Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Influencing? In this economy? It's only become more competitive

The pandemic has been a boon for influencers who can provide actionable advice 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

By Taylor Lorenz
Published: Apr 25, 2020

Influencing? In this economy? It's only become more competitiveJosh Zimmerman, the founder of CreatorCoach, in Los Angeles, April 19, 2020. Zimmerman is a life coach for creators, whose careers have become ever more consuming, uncertain and subject to scrutiny under coronavirus. (Michelle Groskopf/The New York Times)

Alyson Stoner, 26, is an actress whose credits include various Disney and Nickelodeon productions. She has also independently developed an online audience of over 1 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.

Zimmerman, 35, helped 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,” she said.

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,” Zimmerman said.

Creating Content in a Crisis

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 is very upfront about the difference.

“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, 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.”

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,” 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,” 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.”

The Toll of Growing a Brand

Many creators turn to 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, Zimmerman took a job clearing video rights for YouTube Nation, a YouTube news show with more than 2 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, 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, Zimmerman decided to follow in his footsteps. He founded, 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 CreatorCoach became clearer.

Influencers face a unique set of challenges. “Creators don’t separate from their work because they are their work,” 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.”

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.”

The pandemic has even turned more people into online creators. Late-night hosts are now vlogging, noncelebrities have begun livestreaming on Instagram and #withme videos, where people bring viewers along for often mundane daily tasks, have seen a 600% 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,” Colburn said. “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.”

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.”

©2019 New York Times News Service