I can’t remember a time before dial-up internet, and the thought of that sound of connecting still gives me a small rush of dopamine. As I grew through the many developmental stages of young adulthood so did my relationship to the internet. Often, I’d turn to strangers on the internet for advice. What I thought of as strangers who seemed to be just like me, are now considered influencers and it’s their career to look as if they are just like me. This has had me fascinated with how that closeness I felt changes when sponsorship is involved.
In 2019 influencer marketing is no longer a new phenomenon but a healthy part of the media mix for many campaigns. However, the way that audiences feel towards influencers, and in turn the products they endorse, is not a new way in which audiences relate to media.
Way before my time in the 1950s psychiatrists were writing about the experience of listening to radio hosts. They came up with the term parasocial relations. This was defined as the illusion of intimacy an audience member would feel towards the host of a show, or as they preferred to call them, the persona. The persona would achieve this intimacy by talking directly to the audience in a conversational tone and creating inside jokes, leading audience members to believe they knew the persona better than others did. However, when you think about it the persona has the power to choose what they do and don’t reveal about themselves, meaning they can share enough to seem personable while still remaining private, and all the while essentially knowing nothing about the audience as individuals because the communication is unidirectional.
These characteristics of the persona are also seen in influencers. Addressing the audience directly, creating communities and a sense of belonging by giving their audience a name and sharing personal details about their life that you’d usually only share with a close friend. The parasocial relations theory was appropriated by academics more recently to better describe the extension of intimacy online influencers foster with the term perceived interconnectedness.
This theory argues that the intimacy performed by the online influencer is much stronger than the radio persona because of the pace in which the influencer can share content, giving their audience the opportunity to see behind the scenes of their life and better portraying their ‘real’ self. The intimacy that is performed by online influencers is also strengthened by the fact that the line of conversation is bi-directional - every interaction made by an audience member could potentially be responded to by the influencer which breaks down the power structure that traditional media enforces.
Influencer marketing in many cases has been less than transparent and when all is revealed that the content was a sponsored piece, the influencer’s authenticity is damaged and in turn the brand they are promoting, by essentially misleading their audience. Recently some of the biggest UK influencers, including Zoella and Rita Ora, were sent warning letters from the Competition and Markets Authority to enforce transparency around whether they were paid or had received a reward for posting about a product. This warning, although only sent to 15 influencers, sends a larger message to others and brands alike.
With so many similarities in the way their audiences embrace them why don’t more influencer campaigns look like radio sponsorships? For influencers to be anything less than transparent is firstly assuming a lack of intelligence from their audience, and secondly a lack of trust in their audience. You wouldn’t hide a promotion you received at work from your friends, would you? Attitudes from many audience members sponsored content is a similar vein. They want to see their favourite influencers thrive the same way they’d want to see their real-life friends excel. As much as we think internet audiences are volatile this undermines the bond that parasocial relations and perceived interconnectedness fosters.