Social Media Influencer smiling with beauty product

Subscribe, Like, & Wash Your Hands—The Rise of COVID Influencers

10+ min read • Nov 23, 2020 • Jesse Sumrak

First mommy bloggers, next cleanfluencers, then memers—and now COVID influencers? Yes, it’s a real thing, and these ultra-relevant personalities encourage their followers to comment, like, subscribe, wash their hands, and put on a mask.

Brands, marketing firms, and even colleges are hiring social media influencers to spread coronavirus safety messaging. Wear a mask in public, shop online, cover your cough, consider therapy—these messages aren’t just coming from the CDC. They’re coming from college students, athletes, TV celebrities, Twitch streamers, and more.

Why COVID Influencers?

Businesses understand their audiences. With the worldwide population buying masks this year and hundreds of companies, both big and small, providing them, brands know they must get their products in the right hands if they want to make sales.

Businesses hope that, when their target audience sees a community icon wearing a specific mask, they’ll be more likely to purchase that same brand—especially if that COVID influencer is urging their followers to wear masks..

Colleges Embrace Influencers

Even colleges are starting to enter the modern-day communications landscape. If they want students to be more proactive about wearing masks, they’re not going to get the results they want solely with posters, public-service announcements, and email campaigns.

“It’s no surprise that colleges know their students are living and breathing social media,” says Windsor Hanger Western, CEO of the marketing firm Her Campus Media.

To meet their students where they live, colleges are targeting current and prospective students on social media by paying influencers. For example, Baylor University pays twins Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight to promote their school—and when the 2 tested positive for COVID-19, they took to Instagram to announce that “it is NOT due to in-person classes that this happened…[Baylor] has taken every precaution, including mandating masks and requiring students to test negative before coming back to school.”

 

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Brooklyn and I tested positive for covid today after testing negative last week. We are aware this is going to raise a lot of questions but before commenting pls read the rest of this! As you guys know, Baylor chose to do some in person classes as well as some online classes. They have taken every precaution, including mandating masks, requiring students to test negative before coming back to school, and many, many more precautions. It is NOT due to in person classes that this happened. As you also know, Brooklyn went to Utah and filmed the 10 dates in 10 days video in early August. She tested NEGATIVE after filming this series in order to come back to school so it did NOT come from that either. We have been unbelievably careful by wearing masks in public, as well as social distancing, limiting the number of ppl we come in contact with and more. We have followed all precautions. So this raises the question… how did we catch it? Brooklyn and I live with two other roommates, who have also been unbelievably careful. Baylor is contact tracing every positive case, and unfortunately both roommates were listed as contacts by someone who tested positive. Both were asked to quarantine at home and to stop attending classes. Within a few days 3/4 of us in our house started showing symptoms and immediately went to get tested. Please be aware of large gatherings and be mindful of CDC guidelines. Limit who you are seeing. Be socially distant when you can. It’s possible you might be asymptomatic and then transfer it to a friend who is more at risk, or to an older family member or friend. So here we are. Positive for corona! #2020 It’s not exactly what we had imagined it to be, but it’s different for everyone. We want to be open about the experience since we are sure y’all are very curious about the process. We will keep y’all updated daily on stories! Comment any questions you have for us and we will do our best to respond:)

A post shared by Brooklyn and Bailey (@brooklynandbailey) on

UK Government Turns to Unconventional Methods

The UK government joined in on the COVID-influencer action after its NHS test-and-trace service failed to get citizens to take action. Shifting course, the government paid social media influencers Shaughna Phillips, Josh Denzel, and Chris Hughes to support the service. Phillips shared with her 1.5 million followers: “Guys I want to remind you about the importance of coronavirus testing and that it’s totally free, quick, and vital to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

 

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A throwback to what I love most! Nights out and good friends! Although this may feel like a distant memory to us all, we can all do our part to make sure we can get back to better times, as safely as possible. Guys I want to remind you about the importance of Coronavirus testing and that its totally free, quick and is vital to stop the spread of coronavirus. Getting tested for coronavirus is the best way for us all to get back to doing the things we love and I love nothing more than spending time with my friends. Yesterday I visited my nearest drive though testing centre, which is literally 2 minutes from my house! I was able to book a test online, and have it carried out all under 1 hour, it was so convenient! When I woke up this morning I had already received my results by text and email! I’ve also checked the Royal Mail website to see where my nearest priority postbox is, as well as the stickers I need to look out for on the postbox itself. This will help me in the future if I need to carry out a home test kit. Everyone with symptoms, no matter how mild, can get a free test by calling 119 or visiting NHS.uk. #letsgetback #gettested #ad

A post shared by Shaughna Phillips (@shaughnaphillips) on

The government realized its traditional communications methods weren’t reaching the target audience. For example, research has suggested that men (typically between ages 18 and 25) are more likely to believe coronavirus myths—but how many of these young people are watching daytime television or following the news?

By using paid influencers, the government hoped to reach this demographic by meeting young people where they spend their time. But an influencer with this many followers likely costs at least $10,000 (of taxpayers’ money) per post, which begs the question: is it worth it?

Do COVID Influencers Work?

It’s hard to say. While there are plenty of statistics that support influencer marketing, it isn’t always easy to attribute consumer sales and behaviors back to specific influencer actions.

Some influencer campaigns utilize custom links to make it easy to credit actions to influencers, but others—like the college COVID campaigns—are nearly impossible to track. Colleges might see a decrease in COVID cases following an influencer campaign, but it’s hard to know if that’s a normal case fluctuation or if the drop is directly correlated to the campaign.

Despite the ambiguity around success metrics, COVID influencers will likely remain a thing for as long as the virus prevails.

Damage Control? #NoFilter

Considering using COVID influencers for your own initiatives? Make sure you do your due diligence before launch—some campaigns can come back to bite you.

Get your messaging wrong, and you could alienate your audience. For example, Caitlin Danborn, a sophomore at the University of Missouri, was frustrated to find her school spending tuition money on influencers. “It just felt so, so shallow and so performative,” she reported.

It didn’t help when students pointed out that a COVID influencer posted photos earlier in the summer maskless with a large group of people. Innocent mistakes like this could turn a COVID campaign from a super success into an expensive epic fail.

Why Should You Care?

COVID-19 influencers prove to the world that innovation isn’t dead—you can teach an old dog new tricks. If federal governments and universities are embracing a modern-day marketing tactic as finicky as social media influencers, then there’s no limit to what your business can do.

Don’t get stuck in a rut with your marketing tactics. Be bold and willing to experiment with new strategies. If it pans out, expand your success and learn to scale it. If it doesn’t work, then ditch the idea and try a new one.

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Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.