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The Great Influencer Shakeout

Fashion influencers are seeing a plunge in brand deals during the pandemic. They must evolve their content and flex their creative skills or risk being left behind.
The coronavirus pandemic is hurting the influencer industry, pushing some to pivot. | Source: Shutterstock

NEW YORK, United States — For its latest campaign, Bandier tapped Julie Sariñana, an influencer known to her 5.5 million Instagram followers as Sincerely Jules.

The fashion blogger’s ability to sell California-inspired tank tops and dresses was only part of her appeal to the fitness retailer. What sealed the deal was the fact that Sariñana styles, shoots and edits her own post — no small thing for Bandier, which is trying to keep costs low while its stores are closed.

“You want people who can drive awareness and revenue, but you’re also looking for a robust skillset,” said chief marketing officer Natalie McGrath. “Because the old way of doing high-end shoots, where there was a volume of people keeping it on the tracks, has gone out the window.”

Many brands, hit by plunging sales during the pandemic, have halted the social media marketing campaigns that once funded lavish lifestyles for thousands of Instagram stars. Sponsored content in April was down 85 percent on Instagram, according to Shareablee, a marketing analytics company.

The global death toll from Covid-19 and the record level of unemployment in the US has created a different mood for consumers on social media — one that doesn’t include the sort of glamorous content that brands like Revolve or Dior lean on. Vacation shoots have been replaced by “relatable” quarantine content. Sponsored posts these days more closely resemble ads, complete with prominent click-to-shop buttons, rather than magazine spreads.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CAL5QpeA3en/

Sariñana, who has spent a decade building her following and fine-tuning her behind-the-scenes skills, is well-positioned to survive a shakeout in the influencer economy.

"Now, during this time, budgets have been cut tremendously and I've had to cut my rates, but I'm lucky that I'm a storyteller and that has set me apart," said Sariñana. "I think there's still opportunity, but it's about how hard you are willing to work."

Many of her fellow fashion influencers — particularly those with few skills beyond posing for the camera — are in for a rude awakening. Beca Alexander, founder and president of influencer agency Socialyte, said some of her fashion clients haven’t booked a deal in three months.

I don't think a lot of them are going to come out of this. The world can't handle millions of fashion influencers posting about stay-at-home smoothies.

Some have predicted that Covid-19 will mean the end of the influencer industry. That’s unlikely. But experts note the industry is experiencing swift and likely permanent shifts. Influencers can expect pay cuts and fewer deals — particularly in fashion — and the ones who will come out of the global crisis on top are the ones who are pivoting their content and diversifying their businesses.

“A lot of influencers were trying to mimic what was doing well for someone else, and they started to look the same,“ Alexander said. “I don’t think a lot of them are going to come out of this. The world can’t handle millions of fashion influencers posting about stay-at-home smoothies.”

A Long Time Coming

In 2019, brands spent $8.5 billion on influencers, according to MediaKix. But there were signs of trouble even then. Costs were rising as more brands came to rely on Instagram to find new customers. So were the number of influencers — Hypr, a marketing platform, claims to track over 12 million of them.

Influencers charged “astronomical” amounts for sponsorship deals, said McGrath. Meanwhile, brands struggled to connect the money spent dressing influencers and flying them to exotic locations with real sales.

The industry was scaling at such a rapid pace that there wasn't deep analytical thinking about what all the spending was getting you.

“The industry was scaling at such a rapid pace that there wasn’t deep analytical thinking about what all the spending was getting you,” McGrath said.

That made influencer marketing an easy line item to cut when the pandemic forced brands to reduce spending. Influencers should be prepared to drop their rates. Socialyte has seen a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in prices for sponsored content it booked, Alexander said.

Sales Come First

Brands are focusing more on posts geared toward selling products, rather than boosting visibility. Influencers who can prove their posts lead directly to sales have a leg up.

“Brands used to want influencer content that was beautiful and it was ok if the sales weren’t there,” said Raina Penchansky, chief executive of influencer agency Digital Brand Architects. “Now it’s about ROI.”

Direct-to-consumer skin-care brand Tula relies on about 400 influencers to sell its products, said chief executive Savannah Sachs. Influencers drove more sales than other channels in April.

“Our average customer is 32, her favourite platform is Instagram and she’s turning to her content creators for advice,” Sachs said.

That may mean brands narrow the number of influencers they work with, "similar to the way brands choose celebrities as the face of their brands," said Jen Powell, an influencer manager.

Even before the pandemic, many brands were pivoting to working with people who had small but devoted followings, rather than paying top dollar for a mega-influencer.

There's this misconception that influencers should be heroes or celebrities, but people want to feel like they are their best friend.

"There's this misconception that influencers should be heroes or celebrities, but people want to feel like they are their best friend," said Amber Venz Box, founder of the influencer marketing company RewardStyle. "Influencers with 30,000 followers can drive an entire business."

James Nord wrote in a recent Instagram post that his agency, Fohr, will only work with “influencers who want to build long term relationships, who don’t want to work with ten fragrance brands in a month, but one that they really, truly love.”

Trying On New Personas

Between shrinking marketing budgets and health concerns, the days of lavish influencer trips are likely over. More relatable content is on the rise.

“People don’t care about luxury purchases or expensive trips to Tulum now,” Alexander said. “Influencers who can make their audiences feel like they are quarantining with them are the ones engaging with followers. They are the ones brands will turn to.”

Some influencers are leaning into categories where sales — and sponsored posts — have surged, including fitness, wellness and home goods. Leandra Medine, influencer and founder of the fashion lifestyle site Man Repeller who typically posts sponsored content for Kate Spade, Mango and MatchesFashion, recently partnered with kitchen appliance company Thermomix.

Influencers who can make their audiences feel like they are quarantining with them are the ones engaging with followers.

Influencer twins Reese and Molly Blutstein, who have worked with Tory Burch and Gucci, have been doing campaigns with the bedding company Brooklinen. Eric Goldie, a real estate agent and men's fashion influencer said he's booked more deals than ever during the pandemic because he's leaned into grooming and wellness.

“The talent with the most success are the ones who are willing to try something new,” said Max Stein, founder of the influencer management company Brigade Talent.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B_-qlTUHDbu/?igshid=5ybmn19ac2zt

That can mean getting more creative than pivoting to wellness like everyone else, according to Danya Klein, vice president of brand relations and partnerships at Preen.Me, a social marketing company. “Education apps, telemedicine, delivery apps are all products people are turning to now,” she said.

Penchansky of DBA recommends influencers have conversations with followers about what they want to see, so they don’t alienate audiences. She also said influencers should still produce fashion content, to keep their existing followers happy.

Leave the Instagram Bubble

Some Insta-famous influencers are finding success on up-and-coming platforms like TikTok.

Tezza Barton, a photographer with sponsored Instagram deals from Chloe, Dior and Mango now makes TikToks about photography and Amazon deals. Her follower count there is smaller — 207,000, as opposed to 867,000 on Instagram — but brands are already reaching out.

“TikTok is intimidating because it’s trial and error, and there are a lot of younger girls on it who get big with the dances and challenges,” said Barton. “But I’m finding that sharing fast stories, tips kills it.”

Luxury brands like Prada and Celine have already swooped in by working with TikTok stars and the beauty industry has found that it's where products can swiftly go viral.

“TikTok is just starting to get used in global marketing budgets,” Klein said. “With the amount of people who’ve joined since Covid, TikTok is ageing up more than any other platform.”

Be Your Own Boss

For many influencers, the goal has always been to parlay social media fame into building out their own product lines. That way, their careers aren't dependent on brands' marketing plans.

Adriana Suarez, a marketing professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said influencers could also be selling e-courses and other virtual events.

There's so much being consumed in the digital space. You can position your talent to be appealing to audiences.

“Be innovative and think of novel ways of how you can position your skills,” she said. “There’s nothing novel to audiences right now about landing partnerships with J.Crew. But there’s so much being consumed in the digital space. You can position your talent to be appealing to audiences.”

Fashion influencer Chriselle Lim went even further afield. She recently launched Bümo, a virtual school for young children.

“Initially I was worried my followers wouldn’t think of me as niche [fashion] anymore,” Lim said. “But I’m glad I did it ... you can’t have your eggs in one basket.”

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