As a result of stay-at-home orders, social media usage increased: the number of active social media users globally grew 10.5% to almost four billion. In any other context, these figures would have signalled a boom period for online influencers who could drive engagement with these new audiences. However, things were not so simple.

With the introduction and approval of new vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, we are slowly returning to normal (or at least something resembling it). It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what lasting impact the pandemic has had on the influencer marketing industry.

Rethinking campaign strategy

The biggest change to affect influencers was that brands had to adapt their influencer marketing campaigns following the outbreak of the pandemic. In the latest report from HypeAuditor, ‘State of Influencer Marketing’, three different phases were identified over this period. In the first few months of the crisis, brands’ initial reaction was to respond to customer concerns around Covid-19. Brands had to step carefully at this time: consumer sensitivity was higher, meaning that there was a higher threshold for communication risk. In many cases, brands had to reduce their marketing spend due to the economic downturn.

This initial shock was followed by a period of normalisation. Rather than staying silent, brands continued to communicate in an attempt to normalise the situation. Consumer sensitivity has eased as the crisis has gone on, meaning marketers could relax a little bit as the threshold for communication risk fell.

With the rollout of vaccines around the world and the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in many countries, the third phase of the strategy is being entered. Brands are adopting new styles of communication and new habits that reflect the reality of their audiences’ lived experiences, from wearing masks to social distancing.

Going forward, it’s predicted a lasting impact will be an increased focus on performance-based marketing by marketers. In the past, many brands have relied on more predictable and reliable channels, seeing influencer marketing as a tool for driving awareness. However, today more marketers have a better idea of how their money works and can take the guesswork out of their influencer marketing strategy.

It’s expected that influencer marketing budgets will increase significantly as more companies will focus on the individual performance and ROI of influencers. Brands may therefore need to work with technology partners who can offer this level of insight and analytics to ensure fair, transparent and effective influencer marketing.

Influencers looked for new sources of income

Over the course of 2020, as the majority of the population was required to quarantine, self-isolate or work from home, more advertising money has flowed from offline to online. That’s meant brands and advertisers have needed to search for the most effective ways to share their message with consumers online. This has benefited the industry, as influencer marketing allows the most human connection between brands and their audiences. As one of the few viable ways that advertisers can connect with audiences online, influencer marketing will continue to grow through 2021 and beyond.

However, over the past 12 months, as businesses experienced a reduction in demand, their advertising budgets became more modest. In reaction to these Covid-induced spending cuts, influencers increasingly had to change their business models and find new ways to earn money. This has included launching their own merch, creating direct-to-consumer offers, as well as signing content production deals. Many influencers adopted the Onlyfans and Patreon platform, which was originally designed to offer fans exclusive access to their favourite creators based on paid subscriptions.

Unprecedented times require a drastic shift in content

The types of content produced have also shifted due to Covid-19. For instance, travel-related content became more difficult to create. Audience tastes changed as well: Instagram’s audience consumed more entertainment content in 2020 (the Shows category grew 102% over the year), likely in order to provide some light relief in contrast to global events. Similarly, DIY & Design and Architecture & Urban Design influencer categories on Instagram saw large growth: people were stuck at home with more time on their hands, so naturally gravitated towards opportunities to improve the design of the space around them.

Looking forward, the elimination of Covid-related restrictions will allow many categories of content creators to restart their work (such as travel or event-related categories), which will subsequently boost market recovery.

TikTok also emerged as a viable platform for promoting brands. It experienced explosive growth, with active users increasing by 60% to 800 million. And with consumers spending more time on social media during the pandemic, content creators were able to provide brands with quick, easy-to-produce and effective ways to promote their offering.

Be careful with what you post

Another trend that will have a lasting impact on influencer marketing is increased scrutiny of their content. In addition to Covid-19, there was a greater focus on social justice issues in 2020, most notably represented by the Black Lives Matter movement. Influencers had to adapt their content to address issues such as racism. Staying out of the conversation was not an option for creators who wanted to engage with their community. There were also instances of influencer shaming during the pandemic because of inappropriate content and behaviour.

Brands as well as influencers have become more attentive to the content they post, while audiences have become more sensitive about the content they consume. People now take more interest in the influencer’s personality, so creators have to carefully filter what they say. Brands, in turn, will approach the influencer selection process more carefully in the future.

Looking back across 2020, while Covid-19 slowed down the growth of the businesses, influencer marketing did not suffer as much as other industries. In fact, it has benefited from macro trends such as the increased use of social media. Going forward, brands and influencers have a strong opportunity to partner together and create compelling content. Overall, we remain highly positive about the potential of influencer marketing for brands and audiences.

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