Influencer Marketing Evolution through COVID-19

Claire Guiney, Associate Director, Wilson Hartnell

Given the vital role that online shopping services now play in our everyday lives, this year has already proven to be transformational for the Influencer industry.

In the past 8 months people have adopted e-commerce and online services at a rate that surpasses anything that analysts had previously predicted, with new data from IBMs US retail Index showing that the pandemic has accelerated the shift from physical to online stores by roughly five years. Where people have been faced with staying in their homes with limited contact, the reliance upon social media and the ability to build virtual connections has become hugely important, making Influencers more prominent in the public eye and, as a result, further scrutinised too. 

No matter where you are based in the world, we can all relate to those early feelings of frustration at the start of the pandemic, when people quickly realised that many of our favourite brands found the dramatic shift to online a massive challenge. Be it through delays in online delivery, keeping up with unprecedented demand and stock or in some cases, having no online ordering facility in place at all.  These massive shifts in customer behaviour, combined with new restrictions, forced the need for businesses to quickly step up and provide a more seamless shopping experience while also making sure to communicate all the changes taking place in real time. 

In the earlier stages of this crisis there was undoubtedly initial hesitation from brands to continue with Influencer activity, mindful of sending the wrong message.  Influencer content experienced a significant decrease, with a Launchmetrics report showing that sponsored content had gone from making up 35% of an Influencers posts mid-February to just 4% by mid-April. However, as the summer months arrived and industries adapted their strategies to new ways of working, Influencers started to become a key channel for creative lockdown content. While brands were working out what to do next, Influencers were also looking at alternative revenue streams such as home fitness streaming, video recipes shared from their home kitchens and not forgetting the rise of the plantfluencer phenomenon!

Influencers were demonstrating to brands that they also knew how to pivot in these times, showing that their product recommendations within this new space would help bridge this transition period and maintain customer relationships by focusing on meaningful interactions to help drive more long-term results.

However, with brand relationships now changing, Influencers also had to settle into this “new normal” coming under even greater scrutiny to deliver and prove ROI instead of relying upon vanity engagement metrics. With tighter budgets, businesses need to prove more than ever before that every euro of their marketing budget is worth the investment. Prior to the pandemic many brands would have spent large sums of money engaging with Influencers who may have had mass market appeal but, with consumers now spending most of their time shopping locally and focusing on their own community, brands shifted their focus to local Influencers who would undoubtedly be able to relate more to their audiences. 

The choice for a brand to engage in any of these relationships is now one that is crafted more carefully than before too, with businesses firmly believing that the Influencers own views and opinions are part of overall brand communication.  There has to be a natural synergy between brand and influencer, in order for content to feel authentic.

Employee advocacy is also now a key element of the Influencer spectrum, with people working inside a business being able to give a real face to a brand, delivering relatable, authoritative and trusted content.  The M&S Insiders, a group of Marks & Spencer team members from across the UK and Ireland, demonstrate this well sharing their best M&S fashion finds on Instagram and identifying the must-have pieces for the new season.

The pandemic has shown us all that we now live in an exponentially interconnected world. Brands have to adopt a new way of thinking while adapting, growing and planning for the future. Leading global brands like IKEA have also demonstrated how the future of Influencing can be taken a step further, creating a live installation featuring virtual influencer Imma in its Harajuku storefront in Tokyo, where people walking past could watch her ‘living’ in her apartment 24/7 – an incredible demonstration of where virtual worlds are merging with reality to help create innovative brand experience. 

If brands are to survive this moment, and stay relevant, there is no doubt that virtual experiences and community moments will be embedded at the heart of many campaigns in the future – and for Influencers, virtual or real, it is a new beginning and one that will be undoubtedly fascinating to watch.

To find out more about Influence in a post COVID world check out Ogilvy’s report on Influencing Our New Reality