How brands can still do influencer marketing during the pandemic
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, there was talk of a looming “social recession” in which marketers and consumers would get sick of the influencer marketing that’s been one of the industry’s hottest growth markets.
That time may have come, thanks largely to the pandemic, which has produced an economic recession and made much of what influencers once did look tone-deaf now. Gwyneth Paltrow became the first celebrity influencer to pull a post in mid-March amid pandemic shaming in social media for pitching her high-priced G. Label sneakers.
The pandemic has essentially halted growth of influencer marketing since mid-March. Brand spending on influencers on Instagram for the full month of March fell 24 percent from February, according to tracking firm Instascreener. Spending still grew 79 percent for in the first quarter to $474 million. But preliminary data for April shows spending at about $120 million, which is down 17 percent from March and flat compared with April 2019. “Many brands have put influencer programs on hold,” says Instascreener CEO Sean Spielberg. Shareablee, which tracks all brand posts across most major platforms, finds sponsored influencer posts down 85 percent on Instagram and 57 percent on Facebook in April compared with the same month a year ago.
Still, influencer marketing is not on the verge of extinction—and, if done right, it can help brands stand apart from other pandemic-era advertising that has begun to look the same. Below, some tips on how to make it work.
This isn’t time to give up
While many marketers have backed away, it’s actually a good time for influencer marketing in many ways, says Benjamin Spiegel, chief digital officer of Procter & Gamble’s beauty division. Influencer audiences are rising as people consume more content at home. Influencers, who are equipped with their own in-home studios, are one of the only ways for brands to create new content amid lockdowns that prohibit other commercial production. It’s also a particularly cost-effective time to amplify influencer work with paid social media, Spiegel says, because costs to reach key audiences have declined as key industries such as travel have exited auctions.
Emerging from the sea of sadness
A lot of pandemic advertising uses a somber tone—and is repetitive. The time span between originality, cliché and parody has been compressed into weeks or even days as ads featuring sad piano solos, scenes of empty public spaces and exhortations that “we’re all in this together” have proliferated—spawning parodies and cynicism. P&G instead has focused on accentuating the positive and giving practical tips in its influencer marketing, Spiegel says. And one key advantage influencers offer now, when a lot of ads are looking alike, is safety in numbers, he says. They allow brands to tap a wide array of creative voices and messages.
One sign that influencer marketing is around to stay is a TikTok campaign for L’Oreal USA’s NYX Professional Makeup from creative studio Movers+Shakers. It launched in March and still generated more than 9 billion views and more than 3 million response videos from TikTokers. The brand worked with five paid influencers, including TikTok star Avani, who’s known for her makeup skills. It wasn’t a public service message, like most recent brand-sponsored posts, but rather built around a #ButterGlossPop song to highlight the brand’s lip gloss. “Even in the middle of COVID-19, we wanted to bring a little bit of escapism and fun at a moment when consumers are looking for that,” says Yasmin Dastmalchi, senior VP for U.S. marketing and digital at NYX Professional Makeup. “I don’t think there’s a risk of being insensitive as long as you’re listening to what the community wants and reacting to that.”
TikTok made it easier than other platforms to take the positive route, says Movers+Shakers CEO Evan Horowitz. “When you look at TikTok—the nature of the community, the energy, the vibe and the conversations—it’s always been, and has been consistently throughout this pandemic, a joyful, uplifting, fun place.”
Avoiding bad behavior
Even so, it’s not business as usual in influencer marketing, or marketing generally. P&G is trying not to burden influencers with too many guidelines, Spiegel says, but has some guardrails. “We want to avoid any content that sounds opportunistic,” he says. “We tell influencers not to overpromise or fuel panic or even promote unnecessary use of our products, or tell people to buy more so you have enough stock.” P&G brands like Olay have kept up their social-media programs, despite debate in social media about whether it’s still right for brands to be paying influencers under current circumstances, he says. “We see them as small businesses” that need the income, Spiegel says.
Usefulness in vogue
One of the best ways to guide influencer work is by monitoring what people are searching for, then address their questions, Spiegel says. “It’s not necessarily what’s the new summer style, but what is some new job we have to do? What are the new consumer needs, especially working from home?” Do-it-yourself haircuts are a hot topic. The shift to usefulness brings a shift in what platform works best. YouTube, because of its search function and wealth of how-to videos, has become more important during the pandemic, Spiegel says.
Pivot to public service
Of course, one of the big shifts has been enlisting influencers for public service announcements. Shareablee CEO Tania Yuki says the “content that is still being commissioned is a lot of big-name stuff, and it’s centered around ‘stay at home’ and ‘new normal’ themes.” Examples include Adidas enlisting soccer star Lionel Messi for a workout video starring his young son. Unilever’s Clear hair care enlisted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo in a #ComeBackStronger exhortation to turn the lockdown into a self-improvement opportunity.
Some of these efforts are spawning huge audiences on TikTok. RB’s Dettol has 18 billion views and counting by enlisting Indian influencers for a #HandWashChallenge. P&G, at the request of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, enlisted Grey to develop a #DistanceDance video challenge featuring influencer Charli D’Amelio that has earned 14.6 billion views and more than 3.8 million response videos on TikTok.
Cosmetics brand e.l.f. had one of the first big U.S. brand breakthroughs on TikTok last fall with its “Eyes.Lips.Face” song challenge, also developed with Movers+Shakers, which has generated 5.2 billion views to date. In March the brand modified the challenge to “Eyes.Lips.Face.Safe” and a hand-washing theme.
The original idea in October was to “put the Eyes Lips Face back in e.l.f.” since people had forgotten what the initials stand for, says Kory Marchisotto, chief marketing officer. “The key component here is to fuel it in flight. If you see something take off, give it the life that it needs to run further.” Repurposing the song for a hand-washing campaign did just that, to a different end. “It was ‘How do you have the biggest impact in the shortest period of time?’” she says.
Keeping the lights on
Color cosmetics sales, even for mass brands, have tanked as people stay home and thus need less makeup. It might be tempting for cosmetics marketers to go dark. But Marchisotto says, “One thing you don’t want to do is just abandon your community and say, ‘OK, we’re all on lockdown. We’ll see you when the lights come back on.’”
The reality, however, is that many marketers are doing just that, having stepped back from influencer campaigns since March, says Gabe Gordon, co-founder and managing partner of Reach Agency. Many are still planning programs for late 2020 or early 2021, he says, but he thinks the return will be more like dipping toes in the water than cannonball plunges. He recommends many brands start with “micro-influencers”— individuals who have between 1,000 and 10,000 followers—to test how people react before taking a campaign more broadly.
When more campaigns are ready later this year or early next, Gordon says brands need to be aware that the primary concerns may well have shifted from COVID-19 to the economic hardship of recession. But he says one advantage of influencer marketing will have even greater importance: It’s generally less expensive than hiring agencies.
Shifting to e-commerce
For some brands, influencers are already part of their pandemic strategic shifts. Before the crisis, Mount Gay Rum was working with influencer community Perlu, specifically its “pack” of whiskey enthusiasts, to set up tastings around the country aimed at switching whiskey drinkers to rum. Lockdowns made that plan impossible, so the brand has shifted to virtual events where furloughed bartenders demonstrate cocktail recipes using Mount Gay Rum, with their events amplified by Perlu influencers. The effort also backs Mount Gay’s shift to e-commerce, a move that also has other spirits brands shifting toward influencer marketing, says Rich Ezzo, senior VP of sales and marketing for Perlu. “We developed the #MountGayMoments program to serve the bartending community that has always served us,” says Raphael Grisoni, managing director of Mount Gay Rum. “These are trying times, but social distancing doesn’t mean we can’t be social.”