Why brands need to look beyond aspiration in influencer partners

Thought Leadership
Lore Oxford

Aspirational lifestyle bloggers – the victims of COVID-19 that no one’s talking about. Well, why would they? In these strange and unpredictable times, having your main achievement being a big social following because you look good or you’ve got a luxurious lifestyle has become, to put it mildly, irrelevant.

If you’re one of those gleefully hailing the end of the influencer era, though, I’d argue that you’re completely wrong – and I’ve got stats to back it up. Research has found that influencers are attracting a huge amount of traffic at this time. Not only have they drawn four times the engagement that brands have on Instagram in the past two months, but in those farewell first two weeks of March (which feel like a lifetime ago), engagement with posts tagged #ad on Instagram were up 76%.

What’s really happening here is that it’s now glaringly obvious which influencers have a purpose and which ones do not.

Brands need to understand the ‘new normal’ in influencer marketing
Even prior to the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, the nature of influencer marketing was shifting. The influencer backlash has been rearing its head for a while, and brands have been recognising that buying a single post from one of social media’s big hitters – while hugely effective in terms of reach – diminishes the authenticity that true cultural relevance requires.

Consequently, influencer strategies that combine those big hitters with a carefully curated group of micro-influencers were already becoming a ‘new normal’. In lockdown, this shift – like many others – has simply been accelerated.

The last two months have seen our lives change drastically, and in turn, so have our needs and vocations. From the cocoons of our homes, we’ve transformed into home-schoolers, chefs, mask makers and office managers, all the while coping with the collective trauma of isolation, boredom and anxiety.

Some influencers got the tone wrong, flouting the rules, moaning about their changed circumstances, or claiming that the pandemic has been a great equaliser when, in fact, it’s shone a light on some of the deepest inequalities in contemporary society.

But others have adapted to this new world, recognised what we’re going through and made hugely positive contributions. And these are the influencers brands should be looking to connect with right now, because the numbers suggest that they are still generating far higher engagement than brands.

Median engagement rates for influencers were a massive 43 times higher per post for influencers than for advertisers in the past two months (259,307 versus 5,906), according to CrowdTangle comparisons of the top 3,500 influencers versus the top 3,500 brands on Instagram.

Influencers are adapting in creative ways
Joe Wicks is the most famous example, transforming himself from fitness coach to PE teacher and making himself an integral part of the day for thousands of households across the country. He’s managed to raise an incredible £200,000 for the NHS at the same time.

But plenty of lesser-known figures have also adapted – the author Emma Scott-Child, for instance. She’s been using her Instagram to create useful home-schooling art lessons for ‘parents who hate craft’. Penguin Random House, publisher of the works of Beatrix Potter books, took note and made the Peter Rabbit assets available to Emma, who has incorporated them into a series of posts.

The beauty blogger Mikai McDermott is another interesting influencer. She has adapted her content, both by creating tutorials for at-home hair and skin tips, but also by sharing her home cooking.

“People want content that’s relevant to their reality,” says Flex Mami, an Australia music and lifestyle influencer Flex Mami we interviewed in our Will Influencers Still Add Value After Lockdown? report. “My audience no longer responds well to beauty tutorials and applying makeup because it doesn’t suit their reality. They respond to videos of me putting up wall art, cooking or things that are attributed to what it means to be at home.”

Comedian Mo Gilligan has been streaming live commentary of television shows – not only very, very funny, but a great way to create a sense of community and provide interaction for those who are isolated.

There’s a need for ‘considered and reflective’ content
These responses are supporting the current needs thrown up by this crisis, but our needs are constantly evolving and changing. Talented creators are adapting in real-time, engaging with their audiences daily, and demonstrating their flexibility and creativity amid the circumstances. It’s exciting to see how they’re responding, and will continue to respond.

As Flex Mami puts it: “There is a bigger pressure now to find a more creative way to execute your content. Audiences still want to see the minutiae of your day, but not in the way you saw it before. As the stages of COVID-19 change, they want to see content that’s considered and reflective of that.”

The brands with the smartest marketers are watching closely, ready to work out if there are opportunities for them to add value. Influencer marketing isn’t dead, but it’s changing, and it has been for a while. With the needs created by COVID-19 supercharging this evolution, it’s never been more interesting to be involved.


This article was written by our Global Head of Cultural Insights, Lore Oxford and originally published in WARC.