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Influencers in the time of coronavirus: Fewer yoga retreats, more yoga pants

This time last year, Devon Windsor was preparing for the launch of her eponymous swimwear collection. Things look different this May.
Devon Windsor.
Devon Windsor.Devon Windsor / via Instagram

This time last year, Devon Windsor was preparing for the launch of her eponymous swimwear collection. Stylized photos on her Instagram feed featured her decked out in luxe designer gowns and pantsuits on the streets of New York City.

Things look different this May.

The thousand-dollar dresses have been swapped out for clothes that fit the homebound reality created by the COVID-19 pandemic: loungewear, workout clothes and swimsuits. The content of her posts has gone from still photos to more videos given the amount of time she now has at home. Her husband of six months makes regular cameos in cooking tutorials and yoga pose challenges.

And it's not just the look that has changed. Windsor's posts for her followers — she now has more than 2 million — were previously filled with imagery of an aspirational, jet-setting life. Now, Windsor is more motivational, informational and even personal, opening up about her experiences with bullying, something she didn't previously do with her followers.

"In the past, I've been so focused on painting this image," Windsor said. "I try to be realistic, but I feel now more than ever it's important to unify sharing the struggles you're going through."

Call it the pandemic pivot. The desire for fresh pandemic-appropriate content is forcing fashion and travel influencers to adapt to the times, but it has also created opportunity for wellness influencers — particularly those who can connect over live video.

Windsor is among a number of influencers who are churning out more Instagram Lives and Instagram TV videos to content-hungry followers. Instagram said its live views increased by more than 70 percent in the U.S. in March compared with February. Across both Facebook Live and Instagram Live, there have been more than 800 million daily active users.

Kira Stokes, a health and fitness professional with more than 447,000 followers and a roster of celebrity clients, had never done a live video on Instagram before the pandemic. Now her live videos can quickly net 120,000 views.

Stokes has had an increase of about 10 percent in her follower count since the start of the pandemic, and she now sometimes has thousands of new followers overnight. All of the engagement has translated into increased subscriptions to her app, and she can't keep up with demand for the fitness equipment she sells on her website.

"I hate to say it, but the quarantine has been really positive for my business," Stokes said. "I'm just really grateful."

The economic havoc created by the coronavirus has shaken every corner of the media, entertainment, travel and advertising industries. That has meant the influencer economy at large, which depends primarily on being able to create the kind of lifestyle content that draws in followers and advertisers, has suffered along with it.

The influencer industry boomed in the past decade, taking advantage of social media platforms to create an entirely new market for people to turn themselves into small businesses that trade in online influence. There are influencers for everything from fashion and music to interests like fishing and home renovation.

Influencers, like many media companies, rely on advertisers who want to spend money to reach consumers.

Before the coronavirus emerged, advertisers had been expected to spend up to up to $10 billion on influencer marketing in 2020, according to Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency. Influencers with more than a million followers, like Windsor, can make $10,000 to $150,000 per post. It's an industry that has gained enough traction to start inspiring young people to aim for influencer careers. The University of Southern California has brought influencing into academia with an Influencer Relations class.

With their jet-setting days on hold indefinitely, pivoting has become crucial for influencers looking to attract advertising money from retailers who see an opportunity in people staying home.

Mediakix founder and CEO Evan Asano said the fitness, wellness and home decor industries are realizing that influencers can still be valuable marketing partners, particularly because audiences are still tuned in to social media platforms. During the middle two weeks of March, there was a 76 percent increase in daily accumulated likes on ad posts compared with earlier in the month, according to a report from the influencer marketing agency Obviously.

That has offered a lifeline to influencers like Windsor, who said she recently landed a deal with an athleisure company. She plans to model the clothing in an Instagram TV workout — another sign of the times. Home workout posts increased by more than five times in the U.S. in March, according to Instagram.

The question remains, however, whether influencers still fit the time. The influencer economy has been widely criticized for its focus on aesthetics and seemingly unattainable lifestyles. Now, influencers are seizing more on personal connections — and their followers are responding.

Scottie Beam, an influencer with nearly 150,000 followers, said the pandemic has forced her to be more deliberate about her social media presence.

"We usually create from a want, but this is creating from a need to laugh, to find comic relief, to find info for mental wellness, for human interaction," Beam said. "It might be more selfish because it's what you need, but then you realize it's what someone else may want."

As it turns out, the same reach that made influencers attractive to advertisers looking to promote products is giving them the power to also promote issues that are resonating with people during this difficult time.

Danielle Bernstein, an influencer and entrepreneur with more than 2.4 million followers, is using her platform to give back with a charitable giving initiative called We Gave What, modeled on her lifestyle brand, We Wore What.

She said that she's aware of how challenging this time can be and that many of her followers have shared how alone they feel during this period of social isolation.

Next week, instead of planning her usual massive birthday blowout with friends, she'll be launching a different kind of social event: a "check-in challenge" aimed at promoting mental health awareness. The challenge will encourage people to check in with themselves, as well as with loved ones.

Besidone Amoruwa, who works on Instagram's strategic partnerships, said: "Creators are really stepping up to a leadership role offering different advice and resources. There's this intimacy of being at home. We're all experiencing the same thing in different ways."