While the respondents surveyed were slightly more likely to rely on their personal networks for product research, with 56 per cent saying they consulted friends, influencers came in at a close second, with 49 per cent of respondents relying on them – and nearly 40 per cent saying they had made a purchase as a direct result of an influencer’s tweet.
Those findings don’t surprise Joe Gagliese, co-founder of Vaughan, Ontario-based social media talent agency Viral Nation Inc.
“We see that here all the time,” Gagliese tells ITBusiness.ca. “Many influencers are trusted as friends. People look up to them, and they have an impact on their audience that’s like a word-of-mouth relationship.”
To conduct the study, Twitter and Annalect first surveyed more than 300 respondents to compare the impact of brand influencers, traditional advertisements including digital, and word of mouth, before conducting an online experiment in which more than 500 users were exposed to digital advertising, promoted brand tweets, and influencer tweets. Researchers measured such metrics as awareness, favourability, and purchase intent along the way.
In addition to learning that social media stars rivaled friends in their ability to build consumer trust, Twitter and Annelect found that recommendations from influencers were more likely to go viral, with 20 per cent of respondents saying an influencer’s tweet would inspire them to share a product recommendation.
While the largest followings, unsurprisingly, are still amassed by traditional influencers such as actors, athletes, and musicians, with more than half of Twitter users following actors and musicians, Twitter and Annalect found that age played a key role in predicting which influencers consumers related best to. People 45 years old and up followed a wider range of influencers but preferred household names, while millennials preferred what Twitter calls “handheld names” such as Vine creators, they said.
Gagliese says the handheld names’ level of influence is consistent with the reactions he has seen to his clients’ efforts during the past two years, as endorsements have shifted from organic content with a brand name in the background to outright suggestions – a result of the personal relationships influencers often build with their followers, he says.
“I just signed a 50-year-old lady who has transformed her life through fitness and health, and her following is all women ages 25 to 55 who aspire to be like her,” Gagliese says. “We’re doing a campaign right now for an organic cookie company where we’re working with a lot of mothers who have reach over these great demos that fit their product. We work for GoPro, with kids who create really cool social content in terms of special effects.”
When selecting influencers to work with, Gagliese says that Viral Nation looks at several factors, including a social media personality’s cross-platform numbers, their brandability (influencers whose feed histories aren’t rated PG have no chance whatsoever with the largest brands such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola, he says), and – most importantly – engagement.
“We look at the number of followers they have, how many of those followers are interacting with them, and how they’re interacting with them,” he says, noting that influencers with between 25,000 and 150,000 followers often seem to have more influence over their followers than influencers with higher numbers.
“A lot of our smaller influencers who we really didn’t have high hopes for in terms of growth are the ones that are doing the best for brands,” Gagliese admits.
It’s worth mentioning that whether household or handheld, Twitter and Annalect found that influencers are best used to augment, rather than replace, traditional advertising, including digital and social media: for example, 40 per cent of respondents to their survey said that they followed brands on Twitter, with 60 per cent of those respondents adding that they followed brands to learn about products rather than influencers, whom they primarily followed for entertainment.
Twitter and Annelect also found that survey participants who were exposed to brand tweets were 2.7 times more likely to indicate purchase intent over participants who did not see a brand’s tweet, and when participants were exposed to campaigns that featured both brand and influencer tweets, their rate of purchase intent further increased, by more than five times.
This observation, too, matches Gagliese’s experience.
“Influencers used to be a smash-and-grab marketing tool – let’s hit this audience as hard as we can, as fast as we can,” he says. “Now we do things like building these beautiful stories around brands, creating something that they can reuse in terms of content for their own social channels.”
For example, Vine creator Robby Ayala created a video showing HP laptops doing things his laptop couldn’t – like turn into a tablet. His stunt earned him – and HP – more than 22,000 retweets.
— Robby Ayala (@robbyjayala) July 16, 2014
HP was hardly the first major tech brand to partner with a social media star and, Gagliese says, it won’t be the last.
“We’re talking to major brands like Microsoft about doing year-long endorsement programs with some of the biggest influencers,” he says. “Their content is so loveable that the brands are finding when they run paid media with their content, it’s resonating more.”
Twitter and Annelect released an infographic of their survey’s findings, which you can check out below (click for the full version).