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.

Investors gravitate toward funds ending in the number zero over those ending in the number five, a Rice University researcher finds. Because of this tendency, some investors expose themselves to financial risk and loss of wealth. Photo via Getty Images

Rice University research finds that investors might have a bias towards the number zero

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When the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 18,000 a few years back, the nicely rounded number dominated the news. When teens take the SAT, those who just miss scoring a round number are more likely to seek a do-over. And, research shows, major league baseball players are four times more likely to end their seasons with a .300 batting average than a .299.

There's something irresistible about figures ending in zero. But does that extend to our decision-making? Does our instinctive love for round numbers affect our financial plans?

The answer is yes, says Rice Business professor Ajay Kalra. Along with Xiao Liu of NYU Stern and Wei Zhang of Iowa State University, Kalra looked at data from thousands of investors in Target Retirement Funds (TRFs), which generally assume retirement at age 65 and ask employees to pick a fund with a year ending either in zero or five (e.g., 2040, 2045) that is nearest to their planned retirement date.

Investors whose birth year doesn't already end in zero or five must round up or round down to choose their TRF.

The zeros clearly win investors' hearts. Succumbing to what the researchers call "zero bias," investors consistently choose to sink their retirement dollars into funds that end in zero, not five. For many of the investors Kalra and his team looked at, especially older people, men and those with higher incomes, this meant choosing a retirement age of 60 or 70 rather than the standard 65.

The choice was often costly. Many investors who rounded up or down to find a fund year ending in zero exposed themselves to real financial risk.

That's because TRFs are graded portfolios — meaning they start out stock-heavy, move to a mix of stocks and bonds and finally emphasize bonds. Investors who rounded down for a too-young retirement target gave themselves less time to benefit from a stock-dominant portfolio. Investors who rounded up for a too-old retirement target ending in zero contributed less money to their retirement because they assumed they had more time to invest. Investors who rounded down did worse than those who rounded up.

Who is most susceptible to losing hard-earned retirement dollars this way? The researchers looked at people born from the 1950s through the 1980s. Of these investors, those born in years ending between three and seven selected the appropriate fund. The zero bias was prevalent in those born in years ending in eight or nine, who tended to project their retirement age as 60, and those born in years that ended in zero, one or two, who favored retiring at 70.

Overall, the researchers discovered, 34 percent of people born in years ending in eight or nine picked retirement funds that targeted too-early retirement — and ended up financially worse off. Meanwhile, 29 percent of investors born in years ending in the numbers zero, one or two picked later TRFs. With the exception of those who were risk averse, these investors ended up better off than those who chose too-early TRFs. Overall, however, investors who picked funds with mismatched retirement dates (that is, inconsistent with retirement at 65), saw more losses than gains.

The infatuation with zero held up even when the researchers replicated their study in an experimental setting. So they tried something different: they presented participants with math problems to coax a "calculative mindset." It worked. Rather than gravitating to zeros, these investors chose retirement funds that matched their ages. Straight talk in the form of a 30-minute one-on-one financial planning session helped too. At least some investors who got this counseling made better choices.

Rounding up or down to zero can be a nice mental shortcut when stakes are low and time is short. There are good reasons, for example, to go for the zero in calculating sales tax when you're buying a book, or tallying how many party guests want cake.

But when it comes to life savings, instinct-based math can be trouble. Financial firms should be aware of this and discourage preference for the shiny number zero. Advisors should nudge clients toward funds that will truly enhance earnings. Most important, however, investors themselves need to keep their heads, think of the future and resist the allure of round numbers.


This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Ajay Kalra, a professor of marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.

Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

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Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.