The effect of influencers on the control of the epidemic

The effect of influencers on the control of the epidemic
What are the conditions under which Instagram influencers’ posts can help fight the epidemic? Can brand engagement be reconciled with helping important social goals? These are the questions that the PPK researchers sought to answer in an experiment to test the effectiveness of posts that promote brands while encouraging compliance with COVID restrictions.

The COVID-19 epidemic has drastically changed the world and impacted our daily lives and social media habits. During the pandemic, people spent more time online than ever before. Social media use increased by 61% during the first wave of the pandemic and played a significant role in spreading information about the epidemic. Ágnes Buvár, assistant professor at ELTE PPK, and her colleagues Franciska Sára Szilágyi, Eszter Balogh and Ágnes Zsila studied the spread potential of the COVID-19 message embedded in social media posts. Their research results were published in PLOS ONE.

Social media has become an essential platform for communication about the COVID-19 pandemic. Influencers, also known as online opinion leaders, or content producers who influence their communities, regularly posted content related to the virus. In addition to sharing their personal experiences, they encouraged their audiences to follow new behavioural and hygiene rules, such as social distancing or wearing masks. These messages can help reinforce new social norms, but do they impact when they appear in a sponsored post with a brand advertisement?

To answer this question, PPK researchers designed an online experiment using six social media posts borrowed from domestic influencers. The 365 respondents included in the research were first shown a two-minute video about the hypothetical author of the posts. Then the participants were asked what effect the character in the short film had on them. They were then randomly shown an Instagram post by the influencer. To investigate factors influencing the spread potential, the presented posts differed in whether the influencer advertised a brand alongside a message urging people to stay at home in connection with COVID-related restrictions and whether or not the brand matched their personality.

Their results showed that if the respondents did not develop a strong commitment (parasocial interaction) after watching the video, the subsequent post was practically ineffective. Furthermore, the spread of the post was positively influenced if the influencer promoted a matching brand in the post that also included a message encouraging people to stay at home, i.e. when the credibility of the influencer, the evaluation of the advertisement and the intention to respond to the advertisement were more positive than when the brand did not match the influencer.

The researchers draw attention to the fact that even if a social media post is sufficiently persuasive in itself if it appears in an inappropriate context for the audience, it remains ineffective. Their results also point out that it is not advisable to include COVID messages in sponsored posts, as the brand presence can damage the image of the post. However, this risk can be reduced if the advertised brand matches the influencer. The advantage of this latter solution is that influencers’ money-making and prosocial goals become compatible.