How does sponsored content affect influencers’ authenticity?

Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Maximilian H. E. E. Gerrath is a Lecturer in Marketing at Leeds University Business School. His research interests are branding, digital marketing and consumer psychology.

Maximilian Gerrath

With traditional forms of marketing (such as direct mail or magazine advertisements) losing their persuasive powers, brands are shifting their efforts towards digital and word-of-mouth-based forms of marketing.

One such emerging form of marketing—influencer marketing—received a lot of attention from managers, researchers, and the media recently. It is an increasingly lucrative market, projected to be worth around 14 billion US dollars by the end of this year.

Influencer marketing describes the practice of brands generating word-of-mouth for their products and services by collaborating with content creators on social media platforms, such as Instagram or TikTok. For example, an influencer may get paid in return for posting about a brand’s product. This content is referred to as “sponsored content”.

As influencers often start their career as independent individuals, their influential power stems from their credibility and independence from corporate interests. However, brand sponsorship has led to numerous influencers turning their hobby into a full-time profession, while allowing select influencers to become multi-million-dollar businesses that are heavily dependent on brand involvement.

Famous examples of influencers who turned their content into well-performing businesses are Chiara Ferragni (Fashion Blogger, “The Blonde Salad”) and Linus Sebastian (Tech Youtuber, “Linus Tech Tips”).

Despite the ubiquity of sponsored content on many influencers’ social media feeds, many influencers and brand managers still worry about the negative impacts of sponsorship. For example, Marques Brownlee, a Tech YouTuber with 15 million subscribers, discussed such concerns in one of his recent podcast episodes – “The ethics of YouTube tech reviews with Mr Mobile!”.

Research regarding influencer marketing showed that such concerns are often justified. For example, a meta-analysis conducted by Eisend and colleagues revealed that sponsored content is negatively received by consumers. Because of this, and especially in the early days, influencers sometimes attempted to hide the fact that their posts were sponsored by a brand. However, regulators reacted and made the disclosure of sponsorship a legal requirement.

Influencers often wonder how they should disclose sponsorship to their loyal audiences without sacrificing their credibility and authenticity. Some argue that influencers should demonstrate transparency and simply state that they were approached by the brand (e.g. “Brand reached out to me” or “Brand sent me their new products to review”), while others believe that justifying sponsored content with a personal interest in the brand’s offerings may be the more authentic way to disclose sponsorship (e.g. “I am so excited to test the new products of Brand” or “As you know, I’m a huge fan of Brand products”).

Moreover, brand managers and influencers alike often wonder how repeated posting of sponsored content may be received by their audience. Will consumers perceive influencers as sell-outs or mouthpieces if they post sponsored content more frequently, or will consumers adapt to this common practice of sponsorship?

Dr Bryan Usrey (Associate Professor of Marketing at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan) and I recently published research in the International Journal of Research in Marketing attempting to answer these questions by surveying influencers, analysing field data, and running multiple experiments.

Our findings confirm that consumers react negatively to sponsored content—especially if it is overly positive. Interestingly, we found that consumer reactions are determined by the motives that influencers provide when disclosing a brand sponsorship deal. Specifically, providing personal motives for reviewing a product (e.g. product interest, or even a desire to work with a given brand) may mitigate the negative reactions of consumers towards sponsored content—even if it is written in an overly positive manner. Moreover, and perhaps surprisingly, we found that consumers react more positively to sponsored content if it is perceived to be a more common practice by the influencer.

Our results suggest that influencers should provide personal motives for accepting a brand sponsorship deal—especially if they are lifestyle influencers. Review influencers, on the other hand, may not have to worry about the effect of posting sponsored content too frequently, nor about communicating their motives, as their followers appear to be more accepting of such practices if they are perceived to be more common.

Read the journal article: Gerrath, M. H., & Usrey, B. (2021). The impact of influencer motives and commonness perceptions on follower reactions toward incentivized reviews. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 38(3), 531-548.

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