Karolina Chorvath created her Instagram account while at Northeastern University in the early days of social media for the same reasons as everyone else: to share images and connect with friends.
But after being diagnosed with Crohn's disease, she used the platform to talk about her health. Now, she's a 26-year-old Instagram influencer — @karolinakristina — with more than 12,000 followers.
Influencers like Chorvath are paid to promote content on their social media accounts. Irene Kim, a 32-year-old South Korean model and fashion influencer, was among a sea of millions before she started on Instagram. She has amassed a following of 1.7 million and has been posting about COVID-19 awareness.
While the coronavirus has crushed influencers who post about retail, dining and travel — the holy trinity of influencing — Chorvath has seen her promotion fees increase because she writes about health issues.
"My monthly and yearly income has drastically ebbed and flowed over the past years, both as I changed my career and my following grew," Chorvath said about her annual earnings from influencing.
Brent Smith, marketing professor at Emerson College, said that during this time marketers should be sensitive in presenting brands and promoting products.
"With over 14% unemployment in the U.S., many consumers are focused on necessities relating to food, shelter, and basic health needs," Smith said. "Consumers understand that businesses need to make money, but they still want to see some kind of empathy to accompany the marketed product."
Chorvath — a third-culture journalist and influencer — has lived in Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Michigan before landing in Boston. While she shifted to endorsing mostly beauty products and fashion in 2016, she's talking more about her health battles with Crohn's disease and chronic illness.
More companies have reached out during the quarantine because she's one of the few influencers who has chronic illness. Having spent a lot of time isolated and in pain, she knows how to get through unbearable times.
"When the pandemic started, I didn't just continue to post skin care and beauty and fashion," Chorvath said. "I was really posting about meditation and mindfulness and that has been hopefully helping. ... It would be my honor if that could be the influence that I make during COVID, people can come to my Instagram account and feel validated or calmer or less alone."
Being paid to influence followers toward a product or service is an unregulated field. Taylor Lorenz, a technology and internet culture reporter at The New York Times, has written about the risks and legalities around imposters on Instagram. Lorenz has written that there's no legal recourse for Instagram.
Young entrepreneurs use the role of influencer to promote their brand, like 23-year-old Grace Beverley — @gracebeverley — who has 1 million followers on Instagram. From her influencer fame, she started her own fitness clothing company and was featured in Forbes 30 Under 30, which touts GenZ and millennial businesspeople.
Another influencer, 31-year-old Iranian Negin Mirsalehi — @negin_mirsalehi — has 5.9 million followers. She started her hair company, Gisou, also featured in Forbes 30 Under 30, after body sculpting and cosmetic surgery enhanced her image.
But like the industries they promote, many influencers have seen revenue declines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Top profiles that can charge $10,000 or more per post for every million followers have seen customary revenue streams drop drastically, even to zero," according to Bloomberg News.
Helene Heath, a Brooklyn-based fashion and beauty blogger from Canada — @heleneisfor — with more than 14,000 followers, has far more time during the quarantine to think about the messages she wants to convey to her audience.
"This whole new freedom in schedule is also allowing me to reflect more on the space I occupy and the value I bring to my community, versus always feeling like I'm one step behind and trying to keep up during the hustle and bustle of real life," Heath said.
Fashion and beauty influencer Brooklynn Gallagher — @brooklynngallagher — is a 26-year-old who hails from Vancouver and is based in New York City. She said more brands have reached out to her during quarantine.
"It's not something I expected but it has been beneficial for me personally as I've had much more time on my hands to create content," said Gallagher, director of growth at Bulletin. "Normally, I create content on the weekends, as I work full time during the week ... so this has opened up a lot of time for me."
Chorvath, Heath and Gallagher agreed they are more careful and sensitive about how they promote themselves during the pandemic and quarantine.
"I have also said no to a couple of partnerships, specifically affiliate programs, because it doesn't feel right to push my followers to buy right now," said Gallagher. "I think the most important thing for influencers right now is to promote positivity and to be a place where people can come to and still feel connected — being a person/place where people can find comfort is essential right now."
Influencers said companies would be smart to create more genuine content and actively build communities and create new platforms on new social media such as TikTok during COVID.
"There are some brands, however, who have used this as an opportunity to better connect with their audiences, and reach out and teach them things that could potentially help them get through this and I think that's fantastic," Chorvath said.
Heath said influencers with a voice and large platform on Instagram should have a responsibility to help and support their communities of followers.
"Their community looks up to them, and they can set the tone for positivity and action in the midst of a global crisis, using their influence for the greater good within their niche," said Heath. "I think it's time to show just how powerful their voices are."
"We are literally in isolation right now, and a lot of people need positive vibes in their life, and whether or not that's coming from Instagram, being a person/place where people can find comfort is essential right now," said Gallagher.
Madeline Joung contributed to this report.