Online Social Networks
As humans we are innately social creatures. For the most part, we actively enjoy being surrounded by other people with whom we can share our opinions and experiences. In fact, much of our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to form relationships and cooperate with one another.We have adapted for thousands of generations to live in organised groups with complex social structures. So much so, that the neocortex, the part of our brain used in complex social behaviour, makes up 28% of our whole brain (D S Massey 2001). In a very real sense, it is our social cognitive skills which make us unique on this planet. And as such, the desire to interact socially is at the very heart of what it means to be a human being (R Dunbar and S Shultz 2007).
Until the dawn of the Industrial revolution in the 1800’s the size of our social networks was limited by physical and practical constraints. Fast-forward just over 200 years, and the world’s population has grown almost 700%. More people have been born during this period than were born in all previous human generations combined. Then we throw online social networks (OSN) into the mix, and suddenly a huge chunk of the world’s population has an almost infinite number of connections. Facebook now has almost twice as many users (1.79 billion) as the total number of people on earth 200 years ago. For millennials, and subsequent generations, they have rapidly become an integral tool for maintaining and growing our social network, feeding our deep rooted desire to interact with one another.
When we break down the psychology of our participation within these networks, their unprecedented growth comes as no surprise. The structure they offer facilitates the formation of groups, and facilitates our fundamental drive to form and maintain relationships. In technical jargon this is known as our ‘need to belong’ (R Baumeister & M Leary 1995), an almost universal human desire to be accepted as part of a wider group.
After Facebook, Instagram is the second most used social media network in the world, with 600 million active users. The minimalist functionality of Instagram means the focus is on image sharing without giving a huge amount of detailed personal information. As the saying goes, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’, and hence it is Instagram’s intense focus on imagery, which makes it such a powerful tool for conveying a specific sense of identity. In particular, Instagram is seen as a platform where people frequently curate their identity to present the best version of themselves. Most of us will have heard someone asking the question ‘is that picture Instagram worthy’? And so we have a platform which is intrinsically aspirational, where people can share all the images of their life, which they would like to represent them, as opposed to those that accurately represent them.
In comparison to Facebook, people do not make ‘friends’, but instead they ‘follow’ each other. This subtle difference means that connections are not always a two-way relationship, but instead a one-way system by which the follower views the pictures of the person they follow, without any reciprocal exchange of information. This implies that the person being followed has more relevant, more interesting, or just ‘cooler’ images, and hence they are a notch more important – something to aspire towards. Whilst there is no exact science behind what makes some profiles more appealing than others, it is frequently those accounts which convey an image that is a source of common aspiration, such as beauty, creativity, wealth, or power.
Influencers vs Brands
In general, a high follower count makes an individual appear more popular, and with this comes a perception of being more attractive, trustworthy, and desirable, amongst other socially desirable traits (Jin & Phua 2014, Utz 2010, Graham 2014). This can create a positive feedback loop allowing some users to grow vast followerships. These users stand out as having popularity of real significance, and the ability to Influence the opinions and behaviour of their audience. And hence, the Instagram Influencer is born – people who can affect the behaviour of their followership through their personal image. They are tastemakers in one, or sometimes multiple niches. The personal stylists of millennials, and generation X.
In principle, the functionality of Instagram allows brands to create accounts in exactly the same way as anybody. A brand can post pictures, comment, and like, exactly as we all can with our own accounts. However, the problem for brands, is that they are just that, a brand, in amongst a sea of people. Whilst a brand may be well known to many millions of people, they cannot self expose like ‘real people’, in order to make meaningful connections (Manago 2012) and so they cannot engender the same sense of trust. The message of a brand is the company line, and everyone knows that for companies the endgame, is to sell you something. No matter how much a brand might try to show you ‘backstage’ through their Instagram account, there is always psychological barrier leaving a disconnect between brand and customer.
In the world of Instagram, Influencers hold the key to brand success. By associating with the right Influencers a brand can put their products in the hands of a trusted source, and in direct view of their target audience. These days, the power of influencer marketing is well recognised, so it doesn’t come cheap. Instagrammer’s with over 100,000 followers can easily charge $900 for a single sponsored post, while influencers with over one million followers can charge tens of thousands of dollars. The challenge for brands is to find the influencers that fit with their target audience (M Mizigaba et al. 2014), and deliver the best possible return on their investment.
Marketing Through Influencers
At face value the size of an Influencers followership gives a clear indication of their reach, and potential for spreading a commercial message (M Talavera 2015). This general idea is backed up by research on Twitter, which shares the follower model of Instagram, suggesting that a perception of popularity is indeed conveyed by the size of a user’s follower count. However, this does not tell the whole story. Popularity alone does not necessarily mean that a user’s content is shared more than that of anyone else (M Cha et al. 2010, Huberman et al. 2010). In other words, the popular user is not always perceived as a true opinion leader, and hence when assessing an Influencer we need to be careful to dissect popularity from real influence.
A recent study, which focussed specifically on Instagram has corroborated this idea. Here, researchers from Ghent University created artificial accounts on Instagram with various combinations of follower and followee counts for both male and female accounts. By assessing the perception of likeability vs opinion leadership, they found that a high followership increases likability because it confers an increased sense of popularity. However, this popularity does not mean that these same users are seen as an opinion leader’s (M Veirman et al. 2016). There is marked disconnect between popularity and influence.
The same study goes further to demonstrate that negative perceptions can arise when a user has an extremely positive follower/followee ratio. In short, those users who have a huge followership whilst appearing to have minimal interest in others, are slightly less likeable. These people are of course still popular, but their numbers are so inflated that they lose some credibility. They have moved into a realm where they no longer appear ‘normal’, and hence they are viewed differently. What’s more, the same phenomenon has been reported for Twitter, where extremely positive follower/followee ratios have been found to make an account appear disingenuous, and ‘fake’ (Siegler 2009, S Cresci et al. 2015). Perhaps one explanation is that a low followee count suggests the user is reluctant to interact (D Williams 2006), which for some people defeats the purpose of a social network. This research highlights, the importance of understanding the users perception of a social network, and all the features within it. And of course, it is this perception which really counts to any marketeer trying to really understand this space.
It is certainly evident that influence, and the factors we use to measure it cannot be distilled down to a few numbers. As we become more and more accustomed to interacting online the nuances and detail we interpret are becoming ever more refined. Within this ever evolving landscape of endless fleeting interactions marketeers don’t have it easy, but it’s a space that simply cannot be ignored. Instagram in particular dominates the millennials market that earn between $50,000 and $75,000 per year, and 47% of its users rank the platform in their top 10 channels for product discovery.
When trying to select Instagram Influencers for your own brand, if we accept the evidence presented so far, selecting them based on their numbers alone would not be wise. Firstly, a high followership does not guarantee real influence, and it appears that there’s a tipping point, where account size becomes, in some ways, a disadvantage, and leads to a perception of reduced interaction. This might seem like a problem, but this information can be used to our advantage. Instead of spreading our attention across the whole network, perhaps we need to focus on which type of user we are going after, and tailor our marketing approach accordingly.
Micro vs Macro: Optimum Strategies Based On Brand Image
Research on how social influence affects consumer behaviour has highlighted two types of consumer need that could explain why consumers are drawn towards different products; the need to conform, and the need to be unique (Y Steinhart et al. 2014). Because consumers rarely have complete information when they evaluate whether a product fulfils their needs, especially online, they make inferences to fill the gaps. That is to say they make assumptions about what a product represents in terms of their own needs – bare with me here! These assumptions are often called common-sense theories, and two such theories have been linked to the desire for uniqueness and conformity:  The common-sense theory of exclusivity, that rare or unique products are desirable (J Berger & C Heath 2007), and  The common-sense theory of popularity, that popular or conventional products are desirable, similar to the ‘bandwagon’ effect (R Henshel and W Johnston 1987, H Deval et al. 2013).
The same research group, based at Ghent university conducted a second experiment that directly tested these ideas using the same artificial Instagram accounts (M Veirman et al. 2016). Here they demonstrated that the perception of unique products changes depending on the number of followers a user has. When the follower count is high the positive effects of exclusivity from unique products are weakened. Meanwhile for users with a moderate number of followers there was a significant positive effect of uniqueness in relation to the same product. In simple terms, the common-sense theory of exclusivity as a positive connotation in relation to unique products is strongest when said unique product is in the hands of moderate scale Influencers, as opposed to larger scale Influencers. Or put differently, rare or unique products might not be effectively promoted by large scale Influencers. If you are still with me, all will become clear…
Whilst this particular experiment has its limitations, and the results require some corroboration from further tests, the information could be extremely insightful for marketers looking to optimise their Instagram Influencer marketing campaigns. To summarise, they suggest that brands should look to define themselves as appealing to the desire for uniqueness or conformity. Then with this in mind, they should take into account a user’s followership when planning out their campaign. For example, a large generic brand like Gap will have little concern for appealing to a sense of exclusivity or uniqueness, and hence they will fit comfortably with some of the biggest influencers, without compromising their brand image. Conversely a brand like American Apparel, known for their controversial advertising campaigns, might want the strongest possible sense of exclusivity, and focus their attention on smaller scale, less well-known influencers. In some contexts a brand might even push the button by selecting controversial influencers in order to drag the brand out of the mainstream. For a brand it is not about maximising your overall exposure, but instead maximising your exposure in a way that aligns with the direction of your brand.
Traditional advertising methods are of course well researched, and account for numerous variables when a new campaign is conceived. For Influencer marketing it’s only a matter of time before we reach the same level of sophistication. OSNs, like Instagram, show no sign of slowing their development, and brands all over the world have a vested interest in understanding exactly how to best use them to promote their products.
Future research should look to establish exactly where the tipping points occur; i.e. at what point does an influencers size become a disadvantage to some smaller, more exclusive brands, and what exactly constitutes ‘small’, ‘large’ and everything in between, when it comes to both Influencers and brands. The chances are that these variables will not fall into discrete categories, but instead form numerous spectra, which will intersect at various points. With this level of understanding, brands could then plan their Influencer marketing strategies around a clear framework based upon the users perception of both the network, and the content within it.