Influencers find a place in a socially distanced world

As events and product launches move online, brands are looking to social personalities to provide the audience.

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Hudson’s Bay had scheduled an in-store workout event featuring influencer Beverley Cheng for April, before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown forced the retailer to change its plans.

But rather than completely scuttle the event, HBC is getting Cheng to host the workout digitally. It’s one of several similar pivots brands have made to digital events and activations to engage with consumers as they maintain social distance – but one that might be easier if influencers are helping to guide the shift.

“Some programs are shifting, but we’re seeing very, very few cancellations,” says Jess Hunichen, co-founder of Shine Influencers, a talent and influencer relations agency. ”Some things are shifting just to be sensitive to the climate, but a lot of things are moving forward. We’re still getting a ton of outreach from brands and PR agencies who are working with influencers on current and mid-to-long-term strategies on how to keep rolling programs out.”

And keeping your brand visible is integral, says Heather DeSantis, CEO of Publicity For Good. The public want to hear from brands, either to inform them of how their services are operating right now, or to simply distract them during the outbreak. But DeSantis says a lot of brands have gone dark, sacrificing brand visibility to avoid the risk of doing the wrong thing and insulting someone.

“Some brands are not even showing up on social media right now,” she says. “If they stop, I think it can really damage them. But some brands are really stepping up and being a content creator and using lifestyle and inspiration to bridge the gap between the product and what’s going on in the world.”

Hunichen says improved analytics in the influencer space had already shown a dramatic shift over the last year, which she expects to continue now that socially distancing is expected to last well beyond two weeks and marketing budgets that might have spent elsewhere remain ready to be utilized. Beyond taking events that were already scheduled into a digital space, some digital executions are new ones aimed at keeping consumers connected to the brand and each other. DeSantis adds that brands are also shifting more to digital as they are “scrambling” to find out how to support the launch of new products, an area influencers already had a role in and could potentially get more budget from for things like in-store demos.

“We’re definitely in tune now a lot more with the analytics and we’re getting constant feedback from brands on which influencers are converting sales and who’s driving to purchase,” Hunichen says. “No question in my mind, it will continue to grow. Brands still need to market. We’re already seeing an increase of brands who we’ve not worked with before reaching out in the last week who are saying, ‘we have money to spend and we have it to spend right now.’”

Brands are now more reliant than ever on digital content plays to directly engage with consumers, but branded social channels are not the best performers when it comes to consistent engagement, outside of the occasional viral post. Hunichen says influencers are well-suited to be that direct, content-driven brand messenger, both because of the size and engagement of their audiences and the fact that they are used to pivoting and adapting to what their audience is looking for.

“We’re able to adapt the messaging quickly,” Hunichen says. “The content or copy might not be as exactly as it was approved a week ago, but we can go live with this and it’s still relevant – let’s just tweak the copy to be sensitive to the climate.”

As the pandemic continues, Hunichen says many of these live-streamed events are being done for their regular pay, but some are for their own self-promo. “Our fitness girls would typically be hosting and running fitness classes in studios and being paid to do so – they’re now all doing them online for free because they want to give their audience something to do during this time and are building brand loyalty.”

Something else that signals the role influencers and social will have in the months ahead: DeSantis is also noticing more senior leaders within organizations taking a lead role when it comes to social and PR. “I can’t keep up with the number of people who want their new product highlighted because in-store demos and all these events are cancelled,” she notes. “And a lot of people calling me and e-mailing me are CEOs and founders, which would never be the case before. They’re taking the driver’s seat with moving things forward.”