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

(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

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.

Amber Venz Box, president and co-founder of rewardStyle, an influencer affiliate network, echoed that positivity. She said that since the pandemic took hold in the United States, rewardStyle has seen a “meaningful” uptick in affiliate sales and that only a “handful” of rewardStyle’s partner brands are putting their affiliate programs on pause.

And for brands temporarily dropping out of affiliate programs, the question is: Is the potential loss in revenue worth the potential savings? Once a brand no longer allows affiliate links, there is very little incentive for an influencer to talk about its products and therefore send sales its way. From a brand perspective, affiliate marketing is quite a bang for the buck—brands don’t pay a dollar to influencers unless they convert a sale. As Venz Box put it, “You’re paying for marketing only when it works.”

“Influencers humanize brands, and they place them in the appropriate context for the consumer,” she said. “This is a moment where there’s so much finesse needed no matter what you’re talking about but especially when you’re selling stuff. Influencers allow you to really reach people.”

Evolving content for the current moment

What influencers really have to do right now, Venz Box said, is adapt to the new world we’re living in. Rather than date-night outfits, readers want loungewear. They’re not as interested in travel tips, but they are open to home decor ideas. Venz Box said home- and fitness-related content has seen an uptick in the LikeToKnow.It app, an influencer shopping platform rewardStyle owns.

“Right now, nobody wants to see spring outfits or travel guides,” Atwood said. “Influencers have to get a lot more creative and pivot their content.”

Some influencers have even found a greater purpose during this moment. As the world deals with its biggest crisis in decades, influencers hope their content can provide some levity in a time when the sheer volume of negativity and bad news can feel overwhelming.

“We’re already inundated by so much news on a daily basis,” said Aimee Song, founder of Song of Style. “I don’t consider what we’re doing as a distraction, but a way to cope with what’s happening in the world.”

Making the switch is harder for some than others. With no trips to plan, those who post almost exclusively about travel are forced to rely on “throwback” photos and evergreen content to keep themselves going. And with economic turmoil stretching across the country, images of high-fashion outfits or sprawling homes are not as welcome by audiences.

“There are these aspirational influencers where you just dream to have their wardrobe, but we’re all in sweatpants right now,” said Courtney Kerr, founder of the blog KERRently by Courtney Kerr. For influencers who frequently share at-home content with their followers, Kerr said, it isn’t a major shift, but those aspirational influencers will have to get more creative. The danger, Venz Box, said, is that new topics will feel “very alien” to their audiences.

“I assume they’re feeling a shift because they don’t do much in the four walls of their home and share the day to day of their life,” Kerr said.

But even for influencers who typically stick to aspirational, travel or fashion content, what matters is having a direct relationship with the people who follow them. When that relationship exists, a change of focus can be done “pretty easily,” Atwood said. If followers care about the influencer, they’ll care about what they post, even if it’s not what they’re used to seeing from them.

“The reason they have a massive following is because an audience is interested in who they are, what they’re doing, who they’re hanging out with and what they have to say,” said Reesa Lake, partner and evp of brand partnerships at Digital Brand Architects, who added that giving fans an inside look at how someone is surviving quarantine may deepen an influencer’s connection with their followers. “They almost have their own little reality shows now,” Lake said.

More tuned in than ever

With more people paying attention to what influencers are doing, there’s also more scrutiny—which is what brought the controversy Charnas and others have faced to the pages of The New York Times. Perhaps it was inevitable, if not exactly understandable. After all, navigating uncharted territory (as the pandemic is so often referred to) is sure to come with some hiccups.

“There is no playbook for how we exist and live during COVID-19, and influencers and celebrities are under more scrutiny,” Lake said. “I’m hopeful that we can come from a place of assuming people have the best intent, and an image or caption doesn’t always tell the full story.”

The response influencers like Charnas and Davis received serves as a reminder to others in the industry of the power they hold, the attention they attract and why it’s important to deeply consider not only their actions, but the message that sharing those actions sends to the public.

“Influencers need to be held to higher standards than a regular person right now,” Atwood said. “If you have a million followers and even 1% of that audience sees you’re doing [something] and thinks it’s OK for them to do it, it has a huge ripple effect.”

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if these controversies will be career ending or even majorly career altering. Though brands may be wary initially, it’s hard to imagine that reputations won’t recover, at least somewhat, in time. As Atwood put it, “At the end of the day, advertising dollars go where the eyeballs are.”

And after all, Charnas still has her 1.3 million followers.

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