Life

Coronavirus Has Battered the Influencer Market – But Some Are Still Pulling in Work

Brands are yanking deals and sponsorship is drying up, but some social media stars are still keeping the faith.
16 April 2020, 8:15am
How Are Social Media Influencers Managing Lost Work and Lockdown During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Luisa-Christie’s days used to revolve around influencers.

As the former influencer marketing lead at Atlantic Records, the 30-year-old would set up gig and festival access for influencers or pay them to use Atlantic songs on TikTok videos. Just days before the coronavirus pandemic hit Britain and offices sent home staff to work from home, Luisa had gone freelance to work as a full-time influencer and consultant.

“The coronavirus was what we were talking about at Atlantic before I left,” she tells me on the phone from her north London flat. “All the IRL events were cancelled, all the pop-ups which fangirls of the artists love were gone. It was all about how to engage audiences online and remain relevant and not get lost in the noise, and not seem insensitive doing it.”

Both brands and influencers are at high risk of looking crass in the current climate. There has been a significant backlash against influencers (see: Arielle Charnas) producing content about coronavirus. A scroll through any influencer's feed will show them attempting to grapple with the fact they can't go out to make content and that some of their followers might be sick or be key workers who put themselves at risk of infection every day. Some post emotional essay-length captions about how we have to stay inside. Others who choose to continue as usual now get questioned by their own followers over whether they should be selling frivolous items.

Even before the pandemic, the media and public were growing increasingly critical of influencers. Now they're citing a serious case of "influencer fatigue". So where does that leave influencers in the coronavirus-stricken UK?

Luisa had enough work lined up for March and April, but like every other blogger and influencer in the industry, is now contending with how to make money when the UK is on lockdown and brands are terrified of spending money. Influencers are self-employed, which makes their work precarious. As a new study from various UK universities revealed, 75 percent of self-employed people were already earning less than they did the week before lockdown, compared to 26 percent of permanent staff. By the end of March, almost one million Universal Credit claims had been made.

All of the nine influencers I spoke to for this feature had lost significant amounts of work – if not all their work – due to the virus. “Emails have completely dried up, more or less. There’s nothing new coming in,” says fashion and lifestyle influencer, Hannah Louise. “Projects that had either been agreed or discussed have been postponed.” Luckily, one brand continues to pay her despite the work being postponed, but she says this is rare: “People are losing thousands and thousands of pounds worth of work.”

The feeling in the influencer community has been one of intense worry and confusion. The timing of the virus couldn’t be worse. Sophie Eggleton, a Surrey-based lifestyle and music influencer, says: “The start of the year can be very slow because budgets have been spent by brands over Christmas. If you didn’t make much money at the start of the year and then this hit you could be in serious financial trouble.”

Between brands and agencies, Hannah Louise explains, no one really knows what they’re doing. “Influencers are at the bottom of that pile because we’re the end result of all that work – so we really don’t know what’s happening."

This has led to competition between top and lower-tier influencers. Those I spoke to said that they plan to reduce their rates dramatically for the rest of the year. “Micro-influencers are going up against larger influencers at the moment," Sophie says. "I imagine there’s much more competition for every ad and sponsored competition out there."

This precarity of work is the case regardless of what type of influencer you are, but some are affected more than others. Unsurprisingly, travel influencers are reporting that they're losing vast amounts of income. Kelsey Heinrichs (aka travel blogger Kelseyinlondon) has yet to verbally communicate to her 191,000 followers that her travel content is utterly off the cards.

Before the UK lockdown was announced, Kelsey was on a brand-hosted trip to an exotic island. “I got home and was editing the photos and the PR messaged asking me not to post any of those photos, and save them for later. They didn't want me to promote the island when no one can actually fly there, which is a bit awkward for me, but I said that was fine,” she says.

A experience website deal was postponed, as was a trip to Rome for work. What will replace all her travel content? “I have no idea right now and it’s a big thing that’s on my mind,” she says. For now, it’s plenty of travel #tbts and interior shots from her beautiful home. This isn't too out of the ordinary for her grid, but other bloggers are only now diversifying their content to include "interiors", which comes with the risk of alienating their audiences. Other influencers have slowed down posting on their grid altogether, unsure of what to post.

This content stasis can only last for so long. Both Kelsey and Sophie have noticed that many blogger friends in their friendship circles are retraining or doing online courses to begin side-hustles in different industries.

Some influencers are optimistic that there will be a huge upturn in brand deals and ads. A new paper by Influencer Intelligence titled COVID-19 Means For Influencer Marketing urges brands to continue engaging with influencers – but carefully: “Whilst there is certainly a need for messaging and creative to be adjusted and for brands to become more sensitive to current consumer concerns and appetites, it would be a mistake for brands to cease promotional marketing entirely.”

The paper highlights the theory of the "lipstick effect" – the idea that cheaper products will continue to be bought during lockdown, because low-price luxuries are in demand during a period of economic instability. High-end luxury brands, on the other hand, will take a hit.

Beth, 24, London aka @bethsandland, recently received an email from her affiliate link programme, RewardStyle, telling her that online shopping purchases via RewardStyle are up 42 percent. She remains positive that her affiliate links will still perform well throughout the rest of the pandemic. "As online shopping is up anyway as people find a way to entertain themselves at home, using bloggers' affiliate links is a great way to support them," she says.

Luckily, Beth also has a pre-existing book club account with nearly 9,000 followers, which is doing very well. This has helped enable her to make “no drastic changes" to her content, "simply ensuring what I do is really uplifting". Essentially, she has already diversified her content enough to survive. Smaller influencers with side-hustles may similarly ride out the storm or choose now to begin to branch out into other areas. While travel and lifestyle blogger Rosie (@ohsorosie) has had gifted hotel stays cancelled and ads for miniature travel products postponed, she works part-time as a calligrapher. Of the future, she says, “It’s definitely made me more wary of going full-time with influencing.”

Despite her ill-timed plunge into the world of freelance, even Luisa-Christie isn’t too worried. She, more than any other influencer, knows how brands work. She believes that companies such as alcohol brands will reconnect with influencers over the summer in a big way. “Brands are going to have money to spend, they’re not just going to hoard it or spend it on advertising because everyone knows influencers make better content,” she says. “You get five influencers to make their own content at home, it’s going to be way better than one shoot using their entire budget and five models.”

A 180 like the one Luisa-Christie is banking on would help counter financial losses incurred from cancelled events like festivals – gigs that she, Hannah Louise and Sophie had already lined up through alcohol brands.

Ultimately, influencers believe that their industry will pull through this pandemic unscathed because of what it provides for their audiences. One word that repeatedly comes up in my conversations with influencers is “escapism”. On her Instagram in the last week of March, Hannah Louise asked her audience if they thought posting affiliate links and her usual content was problematic or unwelcome in the current climate. “The overwhelming majority of my followers want influencers to continue as normal as possible," she says, "because they want that escapism which is half the reason people follow influencers in the first place."

@hannahrosewens