To Influence or Not to Influence: How Brands Can Leverage Influencer Marketing During the Pandemic | Coronavirus Series

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series that explores the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the world of ecommerce. Explore daily insights surrounding the coronavirus crisis or check out these additional resources to help you navigate your marketing strategy during this time.

Influencer marketing has blown up in the last few years. For many brands, these influencer partnerships have become a main channel for new customer acquisition. 

It’s no secret why influencer marketing works—when it comes to discovering new products, often the first place we go is the people we know (even if it’s just from a distance) and trust. And what better way to find these brands than from the recommendations of real people with similar lifestyles?

Now, amid health concerns, canceled plans, job loss, and social distancing, the role of influencing has changed drastically. Touting luxury seems out of touch to those who are directly affected by the economic downturn or the virus itself. Meanwhile, many consumers simply don’t have the need to buy the same products and experiences they used to long for through a filtered feed.

Still, there’s a place for influencer marketing despite all the chaos. In fact, over 40 percent of consumers are still relying on Instagram to find new online brands to shop with, according to recent studies.

But still, you must rethink how you leverage influencers, what messages you share through them, and what you choose to promote during this time.

In order to get a better grasp on the best way to leverage influencer marketing during the pandemic, see what brands are doing right, what techniques you can try, what you should avoid, and how to ensure the influencers you work with maintain an empathetic tone with their followers, as well as how to repurpose this content for your owned marketing channels.

Influencing with authenticity 

Influencer marketing looks a lot different than it did at the beginning of the year.

Travel restrictions mean that creators can’t travel to the picturesque destinations they might typically use as a backdrop. Foodies are trading extravagant brunch spreads for takeout boxes. Highlighting excessive spending is no longer welcome while people grapple with layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts. Consumers are less interested in jewelry and shoes than they are in loungewear and board games. 

Still, consumers are looking for product recommendations from the people they follow. But they’re also seeking more relatable and down-to-earth content that speaks to their current needs. People want to feel comforted by the content they’re seeing; they want to feel like they can apply products to their new normal. 

Whereas many brands might have typically worked with models, celebrities, and socialites before, many are now looking to work with a more approachable subset of users to share their products with a smaller niche. These micro-influencers, who typically have less than 10,000 followers, are less likely to be millionaires posting from their mansions and more likely to be parents posting from their apartments.

The content of these posts tends to be more authentic and honest, as well. Rather than posting copy-and-paste messaging in their captions, micro-influencers take greater care to talk about life, detail their day, and share their feelings with their followers in a way that premium influencers often don’t bother with. 

And this transparency certainly resonates with people—influencers with 1,000 to 5,000 followers have the highest engagement at almost nine percent on average compared to influencers with 10,000 followers or more who have an engagement rate that falls below four percent.

While the value of micro-influencers is nothing new, this time has forced many brands to re-examine who they want to work with and how effective their reach will be, despite fame or follower count.

For example, ceramic cookware brand Caraway uses influencers in their marketing, but they’ve taken a different approach to what a company in the food and beverage space might typically think of—and the onset of the pandemic has only further solidified the success of their strategy.

“I think more now than ever we’re finding working with aligning influencers to tell the brand’s story and provide education has been a really successful avenue for us. We don’t typically work with chefs or ‘foodies,’ it’s more about wellness and decor. In these times, consumers have been looking to influencers who they really trust and follow for health advice, for redoing their homes, and for outfitting their kitchens,” said Jordan Nathan, founder and CEO of Caraway. 

Caraway cookware influencer marketing

By developing an influencer marketing strategy that focuses on being approachable and practical, Caraway has fit itself seamlessly into the routines of everyday people who find that they’re becoming more familiar with their stoves and ovens in the last few months.

Adjusting your influencer marketing strategy to fit the current climate

Since the government-mandated lockdown, engagement with creator content has risen 2.5 times, according to #paid, proving that influencer marketing just as effective as ever, if not more so. 

“People are bored in the house and looking to creators for entertainment, education, and recommendations on products during quarantine. This is a key moment where brands can be a part of the conversation,” said Reza Mousavi, an account executive on #paid’s platform team.

But while times have certainly changed, leveraging influencer marketing right now doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel. In order to make the most out of these relationships and paid opportunities, though, there are a few techniques you may want to keep in mind:

Rethinking your content

Step one in working with influencers amid the coronavirus is to closely consider what images you post and what the messaging behind them is. 

Many of the content changes you make will be automatic since influencers will lack the ability to go to the same places and participate in the same activities as they normally would. But it still requires strategic thinking to effectively pivot what the outcomes your sponsorship will be if necessary, especially if you’ve already negotiated what the posts will look like. 

Rather than resorting to throwback photos from before the coronavirus, use this as an opportunity to get creative and add real value to consumers who are looking to be comforted and entertained now more than ever. Consider how you can work with influencers in a new setting in a way that’s relevant to current living and working situations. 

For example, instead of having fitness influencers post photos of them in the gym or working out with a personal trainer while wearing your gear, position your athletic outfits as the perfect outfit for an at-home workout.

Even better, work with influencers who are creating specialized home workouts and live videos to help people outlast paused gym memberships, like how activewear brand Alo Yoga partnered with influencer and fitness trainer Callie Gullickson on a seven-day workout series called Sweat & Tone

Additionally, because this campaign encourages people to go to Alo Yoga’s website, Alo Moves for the workouts, it gives the brand more control of the experience they’re able to create for Callile’s followers than if the videos were hosted on Instagram. 

Here you can immerse yourself in the variety of workouts Alo offers where trainers are wearing the signature outfits, which you can find through easy navigation to the brand’s main website.

The rising popularity of alternative social platforms

By nature, spending more time inside and less time socializing with people outside of our households also means we’re spending more time on our devices and on social media.

Not only has the content and type of influencer changed, so have the channels that are resonating most among consumers. New platforms are competing against Instagram’s authority in the influencer marketing space.

While Instagram has largely been the hotspot for influencer activity, peoples’ exploration of other entertainment channels has given rise to new social platforms that are ideal for building a following. 

A few standout channels to consider include podcasts, YouTube, and Pinterest. Most notably, the video creation app TikTok that’s been hugely popular among Gen Zers has seen a huge surge in user activity since the onset of the coronavirus. 

TikTok reached two billion downloads in April 2020—not to mention, it also sees the highest engagement of any social media channel, according to research from Influencer Marketing Hub.

These platforms are natural deviations from Instagram as consumers look for new places to spend their time on, learn from, and laugh with. As you think about influencer marketing moving forward, consider some of these atypical destinations and how you can leverage different niches to expand your reach and increase your relevance.

A new kind of influencer

As peoples’ priorities have changed amid the pandemic, so have the faces they’ve decided to follow. Where health and wellness—both physical and mental—have taken the center stage, people are looking for advice on how they can live their best lives in quarantine.

This has resulted in the emergence of new influential figures—like doctors, therapists, government officials, financial advisors, mental health advocates, and medical experts—and has heightened the impact of existing ones, such as fitness gurus and home chefs. Meanwhile, travel and luxury influencers, a group that used to be core to social media marketing, are seeing less opportunity and engagement.

At this time, you’ll find that most essential personnel who might make up an emerging category of influencers are focussed on the frontlines, occupied with the very jobs that make them so relevant. This means there’s not a lot of opportunity for brands to interject, but it also implies who we look up to and consider role models is slowly shifting. 

Where these new symbols of influence are instinctively posting relevant content that maintains a human tone, perhaps the people consumers are most influenced by will change in the future from unattainable icons to everyday heroes.  

Acknowledging the current situation

It’s important to strike an empathetic tone with consumers right now, whether you’re communicating with consumers through your brand or through an influencer.

While you don’t need to get too deep and dark with your messaging, acknowledging the current situation goes a long way with creating transparency and trust between followers.

Though people may be exhausted by hearing about “these unprecedented times,” it’s no secret that we’re collectively going through a crisis that’s going to be top of mind for most.

Most of the time, giving a nod to peoples’ experiences right now or weaving the narrative into the content is sufficient. For example, influencer Madeline Shaw partnered with UK-based pharmacy chain Boots in a sponsored ad that talks about how she’s adapting to a new way of life. 

She doesn’t need to come out and directly address the coronavirus crisis, get too in-the-weeds with her messaging, or sensationalize the topic. Instead, this comes across as timely, relevant, and relatable.

Give back where you can

In times of crisis, it never hurts to think about how your brand can help better serve the community and incorporate goodwill into your marketing strategy. 

If you’re using influencers to promote certain products and have the financial bandwidth, donate a portion of the proceeds to frontline workers. This will go a long way to convince consumers to try out new products if they know a percentage of the cost goes to people who need it.

On the other hand, consider taking your products out completely and use your influencer relationships to spread awareness of some of the ways your brand is giving back, like Samuel Adams’ sponsorship of blogger Koko. While this might not win you much in terms of sales, it will win the hearts of consumers who are taking note of brands’ charitable efforts.

Additionally, brands have seen success with partnering with influencers in giveaways that also benefit various charitable organizations. Alternatively, giveaways may ask that people tag a nurse, teacher, or essential worker they know to enter them to receive the prize.

These kinds of sponsored advertisements serve as multi-beneficial—influencers get paid and consumers are eager to participate in order to win products or tag their hardworking loved ones. 

Giveaways and contests are an ideal opportunity for brands to build their email lists when people enter. Similar to Alo Yoga’s methodology with their influencer marketing, consider hosting sweepstakes on your website, rather than through your social media platform of choice, so you can collect entrants’ contact information and use the segment in future marketing campaigns.

Look to your customers to influence purchasing decisions

Influence doesn’t always have to be attributed to the rich, famous, and fabulous. Sometimes everyday people can have just as much of an impact on purchasing decisions and, many times, consumers will turn to their family, friends, co-workers, and other people they actually know for product recommendations before a stranger on social media—go figure.

Maybe now isn’t a good time to start an influencer marketing strategy from scratch if you haven’t experimented in this space before. Instead, consider leveraging brand loyalists and devoted customers through word of mouth and social proof

Set up referral programs so that current customers are incentivized to tell their networks about your brand. Create a campaign that asks past purchasers to leave reviews on your website. 

Turn your customers into influencers themselves by asking them to share user-generated content (UGC) on social media under a certain hashtag, similar to how UGG is using the #UGGtogether to encourage customers to show off their UGGs on social media while they #stayhome.

While they might not have the same reach as Kylie Jenner, these strategies leverage your most loyal customers to show that people love their purchases and want to engage with you as a brand. And often, this type of organic content is even more effective than sponsored advertising because people trust it.

The added advantage is that you can use UGC in your email marketing to entice subscribers who haven’t bought yet or to encourage repeat purchases, similar to how Glossier famously uses photos from real customers on social media, which is repurposed in their customer outreach where they feature the tagged content.

What to avoid 

In this space, it’s common knowledge that many influencers and celebrities make a good living but still receive free products from brands for the sake of PR. 

While these efforts are generally understood and accepted among consumers, people are generally more sensitive to these types of hand-outs right now when the larger community is struggling more than normal. 

Le Creuset learned this the hard way when they responded to Mindy Kaling’s tweet asking for recommendations on cookware by offering to send her a full set from their collection.

 

Twitter was quick to react, calling out the brand for providing handouts to someone who could easily afford to buy their products when so many others are in need.

The situation came to a resolution once Mindy made a £1000 donation to Harmony House  “in honor” of Le Creuset’s generosity, but the series of events highlights that consumers are holding brands to an even higher standard than normal.


Influencer and celebrity gifting is nothing new, but if you’re going to give away free products for the sake of creating brand ambassadors, do it subtly and find ways to give back to charitable causes if it’s within means for your brand.

Additionally, be careful who you decide to sponsor when controversy around social distancing is a main topic of conversation. 

Right now, people are on high alert for others not following mandated protocols of staying home. Where breaking these rules and guidelines can affect the health, happiness, and well-being of our society at large, this has become not only a political issue but a personal one.

Many influencers have come under fire for their disregard for social distancing and have faced public criticism from their followers across social media. 

When lifestyle influencer Naomi Davis, otherwise known as Taza, posted a picture that clearly proved she was ignoring public health guidelines, she took vitamin brand Ritual down with her when she later promoted them in a sponsored post. 

After Naomi made decisions that were deemed careless in the public eye, followers scrutinized Ritual’s decision to pay her to promote their products. 

Though the brand probably had a pre-existing partnership with Naomi, it wasn’t a good look for them to be seen advertising through her Instagram just days after the incident.

The future of influencer marketing post-coronavirus

Influencer marketing has long been seen as problematic for pushing a rose-colored version of reality. Meanwhile, the influencers themselves have had to strike a balance between presenting themselves as aspirational and relatable.

But now more than ever, we’re seeing a shift in what these accounts are posting and what’s resonating with the scrollers on the other end: raw, minimally-edited content, honesty and transparency, and real value. 

In a time where being able to churn out a pair of tye-dye sweatpants is more valuable than how many designer handbags you have, consumers are switching up who they pay attention to.

While the pandemic has certainly shifted the way people post and promote on behalf of brands, it’s not likely to boomerang back to the world of unattainable lifestyles. Once people settle into witnessing a more realistic version of life, very few will choose to go back to the constant state of yearning they settled into before.

It’s in brands’ best interest to pay attention to these changing consumer preferences, not just now, but as you continue to build relationships with influencers and work with them to promote your brand and your products going forward.

Looking for more information? These resources may be helpful to you as you adjust your marketing strategies to navigate the coronavirus crisis.

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