Likes in the Time of Corona
In this article, Barry Ian Thomson delves into influencer marketing; what it is, how it has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and what it's future looks like in a post-Covid-19 marketing world.
Spending on influencer brand campaigns down 35% during pandemic;
19% of influencers rely on it as their main source of income
Livestreaming has increased dramatically
Influencers are well-placed to adapt and recover especially creators
The global influencer marketing industry, like virtually all areas of business, has been severly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic across the world. From celebrity mega-influencers with millions of followers, to nano-influencers with niche, curated followings; the full spectrum of influencers has been rocked by the global crisis.
The pre-Covid-19 global influencer market was estimated to be valued at around $5.5bn and was forecast to grow to a staggering $22.3bn by 2024, according to Markets and Markets (2019). The key drivers for this growth were increased demand for video content and increased usuage of ad-blocking technologies which restrict the abilities of advertising, making influencers a stronger marketing proposition.
As Covid-19 spread across the globe, governments enforced lockdowns to stop the spread and protect lives, putting much of the economy into a sort of hibernative state. For the marketing industry this meant an almost overnight freeze on marketing campaigns, planning and budgets while brands and agencies saught to comprehend the implications.
Research by SocialBakers (2020) found that in the UK during lockdown, posts containing the #ad hashtag were down by 35% compared to the previous quarter, suggesting a significant decrease in spending on influencer campaigns by brands.
But what exactly is Influencer Marketing?
Before we go on any further, let's define exactly what we are talking about here. It's an oversimplification to assume that influencers are merely celebs with large followings on social media. Of course popularity can be important, but ultimately it is the ability to influence behaviour or opinion that really matters. People with large followers can wield little influence (Bonner, 2019), and conversely those with small followings can exercise significant influence in their niche.
Influencer Marketing Hub (2020) define an influencer as someone who has:
the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of his or her authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with his or her audience.
a following in a distinct niche, with whom he or she actively engages. The size of the following depends on the size of his/her topic of the niche.
Given that 3.8bn people across the world have social media accounts (Kemp, 2020), influencers on those platforms have become very attractive to marketers.
How did the influencer market emerge and develop?
The influencer marketing industry has its roots in the early days of passionate, amateur bloggers writing articles on subjects of interest to them such as food, travel or fashion. At this point public relations executives took notice of the opportunity to gain earned media for their clients by working with bloggers relevant to their clients' sectors. For the most part, 'partnerships' were formed between bloggers and brands that shared a common interest (Guthrie & Waddington, 2019). The benefit was mutual - the PR got brand exposure within a targeted audience, the blogger got fresh content, free merch and credibility. In the early days direct payment was unusual as most bloggers were hobbyists working on their site in their spare time.
With the ensuing proliferation of social media channels, the bloggers evolved to utilise these channels and recognised that their increasing follower numbers had a significant commercial value to brands. Enter the marketing teams at brands who were able to divert paid advertising spend towards these content creators. This started a shift from earned media towards paid media.
In the next wave, social media agencies entered the market with the promise of acting as an intermediary between growing numbers of influencers and the brands who seek their audiences. As such, influencer marketing now straddles between paid and earned media, leading to a battle between the camps of Marketing and Public Relations with Social Media Agencies in the middle.
Guthrie & Waddington (2019) argue that the best results from influencer marketing arise when true collaboration is reached and that "No industry is more suited to this required role of building and maintaining relationships than PR."
The Influencer Marketing Landscape During Lockdown
Pre-cororavirus influencer marketing was often presented by mainstream media and social critics as one of the most visible demonstrations of wealth and idealised lifestyle. Mega-influencers were regularly engaged to promote luxury brands although not always with positive outcomes. Indeed the example of the notorious Fyre Festival (which relied on the glamour of mega influencers like Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski to sell tickets) highlighted some of the perceived weaknesses of influencer marketing. Without a strong connection between influencer and brand, credibility in the eyes of followers can be destroyed.
The coronavirus situation has caused two primary issues for influencers. Firstly, with lockdowns or restrictions upon movement it is near impossible for influencers to carry out their normal content creation lifestyle. Travel and photography bloggers are particularly disadvantaged for obvious reasons. Food bloggers have been able to pivot towards take out food rather than dining-in at cafes and restaurants. Similarly, health and fitness influencers were quick to deliver video content to get people active during lockdown. Perhaps most notably in the UK was Joe Wicks a.k.a The Body Coach, who provided free live P.E. sessions for schoolkids throughout the lockdown. He also won plaudits for donating the ad revenue from the videos to charity.
Secondly, it is difficult for influencers, especially those in the celebrity status, to make content that does not offend their followers. In the earlier days of lockdown, a number of celebs were 'called-out' for their 'poor me' attitude on social media. It appears that many personalities, or their social media managers, had a tin ear for judging the mood of the nation.
Some influencers enraged followers by appearing to break lockdown guidelines or by bemoaning the lockdown from their swanky mansion or beach house. Arielle Charnas, for example, attracted criticism for, firstly, appearing to use her influencer status to access Covid-19 testing ahead of higher-risk people, then retreated from Newy York City to her family home in the Hamptons following her positive test results (Griffith, 2020).
But it hasn't all been bad news. Influencers have been utilised to positive effect by governments to communicate messages about coronavirus. The government in Finland enlisted influencers to spread key messaging about Covid-19 (Henley, 2020) and has listed influencers as 'key workers' as an important channel for delivering communications during the pandemic (Econsultancy, 2020).
Many influencers have shared positive messages with their audiences. Singer Miley Cyrus shared a series of tweets urging her followers to obey the government guidelines on lockdown.
Clearly, the health and safety of the popoulation is the primary concern for governments, and rightly so. But one of the knock-on effects for the marketing industry has been the postponement or cancellation of campaigns. This has been acutely felt by influencers who have anecdotally witnessed a drought of work with brands. The influencer market tends to have a slight downturn in January and February after the major marketing spend around Christmas, then picks up towards summer.
At the moment, brands and marketing agencies are themselves unclear on marketing budgets, which in turn makes it challenging for influencers who, largely, rely on marketing agencies to broker opportuntities for them. This is especially true for influencers within the highly-competitive super-sectors: Lifestyle (20%), Travel (14%), Food (12%), Parenting (11%) and Fashion & Beauty (9%) which command a 57% share of the market (Vuelio, 2020).
Influencer marketing has moved a long way from its roots as a hobbyist blogger scene. According to the UK Influencer Report 2020 (Vuelio, 2020), 49% of influencers operate for professional reasons with 19% reporting that it is their main source of income. The report also found that around 30% of influencer content was compensated for in some way, including direct payments, gifted product, trips or experiences.
The Future of Influencers
So what does the future look like for influencers after the Covid-19 crisis. It's difficult to say with any certainty at the moment. For one, we don't know how long it is going to take for businesses, brands or entire economies to return to normal. And we also don't have clarity on what that 'new normal' will look like. However there are some key areas of development worth noting.
Creators not Influencers
A tonal shift from influencers towards creators is happening. Creators produce high-quality content that they are genuinely passionate about. The emphasis is on creating authentic content that connects with an audience that shares the same values and aspirations. Creators seek to collaborate with brands rather than simply plug products in a sponsored post.
When influencers first appeared on social media, they were a breath of fresh air for audiences and marketers alike. They were authentic, honest and direct. What's more, they were cheaper to sponsor than buying eyeballs through tradional TV advertising. Some influencers, like Kim Kardashian, understood the media landscape better than brands and media agencies themselves (Bakhtiari, 2020).
No more fake followers or lazy product placement posts. The future belongs to those who can create authentic, engaging content that resonates with their audience.
Chris Eyre Walker for example is a 29-year-old adventure and travel photographer and filmmaker and part of the Olympus Visionary programme. His YouTube content such as '24 Photos in 24 hours' demonstrates how his photography and filmmaking coalesces with the values and attributes of the Olympus camera equipment he uses.
Livestreaming content has proliferated during lockdown as influencers seek to interact with audiences in real-time to counteract feelings of isolation and build communities (Wilde, 2020).
Building and maintaining relationships through live content has seen the increse in popularity of platforms. Livestreaming on Instagram has seen a reported 70% increase during lockdown (Leskin, 2020), while parent company Facebook acknowledged a 50% increase of live video on its platform across February and March (Wong, 2020).
Currently, the undoubted leviathan of live streaming is Twitch. Back in 2018, Twitch had a peak viewer level of 962,000 putting it ahead of established traditional media in the US such as MSNBC (885,000) and CNN (783,000) (Taylor, 2018). Fast forward to Q1 2020, Twitch now commands an average concurrent viewership of 1.4m and a peak viewer level of just under 4m (Iqbal, 2020).
Livestreaming looks set to continue to be an important avenue for influencers.
TikTok has seen a huge spike in downloads during the coronavirus crisis annoucing it has surpassed 2bn downloads of the app (Sensor Tower, 2020). Whether the platform can retain those numbers and engagement after lockdown remains to be seen, as some industry observers believe audiences have turned to the platform for short-term escapism.
Facebook and Instagram Shops
The recent annoucement by Facebook that they are offering new Shop tools on their Facebook and Instagram platforms opens further possibilities for influencers. Aimed at small businesses who are looking or a simple way to sell online, this new option could provide opportunities for micro and nano influencers to collaborate with local businesses to influence purchasing behaviour (Facebook, 2020).
While the global coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly had a major impact upon the global influencer market, many have ifnluencers demonstrated a remarkable ability to pivot in these unprecedented times. Influencers that can collaborate with brands to create genuine content of real value to their audiences will be well-placed to succeed as authenticity will become more important than ever.
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Bonner, M. (2019) "An Influencer With 2 Million Followers Couldn't Sell 36 T-Shirts and Twitter Is NOT OKAY", Cosmopolitan, https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/celebs/a27623334/influencer-arii-36-shirts-2-million-followers/
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