Normally, at this time of the year we’d be gearing up for spring cleaning. We’d survey the closet space, roll up our sleeves,  and begin making room for the season’s most anticipated ritual: a warm-weather shopping spree. But in these plague-ridden times, our shopping priorities have completely shifted from summer sandals and blouses to toilet paper in bulk.

Sexy if you’re in the toilet paper business. But, of course, not every brand is. The fashion industry has taken a massive hit (sales are close to 60% below the year before) along with restaurants, event venues and you name whatever else. What about businesses that have a brick-and-mortar first philosophy, for example? Or all those brands that have worked for months on strategies and campaigns that are no longer valid? And yet there ARE products people still want and need right now; films that have to be made and released as consumers crave more content; fans that still want to see their teams play. And guiding that demand is, of course, marketing which still has to keep consumers engaged with the brand, but especially in these times ever more delicately, deftly, and decisively.

Hand holding Chanel N.5 flakon Photo by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

A Global Pandemic Can’t Stop Social Influence

Prior to the outbreak, Influencer Marketing was already going through a period of transition. Traditional ad-led content was giving way to experiential, reality-driven content that provides users with a sense of escapism on the one hand, and a relatable, aspirational figure on the other. Problem is the picture-perfect glamorous feeds of professional or aspirational influencers didn’t really depict real life.

But the introduction of Instagram Stories relaxed the boundaries and accelerated the growing success of influencer marketing by providing a live content platform for all kinds of call to action campaigns including swipe to shop, polls and Q&A’s. The pandemic has sped up this evolution further. Vogue Business recently wrote that the ‘influencer currency has [actually] increased’ during this period, as brands turn to influencers to help them cut through all the additional noise generated by the millions of users now active online 24/7.

I completely understand that brands and also big publishers are tied to legacy revenue. It is almost impossible for them to be nimble—to turn on a dime and quickly anticipate how their audience is adjusting and where they’re going. They’re inhibited from abandoning traditional practices. I get that. Influencers, too, have their own issues.  Most are small businesses with bills to pay, staff to support and families to take care of. It’s surely why the travel influencer category, for example, appears to have evaporated into thin air.

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Take Jessica Nabongo and her @thecatchmeifyoucan travel influencer persona. Pre-Corona Jessica was roaming the world as a sought after ambassador for hotel chains, airlines, and luxury brands. Now it’s more like #catchmeathome and Jessica like many other influencers faces a big hit on her projected income. We now see her posts and stories on home decor, skincare, and activities like cooking while quarantining. Clearly, she’s transitioned during this crisis from the travel sphere to lifestyle and beauty.

The Bigger Picture

Covid-19 has forced us to change the narrative. The pandemic has grabbed us by the shoulders and hopefully shaken some marketing sense into us. We’ll have to respond to the way consumer behavior has changed. And it may change irrevocably. For example,  according to eMarketer 60% of consumers will now eat out less due to COVID-19. Some restaurants have responded by omitting delivery fees to encourage food delivery. There is also an insatiable appetite for grocery delivery. Grocery delivery platforms such as Instacart, Walmart Grocery, and Grocery Gateway are seeing unprecedented spikes in sales and orders as consumers start purchasing groceries online.

Chances have never been better to be close to brand audiences but messaging will be key here. As influencers are turning to different avenues of business themselves, their messaging has changed as well.  They are moving from aspirational to actionable content using their platforms to give back and help organizations promote critical messages for community support.

Finland, for example, has classified influencers as key workers in the battle against fake news. The government was shrewd to recognize that influencers offer better access to audiences who are difficult to reach through traditional channels. Similarly, The WHO (World Health Organization) was quick to understand the vital role influencers play in disseminating information quickly and effectively to millions at a time. Last month, it teamed up with Knox Frost, a digital avatar with 1 million Instagram followers to source donations for its Solidarity Relief Fund: that post has over 33k likes so far. Throughout the pandemic WHO has engaged with a number of influencers to get their message across. It is safe to say that the WHO now has become an influencer at large itself.

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Let’s put brand equity aside for a moment and just focus on the bottom line. There has never been a better time to revisit your influencer marketing strategy. Top-tier influencers are now more open to collaborations and per-influencer pricing has fallen or at least is negotiable. For example, the budget spent on one post in the past may now also include a story or assets for the brand to use on its own channels since big-budget shoots are no longer de rigeur. Influencers are open for business and the content they produce on the fly is already optimized for social anyway. You can’t put a price on that. In a survey by The Drum, 80% of respondents said that influencer-generated assets performed the same or better than brand-created assets. Similarly, 41% of marketers said they have saved money on content creation by using influencers. At the end of the day, it just makes good business sense.

Covid Has Changed the Way We do Business

According to the IAB, nearly a quarter of media buyers and brands have paused ads for the first half of 2020Facebook reports 89% of advertisers have shifted their budgets in response to Covid-19. Depending on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty person, those two statements either spell disaster or offer a golden opportunity. Think of it this way: With businesses unable to spend in their usual capacity, there’s a lot less competition in the marketplace—a much less crowded space for you to reach your audience and at a much cheaper cost.

Proof the glass is half full: All the big platforms have reported an increase in user engagement on their channels. Facebook is fast closing in on a new milestone of 3 billion total active users across all of its platformsYouTube traffic is up 15% on averagePinterest added 32 million new users in Q1 and TikTok has just surpassed the 2 billion download mark. There is a willing and captive audience waiting to hear from brands. The trick is knowing what to say and how to say it. Relying on influencers’ creativity and innovation gives brands a fair chance to cut through the clutter. Here are some questions you should ask yourself to ensure your strategy is poised to resonate and isn’t tone-deaf.

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As events continue to be postponed and shopping malls operate in a reduced capacity, we have already arrived in the future. It is quite obvious that people now do most of their shopping online. The big change will be how brands will begin to leverage social & e-commerce. What to do with that retail store when people are afraid to come in and try clothes on? As more new habits develop over the next 18 months leading out of this recession, brick and mortar businesses might consider using those stores as physical showrooms. Brands should be working on communication strategies to entice people to visit them in real life. These strategies should also include influencer marketing to ensure your products will get in front of your audience.

At the dawn of the influencer era—back when the influencers were bloggers—brands chose to work with them for one simple reason: their creativity. There was no hand wringing about a content creator’s audience demographic or post performance metrics. In a sense, we’re going back to the future. And that’s a good thing. The way I see it, influencer marketing will genuinely evolve when brands truly buy-in, on, first, partnering with the right influencers and then allowing them—shackle free—to do what they do best: execute genuinely creative stuff. Because if anything is true in our business it’s this: Every great campaign starts with the creative concept.

This could also mean we’ll see a different kind of influencer rising to the top ranks as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. It might be influencers who strike just the right tone when engaging their audiences. The kind who acknowledges the reality of our current lives without being overbearing. It’s about providing inspiration, information, or entertainment to the audience that resonates in a meaningful and genuine way. That could range from giving some tips on how to cope with working from home while homeschooling children to how to stay fit or practice mental hygiene as lockdown restrictions slowly loosen. That new blouse might be beautiful, but no one wants to see the outfit of the day right now.

by Jeanette Okwu, Co-Founder & CMO at 1nfluencersmarketing
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