As if we haven’t stressed it enough, 2020 has been a crazy year. Aside from a global pandemic that is pushing everyone to their breaking point, this year has also brought about an era of monumental social change. Life as we know it has been massively disrupted and many of these disruptions have fundamentally altered our culture as we know it. This cultural shift has spilled over into the role that brands and advertising play in our society. The days of ‘neutrality’ are quickly evaporating, and brands are now being held accountable to act in accordance with their portrayed set of values. The Advocacy Era of marketing has officially arrived, and for some, it feels long overdue.

It seems that society has finally begun the process of genuinely addressing the systemic racism that exists at the foundation of so many of our institutions and belief systems. This shift has been taking place in tandem with political polarization the likes of which we have never experienced. On the heels of the most consequential presidential election in recent memory, self-awareness around how we contribute to the solution rather than the problem is at an all-time high.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also turned 2020 into a year of solitude – where the boundaries between the real world and the online “virtual” world have all but evaporated; largely due to social distancing regulations that have resulted in a massive increase in social media usage. And that doesn’t just pertain to millennials and Gen-Z’ers. Social distancing guidelines and lockdowns have forced people from all ages and different walks of life to rely on social media as a means to stay in touch.

Increased usage of social media, a global pandemic, and a polarizing political atmosphere have created the perfect storm for catalyzing change. And now more than ever before, people of all ages and backgrounds are turning to influential figures across social media for entertainment, education, and so much more.

Whether we want to admit it or not, influencers have an effect on everyone. Whether you personally engage with an online creator, see them in a brand advertisement, or even simply watch a TikTok skit your child wants to show you, we are all exposed to influencers on a daily basis. While their influence continues to grow (no pun intended), these online personalities are holding institutions and brands more and more accountable for making real progress, often even stepping in to advocate for brands that are standing up and doing the right thing.

 

Social Responsibility Is Top Of Mind For Influencers And Their Audiences In 2021

The definition of social responsibility is “is an ethical framework and suggests that an individual has an obligation to work and cooperate with other individuals and organizations for the benefit of society at large.” Being socially responsible comes in many forms; whether it be initiatives aim at reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, human rights responsibility initiatives around providing fair labor and trade practices, or funding educational programs and donating to causes, social responsibility is a topic of growing importance.

While there are several different forms of corporate social responsibility, the three main types are environmental, ethical, philanthropic.

In terms of philanthropic social responsibility, outdoor apparel brand Patagonia has been setting a wonderful example. Back in 2018, the company pledged to use their $10 million tax break to help save the planet, doing so by donating the money to various nonprofit environmental groups working to help solve the climate crisis. The company also participated in 1% for the Planet, a social movement in which brands pledge one percent of its annual sales towards pro-planet issues. This has helped brands like Patagonia develop a reputation as a socially conscious brand, which makes them more appealing to both consumers and influencers alike.

Social responsibility is not something that has just been in focus for 2020 – it has been a growing trend over the past couple of years. According to Traackr data, mentions of “sustainable fashion” among influencers increased by 55 percent from 2018 to 2019, and mentions of secondhand fashion have increased by 137 percent, with audience engagement rising in tandem.

But the call for social responsibility and sustainability doesn’t begin and end with fashion. For example, beauty influencers have become increasingly vocal about wasteful product mailers, even going as far as calling out brands that send them irrelevant or ornately packaged products.

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Are Influencers Responsible For The Effect Of What They Post?

The easy answer to this question is “yes”, being that we as human beings are all responsible for our actions and the energy we put out into the world. Whether you have 1,000 or 100,000 followers, you have some degree of influence over the people who follow you. Influencers connect with their audience on a deeper level and influence them more than if they were seen in a TV commercial. In many ways, the amount of followers you have is largely irrelevant, because the content you put out has an impact on all who view and consume it.

In the media-driven world we all live in, influencers are incredibly aware of the impact that their content has on not only their followers – but on their “brand” and their careers as well.

Yes, influencers can’t fully ensure that their content will not be perceived in a negative or potentially harmful way by their consumers. But that doesn’t make them exempt from responsibility. So if influencers are responsible for the effect of what they post, then the brands that influencers choose to partner with also become their responsibility, right? This truth seems to be validated by the effect that influencers are continuing to have on brand accountability.

How Brand Accountability Has Affected Online Marketing

This is important to brands for a number of reasons. Consumers who follow influencers are motivated by brands and creators because they feel that they closely align with their values. In layman’s terms, they are relatable. This truth reinforces the importance for brands to build connections with this audience via influencers. Influencers humanize brands, providing them with a personality & a world-view they otherwise may have difficulty representing to consumers. Influencers help to communicate a brand’s empathetic, supportive actions to their potential customers, further stimulating an increase in brand trust and loyalty.

 

Finding Influencers Who Align With Your Brand’s Purpose

When we begin to absorb the above-mentioned information on how influencers are affecting brand accountability, the question becomes how can brands who are doing their part and aligning with social causes connect with the influencers they’d like to work with?

Aside from partnering with a reputable influencer agency, one way to accomplish this task is by leveraging data to identify and evaluate influencers for paid partnerships. While there are many to consider, these are just a few of the KPI’s that should guide your selection and budget decisions:

  • Brand affinity: Does the influencer mention the brand in an organic fashion? What are their engagement metrics on these specific posts?
  • Brand safety: Does the influencer align with the brand’s values? This can be socially, politically, or otherwise.
  • Audience alignment & quality: Does the influencer’s audience consist of the brand’s potential consumers? How authentic is the influencer’s audience?
  • Brand vitality score:  How valuable is an influencer’s mention of a brand in comparison with other influencers’ shoutouts?

Being socially responsible is a practice that clearly on the rise for both people and businesses alike; and brands that back up their words with actions are positioned to stand out amongst their competitors. Making thoughtful, data-driven decisions about influencer programs will give brands a leg up in successfully earning the attention of both their consumers and their allies.

 

Actions To Take NOW To Contribute To Your Brand’s Social Responsibility

As the world and the global economy looks to rebound from what has been a generally horrendous year, brands are already beginning to ramp their influencer marketing up for the first half of 2021. With social responsibility more in the public eye than ever, here are some actions we recommend you take to get out ahead of your competition and help practice what you preach!

If Your Brand Has A Plan For Supporting Racial Equality, Share It With Your Customers And Provide Updates

There have been numerous brands that have made statements responding to increased public demand for visibility into corporate plans of action aimed at addressing racial inequality. However, very few have shown true results or communicated their progress in a genuine and meaningful way. In light of this increased visibility, influencers and their representatives are demanding more data and details about brand commitments. Some of these details are focused on workforce diversity, pay equity, advertising representation, and investments. Brands should be prepared to show their efforts of progress as they are scoping potential influencer activations.

Don’t Cancel Influencer Programs Unless It’s Absolutely Necessary

While organizations continue to navigate a volatile and uncertain economy, it’s clear there is a desire for influencers to continue marketing partnerships with brands. Brands who are “pausing” or canceling campaigns are actually creating a negative economic impact on the very community that is in desperate need of support. If your brand is suffering from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, try and get creative about pivoting your approach to an influencer campaign if the original brief no longer feels relevant or achievable. Be willing to adjust deliverables and expectations, and give creators more freedom. When influencers have more freedom, they tend to execute better creatives for their brand partners. And ensuring that an influencer campaign still runs (even if adjustments need to be made) helps to establish a stronger, longer-lasting relationship with the influencer – which bodes well for future activations.

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