June 14, 2021
As we re-emerge from the pandemic, there are new expectations of brands. From hitting the right notes on re-opening versus caution, making strides in support of social justice and treating employees fairly, merely making and selling a product will no longer cut it. Against this backdrop, brand marketers strive to communicate their values clearly and oftentimes fall short. It’s a challenge I believe a strong influencer strategy can support with a diversity of voice not authentically achievable with any other marketing approach.
Expectations for how the next few months will play out are wide-ranging with many variables through the remainder of the year. To better understand how broad groups of people (and their dollars) are stepping back out into the marketplace, we spoke directly with a group of social media influencers who represent the diverse beliefs and attitudes of Americans living in the Heartland. We hope these insights will help brands on the sidelines of influencer marketing get in the game, encouraging a wide range of viewpoints to the marketing mix.
Following the social reckoning of last summer and political upheaval in January, the country still remains deeply divided. The old performative playbook is out and brands now need to do more. Influencers are taking it upon themselves to see that through.
“The last couple of years have put a lot of spotlight on companies and the lack of diversity,” said LaShonda Woodard. “When I look at what companies I would like to work with, and look at their feed, they don’t represent what the country represents,” adding that she even goes to extra lengths to review the company’s board of directors to gauge diversity levels within the organization.
“As an influencer it was my responsibility to call out [brands]” said Sasha Ticali, a social personality who operates in the motherhood niche of social media. “I have to stand up and that is more important than any brand offering a couple of products.”
When asked about the kind of brand activity influencers expect to now see, look no further than Ben & Jerry’s social outlets which forgoed ice cream content and famously took a stand, setting the standard for brand responsibility on social media. Brands that can’t meet the new set of standards can expect to lose big, both with influencers and with wider audiences.
What brands need to know is that now, more than ever, people are expecting action. For many consumers the brands they support and labels they wear serve as a proxy for their own viewpoints on social justice and equality. Influencers understand this on an intimate level and are more closely scrutinizing the brands they partner with as a result.
Some influencers are striking out on their own from social platforms, looking for control of their destiny and protection from the whims of CEO’s and government oversight that can change the rules of how creators earn a living overnight. While platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse continue to soar, Gen Z influencers are still gaining traction using ‘old school’ methods, including website and blog content, which see considerably less marketing dollars.
“If you only have a blog, brands are overlooking you,” said Virgil. “Because I am not huge on Instagram or TikTok, I am getting overlooked.”
Rebecca Pytell, a food blogger focused on special diets, noted, “My website continues to be my biggest platform.”
For brands this translates to a big opportunity. Partnering with influencers who own their domain presents a creative blank slate and the chance to elevate partnerships in new ways unfettered by the constraints of particular social platforms. The challenge will be scale, but agencies can solve for this by doing due diligence to uncover this ‘old-is-new’ brand of influencer and creating one-stop option networks for brands.
Of course, social platforms will still be the go-to for instant scale. All eyes will be watching to see which emerging platforms will continue to thrive as states re-open and people are spending less time in front of a screen, re-engaging with the real world.
The pandemic brought conversations around mental health to the forefront and created a shift in how influencers talk to their networks. Online communities are increasingly appreciative of the honest and vulnerable topics, addressed openly on social media. That heartfelt content is soliciting reaction from these networks.
Stefanie Settlemire has made it a priority to share more of the real moments of her daily life. “I use [Instagram] stories more to open up conversations about how motherhood can be very messy.”
Ticali noted that after she opened up to her followers about her postpartum experience, she saw an outpouring of follower comments sharing their own experiences. “Within the motherhood niche, they want to have conversations and express themselves.”
Optimistic marketers may be looking to vaccination rates and the lifting of mask mandates as good signs for the latter half of the year. Pair that with in-person events that are trickling back onto calendars following two music festivals announced a return in 2021, and it’s clear that brand dollars are flowing like before.
Renee Hahnel, a travel photographer and influencer noted that she has never been busier with brand partnerships, starting in the fourth quarter of last year and continuing through to present. “Everything hit at once, as opposed to being spaced out,” she said, adding that the current activity tops that of pre-pandemic time frames.
But, even with the influx of brands seeking influencer partnerships, consumer sentiment might not be there yet. Britni Vigil, who relies on party planning content is continuing to see her followers opt for safer gatherings. “I had expected people would be looking for in person events at a greater rate, but that’s not the case.”
Bottom line, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a post-pandemic world. Brands who win will be those hyper-aware of the range of feelings associated with getting back to a ‘new’ normal without becoming paralyzed by the information. Walking a line between supporting the excitement of getting back out there and experiencing life while at the same time respecting the caution and lingering realities of a near-post pandemic world is key. It’s a challenge tailormade for a strong influencer strategy with many voices contributing to the conversation.
If you would like to get in touch with Emily Mazurek, BL Head of Social, contact her at [email protected]
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