Who influences whom? The complex relation between influencers and followers

Anthony Hussenot
Jan 13 · 3 min read

For years, Instagram has been an important media for brands, especially with the help of influencers. In many sectors, such as fashion and sport, collaboration with professional influencers on Instagram is unavoidable to target relevant potential customers. However, as influencers do not (or rarely) sell directly to the followers, the relation between influencers and followers is much more than just a commercial one.

Followers are the cornerstone of the influencers’ business, but not the customers

As the adage says: if it’s free, then you’re the product. Indeed, the success of professional influencers is based on their ability to develop a network of loyal followers, not to sell products or services directly for them but for negotiating contracts with companies wishing to target these followers. There is nothing new. For almost a decade, professional bloggers, YouTubers, Instagrammers (and so on) have adopted this model.

The success of this business lies partly in the ability of influencers to develop a close relationship with their followers, as the negotiations with the brands depend on the commitments of the followers on the posts. Consequently, success is not measured solely by the number of subscribers. Likes and comments are also important performance indicators. Being an influencer is above all being able to mediate between brands and potential customers.

Influencer and follower create a relationship in-between intimacy and admiration

However, the relationship between followers and influencers does not solely consist of creating a bargaining chip for brands, but it is indeed a process of defining one’s identity. The works of the researcher Brooke Erin Duffy on this subject are very interesting to read.

To create a close relationship and intimacy with followers, influencers often share content mixing both personal and professional aspects of their life. Emotions, successes, failures, their family life, their backstage of their professional activity (etc.) are often used to produce content that generates a form of empathy on the part of the followers.

However, the relationship between the influencer and the followers is also tinged with a form of admiration. Influencers are often followed because they display an idealized life. If influencers have to cultivate a form of proximity with followers, they must keep at the same time a certain distance with them, as a way to arouse curiosity and desire. In the end, by staging an idealized lifestyle, the daily life of influencers can sometimes be quite far from that one depicted online.

From influencing to identity construction

The relationship between followers and influencers is therefore complex. Neither customers (or rarely), nor passive spectators (it depends of course on the number of engagements on published posts), neither friends nor work colleagues, followers do not fall into the usual categories. Yet from this singular relationship, a form of collaboration emerges.

Indeed, the followers are full-fledged players in the production of content. And this goes well beyond the framework of encouragement or criticism. Followers influence and can even lead the activity of influencers. This is a collaboration, but a particular one, because in this relationship, what is produced is a set of stories in which everybody is told and put in scene. Ultimately, this allows people to discuss their lifestyle, work practices, but also their hopes, fears, expectations, and so on.

If the identity construction of the influencers has already been observed, the way followers are involved in this process seems to have been overlooked. The question of interactions between influencers and followers is thus not so trivial as it is part of a collective dynamic participating in the definition of identities. It remains to be seen whether these relationships help to redefine individuals in all aspects of their lives or if this redefinition is limited to their digital life.

This should not make us forget that the use of social networks sometimes leads to narcissistic attitudes, violence and can even lead to a feeling of loneliness or create a negative image of oneself. Then, if the interaction between influencers and followers is partly a personal development journey, it might not always be for the best.

Let’s make the world of work more fulfilling — Professor in organization studies at Université Côte d’Azur — Surfing and yoga enthusiast!

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