The Influencer's Tone of Voice

The Influencer's Tone of Voice


by Anwesha De e Beth Fossen, assistant professor at Bocconi University and assistant professor at Kelley School of Business

With the rapid rise in the number of social media users and the increase in the amount of time spent on social media, social media platforms present brands with a more dynamic and interactive platform to engage consumers. Brands are responding to these changes in online engagement by investing heavily in social media. According to a recent CMO survey, social media investments by brands accounted for 11.4% of their marketing budget, but the contribution of these investments to firm performance has been stagnant since 2016. The misalignment between social media investments and firm performance despite macro changes in consumer behavior could indicate that brands haven’t mastered effective strategies for driving engagement. While research in this area highlights the importance of social media influencer marketing for marketers, research on the consequences of such brand-influencer collaborations is still nascent. In our research, we focus on the influencer’s content strategy in the brand-influencer relationship. While such a change in content strategy by influencers may be driven by the motivation to increase engagement, it may potentially have severe repercussions.

Using data from 75 social media influencers across three industries, we investigate the impacts of brand-influencer collaborations and changes in content strategy on engagement. Our results also show that when influencers mention brands, they are more likely to deviate from their typical content in terms of the arousal expressed in the language.  Interestingly, we find that this strategy may further reduce engagement with branded content. Specifically, changing the arousal of branded content further reduces engagement both in terms of the number of shares and replies. When influencers change the arousal of the content by one standard deviation, we find that posts with brand mentions garner an 8% reduction in the number of shares and an 11% reduction in the number of replies. We probe two potential mechanisms that could be driving this result. Do followers respond negatively to changes in content strategy by influencers because it seems (1) inauthentic and/or (2) overly promotional. We find some evidence that the second mechanism may be driving the results we see.

Our research makes two key contributions. First, our work is among the first to detail how influencers change their content when they post about brands. Importantly, we show that changes in content strategy through the change in arousal of the branded posts hurt engagement. We show that this may be the result of changes in content strategy coming across as overly promotional. These insights are particularly valuable as our results show that influencers commonly deviate from their typical content strategy when posting about brands, which our analyses suggest is a sub-optimal strategy.
Second, while influencer marketing is exploding in popularity, we identify some of the limits of this strategy that can help both brands and influencers better understand this medium. Chiefly, branded posts by influencers garner fewer replies, and influencers with more followers and followees are less likely to mention brands in their posts. Thus, we suggest that influencers engaging in fewer or less frequent brand collaborations are more likely to maintain their engagement levels. Additionally, despite the potential attractiveness of popular influencers, such collaborations may prove to be counterproductive for brands not only in terms of the fewer brand mentions but also in terms of lower engagement.  

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