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The Double-Edged Sword of High-Arousal Language in Influencer Marketing

The Double-Edged Sword of High-Arousal Language in Influencer Marketing

Giovanni Luca Cascio Rizzo, Francisco Villarroel Ordenes, Rumen Pozharliev, Matteo De Angelis and Michele Costabile

Companies increasingly turn to popular social media personalities to promote their brands, products, and services. The influencer marketing economy was valued at $21.1 billion in 2023, and more than 90% of brands enlist influencers with a small audience (micro) or with massive reach (macro) to connect with consumers and achieve a variety of marketing goals, from creating awareness to increasing sales.

Influencers have the potential to diffuse marketing messages and drive actions, but it is unclear why some of their posts get a lot of engagement while others do not. One possibility is that consumers are increasingly aware that influencers get paid to promote products, raising questions about their motives. Additionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that when influencers use high-arousal language (e.g., “it’s totally amazing!”), it leads to questions about their trustworthiness, which in turn leads consumers to engage less with the content.

In a new Journal of Marketing study, we explore if and how subtle shifts in language arousal might shape consumer engagement and the way it affects perceptions of influencers’ trustworthiness. We consider the effects for both micro influencers and macro influencers.

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Micro vs. Macro Influencers

Consumers typically see micro influencers as regular people, so if they say something like “this shake is AMAZING!” consumers believe they really are excited about that shake and just want to share this discovery with their friends and followers. This belief in their sincerity increases consumers’ trust in micro influencers.

However, macro influencers do not seem like regular people. Consumers know these influencers receive substantial sums to say positive things about products, so they judge their posts as an attempt to persuade, just like any other form of advertising. Believing that someone has manipulative intentions tends to decrease trust. Yet the negative effect of high-arousal posts by macro influencers could be mitigated if their posts offer more informative (vs. commercial) content or if the messages are more balanced.

We collaborated with an influencer marketing agency to acquire a sample of 20,923 Instagram-sponsored posts across industries from 1,376 U.S. influencers. We measure engagement as the sum of likes and comments that a post receives. To measure language arousal, we combine a words-based lexicon (including terms like “hectic,” “amazing,” and “sensational”) with paralanguage (i.e., exclamation marks, capitalization, and emojis). We use 100,000 followers as the cutoff to classify micro versus macro influencers. To measure how informative the post goal is, we validate a dictionary with words like “explore,” “read,” and “watch.” Finally, we account for more than 100 controls, including details about the influencer, the text and images shared, and so forth. Combining the field data and controlled experiments result in some compelling results.

For micro influencers, we find that a 10% increase in arousal is associated with a 5.4% increase in engagement, on average. Recommending a product by saying, “It’s superb” (vs. “great”), for example, would attract 49 additional likes or comments. However, our findings raise concerns for macro influencers. If macro influencers increase arousal in their posts by 10%, it reduces consumer engagement by 8.4%, on average.

For micro influencers, a 10% increase in arousal is associated with a 5.4% increase in engagement, on average…If macro influencers increase arousal in their posts by 10%, it reduces consumer engagement by 8.4%, on average.

However, macro influencers are not completely forbidden from expressing excitement. Since signaling an informative goal is associated with a 1.8% increase in engagement, they can share informative, rather than commercial, posts. Also, admitting some concerns or noting some negative aspects of the promoted product can help macro influencers seem more genuine, which also increases engagement. Finally, macro influencers can use high-arousal language if they also include words that signal trustworthiness (e.g., “learn,” “help”). Thus, brands and macro influencers should collaborate to make sure their posts include phrases like “that’s what I learned about this incredible product” rather than “that’s how to use this incredible product.”

From Instagram to TikTok

Our findings are not limited to Instagram. We offer evidence that language arousal also plays a role in TikTok, with relevant influences on its young target market. We gauge influencers’ vocal cues and the level of pitch in their voices as proxies for arousal. A higher pitched voice can signal greater arousal and, in line with our Instagram study, we determine that a higher pitch (i.e., higher arousal) voice exerts a negative effect for macro influencers.

Our research underscores the importance of aligning social media posts and language arousal strategies depending on the type of influencer. For micro influencers, using high-arousal language authentically can enhance engagement, but macro influencers should focus more on informative content to maintain their trustworthiness. Exploring the impact of language arousal on emerging platforms like TikTok is especially crucial when it comes to targeting young, savvy consumer audiences effectively. Our research could be extended to politicians, scientists, and other high-profile individuals and the statements they issue.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

From: Giovanni Luca Cascio Rizzo, Francisco Villarroel Ordenes, Rumen Pozharliev, Matteo De Angelis, and Michele Costabile, “How High-Arousal Language Shapes Micro Versus Macro Influencers’ Impact,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Giovanni Luca Cascio Rizzo is a doctoral student in marketing, LUISS Guido Carli University, Italy.

Francisco Villarroel Ordenes is Assistant Professor of Marketing, LUISS University, Italy.

Rumen Pozharliev is Assistant Professor of Marketing, LUISS Guido Carli University, Italy.

Matteo De Angelis is Professor of Marketing, LUISS Guido Carli University, Italy.

Michele Costabile is Professor of Marketing, LUISS Guido Carli University, Italy.