As the COVID-19 pandemic surges across Asia and singes marketing budgets, influencers are finding new ways to survive what is likely the first downturn many of them have seen in their careers. Meanwhile the brands that spend the money that makes KOL a viable career option are tweaking their strategies on the fly, seeking effectivenes amid rapid changes in consumer mentality, media consumption patterns and purchasing behaviour.
While business from travel and hospitality brands has crumpled, influencers are now finding new purpose with devising content that is tailored almost exclusively to an at-home audience and to cater to a surge in demand from sectors ranging from streaming media to consumer goods.
“There is no such thing as FOMO during COVID-19," says Pranay Swarup, CEO of Chtrbox, an influencer platform in India. "Everyone is at home and having the same (privileged) challenges, from cooking our own meals, figuring out Zoom to what to watch on Netflix.” To capitalise meaningfully on this time, he adds, influencers known for comedy, fitness, cooking or lifestyle specifically have skyrocketed in popularity by giving followers personal, uplifting and sometimes funny insights that help their followers get through this period.
Brands across sectors ranging from hardware to telecom and snacks to food delivery continue to see this cohort as a viable marketing tool. Samsung, Axe, Osaji and Canon (in Singapore), for example, have all run campaigns that show continued interest and willingness to invest in influencers in these times.
However, as influencers and platforms wrestle to win a larger slice of the marketing pie, they are also being confronted with some new realities. For one, marketers are increasingly disinterested in single, standalone campaigns, instead preferring to engage in longer-term relationships, to try to bargain better rates, but also to drive higher engagement. Second, brands are also looking beyond influencers with the largest number of followers, and looking to work with those who have smaller, but more focused users.
Focus on engagement
“As consumers have more time to browse social media channels, we’re seeing an increase not just in “views” of content, but also engagement and clicks onto landing pages,” says Kosuke Sogo, CEO and co-founder, AnyMind Group in Singapore, which owns the CastingAsia influencer platform. “Marketers who are able to find a way to adapt to the 'new normal' are reaping the benefits of having a voice than those who have paused.”
With their effectiveness already being questioned, influencers and the platforms they work with are also tweaking their strategies to stretch their budgets (and hoping some spending for now-dormant categories such as out of home are diverted to influencers) and try to win work in these challenging times. Not only are they having to create content at home and often on their own, they are also digging into their archives to try to repurpose older material to fit these locked down days.
In terms of work, influencers and brands are also having to think on their feet to rustle up innovative campaigns. For example, during Disney Hotstar launch in India, influencers shared a story on Instagram in a Disney branded slam-book style template (picture above). Then, influencers say they are also looking to offer their time (live video calls, personalised messages) as rewards for donating medical gear—a format which could eventually translate into branded content later.
Changing call to action
According to Charlie Baillie, chief commercial officer of influencer platform Ampverse, the call to action for influencers has shifted as the pandemic has become entrenched. “The call-to-actions are now all along the lines of “buy this online” or “visit this site”. You don’t see any more messaging that tells you to “go to this place for an experience” or “queue up for this limited-edition item,” he explains.
This means that brands in industries such as consumer goods are no longer able to capitalise on the physical experience element of the product and now instead must rely entirely on digital strategies. Ampverse's focus on gaming appears to have helped it weather this slowdown better for now.
“Gaming influencers are getting more work than ever given the massive increase in online gaming traffic,” he claims, “We are working with brands to diversify their marketing strategy to include gaming influencers who already are based indoors (and) have huge numbers of engaged followers online.”
In a recent example, Ampverse worked with Vietnamese digital entertainment company POPS to launch an online OTT video platform, which offers exclusive entertainment content from all over the world. POPS was looking to build brand awareness and generate exposure among Gen-Z audiences in Thailand, and engaged Ampverse to tap into Thailand’s burgeoning gaming and esports scene, says Baillie. The agency devised a multi-channel strategy for POPS to partner with Thai esports team Bacon Time as a way to reach this group.
Influencers and the platforms that manage them say the focus of messaging has shifted during the crisis, with brands increasingly keying in on building awareness rather than promoting products or services. “Rather than capitalising on the crisis and churning out big campaigns, marketers have come to realise the importance of staying relevant by being sensitive, incredibly valuable, and informative,” says Dharika Merchant, who is COO of Word, an influencer management platform in India and Alchemy Group, a digital media and content agency.
The #SafeHands challenge by the WHO, promoting hand washing, has become one of the largest influencer-marketing campaigns in terms of views and shares. Taking a cue from this, many brands are now in talks with influencer-marketing businesses about diversifying campaign strategies to deliver socially responsible messages while promoting their brands softly. Dutch Lady in Vietnam reduced prices during the pandemic to US$0.20/carton to help mothers in Vietnam, and FoodPanda had a promotion in Thailand that gave a percentage of proceeds to charities.
While most in the influencer universe remain bullish about the future, not everyone is so sanguine. The macro economic situation is sure to have an impact. According to Yuh Wen Foong, CEO of Sushivid in Malyasia, while digital marketing and influencer work may see a short bump due to lower rates from providers increasingly desperate for work, this will likely bottom out quickly.
“We have interviewed close to 30 influencers from our own circle, and what we have encountered was only one in 10 is willing to reduce their current rate,” she says. This is because marketing departments are still executing campaigns planned back in Q4 2019.
However, as the business realities of the COVID-19 pandemic set in, many will feel the impact because marketers are entering a new challenging quarter, and decisions made during Q1 2020 will be strongly reflected. “Influencers will encounter harder times to get jobs moving forward,” she adds.
Recent and related
Circle of Influencers: We break down 11 of Asia's KOL platforms
How influencer networks are commoditising KOLs in Asia