DHANESH AND DUTHLER
Dhanesh and Duthlers Relationship management through social media influencers: Effects of followers awareness of paid endorsement (Public Relations Review, 45, March 2019) is an intriguing investigation of the relationship between social media influencers (SMIs) and their followers and the impact of disclosure of brand sponsorship therein. The authors begin with some scene-setting; increasingly, brands are turning to SMIs as the new set of gatekeepers” of potential audiences (Dhanesh & Duthler, 2019, p. 1). While this tactic is overwhelmingly effective, its relatively new and, as yet, under-regulated. In the UAE specifically where the study takes place, SMIs pull extreme weight in consumer decisions but are not required to disclose paid relationships with brands. The researchers point their inquiry in this directionwhat might the consequences of disclosure versus non-disclosure of paid endorsement be on the relationship between an SMI and his/her followers and the subsequent consumer behavior of said followers?
I found several points in the literature review to be particularly salient. For one, a distinction is made between an SMI and a celebrity endorser, with relatability being the differentiating factor. Since this relational quality is the SMIs power source, it must be maintained and cultivated at all costs for the SMI to have use-value to brands. The discussion then turns to native advertising at large. The authors note that the efficacy of native advertising can go one of two ways depending on whether or not audiences feel deceived. Although I thought it quite counter-intuitive, the literature suggests that when individuals are cognizant of the fact that theyre being sold to, they feel more positively towards the seller (in this case, the SMI) and are more willing to be persuaded.
This led directly into the papers two hypotheses regarding awareness of paid endorsement, ad recognition, and how both affect the SMI-follower relationship. To test them, the researchers conducted a randomized survey at a womens college in the UAE. Total participation clocked in at 269 respondents. Survey questions evaluated four broad measures and were tested for validity (the question tests the measure its supposed to) and reliability (whether it consistently tests a measure). Regression analyses were employed to understand how awareness of paid endorsement and ad recognition affected the SMI-follower relationship, which was broken into four component dimensions. Results demonstrated that disclosure of paid endorsement helped followers recognize advertisements which in turn motivated them toin layman’s termsbuy more stuff. Importantly, ad recognition did not then go back and mediate the SMI-follower relationship. If anything, the disclosure which increased ad recognition improved the relationship between an SMI and her ducklings by increasing levels of trust.
Implications are innumerable. The study suggests that disclosing a brand-SMI relationship is a win-win-win for brands, who can increase profit, SMI, who can increase followings, and followers, who can purchase their trinkets and things without feeling like they were tricked into it. Excuse the editorializing. In all seriousness, the results were hopeful, and not just for GDP. If the study is generalizable, this means ethical behavior (in the form of disclosure of brand sponsorship) has economic payoff. It doesnt usually work that way, so it was wonderful to read about a small slice of the world where it might. On the other hand, the authors admit that their findings contribute to an already confused literature, with tangential studies pointing in opposite directions. Moreover, the scope of this study was quite limited by gender and age. It remains unclear whether the results would hold when expanded to all genders and ages, not to mention across geographic regions. Still, the paper was fascinating and cleanly carried out with a tight statistical analysis and an exhaustive literature review. A good read.
As mentioned, I found the conclusion of the economic efficacy of ethical behavior (disclosure) to be hope-giving for practical implications. But what if the results had differed and disclosure had led to a lesser position for brands and SMIs? Are marketing best practices to be guided by ethics or by the bottom line? Should scholarship take a stance in guiding it in one direction or the other?
The study surveyed college-aged women in the UAE. How do you suppose the results might (or might not) have differed if the sample size was expanded to include a wider demography? Does this discredit the value of the study we do have?
The authors are up front about how their study continues a trend of mixed messages in the research niche of native advertising. How does this study further to the conversation rather than simply being another disorienting voice?