The psychology behind influencer marketing

Apr 15th, 2024

65% of Gen Z, and 49% of millennials have made a purchase decision because of an influencer they follow on Social Media.

We’ve all done it – bought a product or service you might not have otherwise considered because of an influencer. Well at least most of us have, or at the very least have been enticed by the idea.

The question is why? Why are we more likely to purchase a product that has been promoted by a familiar face online, rather than when it’s simply seen on the shelves (virtual or otherwise)?

The answer is rooted in psychology. Certain psychological and evolutionary phenomena can explain why we are so easily persuaded by other humans, and how marketers have harnessed this to create an entire subset of marketing, known as Influencer Marketing.

Humans are inherently social beings, and we have evolved to learn from one another. Observing and imitating the behaviours of others helps us acquire valuable skills and knowledge without having to learn everything through trial and error individually.

For this reason, influence by others has an evolutionary root because it promotes social order, cooperation, and the efficient transfer of knowledge and resources within groups, ultimately enhancing the chance of survival for the human species.

Influence can be unconscious: a lot of the time, influence happens without our conscious knowledge. Whether through subtle cues, societal norms, or the unspoken language of body gestures, influence intertwines with our daily lives, often undetected by our rational minds, guiding our thoughts, decisions, and actions.

Desiring a sense of belonging: whilst most people would argue that they want to feel a sense of individuality or uniqueness – it is an undeniable human trait that having interests in common with others creates a sense of belonging. This stems from the idea that conformity helps maintain social order, reducing conflicts and facilitating cooperation amongst communities.

Essentially, as humans, making choices that we believe to be popular amongst our peers, or will help us to feel like we belong within the group, is an evolutionary advantageous way to make us feel safe.

Difficulty making decisions: making decisions is also a particularly difficult task for humans; the risk of making the wrong decision can often induce a state of anxiety in us – with the fear we might damage our reputation, or start down a path that will both waste our time, effort, and money. Following others’ suggestion – or influence – eases our anxiety around decision making, and helps us feel we are making the right decision.

Influencer marketing strategically taps into the psychology of influence, leveraging various psychological principles to engage audiences and drive brand success.

The appeal of social proof

Social proof is the tendency for people to follow the actions of the majority in order to display what is deemed to be correct behaviour for the situation. Essentially, as humans we are conditioned to believe that if everyone else is acting in a certain way, it is a safe and reliable course of action to pursue, and therefore must be the right decision.

Leveraging an influencer to demonstrate how your product or service can be used, or benefits their lifestyle, is classified as social proof – increasing the likelihood your audience will invest in your brand.

Building authentic connections

Our digital world has given us the ability to build connections with people we have never even met; programmes such as MTV’s Catfish shows that some people even form serious romantic relationships with people they’re not entirely sure even exist.

This demonstrates that influencers can establish and build genuine connections with their audiences, that leads to feelings of familiarity and attachment with the individual. This adds a substantial level of trust, so when an influencer promotes a product or service, it is similar to receiving a recommendation from a friend or family member.

The power of a common interest

A well-known sales tactic that is used often is finding (or falsifying) something in common with the person you are selling to (so think twice next time a car salesman tells you his wife’s name is the same as yours…).

Essentially, it is widely known that finding a common interest with the person you are trying to persuade gives you an advantage.

Most influencers create content in relation to a particular niche: whether that’s diet & exercise, fashion & beauty, or something more extravagant like conspiracy theories or true crime – if there is a niche for it, there is likely an associated influencer too. By default, the followers of that influencer are also interested in the niche they are associated with – and will therefore find they have a lot in common with them.

Creating emotional engagement

As mentioned above, influencers build genuine connections with their audience – this gives them the ability to connect with their followers on an emotional level. Through heartfelt testimonials, relatable narratives, and behind-the-scenes glimpses, influencers evoke a range of emotions that resonate with their followers, ultimately driving engagement, loyalty, and conversion. Partnering with an influencer can humanise your brand, nurture consumer trust, and establish meaningful connections with your target audience.

Authority & leadership

As a species, humans are conditioned to respect and obey authority figures; take Milgram’s electric shock study from the 1960s for example. In this study, normal people from the general public delivered what they believed to be dangerous and fatal electric shocks to others – simply because a person of authority (in this case a scientific researcher) told them to do so.

Whilst not maybe to that extreme, brands can harness the authority and expertise of influencers within their respective niches by tapping into the innate human tendency to trust and value expert opinions. When brands align themselves with industry experts and authority figures, consumers are inclined to trust their recommendations implicitly, mirroring traditional marketing tactics like the overused phrase “recommended by 9/10 dentists”.

Harnessing FOMO

Influencers often capitalise on the ‘fear of missing out’ (or FOMO) by creating a sense of urgency or exclusivity around the products or services they promote. Brands often provide influencers with a limited time discount code, or an exclusive access link to share with their followers that taps into the fear that if they won’t act fast enough to be included, or triggers a sense of exclusion from an elite or desirable group.

The impact of influencer marketing on consumer behaviour is rooted in human psychology; its ability to create genuine connections between brands and consumers, often mirroring the dynamics of interpersonal relationships is what makes influence marketing so successful. As the digital landscape continues to evolve, understanding the psychology behind influencer marketing will remain essential for brands seeking to thrive in an increasingly competitive market. By harnessing the power of human psychology, influencer marketing will continue to shape consumer behaviour and drive brand success in the years to come.

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