News Release

Instagram micro-celebrities

What factors contribute to online endorser credibility and influence consumer behavior?

Peer-Reviewed Publication

National Research University Higher School of Economics

Physical attractiveness, high-quality photos, interesting content, engagement with the audience, and subject competence are the key contributing factors to Instagram micro-celebrities' success, according to a study which examines the influence of online celebrity endorsers on consumer purchase intentions. The research was conducted by Oxana Trofimenko from HSE University jointly with Elmira Djafarova of Newcastle Business School.

Danger of Too Much Advertising

Companies today often use Instagram micro-celebrities for product endorsement. However, these study findings suggest that micro-celebrity endorsement may or may not produce the desired effect. This was found via in-depth interviews with 38 Russian women aged 21-35. Young women are the most numerous and active Instagram audience in Russia.

Social media have produced a new type of opinion leaders, often called micro-celebrities, who have become famous mainly through their social media profiles. Their postings usually focus on specific occupations or lifestyle topics such as food, fashion, beauty, design or parenting. There are no clear-cut indicators of who can and cannot be categorised as a micro-celebrity. 'In researching a particular micro-celebrity, companies examine the number and content of comments on their posts, as well as the number of followers, in an effort to assess the involvement of a potential endorser's audience', explains the study co-author Oxana Trofimenko.

According to the findings of this study, some consumers tend to follow certain micro-celebrities' tastes and endorsements in making purchases. However, such purchases rarely go beyond small items such as cosmetics, books, clothes, children's toys or online courses, and excessive endorsements can cost a poster their followers' trust.

Since Instagram is the fastest growing social media platform, companies often use it to market their products. Between December 2016 and April 2017, the Instagram audience increased from 600 to 700 million users. Russia ranks as one of the top ten countries in terms of the number of Instagram users (28 million in 2017, 60% of whom are women), second only to the U.S.

The study's in-depth interviews were designed to find out which Instagram profiles tend to attract users, whom they consider micro-celebrities and what factors can cause them to trust endorsers and the products they endorse.

Most respondents described micro-celebrities as users having at least 30,000 followers, while some interviewees mentioned 100,000 and more followers. Content quality is a key characteristic contributing to an Instagram account's popularity, according to more than 70% of the women interviewed. One-third of the respondents value micro-celebrities for the inspiration and useful advice they receive from their posts.

About half of the interviewees follow popular pages because they like the images posted there.

According to many respondents, good images are the most effective way of attracting user attention initially, as most visitors decide whether or not the read the post by first looking at the photos. The text, however, is also important. 'First I view the picture and then I look for an interesting text and comments below. But I will not read the text unless the image attracts my attention', says a respondent aged 29. At the same time, users value positive stories which inspire them and motivate them to continue following the poster. In addition to this, most respondents do not mind filters being used to making the content more attractive.

According to earlier studies, there are 15 characteristics which may contribute to consumer trust in a celebrity endorser, online as well as offline. The researchers distinguish three types of such characteristics:

  • Attractiveness (being physically good-looking, chic, beautiful, elegant, and sexy)
  • Expertise (being competent, authoritative, experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled)
  • Trustworthiness (being reliable, believable, credible, sincere, and honest)

Based on their analysis, the authors propose a list of personal characteristics contributing to successful product endorsement specifically in Instagram. Consistent with earlier studies, these characteristics are linked to endorser attractiveness and trustworthiness, as well as charisma and a good sense of humour. According to the authors, social media users value competence and relevant knowledge, not necessarily formal expertise.

One-quarter of the respondents mention in-depth technical knowledge of a subject - such as parenting, health, fitness, etc. - as a major factor of endorser popularity, while some 40% believe that having a lot of useful content on the page is central to an Instagram account's success. A few respondents, however, attribute endorser popularity to buying followers or to mere luck, or to some other circumstances.

While rarely addressed in earlier studies, self-presentation - such as user engagement, being positive and active, providing good quality content and images, inspiration and authenticity - seems to be an additional factor of Instagram endorser credibility.

According to many respondents, they are more likely to trust Instagram users providing informative and engaging posts which elicit numerous comments, seen as an indication that the micro-celebrity produces authentic content and cares for their followers.

Companies increasingly pay micro-celebrities to promote their products, but the effect of such endorsement is not always guaranteed. According to the respondents, while a couple of promotional posts per month are acceptable, excessive advertising has the opposite effect of lowering the endorser's credibility.

While some respondents refuse to trust micro-celebrity endorsements as being paid for by the company, some others tend to search popular Instagram posts for product reviews. One-fifth of the respondents report having made satisfying purchases - such as clothes, children's toys, cosmetics, handmade items, books and online courses - based on Instagram endorsements.

Most users, however, do not perceive Instagram as a source of objective product information and prefer to seek more reliable product reviews elsewhere. Such users tend to view Instagram only as a starting point for learning about a new product.

About 60% of respondents report a neutral attitude towards Instagram micro-celebrity endorsements while admitting that they benefit from such advice every now and then; 10% of users find endorsements annoying, and 25% trust what they learn from micro-celebrities about products and services but still look for additional information elsewhere.

According to most interviewees, Instagram micro-celebrities need to exert much more effort than conventional celebrities to maintain their credibility. Back when Instagram and its micro-celebrities were gaining popularity in Russia, they enjoyed almost unconditional user trust, but with the social network's evolution and ever-increasing involvement in advertising, its credibility has declined. Some studies also suggest that the more micro-celebrities there are, the less they are perceived as credible endorsers. In Russia, according to the authors, there may be an additional factor at play, namely the traditionally negative attitude towards aggressive product advertising, which is often associated with the economic and political turmoil of the 1990s.


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