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Three Research Articles Examine Effects of Social Media Influencer Authenticity

Influencers are semi-professional “microcelebrities” who gain followings on various social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram. Often sponsored by brands to promote their products, influencers offer a range of message reliability when it comes to their carefully crafted lifestyles, personalities, and interests.

As the use and importance of social media have grown, so has the interest in influencers themselves as well as what they share online. While the effects of sponsorship disclosures on Instagram and other social media channels have been tested in advertising research, the effects of disclosures about integrity and impartiality are relatively unknown.

Across three recently published articles, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications (UFCJC) researchers set out to examine whether influencer trustworthiness would be affected by key messaging, such as message sidedness, self-disclosure, or sponsorship disclosure; how or if such message strategies and disclosures explain the effectiveness of influencer marketing; the level of celebrity and its impact on audiences; and how or if impartiality claims used by influencers can affect their follower’s beliefs about a product.

In the first article, “Credible influencers: Sponsored YouTube personalities and effects of warranting cues,” Advertising Assistant Professor Benjamin Johnson and his coauthors – undergraduate and graduate students from UFCJC – designed YouTube influencer videos to test how production quality, personal revelations, and brand sponsorship affected people’s perceptions of the videos.

They found that production quality boosted expertise, but did not affect trustworthiness. Viewers saw influencers with sleek and elaborate video edits and music as being more knowledgeable and skillful, but this did not alter whether the influencer was authentic and could be trusted. However, when videos were not sponsored by a brand, viewers did turn to production techniques as a source of trust. In contrast, sponsored videos were seen as equally trustworthy regardless of how flashy the editing was. The authors also found that when the influencer shared a personal story about their past, viewers perceived it negatively.

A second article, “Impartial endorsements: Influencer and celebrity declarations of honesty and non-sponsorship,” was authored by UFCJC graduate students Susanna Lee and Benjamin Vollmer, along with UFCJC alumna Cen April Yue and Johnson. The goal was to understand how balanced, or “impartial,” posts can be especially persuasive. The researchers presented university students with a series of Instagram posts that featured brands. In some of the posts, influencers made comments about their own honesty, or mentioned that a post was or was not sponsored. Lee and her coauthors found that expressing honest opinions boosted influencer expertise. Identifying a post as non-sponsored boosted influencer trustworthiness. Used together, these two claims (honest and not sponsored) had positive effects on viewers’ perceptions of the post and the brand.

The authors were surprised to find that celebrities were seen as more credible than influencers, given that influencers are typically assumed to be more authentic. However, both celebrities and influencers were able to make effective use of the “impartiality” claims about honesty and non-sponsorship.

In a third study, Are they being authentic? The effects of self-disclosure and message sidedness on sponsored post effectiveness,” Lee and Johnson tested how a mix of negative and positive statements about a product can be effective for influencer marketing. Influencers who used these “two-sided” messages were seen as more authentic and credible, and this had positive effects on attitudes toward the brand as well as willingness to purchase the brand and spread positive word-of-mouth. In contrast, influencers who revealed more about themselves in their posts did not show more positive gains compared to more private influencers. Social media users seemed to care more about honesty and authenticity regarding the featured product rather than regarding the influencer.

Taken together, these studies show how different choices about honesty and disclosure can benefit the effectiveness of influencer advertising. Influencers may feel pressure to reveal more personal information about themselves to be authentic, but these experiments show that this self-disclosure rarely pays off in the short-term. However, it may help with long-term relationships with audiences. The studies do show that audiences value honesty and transparency when influencers engage with brands, and that they do pay attention to the quality of influencer content. As influencers continue to play a big role in social media advertising, research into how they are perceived can aid brands, influencers, and their audiences. The findings show message strategies that can help paid partnerships be ethical but persuasive, and informative but enjoyable.

The original research paper, “Credible influencers: Sponsored YouTube personalities and effects of warranting cues,” was published online first at Journal of Media Psychology, August 2021.

 Authors: Benjamin K. Johnson, et al., University of Florida
Corresponding author:
benjaminkjohnson@ufl.edu

The original research paper, “Impartial endorsements: Influencer and celebrity declarations of honesty and non-sponsorship,” was published in Computers in Human Behavior, September 2021.

Authors: Susanna S. Lee, et al., University of Florida
Corresponding author:
benjaminkjohnson@ufl.edu

The original research paper, “Are they being authentic? The effects of self-disclosure and message sidedness on sponsored post effectiveness, was published online first at International Journal of Advertising, October 2021.

Authors: Susanna S. Lee & Benjamin K. Johnson, University of Florida
Corresponding author: Susanna S. Lee im.susannalee@gmail.com 

Posted: January 11, 2022
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