Can you remember your first influencer, more specifically the first time you were “influenced”? For most people, it’s their parents or some other elderly relative from their childhood. From an early age, we tend to follow the footsteps of the few people we know and look up to (parents/relatives). Then suddenly, after 20 years or so, we start changing our diets because a fitness expert on the internet said so. Coincidence, is it?
I beg to differ.
You see, we humans have a pack mentality — owing to our ancestors from millions of years ago. This ancient characteristic, fused with the influential imprint from our childhood, leads us to go back to our roots and form ‘tribes’. Popularized by the think tank Seth Godin, this concept of consumer tribes sheds light on leadership and also… influencer psychology.
The psychology of influencer marketing is so deep that concluding with just the concept of the tribe will be unfair. Let’s dive deeper into our brains and try to find out more!
Let’s discover exactly WHY and HOW we fall in line with the words and deeds of the influencers around us
- Before We Begin…
- The Psychology of Influencer Marketing in Numbers
- Understanding the Influencer Psychology
- 1. Expertise, Authority, and Informational Social Influence
- 2. Social Proximity and Relatability
- 3. Frequency of Exposure & Influencer Marketing
- 4. Reciprocity/Mutual Exchange with Influential People
- 5. Word-of-Mouth on Steroid
- 6. Cultural Conformity and Belonging
- 7. Priming with Our Influencers
- 8. Social Proof, Reviews, and Validation
- 9. The Illusion of The Majority
- 10. Halo Effect and Our Bias
- 11. Sense of Fulfillment with the Following
- 12. Social Identity Theory & Role Models
- 13. Vicarious Consumption Through Influencers
- 14. Attractiveness Bias Towards Influencers
- Closing Notes
Before We Begin…
Let’s start by brushing up on the terms ‘influencer’ and “influencer marketing”.
An influencer is someone with a following in a particular niche/field with whom he or she actively engages. Additionally, the influencer should have the authority and knowledge to make an impact on the actions of the followers.
Influencers are said to have a closer relationship with their followers compared to conventional celebs. Also, influencers have authority over a common area of interest with their followers.
Influencer marketing means aligning a relevant influencer with the core messages of a brand and trying to reach a goal with this influence. The goal can be anything ranging from increasing brand awareness to driving sales of a product/service.
The Psychology of Influencer Marketing in Numbers
Due to the “realism” and personal connections, influencer marketing efforts have been proven to work better. According to surveys conducted by Nielsen, 92% of consumers trust direct recommendations whereas the number for traditional online banner ads is only 33%. Moreover, the ROI is almost 11 times better with influencer marketing campaigns.
Social media is on the rise, and so is our dependence upon them. The effects of social media influencers on consumers making purchase decisions today are as high as 49% (according to the Digital Marketing Institute)! So, one must ask: why are social media influencers so popular?
The numbers don’t lie either, as the influencer marketing industry is expected to hit a milestone of 13.8bn USD by the end of 2022!
So, the question remains — what is the science behind influencer marketing? Why & how exactly influencer marketing brings such amazing results?
More importantly, how do influencers influence us?
Understanding the Influencer Psychology
Analyzing the human psyche is always tricky. But that never stopped the experts in this field from trying to understand why we do what we do. The same goes for the psychology behind influencer marketing and the influencers’ effect on consumers.
Here are some explanations and analyses of the psychology of influencer marketing and how influencer marketing works inside our heads:
1. Expertise, Authority, and Informational Social Influence
We’re wired to follow the superior, the authority, and the wise. From our early days, we’ve followed and imitated our parents and the elderly. Since then, we instinctively follow people worth following. Influencers of today perfectly fit these criteria.
Well, most influencers have a niche following. That means in that niche/domain, he/she has considerable expertise. So, the followers feel compelled to believe and follow in the footsteps of the said influencer. All these resonate with the concept of “Informational Social Influence”.
Informational social influence is an established psychological theory. It refers to the idea of changing behavior/opinion after conforming/following people we believe has the correct information.
This is why we trust teachers with academic knowledge, journalists with news, and doctors with medical issues. Oh, and also influencers with their respective domain knowledge also go with this concept.
Perceived power is also associated with the psychology of influencers due to its connection with expertise and field knowledge.
According to French and Raven’s framework of power bases and other related theories, expertise is one of many factors behind perceived power. Expertise, perceived power, and the degree of influence — all have a direct correlation among them. The higher the expertise, the stronger the influence!
Authority is also something that comes with this niched expertise, along with a handful of other factors. The contents produced by expert influencers are industry-specific and information-rich. Thus, they act as a helpful resource for the audience and build topical authority.
All the engagement, number of followers, and social buzz around the influencer also show how credible and authoritative the person is.
And that’s how authority marketing psychology comes into play!
As a result — expertise, authority, perceived power, and informational influence come up whenever we discuss the science behind influencer marketing.
When an influencer in the fitness niche tells us how effective a certain protein shake is, it sells. When a tech guy tells us how cool this new gadget is, it sells. That’s how authority sells, expertise sells, and most importantly, influencer marketing sells!
2. Social Proximity and Relatability
Everyone fascinates about the “the girl/boy next door” sometime in their lives. You know, the charm is there, and so is the proximity. There’s always that imaginary possibility of getting in touch, and to know them in real life. Hence the effects of social media influencers nowadays, as they’re so close to us!
Influencers are our celebrities next door. They are the role models of today. While traditional celebrities seem too far away to get ahold of, the connection with influencers is on a personal level. They regularly interact with their fans/followers via live events, comments’ replies, Live online sessions, or even via DM (if you’re lucky enough!). This signifies how close the social distance is between the influencer and the influenced.
An influencer also doesn’t shy away from sharing personal life with the followers and making them a part of his/her life. That’s also where traditional celebrities fall flat, as their lives are secluded mostly.
All these also account for how relatable the influencers are. They are just like us, and what’s more, we can be like them too!
The end result? More engagement. More trust. More reliability.
That’s why when brands attach themselves to these influencers, people can relate more to the communications and the promises made by the brands. The authenticity and the deep humane connections made by these influencers bring tremendous results in branding, marketing, and sales.
3. Frequency of Exposure & Influencer Marketing
Next up on influencer psychology is a popular one among marketers & advertisers — exposure frequency. Have you noticed the sheer amount of ads you stumble upon on your social media feed and how many of them are repeated? The banner ads we see while browsing through the internet are also targeted and displayed to us frequently. This is the mere exposure effect at play.
The frequency of exposure or the exposure effect is a psychological theory popular in the advertising industry. This psychological effect implies that people are more likely to prefer things that are familiar to them. Additionally, it’s basic nature for all animals to be familiar with things seen often, which later transitions into a fondness for them!
Although I brought up the connection between advertising and the frequency of exposure effect, there’s a catch. Most of the time, as you can also relate, repeated ads actually have an adverse effect on us. That’s because advertisements are almost always unexpected and intrusive in our lives. We didn’t sign up for it, we didn’t expect to see it, and we certainly didn’t want to see the same in-stream ad every day while watching videos.
But it’s different for influencer marketing.
Unlike traditional advertisements, we want to see the content produced by our favorite influencers. Hell, we look for it to consume the content as soon as possible! That’s why when they promote/endorse something, we don’t feel interrupted or intruded on. And that’s where the frequency of exposure kicks in!
We see the influencers we follow regularly and willingly. We follow their daily lives and make a connection with the content they produce. This exposure frequency factors into whatever they promote through their content. This form of advertisement feels natural, authentic, and personal. These subtle influencer marketing efforts influence the purchasing decisions of the audience.
The science behind influencer marketing proposes another theory revolving around this effect. It states that people always compare their lives with others on social media. The same goes for the influencers they follow.
This tendency of social comparison further extends into social envy. Frequent exposure to content that showcases luxurious lifestyles and possession increases envy. The impulse to buy those exact same things to replicate that exact same lifestyle increases purchases. As a result, the marketers and brands behind those influencer campaigns find success.
4. Reciprocity/Mutual Exchange with Influential People
Reciprocity or mutual exchange may seem like an unlikely addition to this list at first. But by going deep into influencer psychology, one can understand how it factors on a grander scale. As it turns out, this one also goes back to roots!
We’ve left our caves and wild dwellings in exchange for modern habitats, but our ancient behaviors and instincts haven’t left us. The communal/social tendency of exchanging favors and looking out for each other is still prevalent. What’s more, we feel indebted to care for those who care for us. Returning the favor is something we still carry in our genes.
Reciprocity is a standard practice in lead generation for sales & marketing. You know, asking someone for their email address or to subscribe in exchange for something of value like an e-book or a report. When we receive something of value, we’re much more likely to return the favor by giving something back. The exact principle also applies to the science behind influencer marketing.
Owing to the personal connection made by leading influencers, the followers feel obliged to give something back to them. This can range from following a social media page to buying a recommended product. And so, the success rates and KPI hits of influencer campaigns skyrocket! The more engagement (commenting, replying to DMs, shoutouts) by the influencer, the stronger this effect in action!
Another influencer marketing strategy involving reciprocity is the exchange of social currency. Brands sometimes arrange for giveaways through influencers. This giveaway of social currencies may come in the following forms:
- Product demo/trial
- Extra privileges
- Gifts (e.g. coupons, paid trips, etc.)
- Sponsored content
- Recognition as a fan
- Meet & greet session
… among others.
The promise of these freebies forms a social bond of mutual exchange. Hence, the participants will feel the urge to perform the action desired by the brand. Here, the influencer acts as a bridge between the two parties.
5. Word-of-Mouth on Steroid
Yes, the good ol’ marketing tactic we all use in our daily lives. Word of mouth has always found a way into our lives — due to its simplicity, trustworthiness, and other factors. And if you think about it, influencer promotions are basically word-of-mouth at scale!
We love to hear stories, hence storytelling has been an integral part of modern-day marketing too. A great influencer has to be a great storyteller at heart. The relatability, reliability, and care we associate with influencers are what make them worth following.
And this level of trust is what makes word-of-mouth work.
Word-of-mouth is effective If and only if we trust the promoter/advocate on a personal level. Domain knowledge is also important here, as we’ll go for tech-related advice from a trustworthy friend who doesn’t have much expertise in the topic. Influencers fit perfectly here — checking both the marks of being reliable and also being knowledgeable.
While word-of-mouth works 1-to-1, influencer marketing takes this approach on a level of thousands and millions at once! That’s why I prefer to call this marketing channel “Word-of-mouth on Steroid”.
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6. Cultural Conformity and Belonging
We are, above all, pack animals. The wheel of civilization may have brought us far from the wilderness over the course of centuries. But our genetic code still contains traits of pack dynamics that lead us to behave in certain manners.
Trying to belong in social groups and abiding by cultural conformity are perfect examples of that.
Our brain runs on a rewarding process. We live on these rewards in the form of chemical releases inside our bodies. Conformity is the process of getting along and shaping oneself with the norms of a group. This concept is also associated with chemical releases, such as oxytocin and testosterone. That means, our brain gives us prizes and we feel content when we try to fit in with a group and its ideologies & activities.
Influencers, especially modern-day social media ones, form packs with their like-minded followers. Then the followers fall in line with their pack mentality. They do what their influencer leader does and says, thus triggering the reward system of their brains. The leader is perceived as the coolest, the trendiest, and the smartest among the bunch. Thus, when he/she creates a buzz around the product/service, it beats all traditional forms of advertisement sales.
Belonging to a group, keeping up with the trends, and buying things recommended by influencers who share the same interests and values are all results of our genetic code and behavior.
What smart brands do is that they tie these knots with the perfect influencer of their niche aligning with the brand identity. The rest is a chain reaction of the influencer effect, continuing since the beginning of human history!
Assessing their marketing efforts!
Here’s how to measure influencer marketing ROI to make sure your influencer marketing efforts are on the right track!
7. Priming with Our Influencers
This is one of the prime (pun intended) examples of the science behind influencer marketing. Like the exposure frequency effect explained before, this psychological phenomenon is also used in ads.
Priming, in psychology, refers to the idea of influencing behavior with a prior event. Exposure to something that affects one’s behavior in the future without him/her awareness of this influence is called priming.
Not just in ads or influencer campaigns, priming is used in all spheres of marketing. Coca-Cola (and other beverages) have been using the sound of opening a bottle and pouring the drink into a glass for a long time. There’s also the coolness factor of cola in hot and humid regions. These “happiness stimulants” trigger the buying intent next time we go shopping and see bottles/cans of cola.
This is a very common example of priming. Here, one event is influencing a future event without the subject being aware.
The psychology of influencer marketing using the technique of priming is quite clever. It can be as simple as engaging in an influencer’s content after following them on social media after getting a recommendation from someone. Also, watching a video and then clicking on links to products/services is another prime (yes, pun intended again) example.
Or, it doesn’t have to be so direct and loud. It can simply be name-dropping for a product or using it in a video/other forms of content.
If you want to promote an app, simply ask the influencer to say the name and how useful it is. If you have headphones to sell, just ask him/her to drop a video wearing one around the neck and mention it. These efforts may or may not increase sales instantly. But they will surely increase brand awareness, move to the top of the audience’s minds, and influence sales in the long term!
8. Social Proof, Reviews, and Validation
Social media influencers’ impact on marketing has a lot to do with social influence factors like social proof. Influencer marketing, or any type of marketing for that matter, must include social proof. It’s one of the most fundamental trigger points for us to make a decision.
Social proof basically translates to “if the majority or a large group of people think something is right, then I should follow it too”. This proof of social acceptance acts as a catalyst in all our decisions.
An influencer with a follower base builds the groundwork for credibility & social proof. Agreeing with an influencer’s opinion and making decisions accordingly add validation to the followers’ lives. This validation encourages us to follow in their footsteps. Also, comments and shout-outs from fellow followers are the most organic and authentic forms of review nowadays, which is the best use of social proof.
9. The Illusion of The Majority
We often fall victim to cognitive biases in our activities. While unfolding how influencers influence us, I’ve found another instance of that. It’s the illusion of the majority!
“How did the Kardashians become so popular” is a question often thrown around. Yet, it’s we who made them celebs, influencers, and icons of the 21st century. We turned them famous by hopping on the bandwagon of controversies. And we are the ones buying all the beauty products they produce. This is just one instance of how the illusions of popularity work.
Nowadays, it’s so easy to gain followers on social media through unfair means. Using bots, fake followers, and the right amount of money, anyone can gain thousands and millions of followers overnight. This large number of followers builds credibility and creates the illusion we discussed earlier. One can’t help but think:
“if everyone’s following this person, why shouldn’t I? He/she must be worth following!”
This also applies to the marketing and promotion they do. When an influencer with a large following (whether a real one or a fake) promotes something, it instantly boosts trust. When we look to buy something, we always need a little nudge — be it discounts, guarantees, or approval from others. The vote of confidence from beloved influencers and their communities can act as that nudge.
Here’s how to measure product market fit to see if your product is worth marketing and if it’s sustainable in the long run or not!
10. Halo Effect and Our Bias
Trust is sometimes confusing. We tend to trust people with enough credibility and expertise in a certain area. But there are exceptions too!
Sometimes, we follow people on something he/she doesn’t have expertise on just because of a pre-existing trust. Our parents are not competent at a lot of stuff. But we trust them blindly on everything, at least till a certain age! This is a common psychological bias called the Halo effect.
This theory states that when people have a quality or talent, they tend to associate other relevant qualities or attributes with them. Moreover, we begin trusting them in other fields of interest. Their authority on a field gets carried over to everything they do and say.
The science behind influencer marketing also aligns with this principle, as we’ve always trusted and looked up to the leaders among us. This is why we see so many influencers of a specific niche promoting something outside their expertise. And they work too! We trust them so much that we try to convince ourselves that their words are worth relying on. Also, we assume our beloved influencers have thoroughly researched to find the absolute best for us while promoting.
BTW, This influencer effect works best when they use the promotional products/services themselves. That way, the amount of trust involving the influencer and the brand escalates like never before!
11. Sense of Fulfillment with the Following
Why are social media influencers so popular?
Is it just because of their talent, charm, and likeability?
Or are there other factors at play?
Well, there is a multitude of aspects to consider on this topic.
Following popular figures and their footsteps gives us a sense of fulfillment. It assures us that we’re on track — keeping up with others around us. The deep connection we build with influencers and such gives us satisfaction.
This sense of fulfillment makes the influencers likable and worthy of looking up to. Moreover, mutual followers of the same influencer act as communities of common interests, beliefs, and values.
When brands collaborate with these influencers, they become a part of these communities too. When we are an active part of something, promotion and advocacy don’t feel forced anymore. That’s the beauty of effective influencer marketing.
12. Social Identity Theory & Role Models
British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner came up with a theory called the “Social Identity Theory” in 1979. The theory proposes that the concept of self or individual identity comes from the group to which the said person belongs or comes from. In short, our identities are merely social and based on others around us.
According to this theory, we like to belong to groups of our choice and our identities are derived from the collective identities of those groups. We may act or behave differently based on different social contexts, but it complies with our social groups!
With groups, come group leaders — or in other words, our role models. Especially with the younger demographic, role models are a common concept where we follow people to mirror our lives.
Influencers check all the marks of the concepts of social identity and role models. The influencers we follow as well as other fellow followers form a social group of some sort where their identities fuse. These shared identities make for an ideal ground for marketing something that resonates with the ideals, beliefs, and needs of the group.
And what better way of marketing inside these social groups than influencer marketing via the proverbial group leader?
13. Vicarious Consumption Through Influencers
Vicarious means indirect, secondary, or doing something through someone. Although generally associated with consumerism and socioeconomic status classes, vicarious consumption can also be used to explain the influencer effect.
We live through the people we look up to — such as influencers. We follow their day-to-day lives and wish to be more like them. Their life choices, fashion statements, lifestyles, and ways of living become our dreams. Thus, we live a passive life through them and their consumption.
As a result, we make those dreams a reality whenever we can by replicating them. We buy stuff we consumed via them for a long time. It’s a long shot, but a long-term effect on social media influencers for sure.
This indirect outcome of influencer marketing is truly underrated. But there’s no denying it, especially with the rise of social media influencers over time.
14. Attractiveness Bias Towards Influencers
To be honest, I was a bit reluctant about adding this one to the list. But it is indeed a bias at play, whether we like to accept it or not. We are always biased toward the socially-accepted attractiveness of a certain time and place. While there are exceptions, a lot of influencers are good-looking and meet the criteria of that attractiveness I mentioned.
Under the effect of the attractiveness bias, we associate (subconsciously) beautiful influential people with other related qualities. Some may also assume them to be more personable, compelling, and intelligent than others. These, as a result, increase the authority and popularity of those influencers.
The positive associations we make with attractive people also work like a charm for brands. Buying decisions accelerate when we associate a brand with beautiful people and their brilliant choices. That’s why we see brands getting dashing celebrities and influencers onboarded as their ambassadors and faces.
Influencer marketing also relies on the appearance of the influencer for the above reasons. This bias is more effective when certain niches are involved where looks are important.
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Influencers are everywhere, in every niche, every field, and every sector. With the rise of social media platforms, social media influencers and their marketing efforts are here to stay. And the discussion above is my take on the ‘why’, as well as the psychology of influencer marketing. I hope you liked it and found it helpful.
Also, please feel free to comment down below to share your thoughts and/or questions you might have. I’m open to all kinds of opinions and discussions.