By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist
A lot has changed in the last twenty years. In 2004, MySpace made history as the first online networking site to acquire a total of a million monthly active users, a momentous milestone at the time. However, those early numbers pale in comparison to the sheer number of people flocking to social media companies just a decade or so later. For example, from 2016 to 2018, TikTok’s total active user base increased by an average of 20 million users each successive month. The massive differences between these numbers better than anything else illustrate how times have changed. Since the early 2000s, social media has gone from a novelty casually enjoyed by a small fraction of the population to a perceived necessity of everyday life for the majority of the world. Social media provides us with news, entertainment, work connections, and even with our romantic love interests. Although the idea may have been scoffed at just two short decades ago, social media has become a ubiquitous part of modern life. Given this, it should come as little surprise that the younger generation – the ones who grew up with the internet and social media in their pocket – are much more in tune with the unspoken rules of this new game.
Generation Z (Gen Z) is the generation born roughly between 1997 and 2012. For most of them, navigating the digital world of social media is just another day in normal life. Unlike the older generations who may be equally or possibly more adept at using today’s technology, Gen Z is native to this environment, and many of the generational differences between them and their older cohorts lay primarily in their psychological outlook rather than their skillset or abilities.
This is certainly the case when it comes to the marketing impact of social media influencers. Now, research consistently shows that influencer endorsements can be a highly effective marketing strategy for the general population. But this is especially true among Gen Z, who more than any of the other generations, see social influencers as their peers and who instinctively understand the “rules” of behavior governing this peer-like relationship. Specifically, members of Gen Z instinctively hold a greater sense of trust and familiarity towards these social influencers, as well as towards the brands and products they endorse. Leaving them more likely to make purchases via social media channels, and to base those purchasing decisions on what they perceive to be the genuine recommendations of a reliable source (i.e., the trusted influencer).
However, this elevated level of trust and familiarity can be a double-edged sword. Research shows that influencer avoidance (defined as actively shunning, avoiding, or unfollowing a social media influencer) is on the rise among members of Gen Z, and to a lesser extent, among other generations as well. Typically this occurs when consumers believe a social media influencer’s authenticity has been compromised by a brand’s sponsorship, either by the degree of control the brand appears to have on the influencer, or by the incompatibility of the brand with the influencer’s normal values and content. It turns out that the same perception of genuineness and legitimacy that contributes to a higher sense of trust toward influencers also fuels a deeper sense of disillusionment among consumers when that trust is violated.
Marketers need to be aware of the main variables contributing to influencer avoidance today:
- The incompatibility between the identity/values of the brand and the influencer’s typical content. For example, if an influencer’s platform is centered on consuming an all-natural diet, and then taking on an energy drink as a sponsor will result in avoidance from consumers who view this inconsistency as disingenuous and a violation of their trusted peer-like relationship.
- The level of perceived creative control that the brand has on the influencer’s content and messaging (e.g., the what, how, why, when, and where of the sponsored messages). Messages and recommendations that are seen as being directly controlled by the sponsoring brands tend to increase influencer avoidance. Thus, relaxing the degree of control on the way the influencer represents your brand will reduce the risk of alienating the influencer’s audience.
- The level of influence (macro vs. micro) that the influencer holds. Studies show that micro-influencers are judged less harshly when their messaging is more tightly controlled by sponsoring brands. However, this shifts in the opposite direction as the influencer’s reach grows. Suggesting that as influencers’ platform increases, it may be time to allow them more free reign in how they present their sponsored information.
- The strength of the relationship between the consumer and the influencer. Stronger relationships (i.e., long-term or dedicated viewers/listeners) tend to be more resilient in the face of perceived inconsistencies between an influencer’s normal content and their endorsement of various brands. While consumers with a weaker relationship (i.e., short-term or casual viewers/listeners) will be more likely to stop interacting with the influencer when the same discrepancies arise.
In closing, the data suggests that while there is some leeway in regard to an influencer’s dedicated audience and their sponsoring brands, the best way to maintain and grow that audience (and your brand) is to allow influencers to deliver their content in the most authentic and genuine way possible. This means making sure your brand’s identity is a comfortable match with the influencer’s overall content, lowering the level of direct control over the messaging, and being willing to revisit the existing dynamic between these two things whenever it is needed. Keeping these principles in mind will not only enhance your influencer campaigns in the short run but will also help you build and sustain your brand’s desired image for the generations to come.
– Dr. James
 Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2019) – “The rise of social media”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved on 5/22/23, from: https://ourworldindata.org/rise-of-social-media [Online Resource]
 Pew Research Center. (2019). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Retrieved on 5/22/23, from: https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/ [Online Resource]
 Patil, Dr B S & Pandey, Sakshi. (2022). Marketing Campaigns Targeting Millennials and Generation Z: Comparative Analysis. British Journal of Administrative Management. 58. 126.
 Schouten, Alexander & Janssen, Loes & Verspaget, Maegan. (2019). Celebrity vs. Influencer endorsements in advertising: the role of identification, credibility, and Product-Endorser fit. International Journal of Advertising. 39. 1-24. 10.1080/02650487.2019.1634898.
 Pradhan, Debasis & Kuanr, Abhisek & Pahi, Sampa Anupurba & Akram, Muhammad. (2022). Influencer marketing: When and why gen Z consumers avoid influencers and endorsed brands. Psychology & Marketing. 40. 10.1002/mar.21749.