Social Media Marketing 9 min read
New Normal Influencer Marketing Amid and Beyond COVID
- Ming Lagman
- 10 May 2021 11 min read
Nowadays, you can’t talk about anything without contextualizing it to the pandemic-dealt ‘new normal’, and that doesn’t exclude influencer marketing.
When COVID-19 hit and everyone sheltered themselves from the perilous disease, all of our interactions were relocated and confined to digital platforms, especially on social media. This led to a staggering rise in the consumption of digital media – be it for personal communications or for working.
On the business side, brands that already had a social media marketing agency or strategy in place were hardly rattled. But if your business was among those that had yet to learn – let alone adopt – it, you would have found yourself in a precarious situation. It was an “adapt quickly, or die” scenario at best.
The scales of favor seemed to tip more towards the side of digital-ready businesses and brands except, ironically enough, for influencer marketing.
The impact of COVID-19 on influencer marketing
At the beginning of the pandemic and succeeding lockdowns for mitigating its spread, influencer marketing experienced many challenges mostly due to narrowing marketing budgets, among other reasons. Consequently, influencers that were on the rise as an effective medium for online marketing were suddenly met with fewer brand collaborations – both for short-term and long-term projects. Both of which come as one of the repercussions of the global, pandemic-dealt an economic downturn caused by the lockdowns themselves.
However, that doesn’t mean that brands have been neglecting influencer marketing altogether. In fact, the value of influencers amid COVID is even more underscored in this new normal as online audiences demanded more empathy and authenticity from brands; the latter being the main reason why brands rely on influencers. For it can't be denied that influencers are followed exactly because of their nurtured connections with their audience. They are aspired to and are even followed because audiences already see something in the influencer's personality that resonates with them.
Among other ways influencers in COVID are changing the scene, perhaps that reason is the most essential driver. While how revolutionized collaborating with influencers in COVID and beyond is still left to be seen, you can get a clearer picture of how the local scene is doing with what these different influencers have to say.
How the pandemic altered influencer marketing in the Philippines
We talked to a few members of the Philippines’ influencer community about how the playing field has shifted for them. We asked them how being an influencer amid COVID has changed to adapt to the new normal; how the industry approach to influencer marketing changed for their niche categories; and what big challenges are they currently faced with.
Here are a few 'new normal' changes in influencer marketing this 2020:
- Relationships are key.
- Own your category and establish connections through storytelling.
- Collaborations should root from shared ideals and be mutually beneficial.
- COVID-19 is restricting movement and creative processes.
- Balancing brand requirements and creative independence.
- The perceived value of in-person services like coaching lessened in virtual spaces.
- Both brands and influencers are becoming more selective with collaborations.
- Values-alignment remains a consistent factor for choosing collaborators – even before the pandemic and well after.
- Influencers have been pushed to adapt in creative ways to expand their capabilities in reaching out to their audiences.
- Knowing and adhering to your purpose and mission is more crucial now than ever before as we continue to adopt ‘unconventional methods’.
Ready to dig deeper into these changes? Read up and find out!
Kicking off this list is fashion designer and influencer Carl Jan Cruz, or also referred to as CJ – a local fashion designer who, on top of his local success in the industry, has also made his mark in the international scene.
Being one who stands on both sides of the fence – as an influencer and the owner of a brand himself partnering with other influencers – CJ gives us his thoughts on the local practice of influencer marketing as he has come to know through his fashion label Carl Jan Cruz.
1. Relationships are key.
“With things as black and white as things are, I guess I do sit on both sides.... The way I would operate things is not really quite the usual. I’m not saying it’s special; what I’m saying is it’s different. My take on it is…. I’m starting it off right now with a lot to do with relationships,” he begins to explain, shortly stating after that “I don’t really sit in that category (influencer), because I am more of a brand person. If anything, it’s more of a personality. But also it’s not something that [I identify as] because I don’t typically appear (online) with whatever product is associated with me.”
2. Own your category and establish connections through storytelling.
He continued to point out that the local practice of influencer marketing is quite ‘literal’ and that contrastingly, he approaches it based on ‘necessity’ explaining that only when and if it was necessary and sensible for the brand, he would take up the mantle of being an influencer for his own label.
Further painting out the contrast of influencer marketing practices for mass consumer products and niche products like his label, CJ explains that much of his selective approach is driven by a need to assert themselves and owning into that niche category consistently. Whereas with fast-moving goods, ‘it’s more about telling a story’ these days, and that influencers who work better in that aspect are those who are able to ‘lend a character’ that is interesting to the audiences of the brand.
But in the same sense, CJ and his team at Carl Jan Cruz take their sharing of their creative process online as their way of having a direct conversation or telling a story with their audience. With that, they see if there is a connection with them, or not. He adds that “influencer marketing...is all about what that person [or brand] is about right now. Or a character that – it doesn’t have to have a face – but if I resonate with it, I’ll buy into it.”
3. Collaborations should root from shared ideals and be mutually beneficial.
When it comes to collaborations, the same notion of ‘resonating’ and an ‘overlapping of ideals’ is what strongly drives CJ’s decision to partner with an influencer and/or brand, even now amid a pandemic and well after it. He cared to note that, while negotiations and ‘push and pulls’ are inevitable with partnerships, this alignment of beliefs helps iron out things with ease.
On the other hand, asked about how he decides on choosing a particular influencer to market his brand, he says that he actively scouts for young talent and partners with educational institutions to develop and grow with them. Referencing the influencers he’s worked with like YouTube celebrity Mimiyuuuh or Jeremy Sancebuche, CJ explains his appreciation for the unique experience of working with artists that share his values, “That’s the beauty about it. I don’t feel like I have to change in order for me to work with a brand (or influencer).”
Summing up his beliefs about influencer marketing – how it’s changed, how it’s always been for him, and how he and the team at Carl Jan Cruz continue to do it – CJ explains that in essence, influencer marketing is creating lasting and meaningful relationships. These relationships that their team forms, as he explains them, are formed thinking firstly of “how we can increase the [value] of the person that we’re working with before how it can increase our value.”
Influencer marketing is creating lasting and meaningful relationships
Back in the early days of influencer marketing, Rhea Bue was among the first few to begin causing ripples in the social media scene. With her charisma and trendy style, this influencer walks a 6-foot tall social media marketing game.
4.COVID-19 is restricting movement and creative processes.
If there was a trend in how to dress and take modelesque photos amid an urban backdrop, she’d be the peg of many. However, in the new normal, her backdrop slowly transitioned to mostly private and intimate settings at home, and creative, spur-of-the-moment ideas became harder and harder to beckon.
That much she echoed in her answer to how she has switched up her craft telling us that, “the part where we get to travel freely or go to different places to create content somehow made it hard for us (influencers).” She expounds further that since her niche is focused on fashion and beauty, most of the messaging of her posts has leaned towards staying home.
Starting the hashtag #HomeContentForNow back in the earlier days of quarantine, Rhea urged creators to keep creating, albeit limited to the walls of their homes. “Medyo nakakaubos din talaga ng ideas when it comes to creating the content and making it very relatable to the current situation,” she shared. (Translation: It’s a bit limiting for ideas when it comes to creating the content and making it very relatable to the current situation.)
5. Balancing brand requirements and creative independence.
Apart from the hurdles in generating ideas and executing them as she usually would, Rhea also expressed that she’s wrestled with balancing the requests of clients and asserting her creative independence.
“Biggest challenges would be how to convince some brands in making the content ‘very me’,” she explains, adding that, “sometimes brands want specific photos or photos with ‘logos/borders’. Personally, I noticed how my followers would really engage less on super obvious branded posts.”
“They would know kasi talaga if it [content] is pilit na or what. That's why I always try to push [with brands] on making the content more relatable and not extremely hard sell.” (Translation: Because they would really know if it [the content] is forced already or what. That’s why I always try to push [brands to make] the content more relatable and not extremely hard sell.)
“Biggest challenges would be how to convince some brands in making the content ‘very me.”
Owning a particular niche in fitness coaching that’s unapologetically bold and exudes femme fatale, Coach Nikki Torres of Pretty Darn Fit paved the way for more empowered women to enter the male-dominated industry of fitness coaching and influencing in the Philippines. In the new normal, as high-contact activities such as fitness coaching are very much restricted, she has much to share on the matter of influencer marketing in the fitness industry.
6. The perceived value of in-person services like coaching lessened in virtual spaces.
Although as an already established virtual coach herself and host of the ‘Good, Rude, & Partly Nude’ podcast, Nikki stated that ‘there hasn’t been much change’ in terms of how influencers work amid the pandemic. However, she noted that work, which required in-person appearances, was what mainly needed adjustments. “When brands partner with me to lead classes, as a speaker or as a host for in-person events. This is where we really needed to adapt,” she explained.
But in the realm of fitness coaching, success like what Nikki has achieved is very hard to garner in the digital space nowadays despite being able to adapt to the circumstances. A fact that comes across as ironic, given that health experts have been harping about the importance of maintaining physical health amid the pandemic. “Not the same number of consumers now pay for virtual classes or coaching,” shared Nikki. Suspecting that the decline could be attributed to a corresponding ‘influx of free fitness content’ on online channels, she conveys that this consequently led to a change in the perceived value of paid alternatives. One that is ‘usually lower’, especially if put against free competitors that offer the service for free.
7. Both brands and influencers are becoming more selective with collaborations.
In terms of her market of brand collaborations, Nikki opened up about the decreased number of brands seeking to start partnerships, mainly due to understandable budget cuts in marketing and advertising. In contrast, however, Nikki noted that brands she has steadily worked with were more eager to explore collaborations.
“Over the course of the pandemic...the ones that I’ve had the pleasure to work with became even more collaborative and listened to insights on the changing behavior of my audience,” she explained.
8. Values-alignment remains a consistent factor for choosing collaborators – even before the pandemic and well after.
With regard to the challenges before and amid the pandemic, Nikki candidly shared that there was no notable change, in the sense that the hurdles she’s faced before and now are mainly brand-influencer values alignment. As she remains firmly vegan and only chooses to work with brands who are ‘collaborative in the truest essence of the word’ – brands who don’t just see her platforms as ad space – the number of projects she takes is ‘significantly cut down’.
“I also try to understand the brand’s positioning and campaign message, and if it doesn’t align with mine, I turn the project down even when it’s within my category. For example, I turned down a project that wanted to strongly communicate getting abs with the product.”
Remaining optimistic despite the lessening opportunities for brand collaborations as advertisers slash their budgets, Nikki affirms, “I don’t see it as a challenge…. [It’s] more of an opportunity to listen to my followers and really connect with them without trying to endorse a product or a brand all the time.”
Pioneering fitness blogging through Pinoy Fitness, influencer Jefferson (Jeff) Lo, also shared his thoughts on fitness influencing amid a pandemic. Staying closely in tune with the fitness and race organizing industry in the Philippines, Jeff has seen many shifts in the practice of influencer marketing for the niche in ways that most people would miss.
9. Influencers have been pushed to adapt in creative ways to expand their capabilities in reaching out to their audiences.
Affirming the detrimental impact of COVID-19 on the gym and fitness industry, Jeff shared with Propelrr that more than others, they have had to adapt and even ‘forced to evolve’ to accommodate the changes in the new normal. As an organizer of racing events that consistently see massive attendance, he shares that, “on-site events are primarily the source of collaboration between brands, but without this avenue, we're forced to adapt and create a virtual alternative instead.”
Although as a digital-savvy himself, Jeff has successfully expanded Pinoy Fitness – both as a blog and race organizer – with an app that serves as both a hub for getting direct updates on articles posted on the website and for participating in ‘virtual races’.
10. Knowing and adhering to your purpose and mission is more crucial now than ever before as we continue to adopt ‘unconventional methods’.
True to the grit natural to endurance athletes like Jeff and aiming to inspire more Filipinos to be the same, he said, “In tough times, we need to revisit the reason for our existence…. What we learned during this pandemic is that as long as you stay true to your mission, there will always be ways and technology to help you achieve your goals.”
Despite sounding well-adjusted to the virtual world that’s looking to be our mainstay spaces, Jeff was also honest about the challenges he’s been faced with. Admittedly, he’s had an advantage as an IT professional and instinctive entrepreneur, but according to him, the new normal is still pushing much of us into the realm of the uncommon. “The new normal forces us to explore unconventional methods to reach our community or target market, I guess one of the biggest challenges is creating new venues...where brands can integrate themselves and get results,” he said.
“New marketing methods also means they are mostly untested, and it might take some time for some brands to be willing to adapt and invest in these new methods.”
It is unquestionable that not even known players in digital marketing in the Philippines were spared by COVID-19. This talk with established social media influencers adding to observable evidence helps prove that. But as long as there are insights and purpose to guide you, there is no shift in the tide that you can’t maneuver masterfully.
Here are our key takeaways from our talk with these prominent influencers that you can take with you as you go along navigating the digital space:
- In these unique circumstances, both brands and influencers are focused on establishing partnerships that are valuable for all stakeholders – making campaigns all the more audience-focused and considerate to their needs.
- Brands are called upon to grant more creative independence to influencers as they are the ones who have the best understanding of their audiences. Influencers aren’t just megaphones for campaigns but are touchpoints for engagement with consumers.
- Authenticity and creating relationships remain to be the golden key to getting your target audiences to connect with your brand and business. Staged or scripted content works, but isn’t nearly as well-performing as genuine and honest ones.
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