Brands and influencers alike are navigating a new marketplace in reaction to the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Contrary to early predictions, influencer marketing strategies haven't been hit as hard as expected. In fact, the shutdown has led to increased time spent on social media and has paved the way for social media influencers to flourish as we all seek relatable content in our feeds.
When we created The Everything In-Between Influencer Network, which has about 200 members, our goal was to bring brands influencers who were different from the celebrity product-pushing types. So we built our network with microinfluencers living outside of the top ten metro areas, and sought influencers who are authentic and reflective of real people.
Recently we hosted a virtual focus group with several influencers whose online activity has been directly impacted. They shared their views on everything from stories of big brands fishing for free work to how their content has changed and the new class of influencers who are coming out of the woodwork.
Brands are engaging in bad behavior
When coronavirus hit, brands quickly cut their influencer marketing contracts, directly affecting the influencers’ livelihoods with a sudden stop that left many uncertain about the future.
Some brands were even openly opportunistic, perhaps knowing that they had the upper hand. In some cases, brands were offering half of what they normally would for the same level of influencer content. And on the flip side, influencers were seeing little-to-no room for negotiation. In this new world, the branded opportunities are more “take it or leave it” which leaves influencers feeling powerless.
At worst, big brands are asking outright for free content to be used in their “branded” coronavirus charity work. While influencers want to help, they feel the ask is insensitive coming from the big players (who get the positive brand glow from the project) while seeking free work from the little guy (influencers who may be struggling financially).
“I feel like it’s pretty strange in a time like this when you’re asking for the people who are affected by this for free content,” said Jonathan Irish who is a National Geographic photographer and popular Instagram influencer.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In the past few weeks, as states began to announce reopening plans, there was almost an immediate uptick in the brand inbound requests influencers were seeing in their inboxes — a small sign of health in the industry.
This continues to stress the importance of long-term efforts versus one-off influencer campaign moments. It’s easier for brands to ask influencers to shift content needs when there is an established partnership. We’ve seen that influencers are more likely to continue partnering with brands during moments like these when they have a firm foundation of past work and a commitment to future work.
A new content creator game
There is a fine line influencers are walking with content choices these days. On one hand, coronavirus content is a drag. Influencers are seeing that their followers want an escape. But they don’t want to see influencers depicting unattainable, unrealistic content either.
“Companies that are trying to pretend like this isn’t happening and asking influencers to still do pretty pictures of their table setting — nobody wants to see that right now,” said Beth Kingston, a craft expert on the Home Shopping Network and author of the blog, The Kingston Home.
Influencers cautioned that while many are experiencing dark days right now, it’s good to remember that a segment of the population is relatively unaffected economically (for example, retirees and military families with stable incomes). And those audiences are turning out in force for live shopping events via influencers, an e-commerce tactic many brands could benefit from.
Whether for direct sales of products or services, or for content creation in general, livestreams have taken on a new importance for influencers, even those who rarely posted live before.
“About two weeks ago my husband and I did ‘Dock Tails,’” said Beth Kingston. The two set up a tripod on their dock at home and hosted a Facebook Live happy hour sipping cocktails. “I had triple the number of viewers that I normally would and people kept saying things like, ‘This is just what I needed’ or ‘I haven’t talked to another person today.’”
For brands, now is the time to think about new ways to partner with influencers to reach their highly engaged target audiences across platforms that are seeing higher-than-average activity. Take TikTok for example, which added 5.6 million users in March alone. The platform, heavy on entertainment, is filled with unique and unexplored brand opportunities.
New influencers flood the space but quality wins
With the nation mostly quarantined and increased time on our hands, the influencer community has seen a recent surge in new people hanging out an influencer shingle — those who are willing to work for less as they build their following.
“Because a lot of people are working from home, there are a lot of people trying to slide into doing this all of a sudden,” said Leah Frances Wade, author behind the popular parenting blog Fort Birthday. “A lot of agencies and brands are seeing this as an opportunity to get less expensive work done.”
“My advice to brands would be to find the people that you have worked with before who you trust and know are going to put out quality content. Decide together what price point works best for you both, and everybody just give a little bit,” said Kingston.
Of course in many cases, the reality is that brand budgets are tight. The smaller, microinfluencers tend to be more willing to work with smaller budgets while also providing creative partnerships. But established influencers with larger and more committed followings feel that brands should proceed with caution with the newbies and value relationships that have proven successful in the past.
Ultimately the best content comes from collaboration between brands and the creators. The brands taking content risks with refreshed messaging or exploring new platforms during this tough time are likely to come out on top in the bounce back.
Emily Mazurek is social media director at Bailey Lauerman. The marketing agency, believing that the big business of macroinfluencers and influencer marketing had lost its relatability with many Americans in recent years, created the Everything In-Between Influencer Network in 2019 to represent the true, authentic culture of the 92% of Americans living outside of the 10 largest cities. The network has more than 200 influencers who are partnered with brands in a variety of different campaigns.