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Social media influencers are balancing ‘authentic’ messaging during protests and the pandemic

People who make their living from selling a lifestyle online reexamine their use of social media amid the crises

FROM LEFT: Britney Turner, a black podcast host and social media adviser who has 27,000 followers on Instagram, has started using her status to call out brands that are not doing enough, even if they are companies she has considered partnering with. Kalyn Chandler, who has more than 21,000 followers on Instagram, owns stationary company Effie’s Paper and promotes the products on her social media. Lately, she’s been posting in support of Black Lives Matter and encouraging people to buy from black-owned businesses. Nastia Liukin, former Olympic gymnast and social media influencer, said last week that she would not be posting fashion photos and gymnastic demos that typically fill her Instagram feed. She said that she would promote Black-owned businesses and influencers. (Photos by Angelene Coronel, Nathan Cox, and Cibelle Levi)
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Nastia Liukin says she has drastically rethought her social media strategy this year, navigating away from just posting her regular flow of fashion photos and gymnastic demos that normally populate her feed for her 1 million followers.

As the coronavirus pandemic shut down life in the United States, the former Olympic gymnast and social media influencer completely changed her plans for two product campaigns and started donating some of the proceeds. Then, last week, she announced on her Instagram that she would start promoting Black-owned businesses and influencers amid the Black Lives Matter protests that continue across the nation. She received a mixed reaction, including some harsh criticism, but was unfazed.

“Posting regular content right now is irrelevant to me,” she said in an interview. “I’m trying my absolute best to educate myself the best I can.”

Social media influencers — who promote products or sell their own online to followers — have never been more visible than they have in the last three months as people stay at home and scroll through Instagram, TikTok and YouTube for hours during the coronavirus pandemic. Influencers hold outsize power to speak to their hundreds of thousands of followers, and often earn between $100 and more than $1,000 per post, depending on how big their following is.

The rise of influencers, who typically document huge swaths of their lives with videos and photos as they advertise for products ranging from makeup to mattresses to meals, has fundamentally changed the way many younger consumers shop. The group includes well-known names like the Kardashians and more niche accounts focused on organization, wellness or fashion. But just one well-placed post by an influencer with tens of thousands or even millions of followers can make or break a product — and even sell it out in seconds.

Companies spent an estimated $5.2 billion on influencer marketing on Instagram alone in 2019, according to social media analytics firm HypeAuditor. That number could reach up to $6.5 billion in 2020.

But as with many career fields, the global pandemic — and the subsequent protests that have swept the nation to support the Black Lives Matter movement — has fundamentally changed the way these influencers do their jobs. Authenticity is now a make or break quality for millions of followers, as well as brands who are seeking a way to connect with consumers in an uncertain time. Influencers are carefully trying to navigate political activism, appearing in touch during an economic meltdown and partnering with the right brands, all while continuing to earn a living.

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Now is not the time to be silent, said Britney Turner, a black podcast host and social media adviser who has 27,000 followers on Instagram.

“There’s now a need to confront the issues that might make you uncomfortable. People are looking for content creators to really show up,” she said. “If they’re not speaking up, it’s making it easier for me to unfollow.”

Some have also missed the mark, triggering backlashes. Megainfluencer Arielle Charnas, who has 1.3 million followers, documented leaving quarantine after testing positive for the novel coronavirus. She later apologized and even postponed the launch of her brand Something Navy to avoid pulling focus from the Black Lives Matter protests. YouTuber Jake Paul was denounced online after videos showed him in a Scottsdale, Ariz., mall that was being looted after protests. Though he later denied taking part, he’s still facing charges by police for trespassing.

Even smaller choices, such as whether to post luxury good ads amid catastrophic unemployment, might feel out of touch and could drive followers away. But influencers are also trying to adhere to the brand identity they’ve created, often pegged to their everyday activities.

“It’s a little bit of a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation,” said David Craig, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California who studies social media creators.

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Those creators have become a defining part of the Internet in the last decade as social media has attracted billions of users’ attention. Instagram reports 500 million daily active users just on its Stories features, and photo sharing app Snapchat has 229 million users each day. eMarketer estimates people will spend 1 hour, 22 minutes every day on social media this year.

As the pandemic took hold, companies scrambled to pull already-made ads to avoid seeming insensitive. Partnering with relatable, down-to-earth, “authentic” influencers was one way to do that.

“I will say that brands out there are in the process of figuring out how best to respond,” said eMarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg. “For some, influencers may be the right approach to make sure that they’re remaining sensitive to the issues.”

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In response to the crisis, advertisers shifted their ads to messages of unity and care. Influencers did the same, while also getting more picky about what brands they were willing to work with and varying prices depending on their opinion of the brands’ response to the pandemic.

Shahd Khidir, a political scientist and makeup influencer with more than 82,000 followers on Instagram, said she’s seen a real shift in many influencers’ messaging as they are forced to acknowledge the events of 2020 and not just post about their specific profession. She’s been adamant about posting calls to examine privilege on her own page and calling out those influencers who offensively miss the mark with their posts.

“I’m not biting my tongue anymore,” she said. “When quarantine hit, I decided I’m not going to carry on as business as usual because it's not business as usual.”

Mae Karwowski, CEO of influencer marketing company Obviously, hurried to remake campaigns for 75 brands the company works with. One influencer-focused advertising campaign with slipper company Birdies was originally intended to show how the slippers could be worn both inside and outside, but shutdowns meant that people all over the country were stuck in their homes.

“We immediately changed it to an indoor slipper message, saying, ‘Take time, take care, feel dressed up, feel your best, you’re staying inside for a while,’ ” she said. Influencers emphasized the shoes as a chance to change out of pajamas even while stuck at home during the pandemic.

“They’re actually perfect for my time indoors, too, because they’re really comfortable, given that they come with 7 layers of cushioning,” Aisha Beau Johnson wrote on Instagram in a sponsored Birdies post.

Chicken company Foster Farms shifted a planned campaign with nine different influencers away from focusing just on different cuts of chicken to a less scripted message with the social media stars making different five-ingredient recipes in their homes. One account, Katy A Shade of Teal, got 308 likes for a mouthwatering picture of lemon Parmesan chicken with a link to the recipe.

“When the situation started to become more serious and affect more peoples’ lives, we needed to pivot the message to make it more relatable to what was going on — people were staying home more, there was more uncertainty,” said Foster Farms marketing manager Rachel Ferrer. She said the ad campaign surpassed the company’s goals.

Sarah Adler, founder of health website Simply Real Health, also quickly shifted her social media strategy to avoid launching a big product right in the midst of the crisis. Adler has become an influencer in her own right through the brand’s Instagram, where she posts about cooking and motherhood to 34,000 followers. During the pandemic, the team developed low-cost meal plans that emphasized using pantry staples and limited grocery store trips.

“It feels wrong to just continue on like nothing has happened — that’s not right,” she said.

Even some traveler influencers resonated enough to score brand deals during the pandemic. Kristin Holden, known for her Instagram account about her “vanlife,” shifted to emphasizing “cozy” indoor posts and aspirational wanderlust photos from past travels. She just started making money from her 18,000-follower Instagram account this year from partnerships with a portable battery company, Thinx underwear and more.

Whatever their small piece to help people out this year, taking a back seat is not an option for influencers, many of whom have gained the trust of their followers by being transparent and vulnerable online.

Kate Kennedy, host of pop culture podcast Be There in Five, found in an informal survey that most of her listeners wanted influencers to acknowledge all the news going on in the world, but balance it with some business-as-usual posts about gymnastics or cooking or books.

“While honesty and transparency is important — as with anything in life — so is tact,” she said.

Kennedy herself has 53,000 followers on Instagram and has been posting about how to be anti-racist.

“I can only speak for myself, but something finally clicked within me during covid-19 about the privilege and responsibility of having a platform,” she said. “I think that historically people like me who share content in the pop culture realm were careful about ‘staying in our lane’ as it relates to politics and/or serious current events. But Black Lives Matter is not political, it’s not controversial; it’s a matter of humanity.”

Turner, the podcast host and social media adviser, has started using her status to call out brands that are not doing enough, even if they are companies she has considered partnering with. Revolve, an online clothing retailer, was one company she pointed to online that hadn’t featured a diverse range of models in its ads. Revolve later apologized on Instagram, admitting “our influencers and models are not representative of the diversity of our community,” and promising to be more inclusive of black models.

Influencers have real power to speak directly to followers who trust them and feel connected to them, something that big, faceless brands can’t always boast, marketing experts say.

“The real term (for influencers) is ‘advocate,’ ” said Americus Reed II, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “There’s a difference between hiring and paying a celebrity vs. finding an individual who is in a community, doing the sharing of information and sharing of ideas not because they want to be paid, but because they want to share ideas.”

Kalyn Chandler, who has more than 21,000 followers on Instagram, said it’s worth losing a few of them to get her message out. Chandler, who is black, owns stationery company Effie’s Paper and promotes the products on her social media. Lately, she’s been posting in support of Black Lives Matter and encouraging people to buy from black-owned businesses.

“At the end of the day, my convictions are my convictions,” she said. “I’ve certainly had people email or comment or DM me disagreeing with me. You know what, that’s okay. I just have to be okay with that because I’ve been black my whole life and these are my truths.”