At 9am every day in the UK, hundreds of thousands of children stand in front of the televisions in their living rooms to jump like kangaroos or learn to do planks as fitness instructor Joe Wicks takes them — and often their parents — through their paces.
On Monday, the first day of the country’s lockdown, Mr Wicks’s exercise class attracted about 869,000 live viewers. By Tuesday the number had climbed closer to 1m, with his popularity spreading globally as he interspersed his easy exercises with shout-outs to kids from New York to Jamaica.
Now dubbed the “nation’s PE teacher”, Mr Wicks has doubled his follower count on YouTube, where some of his posts on the video platform now have more than 4m hits, and earned his name as one of the breakout stars of the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s a little bit of fun, a little bit of silliness at a time when people are stressed and worried,” Mr Wicks said, talking from his west London home. “I am the busiest man in the world. I am so fired up . . . It’s amazing. I’m a TV channel!”
While celebrities and influencers have traditionally broadcast aspirational content relating to fashion and travel, now, with travel bans in place and no events to dress up for, social media platforms are producing more everyday stars: DJs live-streaming from their bedrooms, teachers hosting classes over YouTube and chefs broadcasting cooking tutorials on Instagram Live.
Mr Wicks is one of a novel group of individuals who have built up massive global online followings and household-name status in recent weeks, as the millions confined to their homes search for entertainment, escapism and education online.
For many, the newfound clout offers them a strong foothold in the lucrative $8bn influencer marketing industry, with social media platforms offering a growing range of ways to generate revenue. These include creating sponsored content for businesses for a fee, which can be in the thousands of dollars, or even accepting tips — a feature Instagram is weighing up whether to introduce.
“There is a switch in influencer content online,” said Scott Guthrie, a consultant at Luxmoore Consulting and co-chair of the influencer marketing panel at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, citing cooking, fitness and humour as the most popular categories for individuals searching for a sense of “community” at a time of social distancing.
Though social platforms have faced severe advertising headwinds during the recent downturn, as marketers slash their budgets amid fierce new economic pressures, they have also been reporting unprecedented spikes in traffic.
On Tuesday, for instance, Facebook said in a blog post that users had been spending 70 per cent more time across its apps in Italy since the crisis took hold, while Instagram and Facebook Live views in the country had doubled in a week.
Some platforms are responding to the “new normal” by trying to generate new revenue streams from influencer activity — a move that could help to offset the financial hit felt by popular creators whose usual brand sponsors are retreating amid the crisis.
Instagram is exploring ways to allow users to tip the influencers on its platform, sources familiar with the plans told the Financial Times.
Meanwhile, Twitch announced on Tuesday that it was joining up with events site Bandsintown to allow musicians to monetise live-streamed performances via paid fan subscriptions and online tips. Patreon, which allows artists to charge “patrons” for a subscription to their live streams, said that it had garnered 30,000 new creators in the first three weeks of March alone.
As households in quarantine try to stay healthy, fitness gurus are fast becoming social media’s standout winners. The topic is currently the number-one driver of views on YouTube, while this month in the UK, views of home-exercise videos increased by more than 200 per cent compared to the daily average for January and February this year.
But educational content — typically virtual lessons provided by teachers at a loose end — has also gained traction: 24,000 people have registered their interest in a live-streamed Facebook “Spellathon” on Friday from a Leighton Buzzard-based teacher who goes by the name English with Holly.
Meanwhile, global views for cooking shows are soaring, increasing about 45 per cent in the first three months of 2020 from the same period last year, according to YouTube. Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura, for instance, has hosted a show called Kitchen Quarantine every night at 8pm on Instagram TV since his famous Modena restaurant Osteria Francescana was forced to shut down earlier this month. The videos have been streamed hundreds of thousands of times.
Proponents argue that the new class of influencer may boost the reputation of the industry, which is often criticised for its shallowness as well as for attracting fraudsters who pay for fake followings.
Young people are even beginning to look to influencers as “a trustworthy source of news”, Mr Guthrie said. The World Health Organization and the UK’s Department for International Development have joined up with influencers on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube to spread messages about social distancing, handwashing and detecting Covid-19 misinformation, for example.
“People are turning to [influencers] in tough times; this is legitimising the value they can have,” said Neil Waller, chief executive and co-founder of influencer marketing agency Whalar.
Still, bad behaviours have emerged among more opportunistic operators, including some wellness influencers reportedly spreading harmful information about virus-preventing supplements, or exploiting the pandemic to sell high-priced products and services.
Some believe influencers will be relatively insulated from the general advertising downturn, since their content is cheap and easy to make. Sponsored content has a “nimbleness and adaptability” to it, Mr Waller said, and added: “In other forms, it would take longer to reshoot.”
For now, though, some of the more spontaneous coronavirus stars say they are focused purely on building online communities as a hobby, rather than making money.
“You rediscover old books, old records, the pleasure of cooking for your family. It’s the chance for us to build something special, that’s why we are doing it,” Mr Bottura, the chef, said.
“The virus has taken everything from us, except free time and technology.”
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