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The pandemic and the influencer: will the lifestyle survive coronavirus?

Covid-19 has forced influencers to swap portraits of themselves in front of waterfalls in Bali with shots taken on the couch in their living room, and quirky coffee shops and upmarket gyms have morphed into homemade latte art and living room workouts.

But beyond the change in content is an even more significant shift. The marketing model that makes up most of an influencer’s income is falling apart, with brands pulling out of lucrative sponsorship deals and advertising revenue plummeting. As we face a new economic era, it is unclear whether the aspirational lifestyle lauded by influencers can emerge unscathed. Could coronavirus provoke a reconfiguration of the influencer age?

Over the past decade, influencer culture has reshaped how brands reach consumers – the influencer marketing industry was worth around $6.5bn in 2019, and almost half of marketers spent more than 20% of their budget on influencer posts. The combination of accessible celebrity and trusted endorsement allowed companies to target their customers in a more tailored way.

Payment for posts reflected this – businesses pay influencers with more than a million followers $10,000 or more for a one-off post endorsing their product.

Yet despite creating an innovative new model that defined a digital era, the influencer industry was not without its issues. A saturation of social media marketing recently led to backlash, with many stars being forced to refocus their brand to appear more authentic after fears that they were alienating their fans with heavily posed and paid-for posts. High-profile scandals also rocked the industry, such as the Gabriel Grossman and Marissa Casey Fuchs “surprise” social-media proposal, which the Atlantic uncovered as having been pitched to brands, heavily staged and sponsored, and the now infamous Fyre festival which saw influencers being paid thousands of dollars to promote an event that had barely been organized and left attendees stranded on a beach in the Bahamas.

2020 should have been the year for influencers to get back to their followers’ desire for “realness”. Instead, because of Covid-19, many influencers are being forced to focus on simply surviving 2020’s economic downturn rather than taking the chance to grow their businesses.

“Due to the disruption in business operations a lot of companies are facing financial challenges,” explains Shane Barker, a digital strategist who offers consultancy services for companies using social media to boost their brand, and influencers hoping to reach the right brands and monetize their follower count. “In light of that, they are cutting down on all unnecessary expenses. Some are barely able to pay their employees, let alone hire influencers.”

One of Shane’s clients, Chris Ruden, is a bodybuilder and amputee who uses his platform to share content on overcoming adversity. As one of many influencers who relies on speaking engagements and events to make up some of his income, Ruden has already experienced disruption as a result of coronavirus measures.

“I had 28 events scheduled for the year; 95% of them had been postponed,” he says. “It has made me hit the drawing board to find different ways to give me value that are ‘pandemic proof’. I’ve resorted to funny content and eased up on motivational content – after all, you can’t inspire someone and fire them up just to watch Netflix.”

While some popular influencers have attracted death threats after sharing images of glamorous trips despite social distancing measures, Barker believes that more sensitive content is crucial in order for influencers to future-proof their brand.

“Influencers should create content that resonates with the current situation that people are in,” he says. “This does not mean that influencers from all industries should just start writing and talking about the pandemic. What I mean is that they should create content relevant to their niche, but keeping in mind what people are going through.”

Although 69% of brands expect to decrease their advertising spend this year, the amount of time that we are all spending on our devices also means that social media engagement has increased. In a time of crisis, people are also looking online to feel less alone. Lifestyle influencer Em Sheldon recognizes that and has tailored her content accordingly.

“I’ve always loved sharing workouts and healthy recipes, so for me it’s been more of an adaption,” she says. “People want to see home content right now as it’s relatable and we are all in the same boat. With more eyes now online, people are scrolling more than ever, so actually, as long as it’s fitting, authentic and tasteful, now is a great time to work with influencers.”

Some even believe that this renewed awareness of authentic versus paid posts and the shift away from brand promotion is a good thing.

“Biased product reviews were threatening to poison the well as people started to become disenchanted with self-serving influencers who had lost their objectivity,” says Michael Solomon, marketing professor and author of Social Media Marketing. “Where possible, influencers need to revert to a more altruistic message and find ways to help get through the crisis with constructive suggestions. In times of instability, people look to trusted sources and those that deliver will be remembered after the crisis is over.”

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