Over the last four months, influencer marketing has continued to prove to be an essential – and resilient – marketing channel for brands. But as lockdown eases and retailers start to reopen their bricks and mortar stores, many ponder what the future holds for influencers and how they will help brands navigate the upcoming exogenous recession. We have seen this as a transformational period for the influencer industry, with the lockdown trends adding more fuel to a fire already burning bright. It’s a time during which we’re collectively experiencing a great acceleration of existing trends and unparalleled impact on brands’ e-commerce sales – when it’s needed the most.  In fact, pre-COVID online sales only made up about 5% of overall sales for a retailer (Nielson). The last four months have flipped this on its head. Consumers have adopted online shopping at a rate that exponentially surpasses analysts’ previous expectation of an increase by only 2% a year through 2023 (Shopify), with recent months experiencing a surge of 129% in the UK and Europe (Internet Retailing). Given new levels of comfort in the safety and ease of shopping online vs. in physical stores, many will continue these in-home purchasing habits for the long-term.So what have we learned over the last three months and what trends do we foresee playing out in the influencer industry in a post-Covid world? 

Validating influencers beyond “likes”: ROI is critical to the future of influencer marketing

History has taught us that brands that advertise throughout a recession experience faster growth coming out on the other side. Influencer marketing represents a unique channel that builds trust with consumers, an industry that for years has prioritized sentiment and engagement KPIs such as likes, comments and shares over ROI. However, with marketing budgets set to come under more pressure, brands are re-assessing effectiveness of channels and so rationalizing spend will be increasingly critical in driving conversion and understanding consumer trends.  For example, there has been a significant increase in both clients looking to incorporate ROAS across brand marketing and PR initiatives. While the priority objective can often be reach and engagement, historical sales performance and tracking the sales impact of those campaigns further develops the influencer channel across marketing departments. The more data and insight shared, the greater optimisation they can bring to the channel. In troubled or uncertain times, strong ROI will be critical to sustaining and gaining brand trust and earning investment in the influencer channel. 

Humanising a brand

COVID has accelerated existing consumer trends, with consumers now spending up to 50% more time on social media on mobile (Forbes). This has created a huge opportunity for retailers, but also a giant need to create relevant content to reach them. Influencers have the unique ability to humanize a brand and create conversation, appeal and demand for products in the context of real-life. This has become especially important as followers seek normality, assurance and guidance from those they trust during uncertain times. Given many have spent years developing communities that intimately know and trust them, influencers have appeal for ways they connect with and communicate to niches based on regions, age and socioeconomics that require specialized, relevant messaging to resonate. Now more than ever, followers are peering deeper into the intimate personal lives of influencers and building stronger connections with them as a result. Any brands influencers choose to align with therefore become even more important to their followers than pre-COVID. The other advantage is that, while brands, agencies, photographers and whole crews were unable to shoot for months, influencers filled this gap by producing brand content within their own homes.  As a party of one, they created customised, on-spec branded imagery quickly and cost effectively. While restrictions have begun to loosen, for brands facing budget cuts to high production campaign shoots, influencers remain their most efficient means of creating content to communicate with consumers during this transition and post-Covid.

Becoming more audience-centric

Related to their ability to know and grow an audience, the best influencers can travel across different platforms and adapt to what’s appropriate for that specific channel. There are different sentiments and critical nuances depending on the social channel, but the bottom line comes down to knowing your audience. For example, we have seen the rise of TikTok over the last three months with more and more influencers creating light-hearted content and reaching out to new, younger audiences. It’s a sign of the zeitgeist and an underlying desire for more entertainment and levity. Relatedly, LIKEtoKNOW.it saw a 194% YoY increase in clicks in May, with sales increasing by 144%. Because LIKEtoKNOW.it is a shopping app, and influencers have nurtured their following to go there for shopping information and inspiration, it gives consumers a much-needed outlet during otherwise stressful times. Whatever the channel, being able to track which influencer channel converts best for their audiences will be paramount to future-proofing an effective long-term influencer strategy.

The great pivot: influencer industry as Darwinian

As COVID has impacted the daily lifestyle of millions of people for the foreseeable future, influencers of all following sizes are being challenged to evolve or expand their content cross-category to fit the needs and subject matter relevant for today’s world. A travel influencer not able to promote a resort amidst a global pandemic is finding themselves having to generate content more relatable to their audience, lest they go dark and hibernate until travel life fully resumes. The innate ability to pivot in a seamless and authentic way that reflects consumer sentiment makes influencers so critical to engaging with consumers right now. But, easier said than done. There’s an important balance an influencer must strike and a level of respect from their followers to keep them engaged. Not all influencers will be successful at this. We will see a shakeout of those that struggle to genuinely pivot, but those that adapt will reap long-term benefits by giving themselves more range and versatility for the future.
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