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The Dos and Don’ts of Influencer Marketing During a Pandemic

Industry events are cancelled and seasonal campaigns are postponed, but consumers, brands and influencers continue to mingle on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This around-the-clock engagement has helped create a sense of normalcy and connection as people adjust to spending more time in their homes. According to a survey of 370 influencers by marketing consultancy firm Influencer Central, influencers are seeing Instagram and Facebook engagement increase 36 percent since the crisis struck the U.S.

And in many cases, this engagement has helped younger demographics better understand the severity of the coronavirus. As influencer marketing data company, Influencer Intelligence, noted in a new report “What COVID-19 Means for Influencer Marketing,” the “power and effect of influencers for the greater good” is even being recognized on a government level.

For instance, the U.K. government is partnering with social media influencers on YouTube and Facebook to help share accurate information about the pandemic. Meanwhile, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently called out Kylie Jenner to lead by example on social media. Jenner responded with an Instagram Story urging her 168 million followers to practice social distancing, and the mogul has since shifted production of her Kylie Skin line to produce free hand sanitizer for hospitals.

But as experts share, influencers and influencer marketing during a global pandemic toe a delicate line between good and bad.

Sensitivity training

During a time when more people are looking at influencers, their actions and sensitivity to the deadly coronavirus are under an unforgiving microscope.

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Arielle Charnas of @Somethingnavy is in the midst of receiving backlash for decamping to the Hamptons after testing positive for COVID-19 in New York City.

The influencer shared her diagnosis with her 1.3 million followers on March 18 and since been dragged by Diet Prada and The New York Post for Instagram posts that show Charnas enjoying “fresh air” at her luxury rental and for dancing on TikTok in high-end sweats.

“It’s a tricky time for [influencers] to navigate because they are still in the same reality as the rest of us,” said Melissa Moylan, Fashion Snoops vice president/creative director of women’s wear.

Influencers have to find a way to still engage with their followers, but with a higher degree is authenticity and realness. Now, she said, is the time for influencers to hang up their stylized outfits and show the cozy sweater or loungewear that they too are living in. “No one right now wants to see that style peacock,” she said.

Rather, Moylan said influencers are currently walking a fine line between posts that address reality and show that they are in touch with what others are going through, and posts that offer their followers a sense of joy or escapism.

“We still crave beautiful content, but there’s a way to do it that has a level of sensitivity of what’s happening right now and is still rooted in reality,” Moylan said.

The influencers that will survive and maintain their following, she added, will be the ones that manage their accounts in a tasteful and honest way.

On brand

The advice is the same for brands that are taking to social media to stay relevant.

“If you’re pretending that everything is business as usual, it’s not going to work and it won’t resonate with a broader audience anymore,” Moylan said.

However, the balancing act for brands, Influencer Intelligence stated, entails purpose-led marketing and compassionate storytelling, with the very urgent reality that companies have a responsibility to keep their business and industry moving forward.

With 57 percent of U.S. marketers delaying product and service launches, the company said brands need to continue to stay engaged with their base, albeit with a revised influencer strategy. Here, brands have an opportunity to provide consumers helpful and informative content, but it will entail logical and strategic partnerships.

“With consumers increasingly seeking out content from those with expertise and specialist knowledge, this only reaffirms the true use of influencer marketing and demonstrates further that brands should be engaging with those content creators who have influence through talent, knowledge or expertise rather than just a following,” Influencer Intelligence stated in the report.

Influencers creating content that gives advice on things to do at home during isolation or remote working are seeing increased levels of engagement, Influencer Intelligence noted.

“This will also be the case for influencers providing solutions to other challenges such as boredom, frustration or anxiety, which are welcome additions to a social media landscape littered with paranoia and confusion,” the company said.

Play vs. product

If Instagram is a place for discovery and realness, TikTok is increasingly becoming the platform for joy and engagement. With more than 30 million monthly users in the U.S. and more than 800 million across the world, according to a deck leaked to AdAge, the app is increasingly gaining relevance.

“I think it’s an interesting time we’re seeing, that at least for right now, what TikTok brings and provides for people is more important at this moment than Instagram,” said Jenna Guarascio, Fashion Snoops director of content strategy.

With its viral dances and challenges, Moylan said TikTok feels lighthearted, fun and less promotional. “And that speaks to escapism—it’s fun for people to do, it’s fun for people to watch it and that’s what keeps us engaged,” she said.

Instagram, on the other hand, has become so linked to commerce that end of the day people know influencers are just pushing product. “There is something about [Instagram] that is just more serious. It’s kind of like, ‘Look at me, look at where I am,’ and it’s just beautifully composed,” Moylan said.

And that’s where Instagram falters during a pandemic. It’s a framework that doesn’t work during a time of restriction.

If influencers can’t take their following along for the ride to tropical destinations or to picturesque cafes, their content becomes focused on product. While introducing new brands that relate to the times can be helpful for some product categories, it may not resonate with the fashion consumer in a vulnerable environment, especially with mass furloughs pushing unemployment to record heights.

“With the majority of the world now engaging in ‘social distancing’ and amidst economic uncertainty, looking to brands or influencers for recommendations on what to buy is not currently at the forefront of the average shopper’s agenda,” Influencer Intelligence stated.