They’re called “influencers” for good reason.

They’re called “influencers” for good reason.

If you’ve ever chosen a product, restaurant or doctor based on the recommendation of a friend or family member, then you “get” the influencer phenomenon. We follow the advice of those we know and trust because it usually saves us time and improves our lives.

But why would we base a purchasing decision on a social media influencer? Sure, we might love their TikTok videos or their Instagram feed, but we don’t really know them personally, in real life.

So how can you explain stats like these?

  • Thirty-three percent of Gen Zers have bought a product based on the recommendation of an influencer within the past three months.
  • Influencers affect Gen Z purchase decisions more than twice as much as recommendations from their friends and family.
  • Most Gen Zers and millennials (63% and 66% respectively) say that if an online content creator they trust has reviewed a brand’s product, they are more likely to trust that brand.

What is happening here? How can these influencers have such sway over our lives?

In a word: psychology.

Meet the man who wrote the book on influence.

In 1984, psychologist Robert B. Cialdini published “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” In this book, Cialdini described a number of phenomena that influence people, and among them was something he called “social proof.”

The principle of social proof essentially says that people tend to behave and think the way others around them do. You can see this principle at work everywhere — not just on social media.

When a company’s website tells you that 437 people have bought a particular frying pan, they’re employing social proof. When you look at a podcast’s ratings and reviews, you’re being affected by social proof. And that “OVER 5 MILLION COPIES SOLD” emblazoned on the cover of Cialdini’s book today? That’s social proof, too.

Social media is the natural habitat of social proof.

Social media has made it easier than ever for us to observe what others are up to. In a matter of milliseconds, we can see what people are wearing, where they’re traveling and what they’re eating. We can see their homes, their hobbies and their latest hairstyles.

This has always been the case for bona fide celebrities, whose lives have regularly been put on display by traditional media. These days, even the most ordinary citizen can become a one-person press corps and broadcast all their activities and ideas to a public that’s hungry for behavior to imitate.

Some influencers have more influence than others.

More and more social media influencers are establishing themselves within narrow niches. They pursue very specific interests and gain a following of people who share those interests. Whether these specialized influencers are into pickleball or papier-mâché, whether they’re known for raising identical twins or pygmy goats, their followers typically feel genuinely connected with them and are therefore inclined to respect their opinions.

Whereas a celebrity or mega-influencer has more than a million followers and a macro-influencer has more than 500,000, smaller influencer tiers tend to represent the most heartfelt followings:

Mid-tier influencer: 100,000–500,000 followers

Micro-influencer: 10,000–100,000 followers

Nano-influencer: fewer than 10,000 followers

Influencers and content creators with smaller followings seem to focus more on their unique interests than on egotistical self-promotion or capitalizing on their fame. And that tends to translate into an aura of authenticity that wins followers’ trust.

So it’s no surprise that micro-influencers get up to 60% more engagement than macro-influencers. Micro-influencers feel like the relatable real deal.

Alignment is everything.

The challenge for marketers is to identify influencers who align with the interests and lifestyles of their consumer personas. As Robert Cialdini says in “Influence,” “The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us.

To find an appropriate influencer who puts your brand in front of the right demographic, you can use a specialized agency, or your current agency might be able to handle the task or partner with someone who can.

Good partnerships deliver the best results.

Once an ideal influencer is identified, the next step is to approach them and see whether your brand appeals to them. Sincere endorsement is infinitely more effective than a purely transactional spokesperson-for-hire situation. Of course, brands do typically pay the influencers they partner with, but you want the match to feel natural. 

If an influencer is interested in working with your brand, the way forward can (and should) be a creative one. A simple unboxing or review is only the most basic approach. A content creator might want to make a music video or cartoon or something else that appeals to them. They will do what their audience has come to value, and in so doing, win attention, engagement and — yes — influence.