Just how much influence do social networks have on our everyday lives? A lot, as many recent studies have shown. Social media reaches a vast pool of potential customers willingly sharing their locations, age ranges, and preferences that allow marketers to precisely aim their advertising campaigns at just the right demographic and area. Aside from the direct promotion of products and services through social networks, there is also the indirect approach – promoting products and services through the “influencers” – people with a large following whose opinions have been shown to have a true influence (hence the term) on the purchase decisions of their followers. Either way, social media influence’s impact on purchasing decisions is real.
What in the world is an “influencer”?
As the name suggests, “influencers” are persons with a very strong social media following that influence the opinions and the purchasing decisions of others thanks to their knowledge, authority or relationship with the audience. The term “influencer” is often used by laymen for people with a large following on, say, Instagram. This is rarely true, though – a large following can be built in many ways, and some of them are far from being legitimate.
One of the best influencer marketing examples for an artificially inflated following but no authority is the one of “Arii”, an Instagram celebrity with more than 2 million followers. She launched her own product line based on her following’s positive feedback but only managed to sell 36 units of t-shirts. In an Instagram post that she has since deleted (but the internet never forgets!) she explained that all her followers who encouraged her to do it never actually bought the product and didn’t even share the social media updates promoting them. Obviously, in this case, “influencer” is not the right term.
There are, in turn, many individuals with massive social media following that actually influence the trends – they are industry experts, celebrities, thought leaders, and content creators who are voices of authority in their areas.
In fact, my own influencer marketing definition is much broader than the narrow celebrity-centric approach that many businesses have had to influencer marketing.
The growing role of influencers
Social media has been repeatedly shown to have a serious influence on the desires and purchase decisions of its users. PwC’s “Total Retail” report has proven that the influencers’ shopping behavior has driven almost half of all the respondents to the survey to seek out more information about the products they saw in an update, no matter if they were a pair of jeans, a new smartphone, a computer or even a trip to one of the most Instagrammable locations in the world.
The social media marketing concept of influencer marketing evolved from celebrity endorsements. Just as celebrity promoters endorsed various products, social media celebrities are doing the same today. The situation of celebrity influencers is strange, though, because in many cases, their credibility doesn’t even come close to that of others.
Celebrities often use their status to advocate for various causes – and their actions are often quite successful. Even if their credibility is often impaired by the public’s disbelief, there are enough cases to prove the public opinion wrong: just think of fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss’s campaign that raised millions for Heifer International, a charity that aims to eradicate poverty and hunger or the Ice Bucket Challenge that gained the support of a huge list of celebrities ranging from singer Justin Bieber and actor Hugh Jackman to former US president George W. Bush and UK prime minister James Cameron (current US president Donald Trump was also nominated for the challenge in 2015 but he turned down, calling Boston mayor Marty Walsh, who nominated him, a clown). The first Ice Bucket Challenge spread like wildfire through Facebook, generating more than 2.4 million videos.
Sometimes, in turn, the star power of influencers takes a questionable direction. One example would be Goop, the natural health company owned and promoted by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The brand was heavily criticized for selling “treatments” that have no proven effect and promoting health claims – often dangerous ones – without any proper scientific background.
Influence without influencers
Advertising is not the only way social media influences its users’ purchase decisions, though. Social media users routinely search for inspiration on the pages of their preferred network, and their decisions are heavily influenced by the decisions made and the reviews left by their friends and families. Plus, the sense of achievements they feel when their updates are liked by many of their peers also plays a major role – this is why there are so many people who won’t start eating their meals without snapping a picture of it first and simply can’t resist recording a live concert or event on their phones and then sharing these pictures on social media. The constant race for validation and the chasing of likes makes so many people experience their lives through a digital filter.
This chase for the perfect latte, the perfect sunset or the perfect backdrop for a selfie can have surprising – sometimes devastating – effects. This spring, after a pretty wet winter that pulled California out of its drought, some areas of California were covered in picture-perfect poppies in what the specialists call “super bloom”. Unfortunately, this beauty wasn’t long-lived, at least in some areas. The small town of Lake Elsinore, that hasn’t seen so many beautiful poppies for three decades, was invaded by smartphone-wielding people eager to take a selfie against this unique and beautiful background. Over the Saint Patrick’s Day weekend this year, the small town saw more than 100,000 visitors trampling all the flowers in an event that will go down in history as the #PoppyApocalypse.
Travel in the age of social media
The updates shared on social media by an individual’s peers have a significant effect on their purchasing decisions. For one, they are more likely to purchase a product or service that has been “Liked”, rated, and reviewed by a person they know – either personally or exclusively online. This effect can be observed in pretty much every area, from sodas and phones to cars and appliances – and it is especially strong when it comes to travel.
According to the folks from MDG Advertising, 40% of all UK millennials responding to their surveys have admitted to considering how Instagram-worthy a location is before planning their trips, and around three-quarters of all travelers use social media while away from home, posting updates, sharing the best views and meals they come across, triggering “FOMO” in their peers at home. And their trips don’t end once they get home – almost half of all travelers have admitted to posting reviews of the hotels, activities, attractions, and restaurants they have encountered while away.
The “Bandwagon effect” of Social Media Influence
As beliefs, ideas, as well as product and service “trends”, are adopted by an ever-growing number of individuals, the rate of adoption of these speeds up – and this applies perfectly to social media. New ideas, fads, and trends have the potential to reach large groups of people in a short time – and the more people they reach, the more likely it is for others to “jump on the bandwagon” when seeing them. This is called the “Bandwagon effect” – a phenomenon where the rate of adoption of a trend, for example, is likely to grow in parallel with the number of individuals that have already embraced it. In economics, the bandwagon effect is a lot like a positive feedback loop that pushes even more consumers toward purchasing a certain product or service. This can be observed in many areas – one example would be the one of Stephen Curry, a point guard at the Golden State Warriors, whose jersey sales exploded after the NBA team won the finals in 2015. In the first two weeks of the following season, the sales of the jersey saw a more than 400% growth due to the large number of “bandwagon fans” that started showing interest in the team after it won.
On social networks, convincing individual users to purchase a certain product, start using a certain service or even choose a certain destination is far easier if their peers have already done so. Given that they are a massive global community, social media makes the perfect medium for promoting brands, products, and services, and even more so in this day and age when more than 70% of all consumers rely on social media to make purchase decisions. And the number of people present on one of the many social networks is growing every day. These services are also becoming much more diverse – there are many smaller ones that focus on specific niches and attract highly specialized audiences and massive global networks with hundreds of millions of users from all over the world. Each age group seems to prefer a different one – those over a certain age have grown accustomed to Facebook while the younger audiences flock to services like Instagram and Snapchat. This makes it much easier for marketers to get the message exactly to the people they want to reach.
The social media influence on purchasing decisions will continue to grow, with or without influencers. The social aspect of purchasing means that those brands that take a more strategic approach to social media influence will be the winners tomorrow.
This is a post written by me on behalf of one of my many marketing partners. All opinions are 100% mine.
For another look at the consumer buying behavior in today’s digital age, check out this great infographic from Business2Community.