Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Dr. Amanda McClainFaculty Member, Communication

What are social media influencers and what role to they play in marketing? In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU communications professor Dr. Amanda McClain about the growth of social media influencers. Learn about the influence of these parasocial relationships, how someone becomes a social media influencer, how they make money, and the difficulties of being a content creator.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Amanda McClain, associate faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today our conversation is about social media influencers. Welcome, Amanda.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Hi, Bjorn. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, I’m glad to have you back. Loved our conversation last time. So let’s just jump into it. What are social media influencers?

[Podcast: Streaming Services Have Changed TV and Film Forever]

Dr. Amanda McClain: Social media influencers are people who are on a social media platform and have a following, a number of users and who engage with them, and then often they have influence over their audience.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent definition. Now, for those who might not have been on the internet for the last 14 years, maybe 15 years, how do these people influence?

Dr. Amanda McClain: So social media influencers are important because they can actually influence their audiences attitudes towards a brand and they can actually influence purchase intention. And they do this through being perceived as an expert in their specific field and through parasocial relationships. A parasocial relationship is when there is a friendship or a relationship between an audience member and someone they don’t actually know in person, but someone they know through a mediated format.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, the next question is, do they really matter? So do these influencers matter? So, you said they influence, but how are they going to influence say if they’re making content in San Diego, how are they going to influence me here in Arizona?

Dr. Amanda McClain: So if it’s somebody you have been following for a while, you have developed a parasocial relationship with that person. So you feel like they are an expert in whatever it is that they are an expert in, whether that’s fitness or parenthood, or maybe they’re an expert in San Diego, whatever it is, they are an expert in, you trust them to know a lot about that and you will trust their recommendations.

So, if they start recommending a type of surfboard and they’re a surfing expert, you will be more inclined to listen to them. And studies show, actually, that if you follow through and purchase something an influencer has recommended, you’re happier for it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that does make sense because we all want to make wise choices. And so oftentimes before we buy a product, we’ll ask our friends, have you used this? Have you done this? And a lot of times, they have, or they haven’t. I mean, the world’s a big place and our social network that we know is actually pretty small.

And so, social media influencers, I mean, it’s a la carte. What kind do you want? For me, the social media influencers that I follow are mainly for food, different recipes for vegetarian meals, because my wife and I are always looking for better, easier vegetarian meals. What kind of influencers do you watch or do you follow? I should say.

Dr. Amanda McClain: I follow some parenting influencers and I follow some beauty influencers. And I will occasionally check out recipes, but they are more so from celebrities or influencers who don’t use food as their primary source of expertise. For example, I was watching Cardi B’s TikTok channel and she is of course a famous rapper and she made a recipe that she had seen on TikTok and it was for a dip that involved all different types of vegetables and it looks delicious. Am I more likely to make that recipe because Cardi B recommended it? Maybe. I might be.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. I’ve found some things about how to cook paddle cactus. Live in Arizona. There’s a lot of paddle cactus and people eat them and then how to use hearts of palm. Now, have I made those yet? No I haven’t.

But the nice thing is that there are those recipes out there and videos on people doing them and then they seem to enjoy eating them, too. So I can see how the social media influencers do influence you. Because again, you build that relationship with them and you see them cook or you see them do X, Y, and Z, and then you’re more apt to try it, which totally makes sense.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes. I follow parenting, beauty, sort of lifestyle influencer and she has about 500,000 followers and she produces a lot of content. So, by watching her content, I have developed a parasocial relationship with her. I do not know this woman in person, but she was walking us, her viewers, through her beauty routine. And I was like, you know I think I could use some vitamin C for my skin. And I went out, bought it and I do feel more connected to her. And I feel like the vitamin C is helping my skin. Would I have bought that without her influence? Probably not.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s an excellent example. One of the ones that I use is it’s this thing called the Holy Post Podcast. It’s on YouTube. They have their own website and it was founded by the guy who created Veggie Tales. And so, he’s been around a very long time. He is done many cartoons, celebrity in his own right. But he started this podcast and so it’s not a traditional media channel at all. It’s just a podcast and it’s absolutely wonderful.

I guess you could say they help explain the evangelical world to me. As someone who’s not steeped in that culture and the world and that church, it really allows an explanation. I’ve been exposed to different, great writers that I didn’t know about. It’s a good experience, but it also brings up the question of authority. How can you trust certain social media influencers?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. Credibility is very important. And I think that a lot of times you develop credibility just through that relationship, right? You may, unfortunately, trust Joe Rogan because you’ve been listening to his podcast for a long time. You feel like you know him, you feel like your friends, and then he might be spewing misinformation, but he seems like a credible source.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that makes sense. I mean, I’ve been listening to Joe Rogan for years and I view him as like the everyday guy who knows some stuff and doesn’t know some stuff. For him, if he makes a claim, I would seriously research that claim before I do anything. And again, that’s nothing against Joe Rogan, but everybody should do that. Somebody says, “Hey, there’s this medication. It’s really good. Go try it.” First of all, are you being paid to do that? Second of all, have you done the research? And third of all, we all need to do our own research about anything we do, especially if we put it in our bodies.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Oh yes. And just because someone presents themselves as an expert doesn’t mean they truly are, but I don’t know if a lot of people have those critical literacy skills of doing their own research and understanding that people aren’t necessarily being truthful all the time.

[Podcast: How to Improve Your Media Literacy]

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I think that’s one of the darker side of influencers. It sounds so nefarious, but in reality, there are people who have great opinions and those opinions are just opinions. And they can take a set of facts and you can have two people and they draw completely different outcomes from the same facts. Now, if those are perspectives, it’s totally fine. But if both sides are saying, “You need to live your life this way.” Whoa, you need to be careful.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes, definitely. It’s interesting that you mentioned podcast because podcasts are an alternate news information source. And I think they are mostly aimed at people, maybe adults our age, but teenagers and younger people, maybe people in their 20s and teens and younger get their information a lot of times from social media, like TikTok and Instagram. And there are a lot of perhaps dangerous viral trends and people with dubious credibility that students or people need those critical literacy skills to understand.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. So, information literacy is one of those things that we all need to learn from day one and it’s extremely difficult. So, information literacy back in the olden days, as I say, was, I don’t want to say straightforward, but today you can literally get any perspective possible. Even if I want to bring up the conflict of the war in Ukraine, you can get the Western perspective which we are imbued with, we can’t actually get away from our Western perspective and being extraordinarily biased towards that. But there’s actually also a Russian perspective and it’s very difficult to get access to that because if you don’t speak Russian, you can’t get access to it. And a lot of those channels are difficult to find here. And so what are you being influenced? And are you siloed, intentionally or unintentionally?

[Podcast: The Responsibility of the Media in the Ukraine and Russian Conflict]

Dr. Amanda McClain: Now, imagine it’s hard for us to get other information. Imagine you’re living in Russia where literally media is blocked. It’s very hard to get information about the other side of the argument and other side of the issue. Media is a tricky thing and literacy skills should be taught at a younger age than I think they are.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And literacy skills, we should have an actually entire series of podcasts on literacy skills. But the only thing I could always say is do your own research. Be very careful. When you see people whom are presenting themselves as an authority, just double check on it, because you can’t always trust what people say. At the same time, there are wonderful people out there who actually are authorities in what they’re talking about. It’s finding those people whom you do trust. So, the last question I have here is how do social media influencers make money?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah, and I think there’s also this myth that it’s easy to become a content creator. It’s easy to become an influencer and then make a $100,000 in a year. I’ve had multiple people tell me that is their plan for once they have finished college or once they finish high school. But the reality is it’s not that easy.

So, social media influencers make money by partnering with brands. There are different types of social media influencers, depending on how large their audience is from nano-influencers to micro-, to macro-, to mega-influencers.

So your mega influencers are somebody like Kylie Jenner or The Rock, someone who gets a million dollars per paid post. They have a very large audience, but they don’t really interact with their followers. Whereas a nano-influencer has less than 1,000 followers, but a high level of engagement. So, their followers, once a product is recommended, might be more likely to go out and actually buy that product because of that high level of engagement. So, if you are a nano influencer, you have under 1,000 followers, you might get a partnership with big brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, Aerie, Chanel, or even other types of brands, but they might pay you small amounts based on the amount of followers you have, or they might pay you if they’re a smaller brand in product. So, you might be paid in t-shirts, which you can’t eat.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And no, I really like that, how you said about macro- and micro-influencers because micro-influencers really have good engagement. I mean, they have a really good relationship with their people versus The Rock, he’s The Rock. One post will hit millions of people, but at the same time, if you’re scrolling by The Rock’s Instagram page, you might see something and then just zoom on by it. Because it’s just another paid thing that The Rock is hawking and it’s not a bad thing, it will influence people, but then it doesn’t always. It’s like good old marketing. What aspect of marketing actually works? And I think even for people in marketing, it’s a mystery.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Right. There’s two aspects, the amount of followers and the amount of engagement. And depending on your product, you might want more of one or more of the other.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. If I could ever become an influencer, I’ll just take free guitars. That’ll be my payment. And so, this leads me to my question, if you’re an influencer, typically you have to expose your life to the world. Sometimes people put everything out there. Sometimes people are guarded, but at the same time, you do have to essentially let the cameras in.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. Of course, it is a curated version of your life, right? It may not be the full truth. It may not be the authentic truth. It’s the truth you’re presenting to your audience. So, it is your life, but it’s the life you want to show.

So, for example, I follow some parenting influencers and they’ll have what looks like a wonderful meal. Four kids sitting around a table, calmly eating lunch. The food that the mother has prepared, that’s organic and very tasty and the kids eat it. But, the reality might be, and then some influencers do this where they’ll show the next post. Here was the reality and it’s the kids not eating the food and crying and getting up during the meal. And that’s the authentic truth, which I think a lot of people really like to see. I think people connect to authenticity and to real emotions.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And when you study communication and you study social media and influencers and whatnot, authenticity always comes up. I would even say that authenticity comes up as a leader. If you’re in management and you are a leader of people, authenticity matters because you don’t want to interact with fake people. You just don’t. And that authenticity, it really does help build rapport no matter where you are. And that rapport again, really builds that trust.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes, authenticity does build rapport. It builds trust and it can build a parasocial relationship. So, again, I do not have a relationship with these social media influencers, a real one. I don’t know them, but because they are authentic, I feel like I know them. So, the more authenticity people demonstrate, the stronger a parasocial relationship can be along with other items, other elements, like frequency of posting, things like that. And that’s another element of opening up your life, is that to be a content creator, you need to be constantly creating content and people overlook how hard that is to be always creating video and photographing and making videos. It’s hard.

And so, in order to make that a little bit easier, some people focus on their lives because that’s what they’re doing. They’re parenting. They have four kids, they’re dealing with their kids. Why not show that?

I think another example of authenticity that really blew up would be Ryan from “Ryan’s World,” was a young YouTuber who was unboxing, started off unboxing gifts and toys, and then playing with them and kids like watching other kids playing with toys. And that just became a multimillion dollar industry for Ryan. If you go to Target, you see toys from Ryan, “Ryan’s World,” and then it turned into a Nickelodeon TV series. So, there’s a lot of opportunity, but it’s a lot of effort and a lot of opening up yourself.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And “Ryan’s World” is great because, well, my kids love that. If I’m looking for some new headsets, I’ll go on YouTube, I’ll type in the headset and I’ll have somebody review it. That’s wonderful because we could literally test out everything and those people are doing a great service and hopefully they’re making a little money while they’re doing it.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes. And they are supposed to admit if they have received the product for free, they’re supposed to say that. Do they always? Not necessarily. Is it heavily policed online, heavily regulated? Kind of, not so much. It didn’t used to be at all.

There’s also some other negative traits. Yes, like “Ryan’s World” is promoting consumerism. It’s promoting capitalism. You could say a lot of the beauty influencers are promoting an unrealistic image of beauty that hurts young women’s and young men’s body images. There are potentially a lot of negative things about influencers.

However, you could say, it’s also democratizing access to big audiences. You have women and men who are overweight, who are very big. You have people who can popularize smaller niche trends. You have all sorts of things where you have different demographics that aren’t usually on mainstream media getting popular on social media.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And that’s completely true. I mean, back in the day there were marketing firms and there was marketing and that’s pretty much the only thing you saw. And, today, depending on what you’re looking for, you can find your average people describing products and describing themselves and describing their diet. How they changed. I mean, there’s literally everything. And what you said is valid. I mean, social media can be destructive, it can be hurtful, but all you have to do is turn it off.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes. You could say the same thing about mainstream television or magazines, but it’s those images that pervade our popular culture that aren’t just from social media. They’re hard to avoid.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Since we were talking about information literacy before, I’ll say, this could be a great conversation about health literacy. Something like food, you have to go buy the food or alcohol. You have to go buy the alcohol. You don’t have to put it inside you. There’s many, many, many, many, many influencers right there on how to live healthy lives. It’s difficult, honestly. And there’s a lot of help out there, but it’s also just finding the right people whom you connect with that truly can help you.

[Podcast: How to Improve Your Health Literacy]

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. And again, we come back to authenticity there, right? So you’re going to connect again with the people who resonate with your ideals and who you feel a connection with through their emotions and through their lives.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now, do you think that people have a unrealistic expectation of becoming an influencer? Like you said, some people are like, I’m going to become an influencer. I mean, it’s really hard. And for some people that have blown up, it’s complete and utter luck.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes, definitely. There’s a large amount of luck involved. And there’s also finding the right audience, getting in front of the right people. If TikTok puts you on their discover page, if Instagram puts you on the discover page, that could certainly influence it. If you are somebody who already has a modicum of fame, you can build on that. But, if you’re starting from scratch, if you have no followers, it’s hard. It’s very hard.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s why so many celebrities write children’s books because they’re already well known. And so, they write a children’s book, they partner with an artist and essentially you’re going to get X number of sales just because it’s this person writing the book. Versus if you’re an unknown children’s writer, it’s really tough to do anything.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yes. I follow a woman named Oh Joy. Her name is Joy Cho and she started with a blog. It was called Oh Joy. And then at one point she was the most followed person on Pinterest, but she has opened up her life. She has two little girls. We learn all about her family, her husband, her Asian heritage, her parents, as well as her style and her fashion, things like that. And she has written a bunch of children’s books. And if you already have a parasocial relationship with her, with you already feel like, you know her through her social media, you are more likely to buy those books.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Absolutely wonderful conversation today, Amanda. For my last thing, how would you want to be an influencer?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Well, I don’t think I have enough knowledge in fashion, or fitness, or health, really. I think it would have to be parenting and I’m certainly not an expert in parenting. So, I don’t know. I think I would still have to figure it out.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think you should do a podcast that’s media critique, fun media critique. And it’s not making fun of people because that’s one of the tough things about social media and the internet is that to be kind of mean or mean-spirited can actually get you a lot of attention. And we see that in our social discourse where a lot of conversations are not done by reasonable people. They’re done to get clicks and to get noticed and to have interesting media critique like the Kardashians to critique them. But also just to acknowledge the great stuff they’ve done, but to also acknowledge, eh, they’re just people.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. There are podcasts or social media channels devoted to critiquing the Kardashians. And they’re great. I would love to do that. I just need to find the time.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And so, thank you Amanda, for a great conversation today.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Thank you so much.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And today, we’re speaking with Dr. Amanda McClain about social media influencers and, of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.



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