Influencing? In This Economy? It’s Only Gotten More Competitive

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Alyson Stoner, 26, is an actress whose credits include various Disney and Nickelodeon productions. She has also independently developed an online audience of over one million who turn to her for advice about wellness and creativity.

Last month, as Hollywood sets went dark, her second career ramped up. By mid-March she was feeling caught in a “hamster wheel” of work. That’s when she got a call from Josh Zimmerman, her life coach.

Mr. Zimmerman, 35, helped Ms. Stoner prioritize her projects and narrow the scope of her responsibilities. Within 24 hours of their call, she had a plan for a timely series about grief, gratitude and self-reflection called “14 Days of Mindfulness,” which she would share on Instagram Live and YouTube.

She shelved other projects that were taking up too much time. “I reclaimed my mornings, and that structure has allowed me to maintain a sense of stability and sanity during quarantine,” Ms. Stoner said.

Mr. Zimmerman has, in the course of two years, become a go-to adviser for creators. Through one-on-one coaching sessions, conducted via Zoom even in the absence of a pandemic, he has helped dozens of people navigate their lives as influencers.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the process of making content is stressful and very lonely,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Creating Content in a Crisis

Mr. Zimmerman is not an agent. He doesn’t help clients negotiate brand deals or take a cut of their revenue. He is not a therapist either. He is a life coach, and he’s very upfront about the difference.

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“I work on anything the talent wants to work on, unless it veers into mental health,” he said. While a therapist might help an influencer diagnose mental health issues that arise from the emotional toll that comes with being in the public eye, Mr. Zimmerman develops tactical solutions, like career planning and focus techniques.

“When I see what Josh is doing, it seems very unique but fills a very specific need in the creator community,” said Earnest Pettie, a trends insights lead at YouTube. “It’s no secret that some of the best performing executives have executive coaches. Creators are an emerging class of media professionals, and so it’s great to see them engage with experts who can provide support and resources to help them remain productive in a positive way.”

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Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
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Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times

Mr. Zimmerman’s role feels especially vital now, in the midst of a health crisis that has sent half the world home for an indefinite period and glued many of them to their phones. The pandemic has been a boon for influencers who can provide actionable advice to followers in the coronavirus era — fitness coaches, food bloggers and medical professionals, for example — but those in other sectors, such as travel and fashion, have collectively lost millions in brand deals and ad revenue.

Most creators have continued working, business as usual or even more than usual. “In a time when everything is shutting down and businesses are closing, the general populace is turning more to entertainment and media,” Ms. Stoner said.

And the competition is fierce. “You’re putting out more content, but your audience has been diluted because there’s all these other people going live at the same time or putting new stuff out,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “You’re trying even harder to get those eyeballs and the money is not coming in as it should be, and maybe the brand deals you’ve relied on have disappeared.”

There are also platform changes to navigate. YouTube initially demonetized any video mentioning Covid-19, prompting YouTube stars to steer clear of coronavirus as a topic.

“It scared a lot of my clients from putting anything out there because they didn’t want to get demonetized, even for spreading the word about helping people stay inside and stay safe,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “There’s been an onslaught of creators who are uncertain and really reaching out for structure in their lives.”

YouTube later reversed its decision. “As Covid-19 has become a part of our everyday lives, we want to support creators and news organizations covering this important topic,” a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “As previously announced, we’ve expanded monetization of Covid-19 content to all creators in the YouTube Partner Program.”

‘They Are Their Work’

Many creators turn to Mr. Zimmerman because of his résumé; he has worked in the influencer space for years and knows the ins and outs of the business.

In 2013, Mr. Zimmerman took a job clearing video rights for YouTube Nation, a YouTube news show with more than two million subscribers, and fell headfirst into the world of YouTube stars. “I had no idea who any of these creators were at first, but I really came to admire them,” he said. Within three years, Mr. Zimmerman had founded his own management firm, JZ Management.

He liked working with creators and was struck by the toll creating content and growing a personal brand took on them. His father has worked as a life coach for high-profile business executives for years, and in 2018, Mr. Zimmerman decided to follow in his footsteps. He founded CreatorCoach.com, declaring himself “the first-ever life coach dedicated to creators.”

That same year, burnout became an open topic of discussion. A handful of top YouTubers announced they would be taking a break from the platform. Some influencers left the business or quit the internet entirely. The raison d’être of Creator Coach became clearer.

Influencers face a unique set of challenges. “Creators don’t separate from their work because they are their work,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “We go home and turn our computers off; they are their own brand. They are their own IP. They’re never off, which leads to fatigue and a whole bunch of things that are not helpful to the creative process.”

He said that the pressures the crisis has created — “uncertainty about money, uncertainty about who you can trust, uncertainty about staying relevant” — have made the job all the more consuming.

Plus, fans expect a level of responsiveness and intimacy that most celebrities don’t offer. Consequently, many influencers have been inundated with messages asking for help or advice on how to handle the current moment.

“It’s the juxtaposition of businesses shutting down, but everyone wanting more from us,” said Ms. Stoner, “asking us to be the connection that they can’t get anywhere else.” One misstep could lead to massive online backlash.

The End of Influencing? Not So Fast

While some people have suggested that the pandemic may mark the end of influencer culture, Collin Colburn, a senior analyst at Forrester, a market research and advisory firm, begs to differ.

“I don’t think it’s the end of anything,” he said. “There could be a collapse in print advertising, there could be a collapse in out of home advertising, there could be a collapse in influencer marketing. I don’t think any of them are going away.”

Mr. Zimmerman agreed. “This is not the end of influencers or creators,” he said.

Such opinions, he said, disregard the range of ideas, interests, platforms and demographics influencers represent. “There’s quilting creators, there’s woodworking creators, there’s anything you can think of. Any hobby, any idea, there is an influencer or someone making content,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

The pandemic has even turned more people into online creators. Late-night hosts are now vlogging, non-celebrities have begun live-streaming on Instagram and #withme videos, where people bring viewers along for often mundane daily tasks, have seen a 600 percent spike in viewership since the pandemic hit.

But ad revenues will undoubtedly tighten and certain sectors of the creator community may face trouble. “If you look at past crises or recessions, it’s just a recalibration of the marketing budget,” said Mr. Colburn. “Maybe influencers will command less of the budget than they did before, but there will always be brands who want to engage these people who have influence over their followings.”

Mr. Zimmerman said he’s started working with some clients pro bono in light of their lost revenue. He wants to help as many people as he can during these uncertain and chaotic times. “The industry is moving at lightning speed, and every hour it’s different,” he said. “Everyone is like, ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint,’ but it’s a marathon at 100 miles an hour.”

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