Social Media Influencers: Who They Are and How They Can Help Upgrade Your Brand Strategy

Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Written by Nicki D’Alessio

The rise of the “social media influencer” has effectively transformed marketing communication, adding an additional dimension to consider that didn’t exist just a few years ago. The name “influencer” implies a level of influence, but do social media influencers actually have the power to affect the attitudes, brand engagement and, ultimately, purchasing behaviors of their loyal audience? A recent study completed in Canada identifies the three aspects of brand engagement that matter and found that social media influencers (SMIs) have the power to influence consumers at each stage of the engagement process.

What is a Social Media Influencer?

According to the study by Delbaere, Michael, and Phillips, social media influencers are “third-party users of social media who have achieved micro‐celebrity status in the form of large followings on social media platforms and who have a position of influence on their audience. This achieved social status can be used to communicate marketing messages for brands and influence consumer opinions” (Delbaere, Michael, and Phillips 2020). 

SMIs fall somewhere between a typical social media user and a brand in terms of reach and influence. They have much larger followings than your average user, but they bring more of a human element than most brands can.

Why do people trust what SMIs have to say?

Parasocial interaction theory (PSI) helps explain why social media users see SMIs as trustworthy and value what they have to say. PSI describes the “illusory feeling of friendship with a media personality,” and that concept can be extended to the relationship that forms between SMIs and their followers.

Research shows that the stronger the feeling of friendship a viewer has toward a SMI, the more influential they perceive the SMI to be. This phenomenon makes SMIs valuable thought and opinion leaders with the power to influence attitudes, purchasing patterns, and more. Viewers also generally find user-generated content (UGC) more influential and trustworthy than brand-generated advertising. There has been a growing body of anecdotal evidence of the power of SMIs to influence brand engagement by mentioning and promoting brands on social media, but measuring that impact is slightly more difficult. 

How do we measure brand engagement?

Brand engagement is a relatively general term, but in recent years researchers have begun to accept a multifaceted approach to measuring brand engagement focused on three dimensions: cognitive processing, affection, and activation. 

Cognitive processing refers to the consumers’ depth of thought about a brand. At its core, how much and how deeply are they thinking about the brand? 

Affection describes the consumers’ positive emotions related to the brand. In other words, how passionate are they about the brand? 

Activation is the money-maker. This dimension examines the energy, effort, and time spent with the brand. Do viewers go out of their way to engage with the SMI about the brand? Perhaps more importantly, are SMIs able to convert viewers into consumers of the brand? 

These three dimensions together provide valuable insight into what exactly SMIs are influencing. Not only are they influencing purchasing behavior, but they also seek to influence general attitudes toward the brand, and, in many cases, they leverage their parasocial relationship with their followers to do it.

Can SMIs actually influence the brand engagement of their followers?

The short answer: yes. The long answer: yes, based on a lot of anecdotal evidence and some limited, but significant, empirical evidence. The study we are discussing only looked at beauty influencers on YouTube and how they drove engagement for the brands they mentioned in their videos. Despite its limitations, the study found that beauty SMIs increased all three dimensions of brand engagement when they mentioned brands in their videos. 

Simply by watching a beauty influencer’s video, viewers’ awareness of the brand increases, prompting enhanced cognitive processing surrounding the brand that would not have occurred otherwise.

Researchers found that when SMIs enthusiastically endorse a product or brand, their followers want to maintain their perceived friendship with the SMI by similarly engaging with the product. When they see the SMI’s positive feelings towards the brand, they are likely to emulate those emotions and trust that brand more because of the SMI’s endorsement.

Activation means that the viewer took extra steps to engage with the brand mentioned by the SMI. This may be simply leaving a comment on the video or, to measure activation at the brand level, commenting that they purchased the product because of the SMI’s video. Converting viewers into consumers may be the ultimate measure of activation, as it means that the SMI was able to influence their viewers’ perception of the brand enough to translate into sales. 

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

So, should you make SMIs part of your brand strategy?

Those of us who work in brand management know that a great brand strategy is all about creating relationships. Today’s consumers are in control of their experience and understand when they are being sold to. With access to unlimited purchasing options and opinions about brands, they are social and collaborative in making purchasing decisions. Overall, they are much more interested in building relationships with the brand (and other consumers) than seeing a commercial or reading about a product on the company website.

SMIs provide brands a unique opportunity to give their brand a human touch that resonates with consumers. In the world of social marketing, the opportunities are endless. Brands get to be creative and nurture the relationships that make their brand what it is. Whether you are looking to drive sales or simply increase your brand awareness, incorporating SMIs into your brand strategy may be the perfect option to increase exposure and forge new relationships with your followers that will help your brand grow.

Meet Nicki!

Brand Statement: Helping brands find their voice. 

Nicki D’Alessio is a current senior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington graduating in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies and Spanish. She is a member of the Honors College at UNCW and is currently conducting a senior thesis project on the role of news consumption habits on public perception of the Latinx population in North Carolina. Nicki’s specific area of expertise is in branding and social media and she is passionate about helping brands increase their impact and discover their identity. Nicki believes that a brand is about more than just a logo or a catchy slogan. A brand needs to be a well-rounded and holistic representation of a business that includes not only a great logo or slogan, but also consistent color schemes and typefaces, an intentional brand voice, quality visual assets including photos and graphics, and more.

Nicki’s experience ranges from academic work, to extracurricular involvement, to volunteer work, to professional experience. She has taken a wide array of integrated marketing communication courses through the Department of Communication Studies at UNCW, including Essentials of Integrated Marketing Communication, Strategic Writing in IMC, and Message Design. She also completed a marketing internship with UNCW Campus Life for course credit last semester and continues to work with them this semester managing their social media accounts and tracking analytics. Nicki’s current position is Social Media Manager with Drewe & Kate Branding Co., based in Wilmington, NC. In this position, she manages ten social media clients, writing all captions and copy, curating content, creating compelling graphic assets, and monitoring social media analytics for all accounts. 

In her spare time, you can find Nicki reading, exploring local shops and restaurants, or loudly singing along to showtunes in her car. She loves living at the beach and has loved enjoying everything Wilmington has to offer over the last four years. After she graduates in May, Nicki hopes to continue to work in branding and social media after spending some time abroad as a teaching assistant in Spain. 


Bolen, A. (Ed.). (n.d.). Seven characteristics of the modern consumer. Retrieved March 21, 2021, from

Delbaere, M., Michael, B., & Phillips, B. J. (2020). Social media influencers: A route to brand engagement for their followers. Psychology & Marketing, 38(1), 101-112. doi:10.1002/mar.21419