What's the future for influencers who are used to filling their social media feeds with images of their luxury trips, shopping hauls or new cars when they are now staying at home under lockdown?
"The premise that influencer marketing is largely based on — aspiration — is now fundamentally flawed. No one can aspire to a perfect life anymore. There are no more yoga or spin classes after the school run, no more matcha lattes, Botox appointments are on hold, and whole families are living in close, often messy, quarters. We're binge-eating chips not quinoa," stated Sarah Baumann, managing director of marketing agency VaynerMedia in London, in an email to CNBC.
Influencers earn money from brands for posting sponsored content. A "micro" influencer, with around 10,000 followers can make $250 per post, with figures going up to about $250,000 for someone with more than a million. That's according to a report by cybersecurity company Cheq that was published pre-pandemic.
For some, influencers' "aspirational" content has been a step too far during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Ricky Gervais, creator of "The Office," highlighted the gap between medics' lives and some celebrities in an interview. "These people are doing 14-hour shifts and not complaining. Wearing masks, and being left with sores, after risking their own health and their families' health selflessly. But then I see someone complaining about being in a mansion with a swimming pool. And, you know, honestly, I just don't want to hear it," he told U.K. publication The Sun last week.
"There have been some instances of people basically being really stupid and not realizing that they are in the limelight. That being said, I think … there's a lot of influencers who have actually risen up to the occasion," according to Rahul Titus, head of influence at ad agency Ogvily. Titus cited Finland, where the government has classified influencers as essential "critical operators," during the crisis, along with medical workers and bus drivers.
"(It) sounds hilarious, but it makes perfect sense ... These are people who've got direct access to a community of fans instantly. And if you want to get a message out, especially with a younger generation, actually influencers are the right way to get there," Titus told CNBC by phone.
The World Health Organization is using influencers to source donations to its Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. It is even working with digital avatar Knox Frost, who posted details of how to give money to the WHO to his 1 million Instagram followers earlier this month.
Baumann praised other influencers for their positive actions, including Joe Wicks, a fitness instructor who is posting daily workouts for schoolchildren on YouTube, and author David Walliams who released the copyright for his kids' books so teachers can use them in home-schooling videos.
Bonnie Rakhit, a former fashion magazine editor who now runs fashion blog The Style Traveller, has encouraged her Instagram followers to become community volunteers via non-profit the British Red Cross and to "Clap for our Carers," where people in the U.K. cheer medics from their homes each week.
And while she usually promotes fashion labels and reviews luxury hotels, Rakit is now being approached by businesses in sectors such as beauty, kitchen appliances and home furnishings. Rakhit's advice on how to get posts right at this time? "There are some really serious issues out there right now, lots of uncertainty and people are scared. There's no need to add to the negativity. It's important to keep a positive or educational narrative … It's not a time to brag or be ostentatious — instead spread messages of hope, love and kindness," she said in an email to CNBC.
Some brands are just switching the message they put out through sponsored posts. Among nutritionist Madeleine Shaw's Instagram pictures of homemade vegan stews and hot cross buns are posts sponsored by U.K. drugstore chain Boots, with Shaw giving advice on indoor exercises and daily planning. "A lot of the content that (influencers) are producing right now, it's not about selling products, it's about helping the community … be sane and be OK," Titus at Ogilvy said.
Influencers are also working out whether to post about the coronavirus overtly. "It's really important to not be seen as 'jumping on' to what is a sensitive topic for commercial or popularity gain," according to Sarah Penny, head of content at data platform Influencer Intelligence, in an email to CNBC.
Companies aren't currently measuring the success of sponsored posts by how many products they sell and instead are looking at whether people who see those posts are simply aware of those brands, according to Penny.
Post-pandemic, we can expect influencers to show off a little less, according to Angela Seits, a senior director of consumer insights and engagement strategy at agency PMG. "Some of the celebrity backlash that we saw … will also translate to influencer campaigns … where there is a little bit less of an audience interest in some of that high profile aspirational type of content," she told CNBC by phone.
Conor Begley, co-founder and president of influencer measurement company Tribe Dynamics, has been tracking how its database of around 50,000 U.S. celebrities and influencers have been using social media during the pandemic. It focuses on the fashion and beauty sectors and found that posts mentioning brands on Instagram have gone down slightly from the start of February until April 10, while those on YouTube have gone up.
For Begley, platforms like TikTok will keep growing — and are likely to reach new audiences. "You won't see the influencer space going away. Frankly, it will probably grow in the long run just because, you know, my wife's mother never would have spent any time on TikTok before and (now) she actually watches it every night."