• Dennis Toh

[ACADEMIC ESSAY] The Influence of Influencers

Updated: Feb 19

As the prominence of digital technologies and online media become more apparent in people’s lives, so does the relevance of online marketing efforts of today’s brands who want to see an increase in their overall market share. One of the common online marketing strategies would be to use an influencer, or rather an online brand ambassador as named in some cases, to widen the reach of a brand, old or new. Additionally, the use of influencers could be described as the modern day’s word-of-mouth marketing that emerged with Web 2.0’s development (Wielki, 2020). Leaver et al. (2020) recounted that it was these influencers that commercialised the use of Instagram, when the platform initially established itself as an intimate recollection of personal photographs with friends and family. However, Kishore et al. (2015) argued that consumers are now equipped with the knowledge to discriminate and judge for themselves on their own choices. So, have influencers influenced us to change our behaviours despite our increasing consumer knowledge that allows us to discern ourselves from their influence? This paper will discuss how consumers choose influencers to follow and consequently be persuaded by them to influence our lives, as well as if social media users are able to discern themselves from the messages communicated by influencers.

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To address increasing consumer knowledge that discerns and allows them to make their own informed decision, the theory of consumer knowledge discrimination will outline this. Kishore et al. (2015) defines the discrimination as the consumers’ “ability to discriminate correct from incorrect judgements by differentially assigning confidence judgements to accurate and inaccurate judgements”. This is in relation to consumers discerning themselves from the information communicated by social media influencers. Kishore et al. (2015) found that consumers who are confident with their increased knowledge gained through the internet have allowed them to create their own judgement and discerns them from the persuasions of influencers. However, Kishore et al. (2015) noted that knowledge in various domains is subjective and one could only be knowledgeable or be an expert in a few domains. In which, consumers will then be seen as susceptible to the persuasive messages of influencers in domains they are not knowledgeable in. Hence, consumers fall prey for following social media influencers to influence their lives.

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Although celebrity endorsements have been around since the age of television and films, the technologically apt era introduced new opinion leaders on the consumers’ screens which are the social media influencers (Chetioui et al., 2020). In this paper, social media influencers are defined as individuals who have a large group of audience on social media (Wielki, 2020). According to Seunga et al. (2019), the difference of social media influencers from traditional celebrity brand ambassadors is the perceived authenticity and the ease of relating to them which have made them appealing to follow, sometimes even more than traditional celebrities. The stark distinction of social media influencers is attributed to their social presence. Rice defined social presence as “the extent users perceive the mediated characters as psychologically present and intelligible” (as cited in Seunga, 2019). While celebrities have also made use of social networking sites to interact with the public and endorse the brands they represent, they do not have the same affordance that social media influencers have to be on the platform frequently (Seunga, 2019). Social media influencers’ prominent social presence and affordance allowed them to build trust and relationship with users to be on the forefront of influencing their behaviour to varying degrees, such as their purchasing intent for brands that these influencers are endorsing.

Furthermore, as opinion leaders, social media influencers are said to be mediating and facilitating the spread of information online (Wielki, 2020). As influencers speak on behalf of brands that they represent or endorse for, they are seen by consumers as opinion leaders of the industries because they disseminate information that leads to purchase intentions. Pradhana et al. (as cited in Chetioui et al., 2020) outlined that influencer marketing did ensue in purchase intent for the brand. Coupled with being seen as more relatable and having more social presence than that of traditional celebrities, social media influencers are rather influential and prominent in our lives.

Not limited to the theories discussed by Martensen et al. (2018), the source credibility model and source attractiveness model suggest how we choose the influencers we want to follow. According to Martensen et al. (2018), the source credibility model is expanded into expertise and trustworthiness. Martensen et al. (2018) defined expertise as the “perceived ability of a sender to make valid assertion” and further elaborated opinion leaders are senders that are seen as experts who possess expansive product information. Schaefer (as cited in Martensen et al., 2018) suggested that social proof, in the form of followers or “likes” on social media, are what constitutes of ones’ legitimacy as an expert. Trustworthiness on social media is created when personal and authentic connections are present (Martensen et al., 2018). This is achieved by the visual environment facilitated by various social media platforms that enables relationships between influencers and consumers through images, which suggest their authenticity.

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Moreover, the source attractiveness model is expanded into likability, similarity, and familiarity. Martensen et al. (2018) regarded likability as the result of the influencer’s perceived social value; namely, their physical attractiveness, personality, behaviour, and social status. Similarity is defined as the “perceived resemblance” between the influencer and consumer (Martensen et al., 2018). This could be elaborated as consumers who find an influencer more relatable to be of higher similarity. Lastly, familiarity is defined as the “knowledge of the source through exposure or past association” (Martensen et al., 2018).

Familiarity brings consumers a sense of comfort from the influencer as they draw meaningful connections by interacting with them despite the seemingly one-sided relationship. The greater each of the factors in these models, such as the influencer having a high perceived level of expertise or their audience seeing plenty of similarity through them, the more likely the influencer is able to be persuasive and be followed by their audience. Through the source credibility model and source attractiveness model, it reaffirms the aforementioned argument of how influencers have become influential in our lives, and shows how we choose and be persuaded by influencers based on the evaluative factors within the two models.

Another theory that illustrates how consumers choose to follow influencers is with the two-steps flow of information communication theory. According to Merton (as cited in El Khoury et al., 2018), two-steps flow contains of two components, which is firstly, the medium of the message, and secondly, the expert disseminating the message. In this case, the medium is social media, and the expert would be the influencer endorsing the product or brand. El Khoury et al. (2018) illustrates this with social media influencer “Nikkie” that has millions of followers on her social media accounts and garnered a brand endorsement with Maybelline. She is seen as an opinion leader with her growing number of followers, hence being the choice of Maybelline to be the expert to disseminate their brand’s message or information, that will influence the consumers’ purchase intent for the brand. The two-steps flow of information communication model follows the consumers’ ability to receive and decipher message based on the persuasion of the opinion leaders; of which El Khoury et al. (2018) notes that it used to be specialists and traditional celebrities, but has now changed to social media influencers who garner large number of followings. Furthermore, Marton (2017) demonstrates the way two-step flow of information in its use for political discourse on Facebook. With key opinion leaders being the more influential university students, noted by their popularity on the platform, they are able to persuade and inculcate their political standing onto their followers. That said, the two-step flow of information communication model is one that holds influencers as opinion leaders on social media, allowing them to persuade and influence our lives through various ways such as our purchase intentions and even political opinions.

In contrast, social media influencers could also present a performative front to their audience. To establish a relatable persona to their audience, which they will be then seen as a persuasive individual based on the source attractiveness model, social media influencers could be performing an identity. Goffman (as cited in Pearson, 2009) proposed identity-as-performance to show the way individuals behave in social situations in which they perform an identity to belong in their social environment. The author noted that with the performative identity, users online are able to strengthen ties. This is important for an influencer to have strong ties with their audience and be seen as a key opinion leader on social media because this will allow them to be perceived as persuasive; noted earlier in familiarity within the source attractiveness model. Illustrated by Folkvord et al. (2020), their study on fitness influencers on social media depicts the performative and self-representative ways they have done to engage with their audience. This stimulates a parasocial interaction between the influencer and their audience, which could be simply defined as the psychological relationship experienced by the audience, making them perceive a connection with the influencer in spite of any direct interactions with them. Through their depiction and performance of a healthy lifestyle on their social media platform, influencers within the fitness industry are able to garner followers which are inspired to lead a healthy lifestyle as seen on the influencers’ social media content. Therefore, social media influencers may have to resort to performative identities to appeal and persuade consumers to ironically be seen as authentic based on the parasocial interaction consumers experience. This makes it harder for consumers to discern themselves from the influencers’ message as the performative identity of the influencer produces parasocial interaction that can be seen as authentic.

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In the end, influencers have indeed influenced our lives on social media. Though we can discern and make judgements for ourselves through consumer knowledge discrimination, we are limited by our own expertise in a few domains that restrict us from discriminating against all of influencers’ messages. Theories such as source credibility model, source attractiveness model and the two-steps flow of information communication theory have suggested how we choose the influencers that will inevitably influence our lives such as our purchasing behaviours, lifestyle choices and even our political opinions. However, it is also worth noting that influencers can exaggerate and indulge in a performative identity online to establish parasocial interactions with their audience. This is to be seen as an attractive source of message due to the familiarity within the source attractiveness model, allowing them to be persuasive and influential. In conclusion, we, as consumers, should continuously gain knowledge and allow ourselves to discriminate against the influx of influencer messages online as they may not be truly authentic, and we may never know.

This paper was submitted by Cruz Louice Queen Capiral from Curtin Singapore. There’s no attempt to edit the submitted paper for this publication.

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