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A deep dive into the concept of influencing

Like many people in their 20s, I have a TikTok account (you can learn more about this social media platform in this article). While I don’t use it to create video content, I follow numerous creators (more popularly called "influencers") in the sphere of wellness, self-care, and travel. I find that watching their videos relaxes me, and motivates me to focus on my own wellbeing, to a certain extent. However, something that I’ve become more conscious about lately, is that influencers, true to their name, occasionally ‘influence’ me to buy products they recommend, like the latest skincare products, for example. A recent de-cluttering session made me aware of the products I’ve purchased "just because" I’ve seen my favourite creator talking about them, and I want to try them for myself.

Some of the products I’ve been satisfied with, but the others, I’ve realised are indeed just a "hype", and not worth the money I’ve spent on them in an impulse purchase. This got me thinking about the science behind influencer marketing, which refers to collaborations between companies and content creators, to promote specific products or services.

Who is an influencer, and how does influencer marketing work?

Before we go ahead, you might be wondering who exactly an influencer is, and how they differ from celebrities. Influencers gain fame and traction within specific niches, such as fitness, beauty, or travel and therefore, have expertise within these sectors. Their followers are individuals who have a special interest in that topic. For example, if someone’s interest is travel, they’d follow a travel influencer’s journey around the world, who would occasionally endorse travel-related products. In comparison,  celebrities are followed on social media because of an admiration for their talents in the entertainment industry, like musicians or actors.

This form of marketing differs from products marketed and endorsed by celebrities, in that products are tailored to the influencer’s niche. Let’s take the example of a beauty influencer marketing a new facial moisturiser from Brand X. Brand X would pay the influencer a flat rate to feature their moisturiser in videos, with a link to purchase the product. This influencer would also provide a ‘promo code’; for each purchase made using the promo code, the influencer receives a certain amount in an affiliate commission.

Personally, the reason why I have been more influenced to buy products used by content creators I follow, as compared to seeing a celebrity endorsement ad on the tube ride home, is the degree of familiarity with influencers. They, like us, are ‘normal’ people, most of whom also have day jobs, and use content creation as a hobby, and/or a means to earn extra income. They post daily videos, sharing snippets of their lives with their followers, which in my opinion, adds a layer of authenticity that celebrities often cannot provide. This is called the trans-parasocial relation. I appreciate the authenticity of the influencers that I follow because they do not shy away from admitting when they’re having moments of sadness or a lack of motivation, which is something that we all can relate to.

Influencing for a good cause

One of the many ways influencers can truly use their “influence” is by using their platform for a good cause and raising awareness about important issues, especially mental health. Some influencers share their own lived experiences with mental health conditions, while others are medical doctors, like Dr Jake Goodman, who share information based on their professional capacity.

Another example of such an influencer is Dr Ally Jaffee (who recently wrote this article for ITM). Dr Jaffee is an NHS Junior Doctor specialising in psychiatry, with lived experience of mental health conditions, and uses her platforms for a good cause: increasing mental health literacy.

Apart from mental health, one of the positive ways I witnessed influencers use their reach was during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, when there was a tremendous shortage of healthcare resources like hospital beds, medication, and ventilators. Influencers from various niches came together and shared content highlighting the availability of resources and contacts in cities across the country, for their followers.

However, with these positive features, it's important to always check for the credibility of information. While numerous influencers like Dr Jaffee and Dr Goodman are credible sources of information, many creators share content that’s inaccurate and potentially harmful. So, before you click the 'Follow' button on social media, consider the authenticity of their accounts, and make sure the information you receive is verified.

Influencing has a not-so-good side too

As with virtually any topic related to social media, influencing also has two sides to the same coin. In addition to the benefits discussed above, influencers might sometimes promote an inauthentic lifestyle in a bid to get more followers. For example, in the fitness-influencing industry, posting overly thin, muscular bodies can negatively impact the mental health and body image of their followers. In fact, research has shown that women who are exposed to the ‘thin ideal’ show higher body and facial dissatisfaction.

One of the glaring negative aspects of influencer marketing is endorsing products that might be potentially harmful, such as weight loss pills, or unsafe skincare or makeup products. Additionally, while most influencers these days disclose when their social media post is part of a paid advertisement, some might not specify that their post is sponsored. This means that their content is misleading, and their recommendation might not necessarily be authentic.

Aside from the consumer perspective, the influencer perspective also needs to be considered when evaluating the good and bad sides.

The constant need to stay relevant in social media can cause immense pressure on content creators, which can, in turn, affect their mental wellbeing. Fighting to maintain relevancy in their niche can add a layer of competition with similar influencers, which would be another factor impacting their mental health.

In response to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, today’s children say they want to be “Youtubers”  (or social media creators) as compared to the oft-responded occupation of an astronaut. It's clear that content creation and influencing are here to stay, so it’s important to know the realistic pros and cons that come with the jobs, to ensure that the mental health of our future generation is protected.


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