The Influence Of Social Media On Public Relations: The Rise Of Influencer Marketing
Social media’s impact on the practice of public relations has grown exponentially in the past few years, so much to the point that most brands choose to rely heavily on social media and popular figures on social media platforms known as “influencers” to generate attention to their products. For this project, I chose to examine the social media phenomenon known as “Influencer marketing”, which works in tandem with an effect commonly known as “hype”, and how it is setting a new precedent for how public relations is practiced in the new age of communications, as well as what it means for future practices in public relations.
In recent years, the influence of social media has grown so much that it has changed the way that brands and professionals practice public relations. This is due to the growth in technology, the popularity of social media because users have discovered that, if utilized properly, they can achieve a certain celebrity status. The rise of social media has created a new breed of “celebrity”, often known as “insta-famous”, which have almost completely rendered the old form of celebrity obsolete to brands and public relations practitioners whose target audience is a younger demographic. This younger demographic is often referred to as “millennials”- children born near the start of the new millennium, who were born at the time the Internet was becoming common in households and have basically grown up with different iterations of social media, not as minor celebrities, but instead active users; from the heydays of Myspace to the now popular Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Youtube. Even younger than millennials are the consumers often referred to as Gen Z; these are the generation of consumers that were born right after millennials and are the most active demographic on social media, not only as users, but also some have managed to cultivate a following that makes them a person of interest to brands. This new wave of celebrity is the backbone of the “hype” movement; because they are usually around the same age or younger than their fanbase, they are seen as “relatable” and thus, their fans are watching them critically to attempt to emulate them.
These insta-celebrities are prone to posting their every detail on their social media platforms, mostly Instagram, and so certain brands want to form partnerships with them in the hopes of reaching the Gen Z demographic. What we can observe from this is that the practice of public relations is adhering to the new wave of viral marketing by attaching brands to popular social media figures, or the reverse of creating social media figures that become popular by attaching them to well-known brands, because both parties effectively gain a boost in public interest from associating with one another. This can get complicated, as brands and public figures need to not only fit each others’ interests, but they also need to have a positive appearance in the public eye (i. e. free of scandal). Although, in some cases, a brand partnering with a controversial public figure could feed into the “hype” concept because it would serve the same purpose of having a brand’s latest public offering go viral on social media platforms, which ultimately leads an effect on the brand’s sales. An example of this is 2018’s Nike campaign which featured polarizing public figure Colin Kaepernick; the ad campaign was met with a small amount of backlash from people on social media with did not agree with the pairing. These people showed their disdain against Nike by mutilating their Nike products and posting about Nike on various social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, which led to Nike becoming a trending topic and having a major boost in sales from the publics that did support Nike. Instances of hype as a viral marketing tool are prevalent in the Supreme brand; “Supreme” is an American clothing brand that started in 1994, but it only started to gain in popularity in recent years due to an influx of social media influencers sporting clothing from the brand, or certain brands entering into endorsement deals with social media influencers like in the case of Fashion Nova, an online clothing brand whose only form of marketing is purely “hype”-based; the brand is known to replicate clothing worn by popular influencers like Kim Kardashian as a way to appeal to their audience. The fashion industry has long been a champion of this form of marketing, often known as “influencer marketing”; before there was social media, these influencers were models, actors and singers, and they served as the face of major brands depending on the height of their popularity. Now, with the height of social media, some mainstream celebrities as utilising social media platforms as a way to revive their popularity, mostly by creating YouTube channels like in the case of Will Smith or Jack Black and collaborating with popular social media celebrities like Lilly Singh (IISuperwomanII) or Liza Koshy. Social media influencer marketing has grown so much in recent years that it has overtaken traditional social media practices and it has changed the way that public relations is practiced, first because it doesn’t use the traditional media of print and television/radio, instead keeping everything online, and secondly because it forces brands to restructure their public image to cater to a younger demographic of consumers.
One of the first major social media platforms to generate “influencers” was MySpace, which was created in 2003, but only rose in popularity from 2005 until 2009 when it was overtaken by Facebook. In a sense, MySpace set off the “internet celebrity” movement which was then carried on first through YouTube, and later on Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Musical. ly and others; these internet personalities generate fame and popularity which they then convert into endorsement deals and, in the case of internet personalities like Justin Bieber, they use the internet as an avenue into a genuine career in the entertainment industry. For the purpose of this project, I have chosen to focus on the social media influencers who stay strictly on social media platforms, and through their partnerships with major brands, they help to generate hype and boost sales for these brands by serving as a sort of middle-man between brands and consumers, effectively serving as public relations officers in one specific sector of the position. A book published by Crystal Abidin of Jönköping University, Sweden called “Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online” breaks down what defines an internet celebrity and the different ways that people become internet celebrities; briefly, she explains what constitutes an internet celebrity, and the different categories of internet celebrity, ranging from the long-term celebrities who make a full-fledged career on the internet to the short-term celebrity that achieves internet fame through a viral video clip i. e what is now referred to as “memes” (an image or video with a humorous context that is then shared by multiple internet users on social media platforms). These long-term internet celebrities help to set the tone for what is popular among young consumers, and in a bid to reach these consumers, brands have tailored themselves to fit the criteria by endorsing popular social media stars like Kylie Jenner. This practice has become so popular that it is now known as “influencer marketing”. This practice of influencer marketing is utilised worldwide, with most countries having their own version of internet celebrities that brands can partner with to boost their appearance because it falls under the B2C sector, based on Influencer Marketing Hub’s report of a survey of eight hundred and thirty marketing professionals which revealed an average of 69% who were focused on B2C. Don Eberly’s article for the Society for Marketing Professionals clearly defined influencer marketing as “interactive marketing based on the influence of others” (Eberly, 2017). The article went on to define the elements of influencer marketing, including the importance of influencer marketing and the ways to engage in influencer marketing by establishing and maintaining a relationship with a diverse range of influencers while still implementing certain elements of traditional public relations, i. e “press releases, news briefs, product noties, completed project announcements…”. His article ends by hammering the importance of maintaining a certain group of influencers that fit seamlessly with the brand/organization image, as this provides consistency on the part of both the influencer and the brand/organization, and it helps to cultivate a feeling of trust from consumers.
Influencer marketing doesn’t only apply to boosting sales; it can sometimes be used by certain organizations to push forward a message relating to social issues or charity efforts. A major example of this was the Ice Bucket Challenge which started in 2014 in a bid to raise money toward finding a cure for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) by asking participants to either donate money to the foundation, or douse themselves in ice water. This campaign grew in popularity by including social media influencers, who went on to nominate other influencers to partake in the challenge as well as mainstream celebrities. In public relations, influencer marketing provides a new arena which practitioners can use to expand their reach to consumers and new audiences for their clients, because this is a new and current channel of communication that is only gaining in popularity and has successfully captured the attention of the world. Influencer marketing has forced public relations practitioners to not only be communicators, but organizations and brands are being introduced into a dialogue with their audiences and are starting to recognise the various social communities that have been created by social media platforms. While some practitioners may be wary of influencer marketing because it means that they are not in charge of how their message is transmitted to consumers, there is still excitement about the opportunity that influencers have given them to reach out directly to their audiences while opening themselves up to new audiences; this is according to a research study carried out by Paul Gillin for the Society for New Communications Research. His research concluded that social media had become the biggest medium for the spread of information by a margin of fifty-seven percent, online facilities like blogs, YouTube and other social media platforms were part of a range of tools that could be utilised by public relations practitioners to connect with audiences, and his study also underlined a set of guidelines for determining the worth of an online influencer which comes down their level of engagement and presence on social media. The social media platform that houses the most influencers is Instagram; this is because it provides a space that combines many elements of other social media platforms into one space- from direct messaging to Instagram stories, live-streaming, and its own IGTV, which allows influencers to create long-form videos which they can share with their followers- and so influencers don’t need to have multiples channels of communication, even though they often do. Instagram is where most brands first go when they are looking for influencers to partner with; as of 2018, the social media platform has over 1 billion active users monthly.
Active means that these users are posting videos and photos, liking and commenting on content posted by other users, and generally interacting as a part of a community. Of these one billion users, there is a clear division between influencers and consumers of content, and amongst the influencers there is a hierarchy according to the number of followers which range from one hundred thousand and well into the tens of millions. An article by Eti Nachum on jeffbullas. com helped to breakdown the hierarchy of influencers: 1. Celebrities; over one million followers (e. g. Kylie Jenner) 2. Macro-influencers; at least one million followers (e. g. James Charles) 3. Middle influencers; one hundred thousand followers 4. Micro-influencers; ten thousand followers or less 5. Nano-influencers; fewer than one thousand followers. This same article also found that micro-influencers were the best when it came to audience engagement, citing a Markerly report that stated that influencers with lower followings had a better like and comment ratio, which progressively gets worse at their following grows. The report also cited a study from ExperVoices that was conducted by Jonah Berger of Wharton School of Business which purported that “82% of consumers are “highly likely” to follow a recommendation made by a micro-influencer”. Nachum’s article stated that influencers are considered to be more credible by their audience by a margin of 10%, which plays into the trust factor that influencers have generated between themselves and their followers for as long as they have had a presence on social media; this is also likely because influencers have created an identity for themselves which they have upheld consistently in the public eye. Another angle for the trust factor is the fact that brands/organizations reach out to influencers for endorsement, which allows the influencers to get a firsthand understanding of what they are being asked to share with their followers, and they are given free reign to conduct their own research on the product. In the report published by Influencer Marketing Hub, organizations that engaged in influencer marketing saw a return on investments of almost $18 for every $1 that was spent on an endorsement; it is partly because of this that agencies dedicated to simplifying and making influencer marketing easily accessible have to been created, with numbers reporting to be about three hundred and twenty. Also in this report, engagement on Instagram was higher than on any other social media platform, specifically Twitter, which has a lot o the same benefits as Instagram, e. g nano-influencers on Instagram generated an engagement rate of at least 7. 2% using Instagram, but only garnered an average of 1. 4% using Twitter as of 2018 (results were found after surveying one hundred thousand influencers). The report concluded, based on surveys that covered everything from consumer reactions to insider predictions, that influencer marketing would continue to gain in popularity in 2019 based on the current success rate being seen by brands/organizations that are currently engaging in influencer marketing, and an intention by an average 63% of brands/organizations to relegate more of their marketing budget toward influencer marketing over the next year.
Generating “Hype” on Social Media
Through a steady presence on social media platforms, as well creating a persona of wealth and luxury, social media influencers are able to amass a large following of young fans who aspire to reach the same heights as their favorite social media celebrity. Before social media, the concept of “celebrity” used to be actors of movies and TV shows or singers and models, and Hollywood used to be seen as the only way to achieve fame or wealth, which is what young consumers used to look up to; thanks to the advent of YouTube, which allowed people to generate their own fame by creating and posting videos, as well as Instagram which opened a new venue for people who were deemed not desirable enough for the mainstream media, to showcase their talents. What has happened is that, where people had to figuratively beg to become celebrities, they are now doing it in the comfort of their own homes, and they have amassed such influence for themselves that they are being approached for offers to appear in films, or entering into endorsement deals with brands, something that they previously would not have been able to do without social media. Social media created a space of inclusivity that mainstream media did not previously have, and it is because of this inclusivity that social media influencers have become so popular, and in turn why influencer marketing has gained so much traction.
How this influencer marketing works is simple; brands make an endorsement deal with a popular social media personality with a decent percentage of engagement with followers (engagement percentage depends on the number of followers) and a high amount of followers, where they agree to pay a certain amount of money in exchange for the personality to post sponsored content relating to the brand’s products, and sometimes these brands will ask the influencers to encourage their audiences to buy the brand’s products at a discounted price by using a personalized discount code relating to the influencer. Brands that utilise this form of influencer marketing include Fashion Nova, Sugar Bear Hair, Fit Tea and Pretty Little Thing. In partnering with these influencers, they help to generate hype about a product from a specific brand, and they give off the illusion of popularity according to the number of influencers that a brand can get to endorse their product; because of the close relationship that influencers have with their audience, it opens a line of communication between brands and consumers which makes the consumers feel like they excitement about future releases from brands that partner with their favorite social media personalities. This differs greatly from the regular celebrity endorsement; with celebrity endorsement, the celebrities often don’t try the products before they endorse it, and after the endorsement they have little to nothing to do with the brand/organization afterwards. If a celebrity partners with a brand/organization and the campaign receives a negative reaction from the audience, the celebrity will not be as affected because they have no real say in the planning of the campaign, whereas with social media influencers, who are responsible in part for the creation of the sponsored post relating to the brand/organization, they could face damages to their reputation or personal brand. With celebrity endorsements, it is commonly understood that the celebrity is just “the face”, and has no real connection to the product, therefore to the consumer there is no feeling of trust in the celebrity endorsement. Influencers, especially on Instagram, often show themselves partaking in the brand/organization that they are endorsing, which helps to boost the consumer’s trust.
The Negative Side of Influencer Marketing
Despite its efficiency, and what can be considered benefits, influencer marketing does have its downsides, which public relations practitioners have to consider before engaging in the practice. Before an organization/brand can or should partner with an influencer, there are certain elements involved that can produce negative results for the brand, the biggest one being any scandal committed by the influencer; with social media being set up as an open space where anything can be exposed, it is important for brands/organizations to partner with the right influencers. An example of this is Jeffree Star, a beauty Youtuber with over twenty million followers across multiple social media platforms; old videos of the Youtube star surfaced which showed him using offensive and racist terms, and this caused a downturn in his popularity and his marketability which took years for him to regain. Even now, most brands choose not to associate with him because they don’t want their consumers to believe that they support the message that Jeffree Star is still apologizing for. As important as it is to have a reliable and consistent array of influencers for a brand, it is also important to have proper channels of communication with them; a mistake that is sometimes made by brands is that they have too many influencers advertising their products, and thus it becomes too difficult to properly communicate.
The influencers in turn could be courting interest from other brands, or the are engaged with agreements with other brands, and so they might start to neglect the needs of one brand over another, especially when it comes to which brand pays the most or which brand communicates the most. It is imperative to keep a clear line of communication with influencers, to ensure that they are passing along the correct message of the brand when relaying it to their following. In public relations, when relaying a message to an audience, a major turnoff for audiences is repetitive advertising; when brands/organizations replay the same message, even if through multiple channels, it becomes a burden to consumers, and it is the fastest way to ensure that they turn away from whatever a brand/organization has to offer. This is why, in influencer marketing, it is important that the message is diversified across different influencers so that it doesn’t appear like traditional advertising, but instead to consumers it feels like a conversation; individual influencers should be given some leeway to tailor sponsored posts from brands in a way that they believe will appeal to their followers because it shows authenticity and uniqueness which consumers look for in brands before they decide to invest attention to them. This is a mistake that a lot by certain brands like Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova who are online fashion boutiques that rely heavily on influencer marketing, and it has been noticed that these brands are notorious for recycling their message and not allowing their influencers to have any control over how the message is shared with the audience, instead preferring to stick to a script that has been approved by the brand. A major selling point of influencer marketing is that brands get to tap into a yet uncharted pool of talent and creativity at a fraction of the cost, so it is important to monitor the content created by influencers through clear and open communication; as the studies show, the higher an influencer gets in followers, the less engagement that they generate, and this could be due to a new level of pressure placed on influencers to perform contrary to what they were already doing, which leads them to slacken in their creation of content, and leaves only low quality content that consumers would find unappealing.
Due to the growing popularity of influencer marketing, there is a fear that the field will become oversaturated, with brands wanting to hire as many influencers as possible because of the belief that if a large number of influencers are endorsing a product, then it will lead to an influx in sales, but this could have the opposite effect. Nachum’s article stated that there had been a rapid rise the use of Ad-blocking software being used in recent years, and this is one of the reasons why influencer marketing had gained in popularity, but if influencer marketing continues to grow, and the creativity of the influencers is not being utilised properly, then the practice of influencer marketing will begin to fail. Another negative side of influencer marketing is on the side of the brand/organization that wants to retain the services of influencers, but believes that they don’t have to pay them for their services because they believe that the “exposure” of being in association with the brand should be enough for the influencer; influencers in influencer marketing function on the same level as public relations practitioners, and in the same way that brands would pay public relations officials to create campaigns for them or to handle other aspects of public relations, they need to pay influencers as well. In a bid to have as many influencers on their team as possible, some brands/organizations make the mistake of not ensuring that the influencers they choose to work actually match with their values. SkinnyMe Tea, a company that promotes products aimed at weight management, constantly makes the hiring of employing influencers like members of the Kardashian family, not because they promote a healthy lifestyle, but instead because of their popularity; this made the brand look unreliable in the eyes of the consumer, and even though they continue to employ other influencers to endorse their products, those endorsements are usually met with backlash from consumers. This brand also makes the mistake stated above of, of using the same script with all their influencers without allowing any creative input from the influencers, and so their influencer marketing campaigns run just like traditional advertising.
In conclusion, influencer marketing is growing based on the impact that social media has shown to have, and I predict that the practice will continue for as long as there are social media personalities who possess the ability to draw in a captive audience that brands and organizations want to add to their consumer base. Influencer marketing has an advantage over traditional public relations because the audience already has a connection with the social media influencer, and so there is a level of trust between the audience and the influencer which makes it easier for them to partake in what is being presented to them from the brand/organization through the influencer. Influencer have become opinion leaders and tastemakers thanks to the rise of social media, and the ability of these individuals to tap into the marketability factor of social media (“hype”) which they have utilised not only to generate sales, but to spread awareness for environmental charitable causes, and to create web traffic for organizations. My research into influencer marketing led me to understanding the hierarchy of social media influencers, and how brands know exactly which influencer to partner with in order to achieve massive ROI; the process is done by categorizing influencers and their audience based on interests, and then tailoring content that fits with those interests for maximum engagement. When utilising influencer marketing, it is important to partner with an influencer who has established an identity and has garnered such a presence that commands attention from their audiences; the reason for this is based on the trust factor again, as audiences don’t get the feeling of being invaded that they would get from traditional public relations campaigns. In essence, influencer marketing has a better reach to audiences through strategically placed sponsored posts on popular social media pages.
Recommendations for Further Research
For research purposes in the future, I would find it interesting to go further into the science of influencer marketing, to determine the impact that it has on public relations campaigns; the only real report I found on the subject was focused solely on the one social media platform Instagram, because that is were most of the influencer marketing is based, but it would be interesting to figure out how the practice is carried out in other forms of social media, like Twitter or Snapchat or Facebook. Social media users have the ability to block certain content that they have no interest in seeing, and it is partly because of this brands/organizations have had to use influencer marketing, because the only provision for it was that influencers had to disclose their sponsored posts, but there is a sort of gray area where influencers could claim a personal endorsement of a product. There isn’t any cited research that I could find on it, but to go further into the research of influencer marketing, it would be interesting to understand how personal endorsement affects influencer marketing in terms of whether it creates a positive effect or a negative effect with regards to the trust factor between influencers and their audiences.
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