Creating connections in a time of isolation

If the recent global lockdowns, social distancing and isolation have proven anything it’s that – even in this digital age – we are a social animal and we crave personal connections.

And that this is the time for influencer marketing – true influencer marketing – to really take the lead for the future of brands and information. It is the time for influencer marketing to become part and parcel of your marketing communications. Not just an afterthought by a marketing assistant who has a friend with an Instagram account, but a well thought out, budgeted and strategically aligned pillar of your communications.

I was struck recently by the impact many celebrities have been making on social media – through words of support, through actions, even with how they are engaging with their fans about their everyday lives and the normalcy of their times with their families.

And then we have the celebrities who have struck an incredibly tone-deaf chord with their social offerings.

Keep in mind, these celebs are not doing what they are doing to make people mock them (well not all of them anyway), they genuinely believe that their posts, instas, and tweets are making a difference, are imparting wisdom and happy feelings.

They genuinely believe that they are creating a connection.

So, where did they go wrong?

This is where a proper influencer marketing model comes in.

Your audience needs to make a connection. A billionaire telling me how delicious a packet of two-minute noodles is will make me switch off – probably snort in derision first and then switch off. But a billionaire telling me a story about how those same noodles were what got him or her through college while they were still dreaming about changing the world? That is a different story.

Why?

Because I can relate to it. I can see myself sitting in a dorm room, fork buried in a microwaved bowl of noodles as I doodle my ideas onto a pad of paper.

Why?

Because it is genuine. It is a real moment, in a real person’s life. It is an authentic connection.

And connections are what make influencer marketing one of the most powerful tools in modern marketing.

Followers are not connections.

The word ‘influencer’ has taken on a negative connotation. The hordes of entitled demanding free drinks or meals or holidays because they will give you ‘exposure’ to their hundreds of followers are NOT influencers.

Ryan Reynolds inviting you into his home to share his experiences and family situation during lockdown – HE is an influencer.

A mom showing you how to create delicious meals on a minimal budget that are healthy and nutritious for your kids – SHE is an influencer.

Each of these people, in their own way, is defining a trend or setting an aspirational goal or demonstrating expertise. One might have millions of followers while the other only has a few hundred, but they share one thing in common: authenticity. And each has a very defined role to play in the influencer market – trendsetter, innovator, expert, reliable source, trusted caregiver, the characters in this play of life are endless.

All you need to do is find the one who resonates with you, your brand, your message, your dream. The one who really believes in your vision. The one who connects with you.The one who is real.

Influencers are real.

Real people with real lives and real stories and real experiences. In a world that is absolutely jam-packed with messages, it is the real voice that stands out. Finding that voice is not always easy.

For companies like R-Squared, it is our life’s work. We make connections. Not between brands and products and consumers and ROI and target audiences. Between people.

We find the real people, with the real stories. And then we let them tell their stories to the world. We do not tailor-make, we tailor source. We take your product, and we search out the people that actually connect with it. And that connect with others like them.

When a campaign is designed, executed and managed by experts, you go from a product endorsement to a life affiliation.

Budgeting for billions.

This is why influencer marketing is growing into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Pre-COVID estimates were that the influencer market would be worth over $10 billion in 2020. With the pandemic upon us, it was expected to slow down, but the opposite seems to be happening.

This time of isolation and increasing tension is showing us the real need for human-to-human connections. The bombardment of brand messages and unbelievable endorsements is coming to an end. Real people and real experiences are rising. Whether it’s a mom with a few hundred followers or a movie star with a million fans, people want genuine in a world filled with false promises and false hopes.

A personal connection.

Personally, I find this a very exciting time. A time of change and innovation for sure, but more a time of building humanity and building human connections – real human connections.

I have been at the helm of R-Squared for six years and have watched, and involved myself in, the growth of this incredibly exciting industry. I have seen it falter (see the entitled ones comment above) and I have seen it truly put the best of human empathy and emotion on display (see the switched-on celebs comment above).

As an agency shortlisted for Best Global Boutique Influencer Marketing Agency (holding thumbs for the awards in September), R-Squared is at the forefront of making influencer marketing an essential resource for brands and an authentic experience for people around the world.

Our mission is simple: keep it real.


Stephane is a 41-year-old Belgian citizen. He grew up in Brussels, lived in Switzerland, before moving to South Africa. Authentic conversations with real people inspire Stephane, an entrepreneur with more than 15 years’ leadership experience, utilising strategic foresight, analytical abilities, and trend spotting in diverse areas. He founded R-Squared Digital, a leading Influencer Marketing Agency that partners with some of the largest brands, media, and advertising agencies in South Africa and internationally.


Influencer Marketing Reimagined

The effect of Covid-19 on influencer marketing 

R-Squared has created a State of Influencer Marketing Slideshare to assist marketers.

Slide content:

  1. Influencer Marketing Reimagined: The effect of Covid-19 on influencer marketing
  2. Overview: The uncertainty around Covid-19 is extreme, to the point of threatening business continuity. We need to find certainty despite the uncertainty. Statistically, brands that are optimistic towards media placements during a recession or crisis are far stronger after it’s over. Right now, the human touch is needed in marketing. This is what will be needed by an audience now, in order to strengthen the existing relationship and convince them to purchase products or services later.
  3. Landscape: Many industries cannot operate. There is a significant limitation. Those industries that cannot trade as usual, have either cancelled or reduced their budgets, while others are still communicating or increasing communications with their audiences. This is where audiences need human connection rather than brand messaging.
  4. Landscape: Global statistics are not applicable to South African buying behaviour due to the severity of the lockdown (South Africa’s lockdown is the most severe internationally). What we have seen is that there is a significant cut in ad spend. We know there is a partial shift to digital, as OOH and sports sponsorship is unable to run.
  5. Landscape: There is a risk of breaking a strong bond that was built over years with audiences if there is no communication now. Keep the communication open, even if a company can’t trade, so that the brand will be the first ones to be remembered by the consumers at the end of the lockdown. We believe that for most brands, it is no time to sell, it is time to be there for an audience, and to strengthen the brand affinity.
  6. Landscape: Fohr is an influencer membership network, and their research shows that the average screen time is up to 5h40 per day, an 18% increase during the Covid crisis. They noted that because screen time is increasing, so is the standard of content. Their statement is “As more and more people turn to e-commerce, there is an opportunity to put out impactful messaging that will nurture your current customers and provide value to them during these completely unforeseen circumstances.” Source: https://www.socialmediainformer.com/edition/weekly-communities-social-media-2020-04-04?open-article-id=13434383&article-title=the-impact-of- covid-19-on-influencer-marketing&blog-domain=later.com&blog-title=later
  7. Landscape: Followers are paying attention to this new era of content creation, with nearly 80% of influencers reporting higher engagement from their followers. The opportunity here is to engage audiences with content that is hyper-aware of and sensitive to its surroundings. People are much more likely to engage with content that is authentic and tasteful, than that which is ignorant of extenuating circumstances. Source: https://www.socialmediainformer.com/edition/weekly-communities-social-media-2020-04-04?open-article-id=13434383&article-title=the-impact-of- covid-19-on-influencer-marketing&blog-domain=later.com&blog-title=later
  8. Landscape: The Fohr survey also found that over 40% of influencers currently are reducing their normal rates, and the reductions average at 30%. Fohr concludes that optimal influencer marketing over the Covid crisis is to build brand communities. Source: https://www.socialmediainformer.com/edition/weekly-communities-social-media-2020-04-04?open-article-id=13434383&article-title=the-impact-of- covid-19-on-influencer-marketing&blog-domain=later.com&blog-title=later
  9. Context: Regardless of whether people have a good job or bad job, whether they have children or not, whether they have financial means or not, whether they’re in a relationship or single – we’re all in the same boat.
  10. Context: Even if an influencer is endorsing a brand, never has messaging through influencer marketing been more relatable. Whatever an influencer endorses right now relates to all of us, whether the content is branded or not, the audience relates much more to authentic influencers at the present time.​
  11. Context: Working with each influencer individually as to how they will execute their mission in their own way, is key for authenticity and resonates with their audience.
  12. Context: When influencers share what they miss about a product or experience, one visualises what they share. They create the dream for an audience.
  13. Context: Investing in increased communications during a recession or crisis results in long term gain. The natural approach is to cut spending (as a result of general fear or uncertainty), harming consumer relationships built over years. Agility and innovation in communication must be applied to strengthen the customer relationship, rather than putting it at risk.
  14. All generations have shifted primarily to online streaming and online video consumption, as a result of Covid-19. This is the first time ALL GENERATIONS are consuming their media in the same way. When sharing personal content, videos also capture the emotion and the authenticity in a much stronger way, which is even more powerful when coming from influencers with a person to person message, sharing real emotions.
  15. Media Consumption: Gen Z • Online videos • Online / TV streaming. Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/media-consumption-covid-19/
  16. Media Consumption: Millennials • Online videos • Online / TV streaming. Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/media-consumption-covid-19/
  17. Media Consumption: Gen X • Broadcast TV • Online Streaming. Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/media-consumption-covid-19/
  18. Media Consumption: Boomer • Broadcast TV • Online Streaming. Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/media-consumption-covid-19/
  19. Media Consumption: Millennials are the most active. Searches for Coronavirus, listening to music, and watching movies/shows have the highest activity. Source: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/media-consumption-covid-19/
  20. Buying Behaviour: In the USA and other international markets, consumers can still shop online. A survey of 1’000 US adults in Mid March discovered 42% of consumers were shopping more online, with only 8% saying they were engaged in less e- commerce. Source: https://www.valassis.com/infographics/latest-changes-in-consumer- behavior-amid-covid-19/
  21. Buying Behaviour: The virus also appears to be motivating many consumers to try on new shopping behaviours. Valassis (an advertising and marketing intelligence company that predicts consumer behaviour) found that at least under the circumstances, brand loyalty was being impacted: • 48% are remaining loyal to their usual/familiar brands. • 21% are purchasing a mix of usual and new brands. • 13% are “taking the opportunity to discover new brands.” • 19% are feeling less brand loyal, buying what’s available. Source: https://www.valassis.com/infographics/latest-changes-in-consumer- behavior-amid-covid-19/
  22. Social Media Usage: Social media usage in the United States is up. The same study found that 39% of respondents have increased social media usage, while 7% have decreased it. The remainder are consistent in their social media behaviour. South Africa hasn’t released statistics to support this, but due to the parameters of the lockdown, we believe these stats will reflect a far higher usage of social media. This also factors in that many who do not have access to data on their phones have access to wifi at home. Source: https://www.valassis.com/infographics/latest-changes-in-consumer- behavior-amid-covid-19/
  23. During the Covid-19 crisis, influencers have the capacity to create a much more powerful emotional connection and resonance to the brand by showing agility, innovation and creativity in producing content that will really show influencers and the audience are in the same situation, missing the same things.
  24. Market Examples – Automotive: Moms can relate to privileged moments with their kids. Roadtrips, driving the kids to their grandparents, or visiting a farm. When parenting influencers post content expressing how much they miss this experience, we relate and connect emotionally, even if the post is branded by an automotive manufacturer.​
  25. Market Examples – Alcohol: In South Africa, buying, selling and transporting alcohol is illegal under the lockdown. Many of us are in fear of running out of wine or beer before the end of the lockdown. When an influencer shares a throwback picture with an alcohol brand, he knows he will be unable to purchase again until the lockdown is over. Every sip he takes and shares online makes us feel like we can’t wait to try this wine, and this will probably be the first bottle we want to buy afterwards. This wine becomes the dream.
  26. Market Examples – Travel: The longer we’re in a lockdown scenario, the more we need to escape, and we dream of travelling. We all want to travel / get out of home. When travel influencers cannot travel and relive their last travel experience by sharing beautiful pictures and videos of their last trip, the audience shares the dream, even if the content is sponsored by a hospitality brand.
  27. Market Examples – Health and Medical Insurance: By being locked down, we all face the option of staying in bed more, exercising less, eating more comfort food, and not respecting or staying in a healthy routine. Influencers face the same challenges in their commitment and cannot go to gym. They would become increasingly aspirational by showing how to respect or start a healthy daily routine from home, from exercise to eating habits.
  28. Market Examples – Entertainment: Is working with the level of commitment, while home schooling your kids a challenge? It’s also a major challenge for influencers, who often also have a 9 to 5 job. Homeschooling while working from home can be exceptionally difficult. It’s hard to focus while children need attention. Influencers can bring awareness to this, showcasing how children stay entertained, while they’re learning, in partnership with gaming platforms and educational entertainment through streaming media channels.
  29. Market Examples – Education: Bored at home? Tired of not going out or going to work? eLearning channels can sponsor influencers’ education for the duration of the lockdown. Further, the education can be both professional and personal, focusing on upskilling knowledge and expertise, but also focused on learning how to paint, do yoga etc. Influencers can demonstrate their own personal journey to enlightenment.
  30. Market Examples – Virtual Experiences: Are you missing meeting up with friends and family? Influencers have the same experience. They can however connect virtually. They can invite their pods to Zoom meetings, challenging each other to select lookbooks from retailers’ websites. An example of an engagement mechanism could be: “I’ve found a picture of what I’d like to purchase after the lockdown lifts, what colour should I buy?” This could be a teaser, before the brand sends the products at the end of the lockdown.
  31. Conclusion – It’s critical to stay in contact with an audience, in a meaningful way. Everybody in a non-essential industry is stuck at home. Connect on a person to person level, and any brand will preserve the relationship with that audience in the future. One needs to be agile at this difficult time. Influencer marketing is not only for immediate sales but is powerful and maintains and/or creates excitement and brand love.
  32. Thank you: Are you a brand or an agency? Contact us to leverage your brand love through influencer marketing: partners@r2digital.co.za

Michelle Marais, Digital Marketing Manager

Michelle is the Digital Marketing Manager at R-Squared, a leading influencer marketing agency partnering with some of the largest brands in South Africa and internationally. Through this crisis, our team has seen a change in the marketing landscape, and we’re sharing this with you now.


How can a brand advertise when it can’t trade?

My name is Michelle Marais. I’ve been involved in all aspects of Campaign Management for several years at R-Squared, and have recently been appointed as the Digital Marketing Manager. I feel strongly about how brands have adjusted their marketing efforts during this crisis (some have kept limited communication open, and others have closed communication channels due to being unable to trade immediately during this period, disregarding their long term consumer relationships), and I’ve written this article to share my opinion on how brands can communicate efficiently with their audience, maintaining brand love, even if unable to trade as usual. 

“If companies can create true desirability for their brands, customers will not only be loyal, they will also act as brand champions.” A bold statement, from the IEDP (International Executive Development Program – part of the ESADE Business School), who believe that desire is the philosopher’s stone of brands.

We’re all affected by COVID-19, every single one of us. For some, the lucky ones, they can continue trading despite the restrictions placed by government, and so their business models are sustainable despite this life-changing global event.  

Other companies and industries can’t trade at all during the lockdown. But this doesn’t mean they should cut all communication until they can trade again. There is a risk of breaking a strong bond that was built over years with their audience. Keep the communication open, even if you can’t trade, so that you will be the first ones to be remembered by the consumers at the end of the lockdown. At R-Squared we believe that for most brands, it is no time to sell, it is time to be there for your audience, and to strengthen the brand affinity. But how? Let’s explore it in this article. 

I believe that this pandemic will change the global mindset and landscape. But it’s also essential that brands stay in business, preserving jobs until the end of the crisis. It’s important to find creative, alternative ways to maintain their relationships with their audiences through this. It took many years to build that relationship, and some clients have incredible brand loyalty, staying faithful throughout their lives. It’s valuable to acknowledge and reciprocate that investment of loyalty.

Professor Oriol Iglesias, author of Brand Desire, says, and I agree implicitly as it perfectly illustrates the current scenario, that “brand desire explains how companies can engage customers emotionally and create value for them.”

Yes, it’s a time of economic uncertainty, brands can drive the vision of their business. I’ve seen fantastic brands suddenly cut communication with audiences – no more mailers, digital marketing or other forms of touching base with us, their dedicated fans. They just disappear into thin air because they can’t sell at this moment. I realise spending is sometimes pulled back in difficult financial periods, but why would they retain my loyalty as a consumer when the market lifts? Why shouldn’t I shift my brand loyalty to a competitor that demonstrates their consistent care for me? This leads me as a consumer to believe they’re only interested in me when it’s good for them. It’s not a time to focus on hardcore sales tactics right now. I want to see the relationships and brands I’ve been loyal to demonstrating that they value my business, even when consumerism isn’t possible. Create a concept that will captivate me until the crisis is over, and you will reinforce all the reasons why I’ll go back to you as soon as it is. 

Crocs on LinkedIn, demonstrating the human touch in the Coronavirus crisis
This example of content posted by Crocs in the USA on LinkedIn demonstrates that they have stayed connected, and really care about people. It’s not about sales. It’s about showing they care, and people will remember this after the crisis.

Even though most of us are housebound and frustrated, we’re living in a digital age. I spend time communicating with friends and loved ones through social media, not because of the pandemic, but as an extension of its impact in my social life. I can’t experience the dinners, the getaways, the retail purchasing that makes me happy when everything is business as usual. I can dream though. And that dream is what sustains me, until there’s an upturn again. The fact that I can watch influencers who share their dreams, means I share a stronger emotional connection with them, and with what they’re sharing. 

I love spending time with my children. I really miss the time spent with them at the park and at other outdoor events. I’m sure other moms can relate to this – privileged moments with our children, before they grow up. Roadtrips, maybe driving the kids to their grandparents, or visiting a farm. When I see  influencers who are young parents creating content, expressing how much they miss this experience too, I can strongly relate, because we are in the same boat; and even if the content is branded for a car, I can feel that they’re authentic and really feel the loss of freedom through the lockdown, which emotionally connects with me in a stronger way. This is true word of mouth – people really connecting with each other. 

Everyone, from CEOs to secretaries, from celebrities to influencers, are all in the same boat. Nobody can travel. I can’t take a roadtrip with my kids, but neither can anyone else. This makes everyone relatable to me in a way not possible in normal circumstances.  

Another example in South Africa, the trade of alcohol is forbidden during the lockdown. My colleagues and I have a passion for wine. As a team, every Friday afternoon we talk, laugh, have a drink and look back at the week that’s passed. I can watch an influencer share a throwback picture with your alcohol brand. When a South African influencer shares his favourite wine, he knows he can’t purchase again until the lockdown is over. Every sip he takes and shares online makes us feel like we can’t wait to try this wine, and this will probably be the first bottle I want to buy afterwards. 

Taking the same example further, the travel industry, which is facing a world-wide shutdown. After a long period under lockdown, after working frantically throughout, I’m going to need a holiday, a happy getaway from the four walls surrounding me. From the time I could travel, I’ve aspired to visiting Zanzibar. It’s a country with so many facets. There is no greater dream I have than tasting the flavours, shopping the markets, imbibing the scent of the natural environment. My boss challenged us to a set of milestones, which are underway, which will ultimately lead to my staying in Zanzibar for a holiday, but the reality is even if I had achieved my milestones today, I still wouldn’t be able to travel to Zanzibar. These travel restrictions related to Covid have ensured that. I nevertheless follow travel influencers on Instagram, and I’m amazed at the lifestyle images they have previously taken in the locations I look forward to staying in. Influencers showcasing pictures of their last trip in Zanzibar sponsored by someone in the hospitality industry, by sharing their dreams of returning, even if they were sponsored by brands, by giving us their amazing experiences, enables me to share their dreams, and want to visit the same places they visited. 

Influencer in Zanzibar
This influencer projected me into her Zanzibar dream

I can’t go to Zanzibar, take my boys to the park, or even buy a bottle of wine right now. But neither can celebrities and influencers who are also under lockdown.  Everyone in South Africa is facing the same restrictions. It’s a level playing field. This is the first time in my life that there are no barriers in society. Whether you are in a relationship or not, whether you’re in a good job or not, this is a time when people can truly relate to others. We’re all in the same boat.  

Influencers are real humans facing all the same restrictions I am. Whether they are rich and famous or not, have a fantastic job or not, whether they have a beautiful family or are single, have a big house or live in the same flat, when I see their content during this period, I can feel that we are all in the same boat, and all missing the same basic goods and experiences, so when they endorse a service or product and dream about it too. Brands that haven’t cut contact or shared a corporate message with me, but who shown me that they care, are the ones I’ll turn to when the lockdown is lifted. 

This is a human crisis, and we all need the human touch right now. 


Michelle Marais, Digital Marketing Manager

Michelle is the Digital Marketing Manager at R-Squared, a leading influencer marketing agency partnering with some of the largest brands in South Africa and internationally. Through this crisis, our team has seen a change of behaviour and attitude from audiences and influencers who are connecting at a much deeper level, and we wanted to share this experience with you.