In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, where income has become precarious and Internet use has soared, the influencer industry has to strategise over new ways to sustain viewer attention, maintain income flows, and innovate around formats and messaging, to avoid being excluded from continued commercial possibilities. In this article, we review the press coverage of the influencer markets in Australia, Japan, and Korea, and consider how the industry has been attempting to navigate their way through the pandemic through deviations and detours. We consider the narratives and groups of influencers who have been included and excluded in shaping the discourse about influencer strategies in the time of COVID-19.
The distinction between inclusion and exclusion has been a crucial mechanism to maintain the social normativity, constructed with gender, sexuality, wealth, able-ness, education, age, and so on (Stäheli and Stichweh, par. 3; Hall and Du Gay 5; Bourdieu 162). The influencer industry is the epitome of where the inclusion-exclusion binary is noticeable. It has been criticised for serving as a locus where social norms, such as femininity and middle-class identities, are crystallised and endorsed in the form of visibility and attention (Duffy 234; Abidin 122). Many are concerned about the global expansion of the influencer industry, in which young generations are led to clickbait and sensational content and normative ways of living, in order to be “included” by their peer groups and communities and to avoid being “excluded” (Cavanagh). However, COVID-19 has changed our understanding of the “normal”: people staying home, eschewing social communications, and turning more to the online where they can feel “virtually” connected (Lu et al. 15). The influencer industry also has been affected by COVID-19, since the images of normativity cannot be curated and presented as they used to be. In this situation, it is questionable how the influencer industry that pivots on the inclusion-exclusion binary is adjusting to the “new normal” brought by COVID-19, and how the binary is challenged or maintained, especially by exploring the continuities and discontinuities in industry.
This cross-cultural study draws from a corpus of articles from Australia, Japan, and Korea published between January and May 2020, to investigate how local news outlets portrayed the contingencies undergone by the influencer industry, and what narratives or groups of influencers were excluded in the process. An extended discussion of our methodology has been published in an earlier article (Abidin et al. 5-7). Using the top ranked search engine of each country (Google for Australia and Japan, Naver for Korea), we compiled search results of news articles from the first ten pages (ten results per page) of each search, prioritising reputable news sites over infotainment sites, and by using targeted keyword searches: for Australia: ‘influencer’ and ‘Australia’ and ‘COVID-19’, ‘coronavirus’, ‘pandemic’; for Japan: ‘インフルエンサー’ (influensā) and ‘コロナ’ (korona), ‘新型コロ ナ’ (shin-gata korona), ‘コロナ禍’ (korona-ka); for Korea: ‘인플루언서’ (Influencer) and ‘코로나’ (corona) and ‘팬데믹’ (pandemic).
111 articles were collected (42 for Australia, 31 for Japan, 38 for Korea). In this article, we focus on a subset of 60 articles and adopt a grounded theory approach (Glaser and Strauss 5) to manually conduct open, axial, and close coding of their headline and body text. Each headline was translated by the authors and coded for a primary and secondary ‘open code’ across seven categories: Income loss, Backlash, COVID-19 campaign, Misinformation, Influencer strategy, Industry shifts, and Brand leverage. The body text was coded in a similar manner to indicate all the relevant open codes covered in the article. In this article, we focus on the last two open codes that illustrate how brands have been working with influencers to tide through COVID-19, and what the overall industry shifts were on the three Asia-Pacific country markets. Table 1 (see Appendix) indicates a full list of our coding schema.
Inclusion of the Normal in Shifting Brand Preferences
In this section, we consider two main shifts in brand preferences: an increased demand for influencers, and a reliance on influencers to boost viewer/consumer traffic. We found that by expanding digital marketing through Influencers, companies attempted to secure a so-called “new normal” during the pandemic. However, their marketing strategies tended to reiterate the existing inclusion-exclusion binary and exacerbated the lack of diversity and inequality in the industry.
Increased Demand for Influencers
Across the three country markets, brokers and clients in the influencer industry increased their demand for influencers’ services and expertise to sustain businesses via advertising in the “aftermath of COVID-19”, as they were deemed to be more cost-efficient “viral marketing on social media” (Yoo). By outsourcing content production to influencers who could still produce content independently from their homes (Cheik-Hussein) and who engage with audiences with their “interactive communication ability” (S. Kim and Cho), many companies attempted to continue their business and maintain their relationships with prospective consumers (Forlani).
As the newly enforced social distancing measures have also interrupted face-to-face contact opportunities, the mass pivot towards influencers for digital marketing is perceived to further professionalise the industry via competition and quality control in all three countries (Wilkinson; S. Kim and Cho; Yadorigi). By integrating these online personae of influencers into their marketing, the business side of each country is moving towards the new normal in different manners. In Australia, businesses launched campaigns showcasing athlete influencers engaging in meaningful activities at home (e.g. yoga, cooking), and brands and companies reorganised their marketing strategies to highlight social responsibilities (Moore).
On the other hand, for some companies in the Japanese market, the disruption from the pandemic was a rare opportunity to build connections and work with “famous” and “prominent” influencers (Yadorigi), otherwise unavailable and unwilling to work for smaller campaigns during regular periods of an intensely competitive market. In Korea, by emphasising their creative ability, influencers progressed from being “mere PR tools” to becoming “active economic subjects of production” who now can play a key role in product planning for clients, mediating companies and consumers (S. Kim and Cho). The underpinning premise here is that influencers are tech-savvy and therefore competent in creating media content, forging relationships with people, and communicating with them “virtually” through social media.
Reliance on Influencers to Boost Viewer/Consumer Traffic
Across several industry verticals, brands relied on influencers to boost viewership and consumer traffic on their digital estates and portals, on the premise that influencers work in line with the attention economy (Duffy 234). The fashion industry’s expansion of influencer marketing was noticeable in this manner. For instance, Korean department store chains (e.g. Lotte) invited influencers to “no-audience live fashion shows” to attract viewership and advertise fashion goods through the influencers’ social media (Y. Kim), and Australian swimwear brand Vitamin A partnered with influencers to launch online contests to invite engagement and purchases on their online stores (Moore). Like most industries where aspirational middle-class lifestyles are emphasised, the travel industry also extended partnerships with their current repertoire of influencers or international influencers in order to plan for the post-COVID-19 market recovery and post-border reopening tourism boom (Moore; Yamatogokoro; J. Lee). By extension, brands without any prior relationships with influencers, whcih did not have such histories to draw on, were likely to have struggled to produce new influencer content. Such brands could thus only rely on hiring influencers specifically to leverage their follower base.
The increasing demand for influencers in industries like fashion, food, and travel is especially notable. In the attention economy where (media) visibility can be obtained and maintained (Duffy 121), media users practice “visibility labor” to curate their media personas and portray branding themselves as arbiters of good taste (Abidin 122). As such, influencers in genres where personal taste can be visibly presented—e.g. fashion, travel, F&B—seem to have emerged from the economic slump with a head start, especially given their dominance on the highly visual platform of Instagram. Our analysis shows that media coverage during COVID-19 repeated the discursive correlation between influencers and such hyper-visible or visually-oriented industries. However, this dominant discourse about hyper-visible influencers and the gendered genres of their work has ultimately reinforced norms of self-presentation in the industry—e.g. being feminine, young, beautiful, luxurious—while those who deviate from such norms seem to be marginalised and excluded in media coverage and economic opportunities during the pandemic cycle.
Including Newness by Shifting Format Preferences
We observed the inclusion of newness in the influencer scenes in all three countries. By shifting to new formats, the previously excluded and lesser seen aspects of our lives—such as home-based content—began to be integrated into the “new normal”. There were four main shifts in format preferences, wherein influencers pivoted to home-made content, where livestreaming is the new dominant format of content, and where followers preferred more casual influencer content.
Influencers Have Pivoted to Home-Made Content
In all three country markets, influencers have pivoted to generating content based on life at home and ideas of domesticity. These public displays of homely life corresponded with the sudden occurrence of being wired to the Internet all day—also known as “LAN cable life” (랜선라이프, lan-seon life) in the Korean media—which influencers were chiefly responsible for pioneering (B. Kim). While some genres like gaming and esports were less impacted upon by the pivot, given that the nature and production of the content has always been confined to a desktop at home (Cheik-Hussein), pivots occurred for the likes of outdoor brands (Moore), the culinary industry (Dean), and fitness and workout brands (Perelli and Whateley).
In Korea, new trends such as “home cafes” (B. Kim) and DIY coffees—like the infamous “Dalgona-Coffee” that was first introduced by a Korean YouTuber 뚤기 (ddulgi)—went viral on social media across the globe (Makalintal). In Japan, the spike in influencers showcasing at-home activities (Hayama) also encouraged mainstream TV celebrities to open social media accounts explicitly to do the same (Kamada). In light of these trends, the largest Multi-Channel Network (MCN) in Japan, UUUM, partnered with one of the country’s largest entertainment industries, Yoshimoto Kogyo, to assist the latter’s comedian talents to establish a digital video presence—a trend that was also observed in Korea (Koo), further underscoring the ubiquity of influencer practices in the time of COVID-19.
Along with those creators who were already producing content in a domestic environment before COVID-19, it was the influencers with the time and resources to quickly pivot to home-made content who profited the most from the spike in Internet traffic during the pandemic (Noshita). The benefits of this boost in traffic were far from equal. For instance, many others who had to turn to makeshift work for income, and those who did not have conducive living situations to produce content at home, were likely to be disadvantaged.
Livestreaming Is the New Dominant Format
Amidst the many new content formats to be popularised during COVID-19, livestreaming was unanimously the most prolific. In Korea, influencers were credited for the mainstreaming and demotising (Y. Kim) of livestreaming for “live commerce” through real-time advertorials and online purchases. Livestreaming influencers were solicited specifically to keep international markets continuously interested in Korean products and cultures (Oh), and livestreaming was underscored as a main economic driver for shaping a “post-COVID-19” society (Y. Kim). In Australia, livestreaming was noted among art (Dean) and fitness influencers (Dean), and in Japan it began to be adopted among major fashion brands like Prada and Chloe (Saito).
While the Australian coverage included livestreaming on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, and Douyin (Cheik-Hussein; Perelli and Whateley; Webb), the Japanese coverage highlighted the potential for Instagram Live to target young audiences, increase feelings of “trustworthiness”, and increase sales via word-of-mouth advertising (Saito). In light of reduced client campaigns, influencers in Australia had also used livestreaming to provide online consulting, teaching, and coaching (Perelli and Whateley), and to partner with brands to provide masterclasses and webinars (Sanders). In this era, influencers in genres and verticals that had already adopted streaming as a normative practice—e.g. gaming and lifestyle performances—were likely to have had an edge over others, while other genres were excluded from this economic silver lining.
Followers Prefer More Casual Influencer Content
In general, all country markets report followers preferring more casual influencer content. In Japan, this was offered via the potential of livestreaming to deliver more “raw” feelings (Saito), while in Australia this was conveyed through specific content genres like “mental or physical health battles” (Moore); specific aesthetic choices like appearing “messier”, less “curated”, and “more unfiltered” (Wilkinson); and the growing use of specific emergent platforms like TikTok (Dean, Forlani, Perelli, and Whateley). In Korea, influencers in the photography, travel, and book genres were celebrated for their new provision of pseudo-experiences during COVID-19-imposed social distancing (Kang). Influencers on Instagram also spearheaded new social media trends, like the “#wheredoyouwannago_challenge” where Instagram users photoshopped themselves into images of famous tourist spots around the world (Kang).
In our study of news articles on the impact of COVID-19 on the Australian, Japanese, and Korean influencer industries during the first wave of the pandemic, influencer marketing was primed to be the dominant and default mode of advertising and communication in the post-COVID-19 era (Tate). In general, specific industry verticals that relied more on visual portrayals of lifestyles and consumption—e.g. fashion, F&B, travel—to continue partaking in economic recovery efforts. However, given the gendered genre norms in the industry, this meant that influencers who were predominantly feminine, young, beautiful, and luxurious experienced more opportunity over others. Further, influencers who did not have the resources or skills to pivot to the “new normals” of creating content from home, engaging in livestreaming, and performing their personae more casually were excluded from these new economic opportunities.
Across the countries, there were minor differences in the overall perception of influencers. There was an increasingly positive perception of influencers in Japan and Korea, due to new norms and pandemic-related opportunities in the media ecology: in Korea, influencers were considered to be the “vanguard of growing media commerce in the post-pandemonium era” (S. Kim and Cho), and in Japan, influencers were identified as critical vehicles during a more general consumer shift from traditional media to social media, as TV watching time is reduced and home-based e-commerce purchases are increasingly popular (Yadogiri). However, in Australia, in light of the sudden influx of influencer marketing strategies during COVID-19, the market seemed to be saturated more quickly: brands were beginning to question the efficiency of influencers, cautioned that their impact has not been completely proven for all industry verticals (Stephens), and have also begun to reduce commissions for influencer affiliate programmes as a cost-cutting measure (Perelli and Whateley).
While news reports on these three markets indicate that there is some level of growth and expansion for various influencers and brands, such opportunities were not experienced equally, with some genres and demographics of influencers and businesses being excluded from pandemic-related pivots and silver linings. Further, in light of the increasing commercial opportunities, pressure for more regulations also emerged; for example, the Korean government announced new investigations into tax avoidance (Han). Not backed up by talent agencies or MCNs, independent influencers are likely to be more exposed to the disciplinary power of shifting regulatory practices, a condition which might have hindered their attempt at diversifying their income streams during the pandemic. Thus, while it is tempting to focus on the privileged and novel influencers who have managed to cling on to some measure of success during the pandemic, scholarly attention should also remember those who are being excluded and left behind, lest generations, cohorts, genres, or subcultures of the once-vibrant influencer industry fade into oblivion.
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1) Brand leverage
Targeting new digital media formats
Types of brands/clients
2) Industry shifts
Type of Influencers
Table 1: Full list of codes from our analysis