Social media influencers flounder as people look elsewhere for inspiration and relevance

Mike Simpson 2020-04-15 09:45

Social media influencers, those darlings of digital-age marketing who have been able to command upwards of US$10 000 for a single Instagram post showing off their impossibly perfect lives to millions of fawning followers worldwide, are having a tough time of it right now.

Image via Adobe Stock

Companies have slashed their budgets and even those that feel the need to keep marketing are loath to appear insensitive to the life-and-death struggle taking place around us by spending it on Instagram or YouTube influencers who have built a career on a “look at me and my lovely life that’s better than yours” culture.

Travel influencers, fashion influencers, beauty product influencers and beautiful-body influencers have suddenly become irrelevant in an environment where consumers have far bigger things to worry about and little money to spend on what are now considered irrelevancies.


Max Emerson, a California-based fitness influencer and writer with 1.1-million Instagram followers, told Bloomberg news agency that his celebrity lifestyle had meant travelling on a plane at least once a week for the past 10 years. That was until three weeks ago, when everything stopped.

“My whole calendar up through June was completely booked – and in one day, everything went down,” Emerson said. “It was really scary.”

Lauren Bullen, an Australian-born travel and lifestyle influencer with 2.1-million Instagram followers who, at the age of 27, recently built a mansion on the dream island of Bali with her British-born influencer boyfriend, has also had all her paid trips cancelled after being booked solid for months ahead.


Here in South Africa, our travel influencers — who presumably earn notably less than their counterparts with massive global followings — are in a similar situation. When the public can’t travel, there’s little point trying to influence them.

Katchie Nzama, an influencer who travels widely in Africa, told Independent Online: “No work means no pay for me. I have no idea how long this will last, but the projects I have been working on this month have been cancelled.”

Jared Ruttenberg, an independent travel journalist and influencer, told of a similar experience.

“I cancelled all of my trips for the next month. It will be difficult to plan any future trips at this stage,” he said.

But he will continue to post to his social media accounts.

“I think people still need reasons to dream, to have their wanderlust fuelled, and to be reminded of the beauty that exists around us. For that reason, I’ll join others in repurposing content from previous visits. It’s also a chance for us to look back at the places we have visited over the years.”


Prior to the pandemic’s arrival in South Africa and subsequent lockdown, influencer marketer here has been highly successful.

In an article published in mid-March, Ruan Fourie of Pretoria-based digital marketing company Starbright Solutions, noted that “most influencers have an audience that trusts them already. If the influencer trusts your business or brand, then chances are the influencers’ audience will follow suit”.

He continued: “We have become blind, not just to most display ads, but to almost all digital advertisements. We mindlessly scroll past hundreds, if not thousands, of ads on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Influencer marketing puts your business where the audience will notice it.”


But at this time people seem not to be noticing. “A mindless escape is useful right now,” observes Vanity Fair, the renowned popular culture and fashion magazine.

“It’s just that while influencer content can be mindless, it’s now less of an escape than ever. Faced with a pandemic that has already done away with life as we know it, whatever inspiration influencers offered will no longer cut it. We’re all a little too spent to aspire to anything except making it through.”

Marcel Floruss, a German-born male model and menswear fashion influencer with more than a million Instagram and YouTube followers, agrees.

“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 said in an interview with Bloomberg.

The last word goes to Vanity Fair: “Influence wielded unthinkingly or callously or even awkwardly has more potential than ever to cause harm right now. For the foreseeable future, aspiration comes second to the virus.”

This content has been created as part of our freelancer relief programme. We are supporting journalists and freelance writers impacted by the economic slowdown caused by #lockdownlife.

ulf Brackmann
ulf Brackmann