A parasocial relationship refers to a one-sided relationship in which one person develops an emotional connection with another person (typically a celebrity, an influencer, or a popular fictional character). According to new research, these relationships can heighten the persuasive power of social media influencers by increasing their credibility. The study also indicates that interest in the social media influencers’ field enhances parasocial relations. The findings have been published in Acta Psychologica.
“We started to focus on the topic of social media influencers (SMIs) and their persuasive power as we realized their importance for the advertising market worldwide,” explained study author Delia Cristina Balaban, a communication sciences professor at the Babeș-Bolyai University.
“There are some similarities between traditional celebrities and SMIs. However, the differences are relevant, as SMIs are both content creators on social media and managers of the audiences they build on several platforms. We focused on the parasocial relationship between SMIs and their followers and the role this relationship plays for advertising outcomes. As SMIs constantly interact with their followers by posting on social media on a daily basis, parasocial relations can be build.”
For their study, the researchers collaborated with a female SMI from Romania who had 12,000 followers on Instagram. The participants viewed a screenshot her profile page and an Instagram “story” (a short video) in which she demonstrated how to use a branded hairstyling product. The study included 190 female participants. One hundred and six participants were followers of the SMI on Instagram, while the remaining 84 participants were not.
Followers did not report stronger parasocial relationships with the SMI compared non-followers. “We were surprised that the follower status didn’t necessarily result in parasocial relationship, as previous research stated,” Balaban told PsyPost.
However, the researchers found that followers with greater levels of product involvement tended to report stronger parasocial relationships with the SMI. More specifically, followers who agreed with statements such as “I am very interested in hairstyling products” and “Hairstyling plays an important role in my daily routine” were more likely to agree with statements such as “If the SMI felt good in the Instagram story, I felt good as well.”
“Our main finding was that the interest in the topic the influencer is publishing content about plays a moderating role in the relationship between the follower status and the advertising outcomes,” Balaban said. “In other words, social media users that have an interest in the subject the SMI is posting about will develop strong parasocial relations with SMIs. Just being a follower is not enough to build parasocial relationship with SMIs. Interest in the topic is also needed.”
The researchers also found that stronger parasocial relationships with the SMI were associated with greater perceived credibility (e.g. trustworthiness and expertise). Greater perceived credibility, in turn, was linked to increased intentions to purchase the advertised product.
“Our study has the advantage to be conducted with the help of an SMI that supported us to have access to her followers,” Balaban said. “Research focusing on SMIs should be conducted in real settings. Future research carried out with real SMIs and real followers should consider other types of SMIs (macro and mega) that work in different fields (lifestyle, fitness, etc.). This can contribute to a better understanding of the parasocial relationships.”
The study, “Parasocial relations and social media influencers’ persuasive power. Exploring the moderating role of product involvement“, was authored by Delia Cristina Balaban, Julia Szambolics and Mihai Chirică.