Why does the psychology of influencer marketing work? The short answer is that influencer marketing plays directly into humanity’s natural desires for belonging, our need for social conformity, and our informational processing functions. Basically, our brain is wired to accept influencer marketing. We find it more authentic, more authoritative, and more attractive than other types of marketing.
However, we’re not lemmings ready to jump. Instead, influencer marketing should solidify the idea that all humans are driven by a need for connectedness. This is exactly what social media fulfills in the first place.
The world will have more than 3.02 billion social media users worldwide by 2021 and influencer marketing is already a multi-billion dollar industry. Influencers are gaining in popularity among the younger crowds of social users. Those that grew up with advertising being front-and-center on social media platforms have learned to tune it out. Instead, they opt for recommendations from influencers that appear more authentic. 70% of teen YouTube subscribers reported that they would trust influencers over traditional celebrities and ads.
Although none of these psychological effects apply to 100% of social media users, this examination of the brain’s inner workings will help us understand the biases, tendencies, and preferences that most of the population share, as they pertain to the psychology of influencer marketing.
Influencers are able to market effectively because they appear authoritative to consumers. We are trained from an early age to accept the advice and teaching of authoritative, powerful people. When listening to their recommendations or opinions, we naturally assume that they have expert knowledge to base these opinions off of and are more likely to accept these opinions as factual.
According to Forbes, “Informational social influence is the change in opinions or behavior that occurs when we conform to people who we believe have accurate information.” While this touches on a few motivations, the main idea is that we will follow and conform to those that we believe make good choices.
An influencer is validated as an authority figure in a few ways. Follower count and engagement show that the influencer is more successful than other people posting about the same topics. Influencers also post high-quality content in a specific niche or industry, which makes them appear as informational hubs.
There is also a perceived cultural element to influencers. When an influencer is engaging with the latest trends, it validates the idea that they are “in the know.” They appear to have the new pop culture information before anyone else. Their positioning as an expert or guru is what allows them to be successful as an influencer.
And it doesn’t stop there. An influencer’s authority within one area may actually spill into other areas of expertise. This is the “halo effect.” If you can picture all the celebrities who have championed a cause, it is because they are carrying over their authority from other areas of expertise into this new field. They are not authorities for that cause, but instead instill trust in their audienc. They can then carry that trustworthiness into these new conversations.
In today’s digitally connected world, people have information at their fingertips, but don’t rely on as many sources as you’d think. To make an informed decision about anything, there is research and knowledge needed.
However, a person simply cannot sort through all the information needed to make a truly objective decision. Instead, a person’s brain will implement a series of filters so that certain information gets their focus and attention.
These filters, or cognitive biases, in decision-making help the person to sort through the information to find what matters to them, according to marketing psychology expert Robert Cialdini. Filters can help give focus based on the authority of the information, trustworthiness, or even the likeability of the source of the information. In these ways, influencers can help influence a person’s decision-making skills — because the influencer can make it past the brain’s natural filtering process.
Social proximity, or social distance, is the idea that a person’s positioning and context determines the perceived approachability of that person or the perceived relationship of that person to another. While a consumer may look up to an influencer as a role model, they are also more relatable than other role models (celebrities, athletes, etc.). In this way, influencers have a closer social proximity to the consumer than other celebrities.
Influencers are still regarded as having a higher level of expertise. However, their closer social proximity makes it easier for followers to copy their behavior, as they would a friend or acquaintance.
Social proof is the concept that people assume something is right if other people have made the same assumption first. For example, an avant-garde outfit gains credibility as a fashion trend if many people are liking and sharing the pictures online.
When an influencer has a sizeable audience, it proves to the follower that the influencer is trustworthy and an expert because others approve of what the influencer is doing.
Psychology of influencer marketing also plays into an audience member’s need for belonging. If they find a decision that is popular with other people, they can securely make the same decision, because it is validated. However, it extends beyond that and into the hardwiring of our brain. We are not just using social proof to help us gather and validate information about a decision, but instead, we actually have an emotional response to influencer marketing.
When an influencer promotes a brand or product, they can create a psychological conformity effect on their followers. These followers see the influencer’s position of authority and perceived social proof, which triggers a need to assimilate this new information into their own preferences and choices.
Seth Godin coined the term “consumer tribes” to translate this psychological concept into retail, marketing, and ecommerce. Consumer tribes form when people gravitate to a leader or an idea. These consumers will share a lot of the same values as the leader and will therefore follow the preferences of the leader and the consumer tribe at large. By purchasing the same items as the rest of the group, the consumer is essentially trying to confirm their identity and membership within the group through their purchasing behavior. The concept that people identify as members of particular groups and prove their alignment with the group by sharing the behaviors, values, and views of the group was first coined by Tajfel’s 1979 social identity theory.
At a surface level, this would appear to be a purely social convention, in which people want to maintain their social groups, so they conform to the group’s norms. However, social conformity is actually hardwired into our brain’s reward system. In fact, researchers Campbell-Meiklejohn and Frith were able to prove that affecting the lateral orbitofrontal cortex could make someone’s opinions more closely align with their peers’ opinions.
Jamil Zaki of Stanford University found that the brain’s reward system (nucleus accumbens) showed higher activity when a person aligned with social norms versus when they defied conventions of their social group. In disagreeing with a peer, the brain would show higher activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which controls decision making. In other words, the brain rewards social proof and spends extra effort before deciding to break with social convention.
However, Jamil Zaki also sees a scenario in which conformity is positive, saying “We see conformity as a weakness; we say it supports bad behavior, but if you think conformity is a powerful social mechanism through which we change our ideas about the world, it could be used positively.”
Reciprocity is also a part of the psychology of influencer marketing. Because there is a perceived personal connection, audience members are willing to provide help and assistance to influencers.
The perfect example of reciprocity is the bots on Instagram. Bots that are liking your content, viewing your stories, or commenting, trigger a need to reciprocate within the person. In other words, people are more inclined to pay attention to someone who is already paying attention to them. An influencer who answers comments and is personable with their following will be able to ask for more in return. This is because of a person’s natural tendency to reciprocate based on what they receive from that influencer.
An influencer’s perceived credibility may actually be based in part on their attractiveness. A person may assume that good looking people are more personable or interesting. This may actually change an influencer’s authority and standing for that person. For those experiencing an attractiveness bias, this may sway their opinions of certain influencers. It may actually reinforce their ideas of authority and expertise.
Priming is a technique frequently used in advertising. It can be as simple as getting someone to follow the influencer. Then, they’ll ask that person to comment on the influencer’s post. The first decision that the person acted on made it easier for the second action to occur.
Many influencers post and share in such a way that the follower is led through a series of decisions. This is priming. Getting a follower to take a first step makes the subsequent decisions easier. This increases the chances that a follow will act according to the influencer’s original guidance.
Frequency of exposure directly affects our allegiance to a cultural group or influencer. The more that we are exposed to the same content, the more likely we are to accept the content. We eventually assimilate the aesthetic or messaging into our own beliefs, views, and preferences.
With 47% of Gen Z researching brands on social media, influencers are becoming more important than ever before. Influencer marketing is effective because it works with our human wiring to confirm, validate, and alleviate our natural tendencies. At its core, influencer marketing is word of mouth. However, it also plays directly into the way our brain is wired. It creates a personal connection from the person watching to the influencer. We are watching the digital outcome of our own psychological needs with each influencer’s post. That’s the psychology of influencer marketing.