- Researchers found the interaction styles of successful influencers focus on how their communication looks rather than what they say.
- If you want a lot of followers, make your message simple and attractive, and suppress the deep content or analysis.
- Successful influencers disguise themselves as consumer reviewers, using simple concrete language expected in a real conversation.
Two recent studies examined how successful social media influencers use language and other communication styles.1,2 The studies noted that the interaction styles of such successful influencers–influencers with large followings–tend to focus on how their communication looks rather than what is actually said in the message.
That is to say, successful influencers employ "surface" or "peripheral" aspects of language. The take-home message of the research is: if you want a lot of followers, and earn a lot of money on social media, make your message simple and attractive, and suppress the deep content or analysis.
The surface presentational style of successful social media influencers seems at odds with pre-internet ‘real world’ views on what makes a successful communication; these have always stressed what is said, clear analysis, and subject-competence over the peripheral aspects of language. Why is there such a difference in what makes an effective advert in the real and digital worlds–and what has this got to do with Odysseus?
To place this issue in its digital context, social media influencers are businesspeople, who create wealth by showcasing their putative knowledge, competence, and abilities in a particular area. The Influencer Market Report suggested that this market was worth $8 billion in 2019 and probably much more now. Influencers make videos to attract viewers, and social media platforms provide financial rewards in line with the influencer's number of views.
For instance, YouTube channels can pay about $18 per 1,000 advertising views, although this can vary. Thus, the bottom line (as it were) is that it pays to attract viewers and subscribers–and developing communication styles that will do this is in the best interests of an influencer. So, what communication styles should you use if you wish to become a successful influencer on social media?
A recent study examined the linguistic predictors of successful social media influencers (sometimes called "mega-influencers," "celebrity influencers," or ‘superstar-influencers’), who can have upwards of two million followers.1 This study identified elements of influencers’ linguistic styles associated with getting lots of viewers who trusted them. Using highly concrete forms of language (keeping it simple) and having a direct and close personal style directly impacted the viewers’ perceptions of the influencers' performance and increased the influencers’ numbers of views and subscribers.
In addition, displays of emotion by influencers, while communicating, indirectly affected their success, largely through that emotion transferring to the viewer1–this process is known as "emotional contagion." For example, an influencer’s enthusiasm for a product may transmit to the viewer.
In contrast to these "peripheral" aspects of communication, which are concerned with how the message looks, the actual content (what was said), and the influencer's expertise, were largely irrelevant to viewing numbers and viewers’ trust in the influencer.1 Thus, the message's form or presentation, not the content, was the key feature affecting influencer success. This means that the peripheral elements of communication are central to digital persuasion–the influencer's actual expertise (or lack thereof) does not come into the equation.
Moving away from the superstar influencers, another study focused on the persuasive impact of "nano-influencers"–those at the start of their influencer careers, with up to 10,000 followers.2 Although this study focused on nano-influencers instead of the "superstars," it found the same depressing results. Peripheral aspects of the message, such as its simplicity (or "construal") and valence (its positivity or negativity), determined its perceived credibility and led to the success of the influencer.
Across several experiments set in different contexts, the study revealed that specific and concrete (simple or "low-construal") messages posted by nano-influencers were seen as more credible than complex and difficult high-construal messages.2 The impact of message construal was moderated by the message valence, in that positive, low-construal messages were rated more credible than negatively-framed low-construal messages. These aspects of communication style increased viewers’ intentions to engage with the promoted service or product and the nano-influencer.
The immediate question that comes to mind is whether the benefits to social media influencers of using simple language with lots of positive emotion are different from the type of effects seen in traditional advertising. Remember, at the base, influencers are salespeople in another guise.
For one set of authors, there are clear differences between what makes influencers and traditional advertisers successful:
Contrary to the pre-internet persuasion research, the able, motivated, and focused viewers of superstar social media influencers identify the traditionally peripheral elements of linguistic style and emotional contagion as central to increasing the number of views and subscribers.1
Indeed, research shows this is exactly the case, and this same research also may point to why this change has occurred from the real to the digital world of persuasion.
A study from 2013 reported results from a series of experiments examining the impact of figurative (abstract and complex) and concrete (simple and descriptive) language on consumers’ views of products when the advertising was not delivered via social media influencers.3 The results showed that different types of language-use impact views of the product very differently in different contexts. In non-social media, professionally-produced adverts and figurative language (language which can be complex and metaphorical) were very effective across many contexts.
Remember that these were messages (adverts) viewers knew were selling something. However, in consumer reviews–one person communicating to another and not necessarily trying to sell something–figurative language was less effective; that is, the: “…effectiveness of a review decreases when the author “spices up” the review with figurative language.”3
These results suggest that when people know they are being sold something, they tend to dismiss any simple descriptions, perhaps because they don’t believe them.3 However, viewers may enjoy the advert's artistry and the emotions generated. Emotional contagion works in this context, too; the viewers’ own positive emotions about the advert transfer to the product–this has been well-established since J.B. Watson, who, on losing his academic job, plodded around selling beauty products using this method, and gave birth to modern (pre-internet) advertising strategies that rely on the transfer of affect from one thing to another.
In contrast, when engaged in normal conversation, people do not want the product oversold–they want to hear the information straight–otherwise, they think they are being sold something.
The research suggests that successful influencers are disguising themselves as consumer reviewers–using the straightforward concrete language that people expect from a real conversation. Like Odysseus and his wooden horse, they hide the advert within a shell of everyday language. As many viewers are still unclear about what they see on social media, they treat what is really an advert like an interaction with a friend–and, therefore, the rules of those interactions apply–keep it simple, direct, and close.
To repeat what has been said, time and time again, "social media" is not social–and influencers are offering nothing but an advert. Successful influencers, whether they know it or not, rely on viewers’ confusion about what the influencer is doing by aping conversational language to work their influence.
1. Lee, M.T., & Theokary, C. (2021). The superstar social media influencer: Exploiting linguistic style and emotional contagion over content?. Journal of Business Research, 132, 860-871.
2. Balaji, M.S., Jiang, Y., & Jha, S. (2021). Nanoinfluencer marketing: How message features affect credibility and behavioral intentions. Journal of Business Research, 136, 293-304.
3. Kronrod, A., & Danziger, S. (2013). “Wii will rock you!” The use and effect of figurative language in consumer reviews of hedonic and utilitarian consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(4), 726-739.