Influencing into the ‘new normal’: How the value (and values) of social media influencers have changed during COVID-19

Ayaan Mohamud
By Ayaan Mohamud | 5 June 2020

Ayaan Mohamud is APAC marketing director at Impact.

They say that a crisis brings people together.

This is certainly true when it comes to the collective eye roll at some of the celebrity and influencer attempts to ‘lift our spirits’ during the lockdown period. From Gal Godot’s (literal and metaphoric) tone deaf rendition of ‘Imagine’ through Ellen’s coronavirus ‘jail joke’ misfire, the prevailing feeling is well captured in Australian comedian Greta Lee Jackson’s most excellent video “Thanks, Celebrities''.

There was always a fine line for influencers to tread between aspiration and relatability. But now, with many people facing real concerns about their health and livelihoods and re-evaluating their personal priorities, what used to pass for inspirational might now look indulgent and irrelevant.

This poses a real challenge for influencers – many of whom are already seeing their livelihoods under threat as brands contract budgets. But it isn’t all bad news. As restrictions begin to relax there remains significant opportunities for influencers and the brands they engage with - providing they are able to adjust to the emerging zeitgeist.

Size doesn’t matter (anymore)
In keeping with the drive for more authentic and relatable content, the trend towards micro influencers is likely to accelerate. WARC has listed micro-influencers as one of the beneficiaries of the COVID-19 crisis as brands are turning to their small but passionate audiences to drive both reach and sales.  These types of influencers are seen as trustworthy. So much so that the World Health Organisation turned to TikTok and YouTube influencers to spread social distancing and handwashing messages and The Red Cross has teamed up with influencers to help counteract COVID-19 misinformation. Brands who may have previously been sceptical of the real value of influencers are now seeing first-hand the impact that ‘lockdown influencers’ are having which is likely to have an impact on their own experimentation. 

Toning it down
Even prior to COVID-19 we were beginning to see a shift to the creation of authentic versus aspirational types of content – as evidenced by the emergence of the ‘Finstas’ (a fake Instagram account for less airbrushed and usually funny or embarrassing shots that is limited to close friends). This shift has now been turbo-charged. We’re seeing content become much more community focused, with less glitz, photoshop and (naturally) fewer exotic locations. We expect this shift to continue as restrictions lift.  Time will tell if this is a permanent shift but with at least some form of social distancing expected around the globe until a reliable vaccine is introduced and a resurgence in the importance of, and appreciation for, human connection and community, it looks likely. 

Brands becoming more open-minded to influencer partnerships
It’s been noted that COVID-19 has done more to advance digital transformation in business than any initiative from the C-Suite and the same can be observed when it comes to driving forward digital marketing. With necessity being the mother of invention, brands have had to lean on their digital channels much more in the absence of actual physical contact. Further, traditional marketing and advertising can struggle even further with getting the right tone, as summed up in this tweet:


The right influencers, however, can use their authentic audience relationships to convey brand sentiments and offers better than just about any other channel right now. 

Brands will be looking to ensure the influencers they engage with have sustained their audience’s trust during the lock-down period, have demonstrated a consistent voice and tone and are from, or understand, the nuances of the geographic impact of the pandemic. For example a New York based influencer will have had a very different experience than that of a Sydney based one and so on and so forth. Brands can leverage influencer discovery tools to help them recruit the best fit influencers and then use social listening tools to ensure the posts are brand, regulatory, and culturally compliant. 

Proving value
Demonstrating return on investment is going to be even more important as marketing budgets are likely to be under pressure. Historically, likes and comments were deemed to be the best way to measure influencer impact. At best this has meant limited transparency and at worst left it open to ad fraud by inflating metrics with bots – not to mention the wider challenge of managing influencers at scale. Fortunately, the technology now exists to track conversion and other performance metrics at scale via partnership automation technology. This not only frees up man hours in terms of managing influencer programmes but also gives brands and influencers clear insight into performance and how they can drive real business outcomes. This will be particularly important as we move into the world of more authentic and intimate influencer communities as influencers can be recognised and rewarded for their performance in driving sales or leads - no matter how many likes and comments they get.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about our post pandemic world, but it’s reasonable to assume that a renewed appreciation for human connection and community will remain core to our own lives and the world around us. Consequently, brands will be looking to form more authentic and empathetic ways to connect with their consumers as we emerge and seek to establish a new normal. It’s not quite a clean slate beginning but it does afford all of us in the industry the opportunity to consider a reset. Both brands and influencers would do well to actively pursue opportunities which allow them to benefit from a common community and purpose.   

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