because of the uncertainty, not only from COVID but because of the pollical situation with protests.”

But while many brands put a pause on spending, what followed has been something of a coming of age for the influencer marketing category. Improved metrics, codes of practice, and the growing realisation across brands that they need to connect with customers in new and more intimate ways has led to a resurgence in some categories of influencer marketing and a broadening of the range of brands using it.

Influencer marketing has also received a boost thanks to lockdown laws forcing people to spend more time at home, where they have been interacting with digital services. Coupled that with the decision of some brands to pull spending from Facebook over its handling of hate speech, and it means brands continuing to spend are willing to explore new channels.

So while COVID-19 might have put paid to glamorous fashion influencers posting selfies from far-flung destinations, it has also shown promoting loungewear from your living room is a viable means of reaching a market.

The influencer growth opportunity

“The estimate initially was a 40 per cent drop in revenue, but it was contracts paused, not cancelled,” Beganovich tells CMO. “Brands are always looking to target different demographics in different regions, and they are able to do that very conveniently with influencers.”

One of the biggest growth areas has been in the newly-minted stay-at-home economy, which has pushed more consumers into online shopping.

“Influencers who were traditionally travel influencers or fashion influencers that depended on travelling to different destinations and going to events to make content for their followers all of a sudden found that taken away,” Beganovich says.

“What the influencers were forced to do was look around their home and ask what their followers were feeling right now and what were they thinking. They started producing content like stay-at-home workout sessions. Influencers who had never baked or cooked were suddenly giving recipes, and for fashion, they shifted to loungewear and how to prep for your Zoom meetings with your colleagues.”

The rush to ecommerce brought on by lockdowns also created fertile territory for influencers who could educate baby boomers about online shopping, and for brands wanting to promote new or existing direct-to-consumer services more broadly.

“We are seeing different opportunities open up, but in specific industries, and for others we have seen them contracting,” Beganovich continues. “With the fashion industry, there has been an increase in loungewear, but they have definitely pushed back and paused, and it has been a quite tough time for them. It is a complicated time. But at the same time, what has been true in the marketing world is always to be creative.”

Switching channels

According to CEO at Australia-based influencer marketing service provider Hypetap, Detch Singh, many influencers have benefitted from brands moving their speeding away from offline channels during the pandemic.

“In terms of COVID-19 and the lockdown, we have seen an increase in activity and influencer marketing, and more broadly when speaking to others, social has seen an increase,” Singh says. “While some advertisers have been holding spend in general due to the uncertainly of the climate, others are reallocating some of their spend from other media. More time and eyeballs were on social, and some of the really smart marketers recognised that and reallocated towards social and influencer marketing.”

The fact that influencers can also create content quickly on their own has also proven highly beneficial to the channel.

“With lockdown and distancing laws you weren’t able to get production teams out to shoot premium content, but influencers were able to shoot it on their own,” he says.

Up next: How new codes of conduct, social measurements and purpose are impacting the influencer marketing channel

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New codes of practice and measures of success

Another factor that has worked to the benefit of the influencer marketing channel has been its growing legitimacy in the eyes of advertisers. This is backed in part by the introduction of a new Influencer Marketing Code of Practice from the Australian Influencer Marketing Council, and the launch of new tools to track its effectiveness.

According to CEO at influencer and content platform Tribe, Anthony Svirskis, the introduction of new measurement tools within Instagram in particular have made it much easier for brands to measure impact beyond simple metrics such as likes and comments, to provide data on reach, impressions and CPMs.

“It creates a whole measurable media proposition out of what was a pretty organic channel,” Svirskis says. “Our business was able to not only weather the storm, but really grow. Australia is operating to pre-COVID levels, with the UK and US a little bit less. And all the signals regarding our pipeline and the work coming into our platform and the way brands are working with us is significantly more positive than had we not been in COVID.”

While the increased interest comes from a broad range of categories, Svirskis says retail has definitely grown, especially among traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers investing in digital customer journeys, as well as restaurants and food delivery services.

“We weren’t big in hospitality, but now we are starting to see that trickle through because more of these bricks and mortar restaurants that didn’t really have an online presence thinking they should tell everyone,” Svirskis says.

While some influencers have no doubt benefited from the changing spending patterns of advertisers, the new social climate introduced by the pandemic has also led to changes in messaging. Svirskis cites the example of Tribe’s UK client, Guinness.

“The group realised people were still enjoying Guinness in their homes and the brand needed content that reflected that,” Svirskis says. “The company wanted to show people loving the product at home instead of loving the product in a bar or a restaurant. A brief to our network delivered something like 100 or 200 assets in seven days, and it was people who wanted to show themselves drinking on the kitchen bench or by the window or on their balcony.

“Quickly, brands understood the cultural moment was talking about lockdown and being comfortable about lockdown. All the brand messaging changed to how people are consuming product while they are in lockdown, or this is what they enjoy about product while they are in lockdown, or the good feeling my products gives in lockdown.

“That was a very rapid shift and it probably took about two weeks for influencers and creatives to recognise it was OK to talk about the virus and talk about being locked at home, so long as you did it in the right tone and with the right level of respect.”

Singh has also advised clients to be cognisant of the social climate in messaging. “Our advice to clients has been to shift the narrative away from ‘buy our product or services’ to brand building and providing content that is providing people a benefit,” he says.

“Content should be there to help people or give people a distraction from the things they are dealing with on the day-to-day.”

Singh sums it up as content that is more engaging with higher audience involvement. “You need content creators who can generate that kind of content rather than simply sticking in product placement,” he says. “We’ve seen a shift to more video content, and more chat-to-camera content.”

Social purpose

The changing social climate has also impacted the things some audiences expect influencers to care about. Beganovich says she has seen a marked swing to cause-based marketing and social participation, as highlighted by the work done by Italian digital entrepreneur and influencer, Chiara Ferragni, and her husband, Ferez. The pair helped raise 3.3 million euros to fund intensive care hospital beds in Milan.

In another instance, Beganovich says a client used influencers as part of a campaign to raise funds for restaurants impacted by the lockdown. She says this sentiment is also spilling into non-COVID related causes, including a campaign by a telecommunications client highlighting how it is helping the environment through technology-based sustainability initiatives.

“It has changed for the better in that companies are more mindful of their behaviour and the long-term impact it can have, from animal cruelty to the environment to safety and supporting certain local charities,” Beganovich says.

Read more: Boycott or buycott - how brand purpose can make the difference

Brand purpose must be all year round

Global health authorities have also tapped into influencer networks to spread their messages, including the US Surgeon General, who called on entrepreneur, Kylie Jenner, to encourage her millennial and Gen Z followers to stay at home. Jenner, in turn, asked other influencers to connect with their followers to spread the word of the importance of following health professionals’ guidelines.

“Very early on, the World Health Organisation engaged influencers, including virtual influencer, Knox Frost, Lady Gaga and a few others in partnership with the CDC, asking influencers to spread the message to wash your hands safely and so on,” Beganovich says.

While Australian health authorities are yet to engage influencers in the same way, Svirskis says Tribe decided to turn its own health campaign to help amplify messages, attracting the free involvement of 140 influencers.

“The reality was Instagram users and creators were already sharing those messages organically, we just wanted to create a bit of a channel to make sure it was the right messaging on behalf of the WHO and governments with understandable messaging in the languages of influencers to their audiences,” Svirskis says.

With the pathway out of pandemic unclear, Svirskis believes brands are going to have a higher requirement to talk to their customers in channels where they are.

“And if that is social, then there is a role to play for content creators and influencers to be part of that media strategy and creative strategy,” he says. “The agencies who aren’t really doing it properly will struggle, and so will the influencers who aren’t really delivering the results and can’t do the things around data or performance. The expectation of what the channel delivers will increase as the dollars do, and the tech platforms, agencies, creators and influencers themselves will have to evolve with that.”

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