Charli D'Amelio has a TikTok following roughly the size of the population of the Philippines. She only just downloaded the app in May 2019, but in less than two years, the 16-year-old has assembled a double-tapping empire out of the snappy, viral dances you've no doubt seen, and maybe even tried.
So when a global pandemic began to take hold on the U.S. last spring, consumer-goods corporation Procter & Gamble saw an opportunity to employ D'Amelio as a sort of field agent: By choreographing a dance that promoted safety practices like self-quarantining and social-distancing, could D'Amelio help influence her network to take the health crisis more seriously?
The "#DistanceDance" was born. D'Amelio's original 20-second clip has been viewed more than 191 million times, making it the most-viewed video on the platform of all time. According to PRWeek, "the campaign led to the creation of more than 3.5 million #DistanceDance videos, which have collectively been viewed more than 15.6 billion times."
We'll never know — quantitatively, of course — to what degree D'Amelio's #DistanceDance prevented the spread of illness, though it certainly didn't hurt. For the last 12 months, that, exactly, has been the rationale behind similar coronavirus-centric influencer campaigns: If people aren't listening to literal public-health officials, perhaps they'll listen to the folks who emanate, orb-like, out of their screens.
Last April, the World Health Organization enlisted a virtual influencer for its Covid-19 prevention campaign. Over the summer, the U.K. government paid "Love Island" stars to promote its National Health Service's Test and Trace program. Today, as The Atlantic recently reported, America's local health departments are partnering with lifestyle bloggers and fitness experts to spread the word about vaccine distribution.
Trend-forecasting agency WGSN has a word for this kind of activity: "genuinfluencing."
"Genuinfluencers are less interested in promoting products, and more interested in spreading ideas and truth," says Evy Lyons, VP of marketing at influencer-marketing platform Traackr. "Compared to regular influencers, genuinfluencers make a name for themselves by providing honest advice on specific topics."
Not all influencers are genuinfluencers — but somewhat even more confusingly, not all genuinfluencers are influencers. Mary Keane-Dawson, group CEO of influencer-marketing agency TAKUMI, identifies a growing distinction between influencers and content creators. Genuinfluencers, she says, fall into the latter category: They're often already experts in a particular topic, and use their platforms to give users informative content. This is as opposed to influencers — just influencers — whose online motivations tend to revolve around engagement, as opposed to education.
Influencers in their most literal form have existed since the late 1990s, when blogging arose on websites like Xanga and LiveJournal. The influencer economy itself, though, didn't catch on until 2010, when digitally-savvy and extremely-online individuals began capitalizing on their online presences on visual platforms, like Instagram, through the burning smudge of the Kelvin filter. But in 2021, according to Sarah Owen, a senior strategist at WGSN, that just doesn't land how it used to.
"By 2020, something started to shift, and it was due to a confluence of reasons, with 10 years of social justice, tech overload, inequalities, burnout and increased mental health awareness," says Owen. "2020 was, all of a sudden, about information and entertainment. There was this new currency we were seeing around knowledge and information, and it almost had its own sense of cultural capital."
In the last year, Keane-Dawson has again and again found the most lucrative traits for her clients to be those of compassion, understanding and responsibility. "Users don't want to be inundated with posed-for, overly-promotional content," she says. Instead, they're craving the exact genre of posts that genuinfluencers produce: that which provides actionable insight for users.
As far as the other side of the transaction, well… If you build it — "it" being an actively engaged audience base with a relevant, differentiated platform — brands will come. If brands are smart, at least.
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A recent TAKUMI report surveying more than 3,500 influencers, marketers and consumers from the U.S., U.K. and Germany found that a quarter of all consumers regularly source news updates and opinions from influencers over journalists and established news outlets. When looking at 16- to 34-year-olds, that figure rose to 38%.
In the last year, with droves of non-essential workers parked at home on our digital devices, genuinfluencers rushed to flood the void left by any traditional, inspiration-based influencers whose category of storytelling was no longer appropriate, let alone relevant. Lyons offers the example of a travel influencer who may have continued to post photos of lavish trips during the pandemic: Even if they were taken before the outbreak, they won't be as impactful as a genuinfluencer spreading safety awareness.
"In the immediate future, we expect to see genuinfluencers being used to assist with the vaccine rollout," Lyons says, noting how, in Finland, 1,500 influencers were named essential workers to spread COVID-19 safety information, while Indonesia literally put creators first in line for the injections to help dispel public stigma. This decision was met with mixed reactions from the public, but local, state and even federal governments — here in the U.S., at least — may argue that the prioritization was warranted.
"Americans' willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine has been rising steadily since last fall, but a large proportion — a bit less than one-third of those surveyed, according to the most recent polls — is still hesitant," wrote Kaitlyn Tiffany, in a February 2020 story for The Atlantic titled, "America's Health Will Soon Be in the Hands of Very Minor Internet Celebrities."
One such internet celebrity — though with 1.5 million followers, I don't know how "minor" she is — is Mrs. Frost, a Bay Area teacher and TikTok star who was contracted to share her excitement about the vaccine. The partnership came through Love Protects Us, an organization that encourages people to post about their positive vaccine experiences online to inspire the general public.
"This collaboration is a smart choice, as teachers are able to receive vaccines faster than most of the population," says Lyons. "We'll likely see more health organizations and pharmaceutical companies leverage influencer partnerships to promote precautionary safety measures and vaccines to audiences at scale."
For Love Protects Us, someone like Mrs. Frost is a perfect partner: She already has both a platform and an authentic perspective, and that's something you can’t reverse-engineer.
"In the future, the real advocates, the ones who have the most gravitas, will be the ones who are creating their digital persona from a place of being in touch with their own values," says Owen. "And more and more, influencers will have to actually, proactively upskill to find new niches within themselves to better serve their community."
It's already happening: Owen has recognized early adopters in the influencer community who have begun — gradually — carving out new narratives for themselves that better speak to this intersection of knowledge and entertainment. In the old, more aspirational way of doing things, this would have been challenging to monetize, but a peer-powered economy is approaching, enabling audiences to pay creators directly. And while a platform like Patreon doesn't exactly render brand partnerships obsolete, it may make them less lucrative overall.
"We can see that the rise of genuinfluencers is symptomatic of a shift across the industry away from purely marketing and towards political and social issues," says Keane-Dawson. "Content on social media will, in time, feel less like advertising and appear more peer-to-peer driven, with an emphasis on engaging and insightful content."
This has been a long time coming, even before the pandemic. As the world changes, so too do the individuals who let us into their lives, to whatever degree they may, and help shape our attitudes about that world. This has been such a long time coming, in fact, that Owen argues it was even written in the stars.
"I'm a sociologist, so I understand the importance of rigorous science, but I'm all about New Age stuff, as well," she says. "And what's interesting about this shift is that it actually pairs up with the shift that we saw from the Piscean Age to the Age of Aquarius, which is all actually about breaking down power structures and moving toward more egalitarian systems."