The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has dealt the booming influencer economy its first real setback. Despite the fact that social media usage is up, brands faced with the threat of a prolonged economic downturn are cutting their influencer marketing engagements.

According to SocialBakers, UK posts using the hashtag #ad dropped by more than a third this quarter, and a survey of influencers conducted by Mavrck found that more than a third of influencers have reduced their rates or may decrease them in the near future.

For brands that continue to use influencer marketing, even in a reduced fashion, changes are realistically required.

Here are seven keys for effective influencer marketing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Be thoughtful and sensitive

The ongoing global pandemic has affected almost every person, and many in very deep ways. Billions of people have their movement restricted, tens if not hundreds of millions have suffered financial loss, millions have been infected by the virus, and many have friends and family members who have lost their lives.

Under these circumstances, it’s not business as usual and brands working with influencers during this time need to be thoughtful and sensitive. But what does this actually mean?

That will vary from market to market, but at a minimum, brands should be very careful about influencer marketing campaigns that seem to pretend it’s business as usual, and about working with influencers who flout lockdowns and other health guidelines.

Some influencers have faced significant backlash for their poor behavior. For instance, New York-based fashion lifestyle influencer Arielle Charnas, who has 1.3m followers on Instagram, sparked outrage when she tested positive for Covid-19 but apparently broke quarantine 11 days later to escape to the Hamptons.

Caught in the crossfires was Nordstrom, which had worked with Charnas on a campaign in 2019. The retailer soon after announced that it did not plan to work with her again in the future.

Brands can avoid issues going forward by carefully screening the recent content of influencers they’re considering working with.

Demand authenticity

Even prior to the pandemic, authenticity in influencer marketing was a big issue. Obviously, if consumers feel that influencers aren’t keeping it real, they’re more liable to be skeptical about the brand messages that influencers distribute.

Brands are wise to make authenticity an even bigger priority today. In line with the need to be thoughtful and sensitive at a time when countless millions of people are struggling to deal with the multi-dimensional effects of pandemic, brands should ensure that the influencers they’re working with aren’t posting content that seems even more disconnected from reality. For instance, depictions of over-the-top lifestyles — something influencers are known for — is worth avoiding.

Instead, brands should embrace influencers who are not afraid to depict the situation honestly even if it’s not glamorous..

Be careful about pandemic-focused campaigns

While brands shouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room, they shouldn’t necessarily build influencer marketing campaigns around it either. Well-intentioned but shallow pandemic-inspired campaigns have the potential to backfire, and promoting products and services with a could come off as shameless opportunism.

Instead, brands looking to engage in some way around the pandemic should think about how they can be useful to consumers. Nike is one of the brands showing how this can be done effectively through a comprehensive campaign that doesn’t just enlist its roster of pro athlete influencers to spread marketing messages, but actually aims to help everyday people by making its Nike Training Club app free and pushing out more content to its Nike and Nike Running Club apps, website, Trained podcast and social channels.

Rethink KPIs

Given the ongoing health and economic impacts of COVID-19, brands are wise to rethink the KPIs they use to evaluate their influencer marketing campaigns.

For example, while influencers are increasingly proving their worth as drivers of sales, certain brands might not find sales to be as useful a metric if their markets have been hit by reduced consumer spending or logistical challenges relating to order or service fulfillment.

In these cases, brands might find it’s more effective to use influencer relationships to maintain emotional connections with consumers and modify their KPIs accordingly. Engagement, for the time being, might prove a more important measure than sales

Adapt to changing consumer behaviors

The pandemic, and the lockdowns and social distancing restrictions it has led to, have naturally caused consumers to change their behavior. Perhaps most notably, offline retail is out, while online retail is in.

Brands should take changing consumer behaviors into account when working with influencers. Specifically, brands that have historically relied on offline retail channels should look at whether their influencer marketing campaigns should be modified to focus on their online retail channels.

On Instagram, for example, this might mean using Instagram story links to make it easier for consumers to complete an online purchase.

Tap micro-influencers

Prior to the global pandemic, in the face of rising costs, many brands were embracing campaigns centered on influencers with smaller followings — so-called micro-influencers. Now is arguably an ideal time for brands to grow these micro-influencer relationships. Not only are micro-influencers less taxing on budgets, they are likely to be more relatable to the average person than mega-influencers at a time when relatability is critical.

According to research firm Warc, the pandemic has even spawned a new kind of micro-influencer, the lockdown micro-influencer, potentially giving brands an effective and relevant way reach consumers during the pandemic.

Know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em

While the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean that brands should throw in the towel on influencer marketing, in some cases, a significantly reduced spend or temporary pause could be warranted.

In the travel industry, for instance, some brands might find it difficult to justify continued influencer marketing spend given that the ability of individuals to travel is highly limited in many parts of the world, and even in places where it isn’t, many people do not feel comfortable or safe doing so.

For more on this topic

Explore Econsultancy’s Social Media Best Practice Guides, our sister brand Influencer Intelligence, or tune in to The Lowdown, our daily broadcast helping marketers navigate the pandemic.