With brick-and-mortar retail closed and physical events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, brands looked to online channels to reach their audience and turned their attention to influencers, explains LTK’s Robin Ward. 

It’s hard to imagine a world before COVID-19.

And it’s even harder to remember what influencer marketing looked like before the pandemic.

Despite uncertainty around how brands and influencers would fare during the period – with creators unable to film content from gyms, bars, restaurants, and other locations – the industry has undergone a rapid transformation.

One that’s fuelled progress and growth.

Marketers are valuing influencers like never before. Creators are a cornerstone of every marketing strategy, with collaborations increasingly viewed strategically rather than transactionally.

It is something we’ve seen ourselves at LTK, where brands have invested 40% more in collaborations on our platform. Our shopping app saw triple digit growth in 2020, driving more than $1 billion in sales.

So, what has this transformation entailed and what are the reasons behind it? 

Adaptation and diversification

The year 2020 saw a lot of brands pressing pause on campaigns and, in many cases, having to cancel them completely.

With brick-and-mortar retail shut and physical events cancelled, marketers had to completely reconsider how to reach consumers.

Brands realised they’d have to use online channels intelligently and strategically to ensure they could cut through the noise and influence audiences.

This led them to turn to creators. This was in large part because of their success in adapting to new and unprecedented conditions.

Creators retained and grew follower bases through diversifying their content – focusing on activities in the home, for example – and setting themselves up on new channels like TikTok, a platform that’s seen a 45% increase in influencers in 2021 alone.

Marketers were quick to notice and stepped up their investment in creators. They seized on the diversification of influencer content and channels to reach new audiences.

Brand investment in creators throughout the pandemic has been a key factor in driving digital purchasing decisions. Total online retail sales growth for 2020 was up 36% year on year – the highest annual growth seen since 2007 according to the IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index.

It’s also important to note that by seizing on influencers, brands didn’t just expand their reach they also boosted the authenticity of their campaigning.

Influencers could help consumers see the fit, function and styling of products in a relatable context, all at the touch of a smartphone screen. The speed and convenience they bring to the experience rivalled a day trip to the high street, while the interactive, contextual discovery aspect replicated the feel of a physical interaction with a shop assistant.

This brings us to our next point: the pivotal role of influencers in building deeper and meaningful relationships, and the growing recognition that they are uniquely positioned to do this.

Building authentic relationships

Businesses have had to build genuine connections without face-to-face interaction over the last year.

This has heightened the importance of authenticity and a human touch when communicating with consumers.

Influencers, who have built up large social followings through their personalities, are best placed to do this. And marketers have recognised their importance in bringing campaigns to life.

Given the widespread shift towards digital retail, these creators have the potential not just to deepen brand resonance and authenticity, but to become virtual storefronts for retailers.

And this trend will only accelerate as more brand marketers recognise their importance to deepening trust and building authenticity through credible product recommendations, and high streets continue to struggle.

“Always-on” strategic collaborations

Another change over the last year has been the move from one-off, transactional influencer collaborations to more long-term, strategic relationships with creators.

Fifty-six percent of brands are now investing in long-term relationships with trusted and influential creators, according to Influencer Marketing Hub – demonstrating how perceptions of their impact have changed since the pandemic.

Missguided is an example of a leading fashion brand that has executed an “always-on” influencer campaign. We’ve been fortunate enough to support them on this journey, delivering a 165% increase in sales month-on-month since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly doubling sales in 2020. 

While more and more businesses are recognising the benefits of strategic “always-on” influencer campaigning, there is still some way to go. A survey by Influencer Marketing Hub found that 67% of marketers still favour campaign-based activity over a continual programme.

While campaign activity can still drive impressive results, it is important that influencers are brought into planning at an early stage, so that they can ensure that the content they create is closely aligned with business objectives and strategy.

With an “always-on” programme, of course, creators are firmly embedded within the organisation’s marketing strategy and attuned to business priorities, which is why it can be more successful in capturing the nuances of a brand’s messaging and driving greater impact with target audiences.

Looking beyond COVID-19

Influencer marketing is set to be worth $13.8 billion by the end of this year – up from $1.7 billion in 2016 – according to Influencer Marketing Hub.

This extraordinary growth shows that the momentum behind influencer marketing is unlikely to dissipate as restrictions ease.

The last 12 months have highlighted the versatility and power of influencers as a marketing mainstay. Brands are beginning to realise that incredible results can be achieved through long-term, always-on influencer activity.

These fundamental shifts in the way brands connect with consumers are set to fuel the sector’s success as we move out of the pandemic and look towards growth and prosperity.