Parasocial Activity: The Role of Parasocial Interactions in Marketing
Parasocial Activity: The Role of Parasocial Interactions in Marketing
So what’s it all about?
Definition: Parasocial interaction refers to an audience’s within-consumption media experience, consisting of a sense of internal conversation, emotional exchange and personal connection with characters (Horton and Wohl, 1956; Lee and Lee, 2017)
It’s developing a one-sided relationship with someone who feels an emotional connection with someone they’ve never met. Sounds just like Tinder… Maybe that’s just me…
So why are we discussing psychological phenomena? Well, parasocial relationships basically dictate how we use social media and have a heavy influence on marketing today.
Anyone with an internet connection can connect instantly with celebrities, influencers and people in power in a way they couldn’t 20 years ago. Imagine Marylin Monroe on Twitter.
A certain intimacy is fostered between the consumer and the creator, except the consumer doesn’t actually receive any real input the other way, apart from content. Myspace (that’s a blast from the past) was one of the first social media channels to thrive off parasocial relationships. Influencers, in particular, thrive off these interactions, particularly if they are more accessible to the public. The more they share, the more popularity they gain.
History of Influencer Marketing
To properly understand parasocial relationships in marketing, we first need to delve into the history of influencer marketing. Believe us, it’s been around longer than you think!
Marketers have been tapping into influential people since the 18th century. Josiah Wedgwood was a British potter who caught the eye of Queen Charlotte, and became the royal potter. He promoted his range as ‘Queensware,’ which was the world’s first luxury brand. He must have made a killing!
Fictional characters also count as influencers, particularly if they become mascots for the brand (Compare the Meerkat, anyone?). Celebrity endorsements became more prevalent throughout the 20th century, with the rise of celebrity culture perpetuated by Hollywood. Brands like Coca Cola and Pepsi began forming brand partnerships with celebrities, which would generate tonnes of publicity.
The age of reality TV followed on from the cult of celebrity and allowed consumers to be a part of influencers’ lives. The drama and excitement draws consumers in, and even though it’s manufactured, there is some truth to reality tv that can’t be avoided. Reality TV has made celebrities more relatable, which is all part of the charm. The rise of social media platforms, particularly YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, has led to the rise of everyday people living their lives like celebrities, by sharing everything about their day-to-day lives. When ‘regular’ people began to gain lots of followers, the influencer game changed and became more attainable for more people. It has changed the way companies interact with e-commerce, and more and more people have become self-employed because people are able to leverage social media for their business.
Platforms for Parasocial Relationships
Which platforms find they have the most parasocial bonding on them? Well, it could be any platform where there is a one-way communication, such as podcasts and radio, or social media where two-way communication is possible but more unlikely. Part of the reason parasocial relationships thrive in these arenas is that they are considered safe; there is no chance of rejection, because the consumer is already being fulfilled by the content they are receiving. Social networks are widened and people are educated because of these parasocial relationships.
Olivia Danner researched parasocial tactics used by former contestants from the Bachelor on Instagram, and discovered that there were certain types of content utilised by these influencers. These include posting content on vulnerability, humour, relatability and inspiration, amongst others. Look closely the next time you see an influencer’s feed; how many of these tactics do they use?
The Consumer-Brand Relationship
A really interesting study has been conducted on the role of the parasocial relationship in social media marketing. It tested baby boomers, and the results found that content related factors had significant effects on the parasocial relationship, which in turn influenced customer engagement and loyalty.
A modern day example of this is with the Ryanair and Duolingo mascots (seriously, that bird has no chill). By using anthropomorphised characters, people interact with the character as if they are real, even though we all know they are not. Fan culture is fascinating, and using it in marketing is a genius move.
Social media gives brands the chance to walk among their audience without having to engage directly with them. For these parasocial relationships to truly flourish, there is a responsibility on both sides of the relationship. For the audience to be a conscious media consumer, and for the brand to be a role model.
All About Trust
Influencers barely, if at all, have to take out paid advertising to sell their brand. Their entire personality is their selling point, with people buying into their brand based on the persona being presented. Parasocial branding fosters trust between the client and brand, even if it is an artificial intimacy. Influencers can feel like friends, so when they sell they are selling a part of their personalities, as well as the product or service being produced. This is why a lot of brands are now employing influencers as part of their marketing strategy (looking at you, PrettyLittleThing).
Role of Personas
Influencers are illusions. As much as they are using their personalities to sell their products, at the end of the day they are still performing for an audience, no matter how much truth is based on their act. It’s not a bad thing though, as relatable and personal stories have always been the most effective type of marketing. These personas often promote unattainable goals, such as the ‘that girl’ movement that makes people want to be like them. Realistically, who has time to journal, meditate, exercise, drink smoothies and read all before 6am (we don’t all have the same 24 hours in a day, after all…)
This has been one of the most effective marketing strategies since the dawn of time, given that humans have been telling stories for centuries. Real people telling real stories to a mass audience that can’t properly interact in the moment doesn’t stop them connecting. The latest style of vlogging tends to have a companionable tone of voice, making small talk to a camera, often rambling which mimics how real conversations go. Slipping in sponsored deals into an intimate discussion should be jarring, but content creators have mastered the art of subtle marketing by utilising these parasocial relationships.
Parasocial relationships get a bad rep, but they can be very useful for marketers and influencers promoting their services. After all, parasocial relationships have been around for decades, and they are fascinating to observe in real-time.