Parasocial Interactions: The Science of Influence

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We know influencers can convince people to purchase a good or a service, and we know that people will follow and engage with their lives on social media. Brands will pay them for their ability to engage and create content people want to see. But why are their followers so invested in their content? What is it about an influencer that makes them so appealing? Is there a deeper component than “this content is good and I want to see more of it?”

One prevailing theory is that many social media spectators engage in “parasocial interactions” with influencers. They feel connected to an influencer as if they are a friend, despite the influencer not having formed a personal relationship with them.

Think of it this way – many of us open our favorite social media apps several times a day, tuning into the lives of our favorite influencers ad nauseum. We can watch their lives unfold in real-time, witness their happiness and success, and likewise their hardships and failures. We invest in their personal lives and connect with their content, sometimes so much so that we feel like they’re a friend. Seem familiar?

The Academic Perspective of Parasocial Interaction

The term “parasocial interaction” was originally coined in 1956 by two sociologists who studied the nature of celebrities in mass media. They theorized that spectators act as if they have a real social relationship with a public figure – they feel empathy for them, and exert emotional energy towards them – despite being behind a barricade or the silver screen. While these kinds of relationships formed before the advent of mass media (like with religious figures or politicians), television – and later the internet – increased the frequency with which they occurred.

Nowadays, academics study the effect of social media on interpersonal relationships, and often refer to social media influencers in this way. Leslie Rasmussen, writing for The Journal of Social Media in Society, describes parasocial interactions with influencers like this:

“Over time, audiences develop intimate bonds that mirror real-life social interactions, which are intensified when viewers gain information regarding the personal lives of online celebrities.”

She goes on to say that the ability to “engage” with an influencer amplifies a parasocial interaction, as it mirrors a more realistic social interaction. Because followers can like and comment on a post, or even send messages, it gives them a sense of connection and interaction with an influencer, even if it goes unnoticed.

Rasmussen conducted a study on how credible YouTube influencers are perceived to be by measuring how a sample of college students reacted to a set of beauty videos. The study found that the more popular an influencer was, the more credible their opinions were perceived to be. It also found a high correlation between the popularity of an influencer and an individual feeling like they were a friend.

What Does This Mean For Marketers?

Rasmussen’s findings grant scientific credence to many things we intuitively know, notably that influencers have credibility among their followers because of their popularity, as well as their perceived authenticity and openness. However, her findings indicate there is a deeper psychological mechanism at play that can help marketers better understand how influencers influence. These insights can make for better influencer marketing campaigns and more meaningful storytelling.

The credibility of an influencer is contingent on several factors separate from their perceived authenticity. For one thing, both an influencer’s aspirational qualities, such as attractiveness, wealth, or expertise, and their relatable qualities augment the way a follower feels towards them. To put it simply, the more a follower wants to be friends with an influencer, the more credible the influencer’s opinions are to the follower.

Feeling Lonely in a Crowded Room

To be clear, a parasocial relationship is neither a positive nor negative thing. Some might think of a one-sided relationship as lonely at best or pathological at worst, but this is not often the case. In fact, one study found no correlation between loneliness, mental illness, and parasocial relationships. Feeling empathy and affection towards an influencer is evidently common, and can create a real bond between an influencer and their followers.

Having a favorite influencer is in many ways similar to having a favorite celebrity, athlete, or sports team. The key difference is the access we have to an influencer, both physically and temporally. Social media puts them just within our perceivable reach, so they often feel that much closer to us. And, because we can see them at any point in our day, they truly feel within reach. We give their opinions weight because they feel like friends to us, and that’s a perfectly normal thing to feel.

For marketers, this is not just proof that influencer marketing works. It tells us that when influencers create content that resonates with their audience, sponsored or not, they will listen. Giving them room to be creative, authentic, and genuine is vital to achieving success in influencer marketing. Going against that grain will likely break the parasocial relationship between follower and influencer. If it’s no longer believable, and they no longer feel like a friend, why would we listen to what they have to say?

Understanding these insights is key to running a successful influencer marketing campaign. The next step is to find the influencers who speak to your brand’s audience. Solutions like Julius can help you find the right people to tell your brand's story. Find out more by visiting our website, or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn for more influencer marketing news and analysis.

May 28, 2019
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