The proliferation of influencers in the digital marketing space has become a central feature of communication for many brands. The increasing diversity of platforms provided by influencers across sectors and niches gives a brand a unique set of channels to target consumers. To understand how to effectively utilise influencers in a strategic marketing context, it’s essential to focus on the process by which influencers impact and influence consumers.The process is known as social influence.
Social influence is a central feature of society and socialisation in a physical and – increasingly a digital context. Social influence is continuous and not concentrated on those who are perceived to have higher social standing. A key pillar of social influence is conformity. The power of conformity is the foundation which influencer brand partnership activities are built upon.
It is also important to consider that social influence is not an exclusively one-way phenomenon, it is also relevant to an interactive dialogue behind different parties. This is particularly relevant to the community building aspects of influencers, and their building of digital communities of like minded individuals.
Influencers ‘Harness the Power’
Influencers harness the power of social influence’s perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. How consumers perceive a brand is the fundamental basis of decision-making in the purchasing process. Influencers can become a key part of establishing and influencing the perceived benefits and value that products or services possess. This is also the case when it comes to beliefs – fundamentally individual beliefs are a core part of their self-identity.
How a consumer views themselves as an individual and in society is core to understanding their consumption. As such it is useful for brands to engage relevant influencers to effectively target and connect with relevant market segments. Consumers’ beliefs affect how they not only view, but interact and consume products/services. Influencers can present and frame products, services or ideas in a way that fundamentally alters or reaffirms a consumer’s beliefs. This develops a consumer’s beliefs about a brand are their attitudes towards it.
From a strategic marketing perspective, it is attitudes that are the natural result of experience and beliefs that truly dictate consumer purchasing behaviour. It is the role of a marketing strategy to utilise influencers to manage the impression of a brand and in turn seek to manage attitudes towards a brand. Attitudes dictate behaviour, and for brands, this affects if and how consumers purchase their products or services.
As mentioned, conformity is key to understanding the power of influencers. It acts as an accelerator to the influencer brand partnerships and is vital to understanding the role of the influencers in society. In essence, social influence can make an individual change their attitudes or behaviour. This essentially is an individual conforming to relevant segments and/or wider society to adhere to social norms.
As such, it is the creation and perpetuation of social norms through conformity that drives much of influencer culture. This social physiologic principle is important for brands to appreciate, as it is central to accessing like-minded followers who generally fit into similar demographic profiles. This is a key basis of market segmentation and target marketing. When a brand understands conformity – they can leverage it effectively.
Tactics and Methods
There is a vast range of tactics used by influencers to fulfil the role as brand ambassadors, although their methods may vary, there are consistent underlying social/psychological principles that universally drive them. These principles are pillars of social psychology, and applying them to the activities of influencers enable brands to develop and focus their strategic communication strategy.
A strategic framework should not only include a clear profile of relevant market segments, but also seek to build a profile of consumers as individuals. This enables brands to target particular relevant niche influencers. More broadly, social influence can be conscious or subconscious.
As such it can be utilised in overt or subtle ways, helping individual influencers to tailor their strategy accordingly. This is particularly relevant to platforms such as Youtube and Instagram. Emerging platforms provide further brand partnership opportunities. Emerging platforms such as TikTok and Clubhouse are continuing to provide valuable branding opportunities. The tactics available to influencers with further marketing integration into these platforms is consistently enhancing the power brand partnership in the social media space.
Consumers can be targeted by methods ranging from aggressive, explicit, shvout-out features to more muted product placement. Equally, the community-building aspect of influencers’ followings means that brands can utilise interest expressed in their products or services within comment sections and can provide a commercial impetus to partner with a particular influencer.
This utilises the power of social norms. Influencer directed brand activities are concerned with the concept of power, alongside the creation and perpetuation of social norms. These two social psychological principles illustrate the process that is unleashed by influencer brand partnerships and influencer community interaction. Social norms are particularly important to understanding the impact that influence behaviour concerning brands can have. They are, in essence, the behaviour and manner of presentation that are deemed to be appropriate in a given group. They are social and cultural standards.
Influencers are uniquely placed to set these standards, often unleashing aesthetic and behavioural norms that compliment and/or centre around brands, products or services. This is why brands must effectively segment the market to enable them to optimise target marketing through relevant influencers platforms.
The Concept of Power
The concept of power is also incredibly important to understand the process of social influence through influencers. In a social context, power dynamics are central to the nature of interaction or communication. Possessing a platform that enables individuals to influence others is power in itself, regardless of the personality and status the individual has. As individuals, influencers have different sources of power. The sources of this power vary and conjoin. ‘Reverent power’ stems from an intense admiration for influencers which sees their followers look up to them. ‘Reward power’ stems from a perceived real reward an individual as a followers gains from another, being the influencer. This may be in the case of influencers and their followers’ social standing from the consumption of a product or service. This is particularly relevant for lifestyle influencers whose success is built upon offering a rewarding experience or education to followers.
Are Influencers Really ‘Experts’
An influencer may also possess perceived or real expert power which empowers them to speak with authority on particular products or services, and therefore utilised by brands. Influencers also can enjoy informational power, this source of power doesn’t stem from a formal position. This is particularly useful because it enables influencers to possess authority on topics that, as an individual, they don’t possess specialist knowledge on a particular topic. This enables brands to partner with less-niche influencers and utilise their potentially broader audiences.
An influencer can also possess negative sources of power such as a coercive power. This power can see an influencer leverage fear and misleading content to sell irrelevant or defective products, reputable brands should avoid such individuals that could cause severe reputational damage. This is exemplified by influencers who in the past have partnered with brands that pushed ineffective alternative medicines. Further, this reputational damage has also been caused by irresponsible and sometimes illegal behaviour by individual influencers during the Covid-19 pandemic particularly related to foregn travel.
Summary of Influencers and Social Influence
To summarise, influencers have become a central feature of digital marketing strategies because of their unique, targeted reach and reference among their audience. It is important for brands not only to understand the reach of influencers but also to appreciate the underlying psychological principles and processes that drive the effectiveness of partnerships.
This understanding and focus enables brands to fully utilise and optimise their use of influencers. This optimisation is not a matter of negative commercial exploitation of human nature. By contrast, it is understanding and adapting digital marketing strategies to complement underlying social psychological conditions within society in a complementary and responsible manner.