What Happened to Influencers and Their Content in 2020?

Extreme social media use is here to stay, as some categories saw remarkable change

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Social media engagement increased during the pandemic by 61%, and American adults spent about seven more minutes per day on social media than in 2019, thanks to the turbulence of 2020. Instagram influencers saw their average likes increase by about 68%, and their comments by 50%. Views in some content, such as cooking and fitness, doubled during the Covid-19 crisis.

But can brands rely on 2020 data to plan for 2021? Surprisingly, we found that people’s increased social media use didn’t lead to roaring success for most brands.

Here’s why:

  • Extraordinary world events won consumers’ attention.
  • People relate better to other people—aka influencers—than brands, even when (or maybe because!) they weren’t seeing many folks IRL.

Beauty, food and travel saw drops in engagement rates while fashion influencers thrived. And despite negative brand performance in these categories, influencer content persisted.

Beauty got the brush-off

Knowing that beauty brands and influencers have achieved cult-like status, we looked to the most followed ones for data—the top 10 beauty brands and top 185 beauty influencers on Instagram, to be exact. Beauty influencers and the brands they love (e.g., Kylie, MAC and NYX) experienced a slump. Beauty brands experienced a 35% drop in weekly engagement from 2019 to 2020, despite posting 5% more content. Beauty influencers experienced a 15% drop in engagement, which most likely can be attributed to influencers posting 20% less.

Food lost in the hunger games

For the likes of Tasty, Food Network, Tastemade and So Yummy, there was a 55% drop in weekly engagement rates for food brands, even though “hands and pans” brands posted 19% more frequently.

Travel was homebound

The world’s wanderlust waned as globetrotting got riskier. The top 10 Instagram accounts for travel including Lonely Planet, Travel Channel, Condé Nast Traveler and Walt Disney World experienced a 14% drop in weekly engagement rates as they, too, posted less content. And, of 462 travel influencers, they experienced only 5% less engagement year over year. This proved that followers’ longing for a sense of escape kept influencer interaction rates from plummeting.

Fashion remained en vogue and inside

Top fashion brands’ engagement rates barely dipped (a 7% change) despite everyone remaining indoors. Despite the engagement dips in all other categories, fashion influencers experienced a noticeable uptick. Audiences were looking for what was acceptable WFH wear, and with no dress code for a pandemic, people took to Instagram and influencers for validation that yes, leggings do in fact count as pants, and when you do venture out, there is a chic way to wear a mask. Fashion influencers experienced a 14% engagement boost during pandemic times, despite posting less often.

Extreme social media use is here to stay—those addictive algorithms that kept users glued to their screens in 2020 will only get more sophisticated with all the extra data acquired because of heightened activity.

This year will most likely lack the sociopolitical events that dominated 2020 feeds. Increased vaccination rates and loosened restrictions will allow lifestyle brands and influencers to, well, live again.

So can you trust 2020 social media metrics for 2021 influencer campaigns? Ultimately, no, but you can still use data aggregated by category as a reference point to prepare for a new “normal.”

Your brand will still need to create resonant content on owned pages, but working with influencers will lead to a bigger ROI than the bizarreness of 2020 allowed. Plan your spend accordingly.

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.