Most of us know a commercial when we see one. They used to provide us with snack breaks during TV shows before the days of streaming and DVR, or interrupt our favorite songs on the radio. Today, ads are a little less obvious, increasingly taking the form of social media posts by so-called “influencers” — especially on Instagram — but we can still spot them in a feed.
Influencer ads typically follow a similar formula: An attractive person casually using a product or service with a caption explaining why they like it, usually accompanied by the disclaimer “#ad.” Influencers don’t necessarily need to be famous; in fact, most of them are just “regular” people who happen to have giant followings on social media.
By all accounts, this type of advertising shouldn’t work — why would we care what products average people are using? Don’t we want to get our products endorsed by celebrities? Not necessarily. According to a 2019 survey by the Influencer Marketing Hub, 69 percent of marketing professionals and brand representatives report using influencers as part of their marketing strategy, while 77 percent said they have increased their influencer output over the past two years. In other words, influencers aren’t going anywhere.
But if we know these are ads — especially ads from non-famous people — why does influencer marketing work so well? SheKnows spoke with several experts in the field to find out.
The perfect combination of being trendy, but relatable
Logically, we know that Instagram influencers are just paid spokespeople — so why do they work, and why are so many brands investing in influencers? According to Beverly Friedmann, a content manager for the consumer website ReviewingThis, one reason brands love using Instagram influencers and celebrities to promote their products is to keep up with current trends.
“If a fan sees an influential figure with a product or using a service, it seems more fashionable and relatable at the same time,” she tells SheKnows. “We can relate to those we admire, although we also put them on pedestals for being successful.”
And while the influencers’ success may seem unattainable to the masses, if we see people that we perceive as relatable using certain products, we’re more likely to buy them, Friedman says. As a result, company investments in these spokespeople is minimal in comparison to the profit gains from using their brands, images and voices for promotional material, she adds.
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The ads are customized to your specific interests
Instagram ads are likely to be appealing to social media users because of their potential to be tailored to the readers’ needs and interests, Michael Barbera, a psychologist who researches consumer decision-making at Clicksuasion Labs where he is the chief behavior officer, tells SheKnows. “Facebook is the parent company for Instagram, which means Facebook’s data collection and analysis are used by Instagram,” he explains. “The content that appears in an ad is likely generated from a user-generated action, such as sharing a hashtag, liking content from another user or the user’s geographic location.” In other words, social media users see products and services they’re most interested in, and companies get to target, well, easy targets.
It’s an intimate form of advertising
Instagram influencers who are highly successful got there by connecting with us in a seemingly intimate way: By us logging onto Instagram and following these images of perceived perfection, Patrick Davey Tully a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, tells SheKnows. “Over time, we view them as friends who have our best interests in mind,” he explains. “Influencers appear as kind people who only want to improve our lives.”
Of course, the reality is that they’re being paid and that familiarity is a carefully calculated facade. But, Tully says that even though we may be conscious of this, it’s our unconscious that is continually exposed to these images. As a result, it becomes so easy to shut off the skeptic inside of us. “These people on the web become our friends. We feel connected, even if they don’t know us,” he notes. “We internalize the attention we receive from these influencers. The successful ones have a strong presence that is inviting and feels real. The fact that the personality represents business is an afterthought for us.”
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We get invested in the brand
The personalization of brands by influencers means that we get invested in what they have to offer, Tully explains. Influencers don’t feel like strangers on the internet: They feel like old friends — whether it’s a mom who is sharing some of the challenges of parenthood and her favorite breast pump, or someone with your hair type having success with a particular product.
“The message they send us feels personal: It’s not a commercial in our minds,” Tully says. “What if they are genuine? This image we have of the influencer is constructed by our psyche but seems so accurate. So, why wouldn’t we try their product out? After all, if the influencer is so successful, why wouldn’t we want a piece of that success?”
We tend to view having success as having what they have or following what they do, so every time we launch Instagram and browse the endless images promoting happiness, success and what looks like true satisfaction, we get even more hooked. “We may feel bad about ourselves for not looking like the influencer, and in an effort to make us feel good about ourselves, we click into what they want to sell,” Tully notes.
They make us feel validated
According to Dr. Kim Chronister, a licensed clinical psychologist, it comes down to the principle of social proof. In other words, “we view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.” So if we are unsure about what to do in a situation, we assume that people around us — from experts to celebrities to acquaintances — have more knowledge about what is happening and what we should do behaviorally, she tells SheKnows.
Additionally, we often view attractive people — from actors, to professional models, to an impossibly-well-put-together mom on Instagram — in a more positive light. This is a phenomenon known as the “halo effect,” Chronister explains. And if a social media influencer has that coveted little blue checkmark indicating “certification,” this means that they have already been given a stamp of approval by an authoritative figure or entity (in this case, Instagram) — and the more authority we think people have, the more we will be willing to follow them, she says.
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It feels novel
Even if someone loves a particular brand or product and are following that Instagram account, they are likely already used to being inundated with the same constant stream of similar photos on a day-to-day basis, according to Friedmann. So when we see a very different photo with a product we enjoy and a face that is familiar, it can be extremely appealing because it looks different than the other images popping up on the brand’s feed. “Psychologically, this rarity is both extremely appealing, and we are stimulated to crave both more material of the same nature and the product itself,” she explains.
We want our opinions to matter
When we see an influencer ad, we’re basically being told that that person’s opinions on something — whether it’s a stroller, seltzer or a sofa — actually matter. “Subconsciously, we all want to be valued for our opinions,” Kimberly Friedmutter, author of the book Subconscious Power: Use Your Inner Mind to Create the Life You’ve Always Wanted, tells SheKnows. So when we see regular people being compensated for sharing their opinions, it gives us hope that we might be next, and that other people might care about what we think, too.
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They are aspirational
Social media influencers also provide a template for what a person could potentially do with their life — no matter how far-fetched it is in reality, Chronister explains. We see influencers who are motivational speakers, fitness models, clean-eaters and super-moms, and think “if they can do it, so can I.” On top of that, we like to cheer our favorite influencers on as they become more successful, overcome challenges (like their first IRL public speaking gig) and combat mom-shaming. They are living their best lives and we want the same thing for ourselves.
A version of this story was published July 2019.