FAQs About Health Influencers on Social Media

health influencer
Emma Yasinski
Emma Yasinski Staff Writer

While bots, social media accounts programmed to post on certain topics, often get the blame for spreading lies online, some experts point the finger at influencers, especially when it comes to misinformation surrounding vaccines. With that possibility in mind, you should always double-check any health or medical information on social media with your doctor or other reliable medical sources. Social-media-marketing researchers Yang Feng from San Diego State University, and Quan Xie, PhD, from Southern Methodist University, explain that people may forget to fact check the details when the information comes from health influencers they trust. Online influencers can often feel more like friends than spokespeople to some social media consumers. MedShadow reached out to Feng and Xie to explain what exactly a social media influencer is, how they work with companies and how that affects us as social media users.

What Is an Influencer?

In marketing, the term influencer refers to a person who has the ability to sway their audience to buy a particular product or adopt a particular habit. On social media, these people amass audiences of followers, who see their posts and may appreciate and act on their product recommendations.

What Kinds of Influencers Share Health and Medical Information?

Health and medical influencers may try to persuade followers to buy medical products, take up exercise or even shun or embrace having vaccinations. As mentioned above, since medical degrees or training  aren’t required to be a medical influencer, not all advice is sound, and some can be very dangerous to follow.

There are also many types of influencers, explains Feng. “For example, we have fashion influencers, beauty influencers, pet influencers, fitness influencers, lifestyle influencers and health influencers.” There are influencers for niche groups, like people with certain jobs or interests, as well as influencers whose audiences are much broader. 

How Do Health Influencers Make Money?

At first, an influencer usually gains a following by posting organic content, which is content they came up with themselves that no one or entity has paid them to post. Over time, if that organic content gets attention, companies may reach out and offer to send the influencers free products or payments in exchange for the influencer posting about their products or services online. In some cases, the company may offer the influencer a certain percentage of the profits from sales that came from their post.

There are three main reasons that social media users tend to follow influencers, explains Feng: their physical attractiveness, their charming personality and writing, their perceived expertise on a topic or for a combination of those reasons. For example, if you’re into running, you might follow an influencer who frequently shares posts about different running workouts or accessories.

Influencers are not necessarily well-known celebrities with millions of followers. Companies look to work with social media influencers who have large numbers of followers, and whose followers are likely to trust their recommendations. Followers often relate to the influencers they choose to follow. We follow influencers that look like us or have viewpoints similar to ours, explains Feng. We see ourselves as having more in common with lesser-known influencers who we view more like friends than we do with the famous ones. 

“‘I’m more likely to trust the influencers and be affected by the influencer’s recommendation because I regard the influencer as my friend,’” she says, as opposed to a celebrity with whom she might have little in common.

Do Influencers Need to Have Credentials? What Makes Them Successful?

To be successful, influencers must have earned the trust of their audience, not necessarily have degrees or training in the subjects they’re posting on. We are likely to follow influencers who post on health topics, for example, if we think that they know more than we do. They may seem knowledgeable about a topic just through having consistently shared content about it.

Someone who frequently posts about marathons can become a running influencer without having taken coaching or physical education courses. Over time, if they partner with brands, they are likely to have followers who trust their recommendations for running shoes and recovery and concoctions like massagers or herbal supplements. 

Some influencers — maybe they’re not actual experts in that domain, maybe they don’t have a [relevant] degree, their knowledge is not accurate —  but if their followers perceive that they have the knowledge, then the followers are more likely to buy into what they’re saying,” says Feng.

When Do Influencers Need to Disclose Potential Bias?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has guidelines for how and when an influencer is required to tell followers about his or her partnership with a company. An influencer needs to disclose anything that might make them biased. That means if the company paid them, provided a product for free or even at a discount, the influencer needs to disclose it. They should also let followers know if they have personal, familial or even employment connections to a company whose product they’re posting about.

Xie explains that if any influencer “has any financial or employment or personal, or even family relationship, with the brand [he or she is posting about], then this person has to reveal this relationship to the followers.”

How Can I Tell What Is Sponsored and What’s Not?

On Instagram, the influencer might start the caption of their post with #ad or #sponsored. The FTC emphasizes that the disclosures should be prominent and not hidden in places where a viewer has to click “more” to see it. On videos and live posts, the disclosures should be stated early, and repeated from time to time, to make it easy to see.

There is more than one way to disclose a partnership. Some apps allow users to add special “paid partnership” tags to their posts. Posting, “Thanks company X for the free product,” can also count as a disclosure.

Does It Matter if a Post Is Sponsored?

Yang and Xie say that, to some extent, if you already follow and trust an influencer based on their organic (unsponsored) content, you’ll probably trust any sponsored content they post as well, as long as it isn’t surprisingly off-topic. For example, if you follow a wellness influencer, and they share a recipe in a post sponsored by the manufacturer or a healthy ingredient in the recipe, you probably won’t be suspicious. If they share a sponsored post about electric fences for dogs, or something that has nothing to do with wellness, for example, you might hesitate.

“That organic content helps to build up this relationship between the influencer and their followers,” says Feng. “And, then, if the influencer gives them a sponsored post, I think the followers are inoculated,” meaning they don’t question the content.

If the partnership is clearly disclosed, you may even consider the influencer more transparent, and trust them even more. “Sometimes if you reveal the disclosure, it can actually make the followers think [the] influencer is honest, which sometimes will help [the] influencer,” says Xie.

Feng adds that, “If we feel like there is an emotional bond, we see the influencer as our friend. So then we are more likely to buy into what the influencer is saying and less likely to use our cognition to evaluate the influencer’s accuracy.”

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