Influencing in the age of coronavirus

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Corona time is a bad time to be an online influencer. Or is it? The predicted economic downturn and damage to private industry across the board as a result of the global pandemic will affect the influencer business, and all enterprises that make their money from sponsorship and commercial partnerships. But social media influencers might prove financial beneficiaries of stay-at-home culture – provided they can keep on the right side of their public.

Many influencers are finding their access to income restricted as brands reduce spending on commercial partnerships and sponsored social media posts. And the evidence suggests that sponsorship is one area in which brands look to cut costs in times of economic hardship. Influencer marketing company Izea reported a 62.7% drop in spending on sponsored posts during the period from 2008 to 2010, during the financial crash. Events and promotions are being cancelled, with the travel blogging sector especially hard hit as companies cancel paid trips.

But as more and more people are forced into social isolation, engagement with influencers’ posts is increasing rapidly. Social media is the easiest way of keeping in touch with the outside world at the moment. Influencers may continue capitalising on our affinity for sitting back and absorbing the perfectly curated square images of someone else’s life – and then buying the products that will make our life look like theirs.

It might require some creative thinking, though. A reduced income from sponsorship is forcing some influencers to try and monetise their skills instead of relying on advertising. Fitness blogs are experiencing a rapid increase in traffic as the public attempts to stay toned from home; other tastemakers are branching out into consulting, coaching, and teaching specific skills as a new source of income. With the advantage of making followers feel even more as though they’re being directly addressed by Instagram idols, thus ensnaring them even further in the web of artificial connection influencers offer, direct-to-consumer business models seem like an attractive proposition for social media gurus at the moment.

That is, of course, assuming that they haven’t alienated their following with insensitivity to the crisis. While being cooped up at home might have increased our craving for social media hits, it’s also decreased our tolerance for the kind of faux-relatable messaging that the influencer brand thrives on. Celebrities and influencers are placing solidarity and oneness at the centre of their image at the moment, but they seem to be translating that impulse for unity into an insistence that we’re all in the same boat, which is patently not the case. Gal Gadot has come under fire for her twee staging of celebrities singing John Lennon’s Imagine on Instagram – against the backdrop of gorgeously tended gardens, walk-in wardrobes and huge, marble-furnished kitchens. Commenters were quick to see the irony. “Imagine There Are No Celebrities”, joked one user in response. “Tone deaf literally and metaphorically,” added another, in a comment which received hundreds of likes.

A step wrong can have serious consequences for an influencer’s brand. The American fashion blogger and designer Arielle Charnas was reviled on Instagram when she announced her departure from New York for Long Island after receiving a positive coronavirus diagnosis. The fashion watchdog Instagram account Diet Prada followed the story, noting first her leverage of privilege to get tested while many poorer Americans were unable to, and then her flight. Charnas is not the only influencer to come under fire for fleeing the city: family blogger Naomi Davis (who posts under the moniker @taza) received similar reactions when she posted a picture of herself loading her seven-person family into a camper van.

Doctors have strongly urged New Yorkers to “shelter in place”, as it is the epicentre of the disease. Aside from flouting the basic rule of the coronavirus – don’t spread it to other places – influencers are placing an unnecessary strain on the overburdened healthcare systems of smaller towns. If COVID-19 spreads to the provinces, they will not be able to handle it. While New York apartments are scarcely an ideal environment in which to be secluded for months on end, isolation is a reality that everyone has to accept, no matter their living situation. When a figure branded an “influencer” for their, well, influence on others decides that a 2900-square-foot flat in Manhattan is too small for four people, it smacks of irresponsibility. The dissonance between the influencer lifestyle and that of their supporters becomes uncomfortably clear. Amidst a storm of criticism, a tearful Charnas posted an apology video on Instagram. But some commentators wondered if it was too late.

Charnas is patently not the only influencer who seems to believe the rules of the pandemic don’t apply to her. But she now appears emblematic of the souring of fans against their influencer role models. Influencers build their brands around being normal enough that audiences can identify with them, while maintaining a distance that translates into aspirational consumerism. If that balance is thrown off, the influencer business model is ruined. And a tasteless response to quarantine orders can do just that. It remains to be seen which influencers will come through this situation untainted by their own thoughtlessness.

Malin Hay

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