More than Just a Marketing Tool: Social Media Influencers and Social Impact

Written by Jiangmeng Liu, Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Communication
March 16, 2023

square photo of Jiangmeng LiuToday’s socially conscious consumers hold a high standard and expect companies to step in and take more responsibility for social, political, labor, and environmental issues. According to a report by Deloitte, more than 65 percent of consumers have or will switch to buying products from an organization based on their stance on environmental issues. Similarly, a marketing report by Kantar Monitor found that over half of general consumers and more than 62 percent of minority consumers expect companies to take an active role in discussing racial issues.

One timely example involves the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Here major media outlets are quickly turning to companies to inquire about their stance on the abortion issue, while people on social media are calling for boycotting brands because of their stance. Investors also value the firm’s efforts in social and environmental issues, with 73% of investors taking the company’s social responsibility efforts into consideration when making investment decisions, according to Forbes. It is clear that corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate social advocacy (CSA) will continue to take center stage in 2023.

However, companies’ CSR and CSA practices often receive criticism for being “woke-washing,” and can result in consumer skepticism and even anger. For instance, fast-fashion brands’ CSR efforts related to sustainability issues are often perceived as “greenwashing” or a marketing ploy to increase profits. This is due to the inherent conflict between “the profit-seeking nature of business and the altruistic nature of CSR.”.  A recent study published in the Journal of Business Research revealed that large-sized companies and dominant brands face more scrutiny and consumer skepticism, as their sustainability initiatives are seen as less authentic hence leading to lower purchase intention. To alleviate these challenges, companies need to find alternative ways to convey their authentic and altruistic intentions in communicating their CSR efforts. One approach could be to collaborate with a social media influencer (SMI).

Research has shown that working with a social media influencer (SMI) who has dedicated their profile to a social, political, and environmental issue could possibly reduce consumer skepticism toward the CSR initiatives, ensure the company’s commitment to social responsibility, increase CSR engagement with consumers, and ultimately benefit the company as well as society for the common good. Other work underscores that SMIs are often considered more relatable and authentic than traditional celebrities, giving them stronger persuasive powers. Additionally, SMIs’ ability to amass large followings and foster parasocial relationships with their followers makes them effective advocates for important social issues.influencer with an earth image

While collaboration with SMIs for product sales is now a common practice today, partnership with SMIs in CSR/CSA initiatives has only gained traction in recent years. For instance, Dole Food Company’s 2023 “Get Fit for No Kid Hungry” campaign partnered with several fitness, wellness, and nutrition influencers (including Charm City PT, Yoga Athletica and Dr. Rachel) who hosted live-stream workouts, nutrition sessions, and mindfulness activities to boost awareness of childhood hunger issue due to COVID-19 and raise funds for No Kid Hungry. Another example is the sustainable lifestyle influencer Lauren Singer (@trashisfortossers), who has 350,000 followers on Instagram, recently joined Bausch + Lomb’s ONE by ONE Recycling Program to educate her followers on how to properly recycle contact lens waste, meanwhile promoting the company’s ongoing efforts to reduce pollution and prevent blindness and impaired vision in the past 5 years. According to AnyMind Group’s 2020 report, socially responsible influencer campaigns (e.g., raising awareness about social distancing and prevention measures for COVID) have increased by 130 percent in Asia since March 2020, with more and more companies recognizing the potential of SMIs to promote critical social issues.

While companies and brands are exploring opportunities to collaborate with influencers for non-profit purposes, research on this topic is still in its early stages. Nonetheless, there are some practical implications that can be drawn from the existing studies:

Collaborate with a taste- and opinion leader. According to a recent study published in Public Relations Review, the right influencer for a CSR program is not necessarily the most famous one or one with a large following since SMI’s performance metrics are not an effective indicator of generating supportive behaviors. Instead, the right influencer should have both opinion leadership and taste leadership in order to motivate followers to adopt desired beliefs and behaviors.

influence, lawnAn influencer with opinion leadership sways their followers’ attitudes and behaviors by providing valuable information, while an influencer with taste leadership inspires their followers by “shar(ing) actively what looks good, the latest trends and designs, or examples of high style and taste to peer consumers.” In other words, an influencer with both opinion and taste leadership not only shares their first-hand information on social media but also presents it in a visually appealing manner and reflects their unique personal styles that will create a shared sense of purpose.

Collaborate with a congruent influencer. It is important to select an influencer who is affiliated with your target audiences (i.e., influencer-audience congruency). An experimental study discovered that perceived similarity leads to higher psychological distance with the CSA source and greater expectance of the source to engage in CSA activities.  Equally as important is finding an influencer whose identity aligns with the group that the CSR initiatives aim to support. In a study comparing consumers’ responses to brand- vs. influencer-generated CSR messages for racial equality, consumers reacted more favorably and generated less skepticism toward influencer-generated content than brand-generated content supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Comparing responses to Black and non-Black influencers, the content of Black influencers received more engagement, achieved the highest praise and appreciation, and generated little criticism.

Be open and honest.  It is essential to communicate clearly and openly about the brand-sponsorship in influencer content. This is no longer solely an ethical issue but a legal concern, as both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have issued regulations about social media influencers. It is worth noting that the disclosure of brand sponsorship by influencers will not harm the outcome of CSR efforts or the parasocial relationship between the influencer and followers. Studies indicate that the disclosure of the sponsorship generated positive comments and purchase intention of the sponsored brand owing to the influencers’ authenticity.


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