The start of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a downturn for influencer marketing, as brands and agencies suspended campaigns and sponsorship deals.

Continued economic uncertainty is likely to bring new challenges, but the industry has adapted well as the year has progressed, and many brands are now upping spend in the category as a result.

According to a recent report by Takumi, in the twelve months to August 2020, 73% of surveyed marketers allocated more resources to influencer marketing, with spend particularly increasing in the three areas of retail (79%), legal (79%), and manufacturing (75%).

So, what significant changes have occurred in the world of influencer marketing on the back of Covid? And how have brands and influencers adapted?

Influencers finding alternative revenue streams

Travel bans and social distancing led to the cancellation of major events earlier on in the year, not to mention disruption to the daily working lives of influencers. Brands and influencers were quick to react, however, shifting to ‘at home’ photoshoots and pivoting to more relevant content related to the home, such as comfortable fashion, home improvement, cooking and self-care.

With social media usage increasing during lockdown, engagement on sponsored posts during this time actually went up – research carried out by Shareablee suggests that interactions with sponsored posts reached 57 million in July, nearly five times the amount from March 2020. However, influencer partnerships typically involve far more than sponsored content (such as in-person appearances and events), and many influencers have therefore turned to alternative revenue streams in order to fill the gap.

One of these areas is merchandise, which usually comes in the form of apparel such as t-shirts, hoodies, and hats. Fanjoy – a company that enables social creators to sell merch online – has recently partnered with Mad Engine to manufacture its products for distribution to physical stores. Mad Engine’s CEO, Danish Gajiani said in a statement: “We are confident that we can take what Fanjoy has accomplished and translate that into huge buzz at retail, allowing fans to interact with these social media giants instantaneously, creating more foot traffic at retail and also growing the Creators’ individual brands.”

Elsewhere, Teespring (another company that specialises in influencer merchandising) is rolling out digital merch for YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok creators. While this is nothing new – we’ve already seen influencers create digital merch in the form of personalised emoji and keyboards – the partnership will allow influencers to directly sell the merchandise via TikTok itself, which is certainly a first.

Until now there has been no way for influencers to monetise content on TikTok other than brand sponsorship. This is unlike YouTube, where Google AdSense allows creators to take a percentage of a video’s advertising revenue.

For brands, this could provide greater opportunity and scope for influencer partnerships, with brands able to capitalise on the involvement and creativity of influencers for both physical and digital products.

We have already seen some evidence of this; for example, M&S enlisted influencers to help design shoes as part of its summer 2019 collection. However, with the emergence of new third party companies and platforms allowing influencers to expand into merchandise on their own terms (and to be able to monetise it), we could start to see more brands eager to add their names into the mix.

Brands are tapping into organic social activity on TikTok

TikTok has grown at a record rate during lockdown, reaching two billion downloads in Q2 2020. A new pool of influencers has emerged as a result, opening up new opportunities for brand deals.

At the same time, brands have also been discovering organic trends and conversation on the app, often created by micro influencers, or simply regular users going viral (which is a common occurrence on TikTok but something that rarely happens on other social media platforms). As Influencer Intelligence explains in its latest report, ‘The State of Influencer Marketing in Beauty‘, this is down to TikTok’s unique algorithm, which informs the content on the ‘For You’ page (that is personalised to each user based on how they interact with videos).

Influencer Maria Nichol told Influencer Intelligence: “TikTok has so much potential when it comes to brand collaborations. On platforms like Instagram for example, a majority of people who would see my sponsored content would be my followers. On TikTok, your content has the potential to be seen by millions!”

Beauty brand The Ordinary has also enjoyed success from this phenomenon, with sales of its Peeling Solution spiking 426% after a single video went viral on the app. This also spurred on the brand to create its own TikTok channel, with its first video also referencing the now-cult product.

@theordinary

We’ve noticed that many of you are loving our AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution, and we want to ensure that you’re playing safely. ❤️ #theordinary

♬ Choices (Yup) – E-40

Revlon is another big beauty brand to ramp up influencer activity on TikTok in the past few months, largely due to the app’s popularity with Generation Z. Speaking to Glossy, Revlon’s global brand president, Silvia Galfo, said,

“At the end of last year and even the beginning of this year, beauty [brands] weren’t really on TikTok and weren’t really sure what young kids were doing; that has been a real change and acceleration now because of Covid.” According to Glossy, influencer engagement for the brand’s hashtag, #DoItBold, ranged from 15% to 20%, and spiked at 24.5% for influencer Abby Roberts.

…and emerging platforms like Triller

The growth of TikTok has also spurred on brands to consider other platforms, too, particularly since Trump’s attempts to ban TikTok in the US as well as the app’s ban in India.

Rival app Triller has gained some notable traction in the past few months, with record labels and music industry figures eager to tap into the app’s emerging popularity. This is because Triller is primarily music-focused, enabling users to record videos set to songs. Unlike TikTok, where users manually edit videos, Triller also offers AI editing tools to help users create high quality videos.

It also appears as if Triller itself is taking influencer marketing seriously, having recently released Crosshype – a new platform that allows influencer marketing to be bought with guaranteed views and a calculable CPM. This apparent certainty is what sets Crosshype apart; essentially, it means that influencer content can be bought in the same way as other media such as ads.

In a statement, Ryan Kavanaugh, Triller Co-Owner, said: “We are on track to be the number one platform for influencers, with the world’s top influencers already part of our roster, and have developed this platform to help revolutionize their offerings as they enter into long-term category brand exclusives that align with their image, similar to how shoe deals work with athletes.”

This is big talk, bearing in mind that Triller started in 2015 and has just 250m downloads compared to TikTok’s 2bn. However, Triller is clearly hoping Crosshype will encourage brands to veer away from TikTok and onto its own platform, particularly when it comes to big name influencer campaigns.

A shift away from sales-driven campaigns towards social good

Finally this year, brands have also started to recognise that influencers can also be credible communicators rather than just a vehicle to promote sales, as overall trust in creators has appeared to improve. According to Takumi’s research, 25% of consumers are more likely to source news updates and opinions from influencers than journalists and established news outlets. At the same time, 58% of 16 to 24-year olds and 56% of 25 to 34-year olds agree that social media influencers should use their platforms to discuss current affairs and everyday activism.

We’ve already seen evidence of this, with the government paying a number of social media influencers to promote the NHS Test and Trace app earlier on in the year. Naturally, the move drew criticism from some who suggested that taxpayers’ money should not have been used to fund the campaign. While the government has not disclosed how much it paid the influencers to get involved, it did state that the campaign reached more than seven million people.

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A throwback to what I love most! Nights out and good friends! Although this may feel like a distant memory to us all, we can all do our part to make sure we can get back to better times, as safely as possible. Guys I want to remind you about the importance of Coronavirus testing and that its totally free, quick and is vital to stop the spread of coronavirus. Getting tested for coronavirus is the best way for us all to get back to doing the things we love and I love nothing more than spending time with my friends. Yesterday I visited my nearest drive though testing centre, which is literally 2 minutes from my house! I was able to book a test online, and have it carried out all under 1 hour, it was so convenient! When I woke up this morning I had already received my results by text and email! I’ve also checked the Royal Mail website to see where my nearest priority postbox is, as well as the stickers I need to look out for on the postbox itself. This will help me in the future if I need to carry out a home test kit. Everyone with symptoms, no matter how mild, can get a free test by calling 119 or visiting NHS.uk. #letsgetback #gettested #ad

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Regardless of the morality of the decision, it is clear the government recognises the power that influencers hold, particularly when it comes to connecting with younger generations. The World Health Organisation has also demonstrated this, having enlisted the help of a virtual influencer with more than 900,000 followers to spread information and advice on how to prevent coronavirus.

The CGI influencer, a 20-year-old American male called ‘Knox Frost’, posted on Instagram and Twitter: “I’ve partnered with @WHO to combat corona. Let’s show them younger generations are in this fight.”

We have also seen influencers get behind a number of other, non-health-related, causes this year. ‘The State of Influencer Marketing in Beauty‘ report highlights how beauty influencers have been vocal about the financial impact on beauty salons and in-person services due to Covid, particularly as they were the last to be allowed to re-open as restrictions eased earlier on in the year. At the same time, influencers also aided many beauty businesses in shifting to online services. As the report states, “influencer clients and special celebrity guests … helped pull in customers from social media followers who sought to emulate their looks.”

Elsewhere, influencers spoke up about the Black Lives Matter movement, sustainability, and climate change. According to a study by Markerly, 52% of influencers (out of 115 surveyed) posted using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, while 56% said they have or would work with causes and non-profits that they believe in, and 58% posted educational and supportive content related to coronavirus.

There is a fine line, of course, between authentically supporting a cause and seeming to co-opt it for publicity, a tension highlighted in this June article from The Guardian. But interestingly, it now seems that influencers are expected to be part of the conversation no matter what, so much so that they are criticised if they stay silent on important matters (as with BLM). This highlights how consumers are now far more interested in influencers and brands that stand up for social good, and less interested in those that don’t.

As we head into 2021, this will be food for thought for brands who still assume the only benefit of influencers is to help sell fast fashion.