Social networking sites (SNS) such as Instagram and YouTube are experiencing a colorful influencer boom in a lot of different fields: companies already recognized their potential due to their high presence and activity on SNS and are using them as brand ambassadors of a wide range of products and services like travelling, fitness, and/or restaurant-recommendations. So-called fitness blogger, foodfluencer, and travelgrammer take on a new role in the communication environment on SNS: as medial pre-decision-makers and online opinion leaders they essentially determine which content on SNS gets wide coverage by selecting specific topics and collaborations. They disseminate such content with a wide range – with almost a fifth of the users actively following and listening to them.
To address this current phenomenon with its increasing impact (especially for young vulnerable followers), the study focuses on the influencers themselves and asks: To what extent do influencers see themselves as opinion leaders with a role model function for their followers?
To answer this question, qualitative semi-structured guideline-based interviews with 28 influencers have been conducted via telephone or Instagram's Messenger in 2019. The interviewed influencers are working in different subject areas (e.g. fitness, fashion, travel). The interviews focus on the influencer’s private and professional use of SNS, as well as their role perception and their understanding of their role as digital opinion leaders. They were transcribed (word by word) and analyzed by using a theory-driven approach.
The category-based analysis shows that influencers – regardless of their area of expertise – are aware of their role as opinion leaders and that they actively construct this role. Depending on the topic area in which they are working, both the understanding of themselves and the self-constructed role model as opinion leader and inspirer change. They are aware of the effects of their behavior on their followers, actively exploiting this – both for cooperation with advertising companies (which are aimed at purchases by the followers) and to draw attention to important issues (such as environmental protection).
In contrast to previous studies about influencers from an economic perspective in the context of studies on influencer marketing, this study refers in particular to the colorful role that influencers have for the diversity of opinions we found on SNS.