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  • Why do people trust the word of digital tastemakers?
  • Why do people trust the word of digital tastemakers?
    Mianik (2019) ©

#ad! The science of online influencers

Celeb endorsements have lost some of their power in the social media era, but what makes bloggers, vloggers, and self-styled fashionistas so effective as spokespeople? Canvas8 talked to Alexander Schouten, assistant professor at Tilburg University, about how influencers convince people to buy.

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Boasting more than a billion monthly active users, Instagram has evolved far beyond its initial purpose as a photo-sharing platform – it’s now a go-to destination for product and brand discovery among digitally-savvy shoppers. From experimenting with augmented reality to in-app reminders for merch drops, it’s transforming the retail journey beyond transactions alone, allowing people to explore items in depth, find coveted rarities, and seek buying advice from peers across the planet. For many users, the biggest sources of shopping inspiration are influencers. There are 500,000 such individuals on the app and their clout with consumers is set to see social media ad spend surpass print ad spend for the first time in 2019.

The recommendations provided by influencers can be highly impactful. According to research conducted by Edelman in 2019, 58% of 18- to 34-year-olds had bought a new product in the previous six months because of an influencer. Yet while Instagram has allowed the most popular of these online personalities to position themselves as ‘experts’ in their field, with adoring followers hanging on their every word, public opinion has somewhat soured as sponsored posts for everything from teeth whitening kits to diet pills have flooded feeds. It’s become a mainstream media narrative, as highlighted by actress Sophie Turner in an Instagram video that mocked influencers selling detox teas that have no proven health benefits.

Despite creeping concerns about the transparency and expertise of influencers, their effectiveness as online advocates is undeniable. Nano- and micro-influencers, in particular, have emerged as reliable and relatable figures who are capable of forming close, personal connections with followers. “Influencer marketing is interesting because it’s a combination of celebrity endorsement and also word-of-mouth recommendations from a friend,” says Alexander P. Schouten, an assistant professor of business communication and digital media at Tilburg University and co-author of Celebrity vs. influencer endorsements in advertising: the role of identification, credibility, and product-endorser fit’. Canvas8 sat down with him to understand why influencers hold more sway than celebrities on social media and what makes people buy based on their interactions with digital tastemakers.


Why is this topic important to understand?
It's important because of the declining impact of mass media, especially among young people, who don’t really watch traditional television or read newspapers anymore – they consume it all on demand. So, marketers have to find another way to reach them. One way is through platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat. We know that online word-of-mouth is by far the most influential component in driving people to buy something.

So, it’s important to see how people are influenced by what others post online and what causes this influence. An influencer is halfway between a celebrity and a friend. Past literature shows that if you identify with someone, you are more likely to take their recommendations. It also shows that if you trust someone and see them as credible, then you are more inclined to believe their endorsement. We know that both of these work, but no one had investigated that on Instagram in terms of influencers. 

Parasocial connections make recommendations seem more reliable
Parasocial connections make recommendations seem more reliable
Wenyang (2019) ©

What did you want to find out?
The main hypothesis was that influencer endorsements would be more effective than celebrity endorsements, in that respondents would like the product more and would have a higher intention to purchase. We were naturally interested in why this would be the case. 

Influencers are more likely to be similar to consumers than a celebrity – they will identify with them more. People are also more inclined to trust an influencer compared to a celebrity because they are more like a friend, so seem more credible. We believed that these two things combined will make influencer campaigns work better. We also wanted to investigate the effect of endorser-product fit – how well the product fits the endorser’s image. For example, a fitness influencer promoting a protein shake would be a good fit.

People are also more inclined to trust an influencer compared to a celebrity because they are more like a friend, so seem more credible

How did you go about conducting your study?
In these studies, we defined celebrities as people who are actually famous for something they can do (sing, act, etc.). Influencers are those who have built their own fanbase from the ground up around themselves. In both studies, we only had female respondents because the products we advertised were fashion and beauty, but also because the major demographic on Instagram is women.

In the first study, we ran a survey with Instagram users in the Netherlands. We presented them with existing adverts for products (which were previously unknown to them) accompanied by either influencers or celebrities endorsing the products. These products either fit them well or did not fit (e.g. a beauty influencer with a moisturiser versus a food stand mixer). In the second study, we replicated the first survey in the USA. We used the exact same questions, but used different celebrities and influencers and different product categories.

We measured three variables using standard measures. The first variable was how much they identified with the endorser, asking if they wanted to look or be like them. The second was credibility, which involved the perceived trustworthiness and expertise of the endorser. The final variable was advertising effectiveness – if they liked the ad, if they liked the product, and if they had the intention to buy. 

Should influencers be willing to advertise any product?
Should influencers be willing to advertise any product?
Luis Quintero (2019) ©

What were your key findings?
We found that influencer endorsements worked better than celebrity endorsements at increasing the intention to buy, in turn boosting the influencer’s credibility and people’s sense of identification with them. An influencer endorsement works because we identify with those individuals and we find them more credible when talking about a product because they have built their following talking about that topic.

We also found that ‘product fit’ is important – the product you endorse needs to fit your persona. That’s pretty important as a practical recommendation because you have different types of influencers and some really stay in their niche and don’t advertise products they don’t feel comfortable with. Other influencers advertise everything that they can get paid for. We’re currently writing up a study in which we also tested men. We found very few differences between men and women in terms of the impact of influencer fit.

However, we thought that similarity – how similar people feel they are to the endorser – would be important and higher among influencers than celebrities. We did not find that. Instead, we found that influencer marketing is very similar to celebrity marketing in that we buy products or like those influencers because we aspire to be like them. It’s about aspiration and admiration – people are focused on the influencer as someone they would like to become.

72% of people would unfollow an influencer over disingenuous endorsements
72% of people would unfollow an influencer over disingenuous endorsements
Mianik (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities

  • Influencers’ perceived expertise about products means that people see them as reliable advisors – 63% of 18- to 34-year-olds say they trust what influencers say about brands much more than what brands say about themselves in their advertising. Partnering with these personalities can even create a better perception of the company, with 40% of Gen Yers and Zers saying they’ve trusted a brand because of an influencer interaction. Tapping into this, probiotics company Seed is rethinking the traditional influencer model. Rather than sending out free samples to recruit ambassadors, it requires people to pass a course to become experts on the products they’re backing.
  • Regardless of how much they are trusted, people are becoming more critical of influencers who promote products that aren’t related to their personal brand – 72% of people say they would unfollow an individual over disingenuous endorsements. Think of the backlash received by Love Island contestants selling anything they could get a deal on, whether they used and understood it or not. Ensuring that its partnered influencers are authentic, #SephoraSquad invited people with under 10,000 followers on social media to apply to become paid ambassadors for the beauty brand.
  • Having surpassed 500 million users, TikTok has emerged as a key platform through which to reach young people, allowing for more creative influencer collaborations. Leading the way is e.l.f. Cosmetics, which ran a sponsored hashtag challenge dubbed #eyeslipsface. It created a 15-second clip around an original song that mentions that brand’s full name alongside sound cues like ‘mwah’. This led influencers to create their own content remixes in time with the song, promoting the brand all the while. Within just one week, the campaign garnered over 1.6 billion views.
  • Virtual influencers are carving out their own niches online, promoting products to their large followings. For example, Lil Miquela has worked with brands including Samsung and Calvin Klein and Shudu claims to be the world’s first digital supermodel, having promoted fashion brands such as Mianik. They’re so convincing that 42% of Gen Yers and Zers have followed an influencer they thought was real but turned out to be CGI. Some respond well – 66% felt surprised and intrigued when they found out, while 60% thought it was funny. However, there’s also the risk of backlash – 42% reported feeling betrayed and 41% were annoyed that they had been duped. With 32% of young followers of CGI influencers doing so because they give helpful advice, brands looking to tap into these digital creations would do well to be transparent from the outset.

Featured Experts

Alexander P. Schouten

Alexander P. Schouten is an assistant professor of business communication and digital media at Tilburg University’s Department of Cognition and Communication. His research focuses on social media use, online collaboration, and online impression management.