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Key business marketing tips to take from top social media creators, according to these Houston researchers

Here's what you should learn from social media influencers for your own business marketing. Photo via Getty Images

Influencer marketing is booming, with companies allocating 10 to 25 percent of their advertising budgets to influencer-led strategies. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of sponsored posts rose from 1.26 million to 6.12 million, and overall spending in the past few years has grown by billions.

When partnering with online ambassadors, brands certainly want a large influencer audience. However, audience size does not necessarily reflect the amount influencers are paid. Influencers with similar-sized audiences can be paid very different amounts.

That’s partly because brands also want an engaged influencer audience. An influencer may have many followers, but if those followers don’t actively interact with content, the influencer’s reach is limited. Engagement metrics like comments, shares and “likes” are often a more reliable indicator of impact than follower count alone.

The problem brands face — no matter who the influencer is — is that sponsored posts typically see a plunge in engagement, making it difficult to measure their success. Very little research examines this effect and how influencers can mitigate it.

In a new study, Rice Business professors Jae Chung and Ajay Kalra take up this issue, along with Stanford professor Yu Ding. According to the researchers, one way of boosting engagement overall, even on sponsored content where engagement often falls, is for influencers to increase audience perceptions of authenticity, perceived similarity, and interpersonal curiosity.

Even in a world full of filters and careful staging, authenticity is a key differentiator for leaders, businesses and personalities. One powerful way of appearing true to one’s own personality or character is to effectively share life stories. But social media influencers walk a fine line between presenting their authentic selves and monetizing their platforms.

To attract followers and content sponsors, influencers must curate the images they share, the words they say, and the timing and cadence of their posts. It’s a delicate dance between providing value through a genuine audience connection and aligning with brand interests.

Here are three simple but powerful ways that influencers can boost engagement by highlighting close relationships:

  • Post photos that include one or two close friends or family members.
  • Mention friends and family in the caption.
  • Use first-person language (e.g., “I,” “my” and “we”).

Referencing close social ties is an especially powerful way to boost engagement. According to Professor Chung, “Intimate social ties can make influencers seem more authentic and sponsored messaging seem less transactional.” This effect holds true even when controlling for variables like gender, frequency of posting, use of emojis and hashtags, and audience familiarity with the influencer.

The team analyzed over 55,000 Instagram posts from 763 top influencers during the second half of 2019. One of their most distinctive findings is that, in terms of boosting audience engagement, the ideal number of faces in a photo is three — the influencer plus two friends or family members. For an Instagram audience, this numerical face count proves a surprisingly effective metric for assessing the closeness of relationships.

Influencers can also seem more genuine to followers by referencing intimate social ties in their captions. Terms like “grandpa,” “bestie” and “soulmate” give followers access to an inner circle usually reserved for loved ones, making them feel more connected and invested in the influencer’s world and worldview.

In one experiment, study participants were shown a series of Instagram posts supposedly written by actor Jessica Alba. Testing the impact of language on the perception of close ties, the researchers wrote three different captions for the same image. One caption mentions Alba’s daughter (“Styling by my daughter. Isn’t this outfit cute?”). Another references a distant tie (“Styling by designer Kelmen. Isn’t this outfit cute?”). A third post provided a baseline by indicating no ties at all.

Study participants were asked to select which posts they liked most. The results supported the research hypothesis. Posts mentioning close relationships are significantly more likable than posts mentioning distant ties or no ties.

The team also examined the impact of expressing emotion on Instagram. Does sharing feelings — either positive or negative — help or hurt audience engagement? Using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) language processing program, the researchers categorized and analyzed the strength and valence of emotion-related words and emojis (e.g., “love,” “nice,” “frustrated,” “sad”).

What they found is surprising. Expressing emotion boosts audience engagement, perhaps because it bridges a perceived gap of celebrity between influencer and audience. But what’s interesting is that negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones. According to the researchers’ dataset, negative emotions are expressed only 9.08 percent of the time, while positive feelings are shared 36.03 percent of the time. So, one way of interpreting the finding is that the comparative rarity of negative feeling could take some readers by surprise, and thereby incite a stronger sense of authenticity.

Importantly, all of these findings regarding audience engagement most likely apply to platforms where a gray line exists between private and public life.

And, on this note, the researchers warn against the potential for oversharing and exploiting family and friends for the sake of monetizing content.

But the study shows how brands can strategically sponsor posts that incorporate close ties in photos, express emotion, or share anecdotes in first-person language.

By quantifying tactics to achieve a greater perception of authenticity, the research provides valuable guidance on how to cut through the noise on social media. One of the paths to a more engaged audience, it turns out, runs through an influencer’s inner circle.


This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jaeyeon (Jae) Chung, an assistant professor of marketing at Rice Business, Yu Ding an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Ajay Kalra, the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Marketing at Rice Business.

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