Is COVID Making Marketing Influencers More Influential?

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Influencer marketing has received increased attention as marketers strive to get their messages to stand out in cluttered advertising environment. On blogs and social media sites such as Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Youtube, some influencers have very large followings, frequently into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. A widely cited research study (De Veirman, Cauberghe and Hudders, 2017) found that having a large audience of followers fosters a belief that an influencer is likeable and popular, thereby creating an opportunity for effective promotion of brands. But what impact will the COVID pandemic have on influencer marketing? The rest of this article will briefly review some pros and cons and then discuss key findings of an insightful survey on COVID’s impact on influencer marketing conducted by prominent digital marketing firm A&E (not affiliated with the television network).

Influencer marketing’s degree of effectiveness has been debated by industry and academic experts. On the positive side, there is evidence that consumers view messages from influencers to be authentic. A recent academic study by Chen Lou and Shupei Yuan found that followers of an influencer regard their sponsored posts to be a genuine recommendation that leads to message credibility that can rub off positively on an endorsed brand. It has also been observed that the interactivity of social media can help followers feel personally connected to the influencer, leading to identification with the influencer.  In this way, an influencer endorsement is more subtle than a traditional ad.

Commentators have also pointed out limits of influencer marketing. A study by Stackla found that by a wide margin, consumers felt family and friends have more impact on their consumer behavior than celebrities and influences. A 2018 study by the Association of National Advertisers found that while 75% of companies engaged in influencer marketing, only 36% were convinced that it was effective for them. More recently, Jim Tobin of Carusele pointed to three specific problems that need to be overcome in influencer marketing: 1) measurement issues as pertain to “fake followers” making it difficult to verify audience; 2) saturation in the form of an influencer sponsoring too many brands; and 3) regulatory issues pertaining to the covert nature of some of the messages and the Federal Trade Commission’s demands for disclosure. While Tobin points out that these issues may not always be insurmountable, they, nonetheless, must be addressed.

The new A&E survey casts insight on important trends in influencer marketing during COVID. The company’s co-CEOs, Amra and Elma Beganovich are sisters with impressive backgrounds in economics and law, respectively, who also have a strong fashion sense and marketing savvy that have led to having more than 2.2 million social media followers of their own. Results of their survey of 1000 influencers reveal 3 significant recent trends related to COVID-19 and influencer marketing. They are:

1)     Influencer Engagement Has Increased During COVID, But Ad Prices Are Only Rising Modestly

COVID-19 lockdowns have been highly disruptive to many industries, including the advertising business and others where people were accustomed to going into the office. This is not the case with influencers, who typically prepare and record content at home. As a result, many have nimbly adjusted their content to be appropriate for the pandemic, such as by focusing on fitness, healthy eating, hobbies, or life advice. This targeted focus has helped lead Instagram influencers to achieve an average increase in likes of 67.7% and a more than 50% increase in comments. In effect, as observed by Jaysen Gillespie of Criteo, many of these influencers have been “homefluencers” during  the pandemic in the sense that they connect with viewers who themselves are spending more time at home.

Clearly, the pandemic has led to higher traffic and engagement on influencer sites. Yet, the A&E survey shows that influencer pricing has increased by just 3.1%, suggestive of good opportunities via this venue.

2)     Higher Social Media Usage Bodes Well For Future Influencer Marketing

The pandemic has seen a substantial jump in social media traffic. In analyzing their survey, Amra and Elma point out that content is being viewed significantly more often in areas such as meditation (55%), cooking (110%) and fitness (100%). Moreover, a Kantar study shows that Facebook and Instagram traffic is up 40% for consumers under 35. These increased audiences allow influencers to build loyalty and the potential to keep larger audiences over time.

3)     On a Cost Per Thousand Exposures Basis, Influencer Marketing is Offering Better Value and More Targeted Messages

Because prices for influencer marketing are largely based on followers (as opposed to likes), increased engagement means greater cost effectiveness. A&E notes that for every 1,000 followers, higher engagement means more of the target market are actually reached. In addition, the clear emphasis on a wider range of product categories (e.g. workout equipment, spices, books, music) the ability to target is enhanced. Brands can choose an influencer who can appropriately showcase their product. The result is that in spite of the slight pricing increase, the cost per thousand exposures to the target audience is lowered.

While there are still some caveats associated with influencer marketing, the increase in social media usage during the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to alter long-term habits. These trends appear likely to give influencer marketing a boost going forward.



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