In an Unsettled Moment, Influencers Look Like an Increasingly Sure Bet
As the novel Coronavirus ravaged the United States in March, hoards of young spring breakers filled Florida’s beaches, refusing to quarantine despite pleas from government officials and the national media. During an appearance on Good Morning America, Surgeon General Jerome Adams called upon influencers across the country to leverage their reach and spread the word about the critical importance of staying home. “What I really think we need to do is get our social media influencers out there to help people understand that, look, this is serious,” he tweeted. “People are dying.”
It was a (bizarrely) validating moment for digital creators, who have in many ways supplanted traditional publications and TV networks as the media of choice for young people but still face consistent skepticism about their actual power. Adams, citing his own kids’ media habits, put that to bed. If anyone was capable of getting through to America’s youth, it was one person. “We need Kylie Jenner,” he wrote.
Jenner responded quickly; by the next morning, she had kick-started a daily series of heartfelt mini-monologues on Instagram where she begged her 170 million followers to stay home––complete with virtual red cherries filtered onto her cheeks. A few days later, she donated $1 million to Los Angeles hospitals, and began producing hand sanitizers for medical centers across the region.
It was a critical moment. As a handful of influencers drew widespread criticism for their selfish and tone-deaf responses to the crisis, Jenner offered a laudable alternative. In a time when swift communication is vital and our humanity is front and center, digital creators have used their platforms to drive action, raise money, and spread words of encouragement and support. In that way, they’ve also become a model for a new age of content production—nimble, economical, personal—in which creators find themselves more relevant than ever.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about influencers is that they're self-centered egomaniacs who live this luxury life and don't care about anything else,” says Beca Alexander, president of Socialyte, a New York-based influencer casting agency. “This situation has painted a very different picture.” With few exceptions, she says, digital creators have stepped up and banded together to become a source of education and motivation, whether it’s funneling millions of dollars of aid to medical workers or simply supporting local businesses and encouraging followers to stay home. “They’re finding opportunities and looking beyond themselves.”
As the pandemic sows disruption and tragedy, influencers and creators have provided oases online, with emotional quarantine diaries, at-home haircut tutorials, distracti-baking recipes, hand-washing challenges, meditation marathons, home organization guides, and live fitness classes that double as fundraisers benefiting restaurant workers, cultural centers, and hospital staff. (A few examples: Alyson Stoner live-streamed 14 days of mindfulness on YouTube; on TikTok, families have come together to participate in viral quarantine dance challenges; and sibling influencers Ranz and Niana teamed up with Shopify to vlog about how to start your own business from home.) If you can resist the productivity bait, there are plenty of posts about how to do nothing, and even more about how to manage stress, isolation, and anxiety.
Contrast this tidal wave of fast-turnaround content with the suspended productions, delayed releases, skeleton crews, layoffs, and in some cases, closures at traditional entertainment and media companies. While digital creators are undoubtedly also suffering––facing sliced ad budgets, cancelled brand deals, and a complete blackout in travel and live events––they are at least still able to work, using their streamlined production techniques and home studios. And with their audiences as accessible as ever—including for newly burgeoning live streams—they can easily distribute that content, too. With much of the world huddled indoors, searching for entertainment, community, and support online, the ability to simply connect is a major advantage.
“Most film and TV productions have been shut down, but we’re thriving,” says Rana Zand, head of digital at the talent management company Authentic. “Creators can produce, edit, and publish from their kitchens and bedrooms. They can be a bright spot in a dark time.”
“The audience is bigger than it’s ever been”
In March, the talent agency Obviously surveyed more than 1,000 influencers in an effort to measure the tone and shape of content during the pandemic. Among the data analyzed were 7.5 million Instagram posts, 260 visual campaigns, and 2,200 influencers on TikTok. The findings, which mirror that of similar studies by The New York Times and Kochava, show that traffic on YouTube and Facebook has surged
(and continues to surge), with users hungrily exploring features like live-streaming, messaging, and influencer-created social ads. In other words, it’s a good time to double down on content.
“The audience is bigger than it’s ever been,” says Chris Lacailade, who runs the management company Bottle Rocket in Los Angeles. “Now is a good time to capitalize and build your audience, because that equals value. You may not be able to extract monetary value in the short term, but downstream, you'll have bigger numbers to market to.”
There are grim numbers, too. Lacailade estimates that around 75 percent of his clients’ brand deals had either been cancelled or were on pause, and said that payments from the brands had slowed. “It’s infuriating, because services have been rendered,” he says. “At this point, we are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Andrew Kamphey, who writes the Influence Weekly newsletter, reports that digital ad spend is down 33 percent and traditional media is down 39 percent. “It is the end of days for some companies,” he says, pointing to smaller agencies and travel influencers as those who will be hardest hit. “But just like every recession, other areas will boom. New creators, and new types of content, will emerge.”
For now, with viewership skyrocketing, creators are working overtime to expand their brands. One of the most popular strategies is getting on TikTok, which has seen a 27 percent increase in usage in recent weeks. The Obviously study reported that 24 percent of the influencers they surveyed joined TikTok during the quarantine. One of them was LaurDIY, a fashion and lifestyle personality with 9 million subscribers on YouTube. “She only became active on TikTok [in March],” says her manager Adam Wescott, a partner with Select Management Group, “but she’s already seen a significant increase in her audience there.”
Many influencers are branching outside of their usual areas of expertise to explore subjects of content that can be covered from home. DIY and lifestyle influencers like Lavendaire, for example, have waded into health and wellness, sharing videos about getting organized, cleansing your energy, and finding inner peace. Melanie Locke, whose content typically centers around fashion and beauty, made a video with 150 suggestions for things to do while you’re stuck inside.
Teejay Hughes, a globe-trotting travel influencer whose entire 2020 calendar was put on hold in January, has been making posts about meditation and mental health while quarantined in a friend’s AirBnB in Orlando. “I’m nervous about everything,” he says, “my finances, my family getting sick, the world... but my way of dealing with it is to stay busy.”
Hughes started engaging with his fans more by asking questions on Instagram stories, and says he’s learned some surprising things about the types of content they’re interested in. “I had no idea how much they loved tutorials,” he says, “like, the story of how I do things. This whole time, I’ve been thinking they just wanted the final, glossy photo, but they’ve consistently asked for more how-I-made-this content, which opened up a whole new space for us. I recently did a TikTok teaching people how to make beautiful content indoors.”
“It sometimes feels like influencers live in a different world”
Some of the toughest obstacles influencers face right now aren’t about production, but tone, sensitivity, and the pressure to lead by example. Not every creator has gotten this right. As the virus began to spread, some came under fire for making faulty claims about “immune-boosting” health products, spreading extremist conspiracy theories, and ignoring the CDC’s travel advisories. Even though these controversies only made up a fraction of all the COVID-related content, they were covered exhaustively in the media and became industry-wide examples of what not to do.
Alexander, who oversees a roster of 107 clients, says her phone hasn’t stopped ringing since quarantine orders were issued. “Everyone wants advice on what to share and how to share it, how to be more sensitive, how to stay current,” she says. Clients are so gun shy that ever since the pandemic hit, Alexander has had to be personally involved in every single conversation around talent and content, which she wouldn’t normally be. “They’ve seen a lot of the backlash for certain influencers, and they’re trying to make sure they don't make any of those missteps. They can't afford to lose followers or engagement right now, when everything else is so uncertain.”
The harshest public shaming went to Arielle Charnas, also known as Something Navy, who was widely criticized for her response to testing positive for COVID-19. It seems as though Charnas flexed connections to get tested, neglected to self-isolate, and then fled Manhattan for the Hamptons with her children, husband, and nanny, broadcasting it all on her social feeds. It wasn’t just the flaunting of wealth and privilege that got under peoples’ skin (Charnas unboxed a new Louis Vuitton purse while waiting for her test results), but the refusal to comply with protocols in such a dangerous time. “Not sure why a COVID+ person wouldn’t completely self-isolate,” tweeted Sophie Ross in a now-legendary thread detailing the problematic timeline of events. “I’m not a mom but it seems like a no brainer?? QUARANTINE YOURSELF.” (Ross chronicled the entire saga for nofilter.) Once Charnas got to the Hamptons, she posted an #ootd photo captioned “fresh air.” Ross continued: “Not only is she literally putting peoples’ lives at risk, but she’s setting a horrible example for her 1.3 mill followers (even if they’re mostly bots).” By the time Charnas issued an apology in early April, the US death toll had surpassed 4,600.
Charnas wasn’t the only one fleeing New York. YouTuber Ella Snyder hopped on a last-minute flight to Los Angeles to quarantine with her boyfriend. Naomi Davis, the lifestyle influencer known as Taza, posted about piling her family into an RV and getting ready to “drive out west” where they’d have more space. And Ali Malfucci, the food blogger Inspiralized, fled New Jersey for Jupiter, Florida, after becoming worried residents in her high-rise apartment building were sick. In each case, the backlash was swift. “If this is how NYC girls are ‘quarantining’ (doing literally everything the CDC is telling you not to do) we’re gonna be on lockdown until the end of the year,” replied one commenter on Snyder’s escape to LA video.
Still others were criticized for the way they attempted to capitalize off of the pandemic, whether they were using the #coronavirus hashtag to generate views on unrelated content or hawking their own products, like inulin tea and ozone therapy, as protection against infection. When a few wellness micro-influencers suggested followers ramp up their vitamin intake to near-lethal levels as a way to combat the virus by building up the immune system, doctors were quick to push back in the press. Fans, too, seem less tolerant of flagrant arrogance around the virus. In late January, Logan Paul shared a shirtless photo of himself surrounded by girls in gas masks in what appears to be a private jet with the caption, “f**k the corona virus.” He later discussed the backlash to the image on his podcast: “I know I should be [scared], but for some reason, when I’m at a NASCAR event or some party here in LA, I do not give a shit about it.”
“There are always a few bad apples,” Alexander says, not referring to anyone specific. “We just encourage our clients to be extra mindful and empathetic with every single thing they post, and to do everything they can to drive positive change. Because I do think it sometimes feels like influencers live in a different world than we do, but right now, we’re all in the same boat.”
“Share as much as you can”
Striking the right tone in a time of heightened sensitivity is difficult, and some influencers may find that they need to reeducate themselves about how to be vulnerable, empathetic, and emotionally exposed. Alexander says it comes more naturally to some creators than others. Home, beauty, and lifestyle influencers, who are used to making content at home and inviting followers into their personal lives, seemed to have the easiest time adapting their content to the pandemic “because they were already sharing so much of themselves,” she says.
The food and fashion crowds are another story. “A lot of the New York City style influencers are so deeply engaged with the traditional fashion community that they’re almost more like models or editors themselves,” she says. “They had the hardest time adapting because they're not used to sharing their emotions, their fears. Oversharing was not part of their brand. It took them a while to decide how intimate they wanted to be. They'd call us and say, ‘This feels tricky, because my audience just doesn't know me like that.’” For food-focused influencers who almost exclusively post about recipes and restaurants, it can feel impossible to find the right words for their fear.
“To me, there’s only one way to approach content right now: slowly,” says Josh Zimmerman, a life coach dedicated to creators and creatives. “Brands and influencers should take a beat before putting anything out there because everyone is exhausted, and everyone is alarmed. You don’t want to offend someone by moving too fast.”
He advises influencers to do their research and use their platforms for good. “Creators have a moral responsibility to tell people to do the right thing,” he says. “If that’s staying inside, then that’s a great place to start.” Alexander agrees, and encourages her clients to try expressing their vulnerability. “I tell everyone the same thing: share. Share as much of how you're feeling as you possibly can, as often as you can, because we're all in this together and it shows that you care,” she says. “And when in doubt, work with a charity.”
“They suddenly want our talent and turnkey concepts”
Some executives say the real opportunity for influencers right now lies outside their own channels. As major studios, retailers and brands look for savvy ways to keep their content strategy afloat, they’re eyeing creators’ nimble production methods and built-in audiences.
“We’ve started talking about the mega-brands and retailers, the Sephoras of the world, whose big production budgets are getting cut left and right,” says Jade Sherman, parter at A3 Artists Agency. “What will their content plans look like going forward? Would they want to use our clients who can do stuff quickly, who can do it cheaply, who can pivot on messaging, who can work from anywhere?”
Wescott says the pandemic has finally cracked that door open. “We're pitching to people that we've never had the opportunity to pitch to before because they suddenly want our talent and turnkey concepts,” he says. “They want campaigns that can be produced on a small scale at home. I'm telling you, it's like a running joke. If you put ‘COVID-proof’ in your email subject right now, you will get a pitch meeting within 24 hours.”