Amelie Hunton: will the new (kind) social media normal survive beyond Covid-19?

The global pandemic has created mass social and economic uncertainty, with the majority of the world adhering to social distancing and isolation. Whilst these difficult times provide an unprecedented challenge to society worldwide, there has been an extraordinary rise in random acts of kindness within communities, both offline and online.

People have come together like never before: over 700,000 signed up to volunteer for the NHS; Becky Wass’ #ViralKindness postcard initiative encouraging people to support neighbours in need has been shared over 9,000 times and replicated by many (below); ‘Nextdoor’, an app to keep communities connected, has seen an 80% rise in users. This increased sense of togetherness is particularly evident during the ‘Clap for Carers’ tribute, which started with a hashtag online and now brings large groups of people together in very public displays of appreciation.

Kindness and social media have often not gone hand in hand. The media is rife with stories of online bullying and trolling and, for years, hating ‘influencers’ has been in fashion and marketing has often jumped on that bandwagon. There is nothing the mainstream media loves more than covering the latest scandal in the social media world.

Like every trade, there are of course many flaws in the social media industry and focus tends to fall upon fake followers and irresponsible content. Whilst increased transparency is beneficial, shouldn’t we be celebrating a rapidly growing market which has provided a fast track for people with entrepreneurial spirit, irrespective of their background? As well as creating a welcome new channel for marketing which, when managed with clear strategy, can reap excellent ROI.

The internet and social media have provided the tools for people to grow businesses from their bedroom and skyrocketed many people into careers in the entertainment industry. Gym wear brand ‘Gymshark’ was voted the UK’s fastest growing fashion company in 2019 and credits social media ‘influencers’ for a significant amount of its success.

Mainstream entertainment shows, such as Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing, now look to feature social media stars alongside more traditional celebrities. Platforms like YouTube and Instagram have created a democracy of talent, allowing those with creative skill to pursue their dreams with significantly less barriers to entry than the conventional media and entertainment industries.

As Covid-19 continues to spread and social interaction is increasingly limited, average screen time has skyrocketed. A study by App Annie found “time spent in apps in Italy grew 30% in March from Q4 2019.” In an effort to remain informed, there has been a significant increase in consumption of social media content. Social media ‘influencers’, who are traditionally demonised, seem finally to be getting recognition for their skill to create content far more in tune with the experiences and views of the nation.

Whereas, tone deaf content produced by mainstream celebrities is perfectly demonstrated by an Instagram video compiled by Hollywood actress Gal Gadot, featuring celebrities from Natalie Portman to Jimmie Fallon attempting to ‘uplift people’ through a cover of ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, which received mass criticism.

With many traditional media channels deemed redundant with the stay at home culture, utilizing ‘influencers’ and other social media channels remains a potentially powerful way to maintain engagement with consumers. As consumers, we have the power. We vote with our likes. ‘Influencers’ are content creators who gain their influence through mass support and engagement.

Perhaps rather than bashing those who have found success, now more than ever we should focus on what people are consuming and who they are engaging with. The tone of social media marketing is in our hands and it is down to us to determine what content thrives and who succeeds. Treat your social media feed with care and ensure that your timeline is dominated by positive content, whether that is from ‘influencers’, friends or family. Instagram invented the mute button for a reason.

The global pandemic has finally shone a light on the fact that it is cool to be kind and social media has been a hub of positivity, escapism and education during this challenging time. Social platforms have helped to open up many conversations over the years and the current global pandemic has demonstrated the power of creators who go back to their roots and create authentic, unique content, at a time when trust has never been so important.

Joe Wicks (@thebodycoach) has inspired millions of families to stay active with his daily ‘PE with Joe’ videos, a concept that he had tried to get off the ground for months with little or no success; Dr Hazel Wallace (@thefoodmedic, above) has provided her nearly half a million followers with factual updates on the crisis and her daily routine as a doctor on the front line; Chessie King (@chessiekingg) has shown how social media can be used to create comedic content, providing escapism whilst remaining relatable.

Let’s hope we can learn from this and continue to spotlight social media for good, perhaps without a global pandemic to kickstart it next time.

Amelie Hunton is founder of social media marketing agency BrndBx.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.