In uncertain times, we turn to trusted voices to help us navigate our world. We are each faced with a barrage of competing messages, advertisements, and news sources as the global pandemic has accelerated our intake of information (as well as misinformation). In response, we each curate our feeds differently in order to gain a sense of control over the information that comes our way and self-select the people who deliver it. Among those sources are brands and influencers whose sponsored partnerships haven’t always yielded the most trust over the past few years.
Understanding the shifts in media consumption behaviours
The media industry is all too quick to support this point with Instagram posts at the ready that depict aspirational scenes and face-tuned bodies with #ad disclosure buried 20 lines deep. But the decline of the overly curated Instagram aesthetic, overly promotional content, and lack of disclosure was growing steadily pre-coronavirus, and many leading influencers had already pivoted their strategy to focus on sharing more unfiltered content and authentic stories. These gradual changes happened in response to real-time consumer feedback, not as a result of a multi-national survey tool but instead from comments and polls between influencers and their followers that happen every day. This close connection with their audience put influencers ahead of brands in understanding shifts in media consumption behaviors.The disruption caused by COVID-19 has sped up the need for brands to adapt their creative and messaging strategy to align with new customer expectations. Consumers express interest in hearing from their favorite brands, yet they’re weary and distrustful of any advertising that appears tone-deaf or insensitive to the current climate. They engage with content from their favorite creators yet are quick to call out influencers who seem disingenuous or exploitative. This tension between connection and trust presents an opportunity for brands to throw out their old influencer playbooks and develop more meaningful partnerships that center on co-creating content that is authentic and valuable to our “new normal.”
Understand and empathise with your customer
For brands to co-create meaningful content and partnerships, they need to start by truly understanding what their customers are experiencing right now. To do so, we first need to acknowledge that the “transient normal” or “new normal” is different for all of us. It sounds comforting to say “we’re all in this together” but frontline workers, people who have lost their jobs, or those who are experiencing economic or health-related setbacks are experiencing a drastically different version of the new normal than those with white collar, work-from-home jobs. Brands need to adapt their messaging appropriately to their target audience on a very personalised, human level and avoid catch-all strategies that aren’t tailored to their customers’ current and future outlook. Understanding shifts in consumer mindset and behavior can be challenging but the good news is that influencers are already one step closer to their audiences than brands are. Influencers connect with their followers daily. They share interactive polls and Q&As via Instagram, they field thousands of direct messages and comments across social channels, and pre-COVID-19, they met with fans in face-to-face settings that are less attainable for massive corporations or even small DTC brands. This close connection influencers maintain with their audience makes them uniquely positioned to help brands understand their customers and speak to them in a way that shows empathy and understanding.
As a brand, do you deserve their attention?
Once a brand has done the hard work of understanding its target audience and thoughtfully selecting influencers who align with it, each brand needs to ask, “do we deserve their attention?” The answer to this question is simpler than it sounds. The point is, are you providing value to your audience? If not, please re-evaluate and come back another day. This might sound harsh but any good influencer partnership depends on co-creating meaningful content that helps to solve a customer need — whether that’s filling a need for information, entertainment, inspiration, or from a purely functional standpoint of showcasing a useful product. Sure, this is a perfunctory question from a marketing 101 perspective but in the time of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever. A brand might be partnering with influencers to showcase essential household goods, cozy-at-home leisurewear, supplies to complete a home renovation project, or items that provide entertainment and escape — but whatever they’re offering, it better be valuable to customers where they’re at right now (at home, feeling anxious) or brands and the influencers they partner with should be prepared to face some backlash. Potential customers are faced with thousands of decisions every day about which brands, products, and services to choose from and they need influencers to act as helpful partners and trusted experts to assist in navigating these decisions. Smash-and-grab, overly promotional influencer campaigns have no place in today’s current environment.
Adapt creative and messaging to new customer mindset
None of us know how long it will be before we “return to normal” and whether our pre- COVID-19 understanding of the world is even possible. It’s not hyperbolic to anticipate that the coronavirus will have lasting effects on consumer behavior for years to come. Given the global shift in consumer mindset, brands are faced with the challenge of adapting creative and messaging to a new customer mindset while also dealing with the logistical challenges of shooting new creative and developing marketing strategies with limited teams and physical distancing policies in place. As content creation studios of one, influencers are better poised to adapt to these creative production challenges than any brand or production company ever could be. There’s no time to waste on a full creative studio, team, and the right equipment—why not partner with an influencer who simply needs a DSLR camera or iPhone, a tripod, and a few go-to Lightroom presets on standby? That’s not to undervalue the role of the full creative or production team—there’s certainly still a place for that—but when it comes to quickly pivoting creative and messaging to adapt to ever-changing consumer mindsets and behaviors, content creators have been preparing for this moment for decades and have the portfolio (Instagram feed) to prove it.
Shifting strategies in real-time
Looking back at 2019, the average influencer’s Instagram feed was filled with aspirational content and brand partnerships that wouldn’t fly in today’s COVID-19 environment. But if you evaluate influencers’ posts within the past 60 days, you’ll see that content creators have adapted their messaging strategy for the current environment and engagement rates have actually increased on sponsored content. This positive engagement is a result of influencers shifting their strategies in real-time to align with the topics that people care about right now, in the moment. Brands have an opportunity to co-create with influencers by sharing their mission, purpose, and vision and allowing influencers the creative freedom to bring it to life in a way that feels native to their audience and aligned with the shifts in consumer behavior we’ve observed over the past eight weeks. By partnering strategically and thoughtfully with influencers, brands can avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve seen in marketing roundups from companies that haven’t understood the current environment and how to adapt. They can test out new marketing strategies and messaging in a safer environment. They can lean on the connection and trust that influencers have established with their audiences to understand how to reach their audience on a deeper level that focuses on adding value, fostering relationships and community, and inspiring a future to come.