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The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing great change to the way that brands approach their influencer partnerships. As overall marketing and spending budgets tighten up, all components of the plan are under greater scrutiny, and that includes influencer marketing.

This moment has brands pulling back on influencer programs, either because their business is down, or because they are experiencing an unexpected uptick and don’t want to pay for driving traffic when they are trying to keep up with organic growth.

Meanwhile, other brands are looking at the actions of their influencer partners. They are finding that the level of influence these partners wield is incredibly powerful and may be unhelpful if there isn’t a tight bond and communication between brand and partner. The need for a focused influencer strategy and operational maturity have never been greater.

To guide brands through this time of uncertainty, here’s a look at how to best leverage influencer partnerships in this moment.

Growing or receding, invest in influencers now

In a recent ClickZ column, How influencer marketing can survive the oncoming recession, I looked at how two distinct scenarios are impacting brand influencer strategies at this moment, and how brands in both situations can use their circumstances to safeguard their influencer programs.

Influencer situation #1: Slowed growth

The first bucket is those companies that are seeing business slow due to the current economic uncertainty. Many of these brands are adjusting marketing spend and, as a result, pausing or cancelling influencer relationships.

Rather than abandon influencers, brands in this situation need to treat influencer partnerships as an acquisition channel, instead of a branding channel. By using direct response tactics and measurement devices, such as unique links, QR/promo codes, and landing pages, these brands can make every dollar accountable.

Influencer situation #2: Unexpected growth

The second group are those companies who are seeing their business grow, likely due to the fact that their goods and services are in high demand while Americans shelter at home.  This organic growth is making it hard to meet demand, and as a result, these brands are considering lower commission rates, or pausing their partnerships.

Once again, rather than eliminate a program outright, partnership programs need to think about the long-term consequences of their actions. Influencer partnerships are often long-term relationships with individual people. Zeroing out these partnerships now can hurt these influencers and burn bridges. Instead, make decisions that ensure program survival and use your partners’ deep influence to maintain a flow of content.

Operational maturity drives success

Both of these situations illustrate just how important it is to invest in influencer programs right now. While influencers can help maintain a brand presence amid these uncertain times, investing now also helps build a greater bond between brand and influencer. The importance of a function is most evident when it fails, and programs that don’t have relationships or communication with their partners could suffer amid this historic moment.

Continued investment leads to operational maturity, which should be every partnership manager’s long-term goal, and this moment demonstrates just how powerful program maturity can be. Overall, the strain that the pandemic is putting on many partnership and influencer programs shows well-run, long-established programs are in a better position to survive due to the relationships that have been built. 

Influencers behaving badly, by, say, leaving metropolitan areas for smaller communities during a pandemic, can have possibly fatal real-life consequences, especially if their audiences follow suit. When you recognize that an influencer refusing to shelter in place is a problem, it’s an admission that influencers’ other decisions are equally powerful. Therefore, there’s a heightened responsibility for working with reliable, trustworthy influencers.

Discerning brands can avoid the pitfalls and leverage influencer partnerships to the fullest at this critical juncture.

Stay on message

Ensuring that influencers have the wherewithal to stay on message in this crisis requires a diligent discovery process that emphasizes the following:

  • Audience and engagement quality. Has the influencer built out a super-engaged, high-quality following without major events in their followership trends? This is a good indicator that they’ve sustained their audience’s trust to date.
  • Historical themes and content. Evaluate if the voice and tone are consistent. You may want to steer clear of dedicated health influencers right now to avoid association with unsanctioned medical advice.
  • Geographies. Understand the location of both the influencer and their audience. Is it uniquely impacted by the pandemic?

Adopt thorough quality assurance practices as well. Review and approve content with a contemporary lens, and use Impact’s social listening tool to ensure your partners’ posts are brand, regulatory, and culturally compliant.

Maintain a natural tone

Brands are struggling to not inundate the market with awkward, pandemic-tailored messaging right now, when audiences are already wary of advertising.

Where traditional marketing and advertising may struggle, the right influencers can use their authentic audience relationships to convey brand sentiments and offers better than just about any other channel right now.

People are spending more time on their phones, and engagement with popular influencer platforms is soaring, with Instagram usage up more than 40% among 18 to 34-year-olds. The more customers use these platforms, the more they see the influencers’ content. And as described earlier, user-generated content carries even more value when content production is a fraught undertaking.

The mature programs that already have done the necessary vetting and relationship building with their influencers are likely to avoid any potential missteps or backlash as a result of an influencer saying or doing the wrong thing amid these deeply concerning circumstances. They are also very likely to rise above the noise of traditional advertising and deliver their messages in the proper tone of voice to deeply engaged and highly-receptive customers.

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