No, Coronavirus Isn’t the End of Influencer Marketing. But It Has Put It Under a Microscope

The actions of few have been high profile, but the rest of the industry is pivoting

Ali Maffucci, Arielle Charnas and Naomi Davis
(L. to r.) Ali Maffucci, Arielle Charnas and Naomi Davis have faced backlash, but they're not representative of all influencers. Sources: Inspiralized, Arielle Charnas, Naomi Davis
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Key insights:

In mid-March, Arielle Charnas, founder of Something Navy, a blog turned burgeoning clothing and lifestyle empire (that’s raised $10 million in funding), shared with her followers—1.3 million and counting—that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

The positive result came just days after she had shared a video of herself undergoing the test from the front seat of her car outside an urgent care clinic where a friend was employed as a doctor. The fact that Charnas had received the test at all was something of an eyebrow-raiser—tests are still hard to come by for those who are young or have uncompromised immune systems, and even more so for those whose symptoms don’t require a hospital visit.

But what really caught people’s attention was that within days of revealing her positive diagnosis, Charnas, her husband, two daughters and their nanny packed their bags and headed out to a rented home in the Hamptons, a process she documented on Instagram, just as she did with her test.

That’s when the questions came pouring in: “Can you please tell us how you can be around your kids and nanny before you finish 14 days of self isolation and quarantining?” one commenter asked. “I feel like you’re ignoring everyone’s questions about it?”

On Twitter, the chatter was even louder. One user said: “Honestly, not quarantining yourself after testing POSITIVE for coronavirus should come with a charge of reckless endangerment at the very least because WTF is wrong with #ariellecharnas.”

Within days, Charnas became, as BuzzFeed News called her, the internet’s best-known example of “privilege in the age of coronavirus.” She wasn’t the only one. Just days after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo instituted a stay-at-home order in the state, Naomi Davis, founder of the blog Love Taza, faced backlash after sharing that she, her husband and five children would be leaving their Manhattan apartment and traveling to Utah by RV. Ali Maffucci, founder of the website Inspiralized, received similar blowback for announcing her family’s relocation to Florida.

The widespread backlash has prompted countless think pieces and articles. One from Vanity Fair asked the question: “Is This the End of Influencing as We Knew It?” Other news from the industry prompted similar levels of concern. Retailers like Net-a-Porter, Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret, among others, have suspended their participation in affiliate marketing programs, and other brands are pressing pause on upcoming influencer campaigns or partnerships—or canceling them altogether.

But those in the industry say any negative attention brought on by a select few is only representative of what a small sliver of influencers are facing right now.

“There is a lot of media scrutiny around some of the influencers that haven’t necessarily made the most self-aware choices about how to handle some of these circumstances,” said Angela Seits, senior director, consumer insights and engagement strategy at digital marketing agency PMG. “But on the other hand, there’s been a really positive case for influencers, because so many people are at home, spending so much time consuming social media, and they’re turning to their favorite content creators for inspiration and entertainment.”

A change of circumstances

What’s changed for the vast majority of influencers isn’t people turning against them, but the circumstances in which they’re doing their jobs. And with more people tuning in than ever, hitting the right note on the content they produce is essential for maintaining their business now and post-pandemic.

As is the case with just about every industry—besides, perhaps, the disinfectant business—the coronavirus has had an economic impact. Influencers make the majority of their income via two channels: brand partnerships and affiliate revenue. And both are under some level of threat at the moment. Partnerships are on particularly shaky ground in certain categories like travel and fashion, though Seits said it’s been a “slight, not huge decline.”

For the influencers themselves, the financial hit is a mixed bag. Grace Atwood, founder of the lifestyle website The Stripe, said that March was shaping up to be her highest-earning month of her blogging career thanks in large part to a collaboration with Amazon’s The Drop, which has now been pushed to a new, unannounced release date.

However, there are bright spots. Atwood said that while partnerships with fashion brands have been cancelled or delayed, partnership inquiries in beauty, wine and spirits, and television are still coming in. And her affiliate revenue for March 2020 doubled year over year thanks to the increased number of sales retailers are running. Even with the loss of partnerships, Atwood said, she’s still making enough to stay “afloat,” pay the people who work for her and cover her own expenses.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.