Big brands thrive online. However, in a digital world run by social platforms and search engines that are constantly altering the way their algorithms prioritize content, it can be difficult for a small business owner to have the resources to keep up with the latest SEO (search-engine-optimization) or other organic promotion strategies. This makes it difficult to compete with large brands that can afford paid strategists and advertising specialists to keep their content at the top of the algorithmic food chain–where conversion and sales are the easiest.
Luckily, some aspects of content creation are timeless. Good stories create connection, connection creates loyalty, and loyalty creates sales. Even tiny brands can leverage this storytelling skill to generate parasocial relationships with their followers, which makes online selling less like shouting into a crowded town square and more like chatting with some friends at a party.
What is Parasocial Interaction?
Parasocial interaction, named by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, is the illusion of a face-to-face relationship created by celebrities, influencers, and brands. It is one-sided, with the audience being more connected to the Persona (content creator) than vice-versa. Kim Kardashian, Elon Musk, Rachel Hollis, Kanye West: these are all Personas created to facilitate a marketing experience to consumers. Note that they all have very different niches and appeal to very different types of “followers,” but the end result is the same: their word carries weight with certain ideas, products, and trends; I chose these specific Personas because they have received significant backlash from people who do not follow them which has not affected their success in their niche. Parasocial relationships are more powerful than traditional marketing strategies because they are built to prioritize engagement rather than other metrics like sales conversion.
Is Parasocial Marketing Ethical?
It might seem like creating content focused on building this parasocial relationship with consumers is a slimy thing to do business. However, the research shows that these relationships are not a source of manipulation for lonely or otherwise vulnerable people–humans are simply wired to connect, and they enjoy parasocial relationships for the benefit that they provide in an increasingly isolated and insulated world.
The reality is that your consumer already craves interaction with the brands they like, and by facilitating that connection you are finally meeting that need.
How to Write for Parasocial Engagement
When writing with the goal of creating parasocial interactions, consider these important and timeless strategies to increase the likelihood of success.
What to Include
Jose Gallegos writes that the most successful parasocial marketing “transfer[s] cultural meanings and values onto a product.” When you’re aiming to successfully make this transfer, here’s what you should be sure to do:
- Become your audience’s idealized alter-ego. Wohl and Horton’s research indicates that successful parasocial interactions occur when the audience is able to project their own ideals onto the brand. This is why the disconnect occurs when the real person is unable to remain in their audience’s eye as the Persona–which is why so many people have stories of their favorite celebrity being a “jerk” in real life. Because your brand can’t actually ever be a human person, this is great news for marketers.
- Speak directly to your audience. In order to build the illusion of a relationship, writers must engage their audience as though their work is actually part of a larger discussion. This creates space in the audience’s mind for them to respond to the content.
- Mingle. Your brand must engage with its audience wherever they are if it hopes to build a relationship of any kind. This can be as simple as responding to comments or as complex as creating live content that invites real-time audience participation, but it simply is not a negotiable aspect of creating a valuable brand Persona.
- Become a part of your audience’s daily life. Regular digital publishing is necessary. Your brand Persona must give the appearance of inhabiting the digital space and perpetually acting and reacting to its environment. A great rule of thumb: if you talk to your best friend more than your Persona talks to its audience, then you need to create and publish more content.
- Tell well-constructed stories that feel authentic. There are no shortage of guides on how to write for general reader engagement – like this one from grammar.yourdictionary.com – and you should always start writing with these tips in mind. As a discipline, writing has a high level of research and development, and the principles of good writing rarely shift by large degrees. Additionally, this content is what your consumer is looking for. Gallegos notes that consumers “crave stories, they crave connection, and they crave interaction with other humans, with real people (a byproduct, perhaps, of the increasing amount of time we spend in front of a computer screen?).” A content creator who is trained in traditional writing has the advantage of being able to craft authentic-feeling stories without relying on user-generated content, which can be expensive and time-consuming to acquire.
What to Avoid
Australian videogame publication Doublejump has a great writeup on one of the worst attempts at leveraging parasocial relationships in our times. Videogame company Riot Games created an imaginary Persona named Seraphine to market a virtual product in their League of Legends videogame which received harsh criticism from its community. Here’s what you can learn from their mistake. Make sure that you don’t:
- Hide your intentions from your audience. Your followers are both smarter and more resilient than you think. Attempting to hide your desire to monetize your online presence is the quickest way to feel inauthentic and turn potential consumers away from your product.
- Be too aggressive or coercive. Again, your audience gets it. You don’t have to manipulate them into purchasing from you; if you provide enough value, they will be eager to invest in your relationship.
- Sell out your loyal following for short-term gain. Your Persona’s reputation is invaluable to your brand. Never make the mistake of seeking quick monetization by devaluing your Persona’s value as a historical source of positive consumer interaction. You can court all the controversy from outside of your audience that you want, but creating negative interactions within your parasocial following is a great way to lose consumer trust.
Digital publishing is increasingly the primary way that businesses interact with their consumers. For small and micro-businesses to survive, they have to know how to understand their analytics, define their voice, create cost- and energy-efficient content, and create consumer relationships that don’t rely on the latest marketing tips and tricks. The best way to monetize digital content is to create a parasocial Persona for followers to connect with, value, and ultimately trust.
The best brands live online. Does yours?