When the picture isn't pretty: How influencers are adapting to lockdown
INTERNATIONAL - Marcel Floruss knew things had changed when Ralph Lauren cancelled the fragrance launch the 28-year-old model had planned to attend this month in Hawaii.
A German national currently living in Los Angeles, Floruss makes his living promoting and collaborating with menswear brands on his extensive Instagram (462,000 followers) and YouTube (600,000 followers) channels.
Life has changed drastically since the Covid-19 coronavirus caused a global shutdown.
Income once sourced almost exclusively from life as an influencer—extensive travel (50 flights last year), large public events, and intimate luxury gatherings—has stalled completely.
Like billions of others affected by the virus, Floruss and his fellow social media stars have been forced to radically adjust how they do business.
“The overall struggles are hard—not knowing when this is going to be over, not knowing what it’s going to do to the businesses we work with,” Floruss said via phone from his apartment in Hollywood. “And there are personal struggles. I had some plans for this year. I was looking to buy a house at the end of the year. That’s likely not going to happen, because we are just trying to stay afloat.”
In New York, Patrick Janelle does 8 a.m. workouts in the small living room of his apartment after facing canceled brand-ambassador ski trips and music festivals. In London, Ted Gushue chronicles his “groundhog day” coffee-making each morning while he waits to resume an extensive tour of Latin America and South America, where he had been creating content for Porsche’s Type 7 magazine; looming travel restrictions had him pause in the Dominican Republic and return to England. In Manhattan’s East Village, fashion writer and influencer Chrissy Rutherford is cleaning out her closet and plans to sell clothes online to her 74,200 Instagram followers for charity.
Moti Ankari, a menswear influencer (and former Pursuits fashion reporter) based near Wall Street, calls it “truly a nightmare.”
“All of my partnerships for March and April have been paused or canceled—and, to be frank, the ones that are paused are likely to be canceled,” says Ankari. Along with serving 191,000 Instagram followers, he runs a footwear line with Floruss that’s facing an uncertain future: Its manufacturers are in Italy, one of the countries most impacted by the pandemic. “I’ve spoken to other creatives, and they, too, have had similar experiences. As each day passes, my doubts arise and the reality of the impact of Covid-19 really sinks in. Every company is hurting, and the first thing they're going to cut off when restructuring is marketing. ”
Follow the Money
It may be easy to hate influencers, whose job is essentially to live a life better than yours (and then sell you on it), but the career has gone from punchline to a $5 billion to $10 billion industry in its own right. Influencers garner more trust than celebrities and athletes, and more than half of young Americans aged 13 to 38 have made a purchase based on the view of someone in their social media feeds; 86% would try to do it on their own, given the chance. Some 88% of consumers now trust online recommendations as much as face-to-face recommendations.
Luxury brands specifically rely on influencers, outpacing mass brands when it comes to interactions per post. Car companies experience elevated degrees of social media engagement from car buyers, too, reaching 75% and higher. Volvo generated $5 million worth of media exposure after just two weeks of working with Aimee Song, a young woman in L.A. whom they hired to promote a new SUV last year.
But as social distancing crushes retail, dining, and travel—the holy trinity of influencing—top profiles that can charge $10,000 or more per post for every million followers have seen customary revenue streams drop drastically, even to zero.
“With SWXW, Coachella, and brand trips canceled, all of those things have gone away, understandably—meaning no revenue,” says Janelle, who, although he has a website, a YouTube channel, and a digital talent agency, makes the bulk of his income via his 425,000 followers on Instagram.
No official numbers exist to quantify how the pandemic will affect people creating content for their personal channels, but a cursory glance at the layoffs, stop-work orders, and/or plummeting stock prices of the brands they represent—LVMH, Volkswagen AG, Coty, and so forth—indicates financial strain, even pain, for the influencers hired to promote them.
“Budgets from advertisers are going to be cut back significantly, and brands will go out of business,” says Janelle of the pandemic’s effect on the influencer economy. “I do believe it will cause many individuals to look seriously for other sources of revenue.”
Max Emerson, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based fitness influencer and writer with 1.1 million Instagram followers, has been on a plane at least once a week for the past 10 years. That was until three weeks ago, when he and his boyfriend, Andres (405,000 Instagram followers), started their self-quarantine. “I had been traveling so much, it was going great. My whole calendar up through June was completely booked—and in one day, everything went down,” Emerson says. “It was really scary.”
When business does restart—and in what shape—is anybody’s guess.
Floruss says that he has booked no new jobs since his self-quarantine began. “Uploading a video right now, talking about clothes, just feels a bit weird. There are a lot of people struggling and trying to make ends meet,” he says.
“There’s a lot of hesitation right now about how to spend,” Janelle agrees. “A lot of brands are saying they don’t know what’s in store for us moving forward, so marketing budgets are being slashed. A lot of conversations I’ve been having with brand partners are: ‘We’re just not doing anything right now; we are on hold.’”
Still, it’s not all bad news when a third of humanity is being told to stay home. Those who work with home décor, interior design, and liquor brands are experiencing a strong surge in work, as are those focusing on nutrition and wellness. According to research firm Izea Insights, 66% of social media users say they anticipate that their use of platforms such as Instagram and YouTube will continue to increase during the pandemic; 99% said they would buy something online if they are quarantined during the outbreak. It’s a tightrope, with any an influencer facing a precipitous fall if a glossy image downplays reality or is flat-out tone deaf.
“Overall consumption will increase meaningfully while consumers are confined to their homes,” said the March 18 report. “Marketers have the opportunity to connect with a captive audience seeking content, services, and entertainment. In a time of stress, consumers favor advertising messages from those they follow and trust.”
Joe Holder works with brands that include Nike, Dyson, and Smartwater under the name @ochosystem (108,000 followers). He is also famed as Naomi Campbell’s trainer. A New Jersey-raised collegiate football player, Holder was in the Cayman Islands when he got notice that flights to and from the islands would soon be grounded, so he booked it back to New York.
“I was mentally preparing to be in this for the long haul. It’s something you have to wake up and come to terms with every day and know that it affects your livelihood, your loved ones,” says Holder, who—when we spoke by phone—could be heard stirring one of his famous immunity-boosting smoothies.
Holder says he has long structured his income as an influencer to be able to adapt in a crisis, focusing on consulting and partnership opportunities that included year-long projects and contracts. “I have always thought, from an early stage, that when you do this, you have to be prepared if something happens. I found ways to diversify my income stream so that if something happened, I would be Okay.”
Now, in week three of his own quarantine, Holder is the one consulting companies on how to do the most good in the time of coronavirus. (“In the conversations I have with my partners and with my brands, it’s about put up or shut up,” he says.)
Dyson, for example, has retrofitted ventilators for the U.K. government; Nike has donated $15 million to relief efforts and begun to produce medical equipment; Smartwater has given $13.5 million in grants to support nonprofit organizations across the U.S. and Canada. Holder has live-streamed free workout videos on his Instagram channel—some with Campbell.
“This is a time when the wellness industry needs to be present,” Holder says. “This will eventually pass, but you really need to be there to offer support, to offer something of use to other individuals. There’s a lot of glitter and glam around it, but it really is a service industry. It’s about how can we help our communities. You’ve got to pull up and serve, give people information. You have to be there.”
Janelle echoes that sentiment in pep talks to his digital talent agency clients such as Elliott Clark, a liquor specialist who, under his Apartment Bartender Instagram handle, commands 62,600 followers, and Race Imboden, an Olympic-caliber fencer with 53,600 Instagram followers. Janelle tells them that the social distancing restrictions are an opportunity to push their own creative boundaries. Because the power of social media is that it allows anyone to create wherever they are, being stuck at home is not necessarily a problem. And, Janelle notes, the coronavirus makes digital audiences cooped up at home even more invested in authentic, quality content.
“This gives an opportunity and an impetus, as creators, to be more creative with the content we have,” Janelle says. “Our conversations with this type of talent is telling them: Let this really be a time when you can re-situate yourself and refocus on what is important to you. Talk really candidly about the reality of it to your audience. Be open and honest. We are all in this together.”
Meanwhile, in Santa Monica, Emerson says he has been focusing on his acting as a welcome distraction; Floruss makes to-do lists and commits to going easy on himself on days he feels anxious and depressed. In the East Village, fashion’s Rutherford says she has actually gained a few potential clients. She remains optimistic about the future, however uncertain.
“As digital creators, our strongest skill set is being creative and nimble,” she says. “I’ve seen so many people develop new features on social media or create content on new platforms like TikTok. Even if the main driver is boredom, everyone’s being forced to create in new ways which could lead to something lasting beyond this pandemic. There will always be a need for creativity.”