Social media advertising programs often use celebrities to endorse certain services and products in order to gain brand exposure, credibility, and marketing advantage. One of the important factors to affect the success or failure of this strategy is the relationships between celebrities and their followers. This type of connection is called a parasocial relationship, which elucidates the connection between the leader of an Internet following and their adepts, exerting persuasive powers over the latter. The purpose of this study is to explore and analyze the connection between parasocial relationships, electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) intentions, and the followers’ intent to purchase.
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SNS and Advertising
Social networking sites (SNS) are considered a primary tool in the field of digital marketing (Brettel et al., 2015; Lin & Kim, 2016). Online advertisements are often perceived as more accurate and trustworthy than ads from other types of media (Wood & Burkhalter, 2014; Tsang, Ho, & Liang, 2004). Due to the significant amount of exposure and economic effectiveness, SNS is more available to small and medium-sized businesses (Lee, 2014; Nelson-Field et al., 2013). Therefore, the economic and marketing effectiveness of SNS drove sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to become a vital advertising medium (Dehghani & Tumer, 2015).
Parasocial Relationships and Academic Inquiry
Parasocial relationships have been examined in the academic field for a while, though usually with a focus being placed on journals, radio, and TV as the primary course of study (Rubin & Step, 2000). Some of the existing research examines the role of traditional media in the context of sports (Sun, 2010), blogs (Colliander & Dahlen, 2011), TV shopping behavior among elderly individuals (Lim & Kim, 2011), political media (Thorson & Rodgers, 2006), and social media (Ballantine & Martin, 2005; Kassing & Sanderson, 2009). As it is possible to see, the amount of research on social media in relation to parasocial relationships is insufficient.
Definitions of Parasocial Relationships
Parasocial relationships are identified by several researchers as unilateral relationships between the celebrity and the audience (Giles, 2002; Hartmann et al., 2008; Sanderson, 2009). Although these relationships are perceived as equivalent real-world interpersonal or group relationships (Horton & Wohl,1982; Perse & Rubin, 1989), they do not have the same amount of depth and emotional connection as real ones, resulting in pseudo-intimate or pseudo-friendship emotional attachment (Hartmann et al., 2008; Dibble et al., 2016). Some individuals create these relationships with their favorite bloggers or Youtube content creators, while others choose to do so with mass media figures or TV characters (Livingstone, 1988).
Development of Parasocial Relationships
The process of development of pseudo-friendships with celebrities is initiated through continuous media exposure (Stever & Lawson, 2013). The familiarity generated by the amount of exposure as well as the connection between the opinions of a blogger and the users make the latter group regard the former as a trustworthy source of information (Lee & Watkins, 2016). As a result, fans tend to view the celebrity’s opinion as credible even on matters where the said person does not have much experience or competence, such as in the case of purchases (Kim et al., 2015).
Parasocial Relationships and User Behavior
Kim (2005) considers the concept of parasocial relationships to be crucial in understanding user behaviors in their connection to digital celebrities. Because of the potential for bilateral communication between bloggers and users, parasocial relationships formed through SNS are considered to be more effective in terms of behavior modulation, when compared to unilateral social relationships (Lee & Watkins, 2016). This is demonstrated in the research conducted by Colliander and Dahlen (2011), who found that the depth of relationships between bloggers and users is much greater when compared to online magazine writers. This is explained through the process of the formation of interest-based communities, something that traditional media does not facilitate (Bane, Cornish, Erspamer, & Kampman, 2010). Thus, the connection between SNS and parasocial relationships is credible and confirmed (Kim, Ko, & Kim, 2015).
Digital celebrities, such as bloggers and Instagram models, are a new emerging celebrity subgroup (Chahal & Mindi, 2016). Their popularity is associated with the cultivation of parasocial relationships between themselves and their followers through SNS (Jin & Phua, 2014). The digital celebrity phenomenon is directly connected to the popularity of certain SNS services, such as Weibo in China, which has over 200 million users since 2015 (Xiao & Zhang, 2016).
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Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are useful tools for creating bonds between users and Internet celebrities (Wilcox & Stephen, 2014). Because most of the digital celebrity content requires very little in terms of production cost, SNS have become a cost-efficient advertising model with strong connections to their target audience (Cai, 2009). Because of parasocial relationships, media users associate themselves with digital celebrities, which affects their purchasing habits (Rubin & Step, 2000; Dibble, Hartmann, & Rosaen, 2016). The increased dependency on online relationships and interactions tends to increase the potency of parasocial connections between users on the Internet (Shin, 2016). Lee and Watkins (2016) identify these relationships as means of reducing isolation and anxiety through the formation of pseudo-friendships. Xiao and Zhang (2016) support this notion, claiming that users may form intimate internalized relationships between themselves and individuals of interest. Because of these connections, the perceptions of vloggers and YouTubers is improved, as they are viewed as a reliable source of information, when compared to depersonalized radio and TV personalities (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985).
Parasocial Relationships in a Marketing Context
According to Labrecque (2014), parasocial relations in marketing generate an illusionary experience of interaction between media users and public personas, which are often perceived as engaged and reciprocal relationships. This relationship of trust is extended from the celebrity to their friends as well, who are often endorsed and vouched for, thus creating a network of trustworthy content creators for the users to rely upon in purchasing decisions (Colliander & Dahlen, 2011). This is especially true for channels and media outlets that are geared towards the cultivation of such relationships.
The primary goal of all social media advertising is to affect the purchasing intents of the users. This concept is defined as the intention of a customer to acquire a product or a service based on their research, evaluation, and subjective opinions about the physical and emotional values of the purchase (Blackwell, 2001; Dodds et al., 1991). SNS and parasocial relationships can affect some of the factors influencing purchasing intent, such as consumer satisfaction, quality, and homogeneity (Shin, Oh, Hwang, Seo, & Kim, 2012; Goh et al., 2017).
Purchasing behaviors are affected by the amount of rapport between the celebrities and the users. Djafarova and Rushworth (2017) report that age and gender play an important part for digital celebrities on Instagram and Youtube, as they enable others to identify with them in terms of culture or common social struggles. The most influential role models for female consumers are usually between 18 and 30 years of age.
Parasocial relationships are directly connected to word-of-mouth (WOM), which is a manner of sharing opinions about goods and services between users, foregoing official marketing channels (Park & Kim, 2008). Due to personal affiliation, the experiences and opinions relayed through word of mouth are perceived to be more reliable and relevant than other types of marketing (Park & Kim, 2008). Word-of-mouth is identified as any positive or negative perception of a product conveyed by an individual who has had personal experience with the said product, made available for viewing to a multitude of potential customers via the Internet (Hennig-Thurau, Gwinner, Walsh, & Gremler, 2004). SNS play well into the word-of-mouth framework, as they provide a means of communication to millions of people world-wide. Electronic word-of-mouth (eWOM) is comprised of three critical components (Choi, 2011):
- Opinion leaders. Form or create popular opinions about services or products.
- Opinion followers. Listen and utilize popular opinions in their purchasing behaviors.
- Opinion pass-alongs. Individuals who not only listen to popular opinions but actively spread them to their friends and followers.
According to Jin and Phua (2014), the latter group serves the most in promoting eWOM as well as the positive or negative perceptions of a service or a product among others. Lee and Watkins (2016) associate parasocial interactions with vloggers, with the overall improvements in purchasing intentions, brand value, and brand perceptions, due to the fact that blogs produce high amounts of positive interactions between e-celebrities and users. According to Colliander and Dahlén (2011), blogs produce a greater occurence of parasocial relationships between bloggers and followers, thereby fueling followers’ purchase intentions.
Parasocial Relationships and Persuasion Knowledge
As providing consumers with explicit information on the commercial nature of activities is required by regulations (Boerman et al., 2017), advertising or sponsorship disclosure is specified in blogs (Campbell, Mohr, & Verlegh, 2013), celebrity SNS postings (Boerman et al., 2017), online advertising (Wojdynski & Evans, 2016), and TV programs (Boerman et al., 2012, Campbell et al., 2013; Van; Reijmersdal, Tutaj, & Boerman, 2013). Wojdynski and Evans (2016) found that the disclosure of advertising or sponsorship in the middle of or under an online posting strengthens consumers’ recognition of advertising and persuasion knowledge. The disclosure of native advertising in which advertisements are created with forms and functions of non-advertising content on blogs stimulates consumers’ persuasion knowledge, which reduces persuasive effects (Van Reijmersdal et al., 2016).
Persuasion knowledge can be defined as “consumers’ knowledge and beliefs of various advertising-related issues, such as the goals and tactics marketers use to persuade them, the extent to which consumers find these techniques effective and appropriate, but also personal beliefs about how to cope with these persuasion tactics and goals” (Boerman et al., 2017, p. 83). Friestad and Wright (1994) described the persuasion knowledge model in which consumers’ persuasion knowledge “enables them to recognize, analyze, interpret, evaluate, and remember” (p. 3) persuasion messages and behaviors and to select and use coping tactics to resist persuasion attempts. As persuasion knowledge promotes consumers’ resistance to persuasion (Wood & Quinn, 2003), it reduces the effectiveness of persuasion messages (Dekker & Van Reijmersdal, 2013). Shin and Cho (2014, p. 540) found that persuasion knowledge negatively affects purchase and WOM intentions, and Boerman et al. (2017) found that consumers’ persuasion knowledge activated by advertising disclosure decreases their WOM intentions. Thus, consumers who have high levels of persuasive knowledge perceive persuasion agents’ intentions and tactics and, thus, buy less (Lee & Faber, 2007).
Although persuasion is less effective when consumers recognize marketers’ persuasion intentions (Gillespie & Joireman, 2016), consumers still tend to purchase if persuasion agents are viewed as trustworthy and have persuasion skills (Isaac & Grayson, 2017). Advertisements that use creative or non-traditional methods tend to mitigate consumers’ persuasion knowledge (Dahlén & Edenius, 2007). Social media advertisements become novel advertising methods that reduce consumers’ persuasion knowledge (Boerman, Willemsen, & Van Der Aa, 2017). Minton, Taillard, and Williamson (2010) presented that social media, such as Facebook, less obviously distributed sponsored content mingled with other regular posts than mass media.
Boerman et al. (2017)argued that, as celebrities’ commercial content on their SNSs was mixed with posts about their daily lives, consumers cannot easily recognize their commercial content, which blocks the activation of consumers’ persuasion knowledge. In the case of digital celebrities, who may be more familiar with their followers in terms of assimilation and friendship, consumers cannot easily discern their commercial from non-commercial content. Followers may think digital celebrities are authentic consumers of the advertised products, are genuinely satisfied with the products, and share their evaluations and information on quality products with their followers. However, previous research on consumers’ persuasion knowledge of digital celebrities’ advertisements on SNS has been limited.
Persuasion knowledge mitigates persuasion effects, and disclosure of advertising reduces the degree to which persuasion leads consumers’ positive attitude (Wood & Quinn, 2003). When digital celebrities must disclose the fact that they are sponsored by brands to advertise products in their SNS posts (Boerman et al., 2017), their persuasion might be reduced. In this situation, parasocial relationships between digital celebrities and their followers may fortify followers’ assumption of digital celebrities’ authenticity about positive attitudes and evaluations on advertised products. Lueck (2015) found that 60% of respondents think that celebrity advertisements are non-commercial because of the parasocial relationship. Thus, parasocial relationships will mitigate followers’ persuasion knowledge.
Followers’ parasocial relationships with digital celebrities have a positive impact on their purchase intention.
Followers’ parasocial relationships with digital celebrities have a positive impact on their eWOM intention.
Followers’ persuasion knowledge will negatively affect their purchase intention.
Followers’ persuasion knowledge will negatively affect their eWOM intention.
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Followers’ parasocial relationship with digital celebrities will moderate the relationship between their persuasion knowledge and their purchase intension and the relationship between their persuasion knowledge and their eWOM intension.
Colliander, J., & Dahlén, M. (2011). Following the fashionable friend: The power of social media: Weighing publicity effectiveness of blogs versus online magazines. Journal of advertising research, 51(1), 313-320.