A self-portrait taken by Doina CIobanu at home

LONDON — In the last year, fashion thought it had cracked the social medial formula: There was a set of regular Instagram girls in the front row each season; carefully orchestrated digital campaigns designed to create the new viral “It” bag, and plenty of trips in between fashion weeks to provide content creators with stunning — branded — backdrops for their Instagram feeds.

Budgets were only getting bigger: In a new report by Launchmetrics examining the state of influencer marketing, 39 percent of the professionals polled claimed that their brands invest more than $20,000 in influencer programs, with 10.8 percent investing more than $100,000. The majority also intended to allocate more budgets this year, for both influencer activations and product collaborations.

But as the COVID-19 crisis hit, the influencer landscape quickly transformed to reflect a consumer sentiment that had been brewing for a while: That of fatigue for product-heavy content and a constant projection of unrealistically perfect standards, despite disclaimers by some that Instagram is a highlight reel.

Does it mean the influencer industry is over? It might be, as we know it. Since mid-February, when Europe began locking down, sponsored content went from representing an average of 35 percent of influencers’ posts to 4 percent, according to Launchmetrics.

But despite that drop, online content creators aren’t going away and will remain an integral part of brands’ marketing strategies, albeit in a different guise.

Indeed, it might be time to broaden the meaning of influence away from product alone, and toward a new set of topics, be they mental health, wellness, sustainability or entertainment.

A self-portrait taken by Doina CIobanu at home

A self-portrait taken by Doina CIobanu at home.  Courtesy Photo

In that case, brands would need to rethink the type of partnerships they forge with influencers.

“Influencers will still be critical to brands, but how we use influencers, how customers want to engage with influencers and even the brand strategy itself will shift,” said Allison Bringé, chief marketing officer at Launchmetrics, pointing to the current shift away from “product-focused” communication, which she said is bound to leave “lasting, residual effects” in the space.

“The big questions that everyone has been asking themselves during this time is ‘Why do we follow influencers?’ ‘What is the value that influencers bring?’ The data tells us that the customer is looking for these voices to entertain them, to educate them, to give them advice and comfort and to inspire them. These values aren’t going to go anywhere,” Bringé said.

Ever since lockdown measures were imposed across the world, influencers could no longer rely on exotic locations, glitzy fashion shows, new “It” items or professional photographers to feed their social accounts.

For some, it was an opportunity to get creative, explore passions they might not have had time to indulge before, and connect with their audiences in a deeper way.

A self-portrait taken by Doina CIobanu at home

A self-portrait taken by Doina CIobanu at home.  Courtesy Photo

“Isolation has put a divide between those who depend on a team or a destination and those who are able to create engaging content even with constraints,” said Doina Ciobanu, who is known for her artistic fashion imagery, but also for using her platform to educate her followers about sustainability.

Since going into lockdown at the end of February in Milan, Ciobanu started hosting Instagram Lives with industry friends like Nanushka designer Sandra Sandor; model Lindsey Wixson, Dr. Barbara Sturm; fellow eco-campaigner Livia Firth; as well as a host of Pilates instructors, singers, chefs and perfumers.

When the space started becoming saturated, she quickly switched her focus to a new editorial series of self-portraits and photographs taken via Zoom of friends at home.

“Even in the most static surroundings we can make something beautiful happen. People still love artistic and fashionable content, but from a very genuine and relatable angle. This crisis has given us time to finally slow down and be truly creative and I hope that this culture of creative process stays long after the lockdown,” Ciobanu said.

She added that while users’ appetites can still vary across purpose-driven and more light-hearted content, creators should be taking stock and looking at the values and behaviors they are urging people to adopt, as much as the product they are helping to move.

Just like Ciobanu, many online personalities have risen to the occasion and begun to offer their audiences more educational or personable content.

Jasmine Hemsley, a cook and wellness aficionado who also dabbles in fashion, has been hosting regular sound healings via IGTV and workshops around healthy living; fashion influencer Camille Charriere debuted an interview series with Royal Ballet principal dancer Frankie Hayward as her first guest, and Soraya Bakhtiar, who had already been stepping away from traditional influencer work and teased a new venture into fragrance, has been sharing astrology readings, recipes and tips about crystal healing.

In those cases, influencers have been able to leverage the overall increase in screen time and expand their audiences or even build new ones on up-and-coming platforms like TikTok.

“This period is really setting apart the people who were maybe trying to be influencers, with those who are really creative artists. The influencers who are really driving the conversation at this moment are the ones who are able to create these deeper connections, to show how brands and products integrate into their life, and who aren’t afraid to show what’s behind the curtain,” added Bringé, noting that, in essence, the industry is “coming back to its origins.”

“That’s where influencer marketing really came from: People who were really avid consumers of different products, services, ideals, wanted to share them with a niche audience. That concept has been moved so far because there was so much money to fuel this industry.”

As the social media space rediscovers its roots, a new wave of influencers is bound to come to the forefront, too.

Micro-influencers, who have smaller but more targeted followings, had already started looking attractive to brands, and that appeal is increasing exponentially during this time because of their ability to have more direct communication with audiences and stay relatable.

Alexandra van Houtte, chief executive officer of the search engine platform Tagwalk, has also been polling her online community of 58,000 followers on the topic, and found a similar skew toward smaller influencers with more to offer, other than trend-driven fashion content.

When asked whether influencers are posting too many total-brand or gifted looks, 71 and 85 percent of the respondents respectively voted yes, while 74 percent voted in favor of creators with smaller followings and a day job.

“The brands we work with are really looking for ‘do-ers’ or ‘slashers.’ People who influence their own community, whether it’s break dancing, making ceramics, tie-dye T-shirts, having a restaurant,” van Houtte said.

“The consumers are really starting to respect people who have a real passion, a real job, who aren’t walking adverts. The Instagram term ‘ad’ really killed the business for many. Who wants to buy a piece when you know the person posting has been paid for it? You can’t trust the fashion chain. Some influencers like Camille Charrière remain incredibly faithful to their style and ethics, but the rest that came after I find too opportunist. I think the influencers who will stand out will be people with a passion, a conviction and a message to stand for,” she added.

In addition, customers are now likely to become a brand’s biggest set of influencers, while user-generated content will replace the “top-down” approach to influencer marketing, where brands have been dictating the message.

According to the Launchmetrics report, 56.3 percent of brands have already been using customers as influencers, a trend that has been spearheaded in the beauty space by direct-to-consumer labels like Glossier. It’s a smart move that allows brands to forge closer bonds with their customers as well as have access to “real, visual testimonials of the very customers they are trying to attract,” Launchmetrics said.

“A group of customers just has so much more in common, and that relatability feels much more natural and so much more inspiring,” Bringé said.

In fact, “top-down” marketing will lose relevance across the board: Brands won’t only have to listen to their customer more closely, but also approach influencer partnerships in more flexible ways, both in front of, and behind, the scenes.

Bringé added that, until now, brands would say: “‘I’m going to hire you to do this piece of content and this is how I want it done.’ Right now, the brands don’t really know what the customers want, so they’re really waiting for the direction of the influencers. We believe this shift will continue, with brands allowing their influencers to take more of the lead so they can shift away from this product-led activation,” Bringé said.

For Ciobanu, the key is for brand marketers to start seeing influencers as well-rounded people with a wide range of skills to bring to the table: “So many of us have passions that go beyond just posting OOTDs [or outfits of the day], but a lot of times brands are skeptical about engaging with influencers beyond the ‘traditional’ ways. I don’t get stimulated by influencer jobs anymore. For instance, I want to either create visual storytelling or consult on sustainability, but when I pitch that to brands they are sometimes slightly confused as to why I’m asking for more. Other influencers I’ve met paint, sing, cook, or do sports, and there are so many ways to integrate all these other aspects into working together that could actually be ground-breaking.”

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