‘Friend’ influencers drive more sales than ‘opinion-leaders’

Friend-like influencers that storytell and genuinely like your product drive the most sales. Opinion-leaders and informational posts are both less effective.

Micro-influencers (10 k to 100 k followers) account for more than 90% of the influencer marketing business, which is expected to reach $15 billion in 2022.

A lot of money goes in, but results vary widely. 

This study looks at which features of micro-influencers drive sales the most.

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Tip type: New research (November 2020)

Storytelling posts from ‘friend’ influencers drive the most sales for your product

Impacted metrics: Customer acquisition
Channels: Influencer marketing


Influencers are most effective at driving sales when they have the following characteristics:

  • Seen as a ‘friend’ by their followers, rather than an ‘opinion-leader’

  • Use storytelling in their posts, instead of being informational (i.e. product facts and explanations)

  • Perceived as genuinely liking the product they’re endorsing


  • ‘Pseudo-friend’ influencers (e.g. “they feel like an old friend”, “they make me feel part of her/his group”) are more effective than ‘Opinion-leader’ influencers (e.g. “they’re a model for others”, “they’re one step ahead of others”) at driving sales, although both are effective.

  • Storytelling posts (with a plot, characters, and a realistic story) are better than informational posts (that explain a product’s facts). They boost more sales for both ‘pseudo-friend’ and ‘opinion-leader’ influencers.

  • Posts of ‘pseudo-friend’ influencers are less effective if their followers perceive them as not being genuinely fond of the product. This effect was not significant for ‘opinion-leader’ influencers.

Why it works

  • When we consider an influencer a friend, we are more likely to listen to their product recommendations because we assume we have similar tastes. This is similar to how friend recommendations and product referrals are more powerful than those of experts.

  • Storytelling is a more intimate and engaging way of presenting a product, so it goes well with our ‘friendship’ with the influencer. On the other hand, we see informational posts as just repeating what the brand has asked the influencer to share.

  • We consider ‘opinion-leader’ influencers as professional and knowledgeable, so we perceive them as more objective in their assessment of a product. This is why it matters less whether we perceive them as personally fond of the product they’re promoting.


  • Like most influencer research, this study was conducted only on female fashion influencers on Instagram. Findings likely extend to other types of influencers and platforms, but this was not directly tested.

  • It’s not clear whether these effects would apply to traditional celebrities with mass following (e.g. the Kardashians).

Companies using this

  • Fashion, cosmetics, and skincare companies - arguably the most adept at working with influencers - seem to use both types of influencers and both types of posts (storytelling and informational).

  • Informational posts seem to be used more often, perhaps because they are easier content for influencers to post.

  • Examples of ‘friend’ influencers: Emitaz, Allegra Shaw

  • Examples of ‘opinion-leader’ influencers: David Razzano, Gothamista

Steps to implement

  • When choosing an influencer to work with, observe how they engage with their followers, and vice versa. You want someone who treats their followers as if they’re friends with the same interests and lifestyle. Their followers will likely engage with them similar to how they would talk with their friends rather than a celebrity.

  • Encourage the influencer to include your product in a personal story or anecdote, rather than simply presenting the product. You can work with them to craft a story if needed.

  • Finally, if you suspect the influencer isn’t genuinely fond of your product, you’re better off finding someone else who is. Their reluctance will come across to their followers, and your marketing will be less effective.

Study type

Online survey (of 450 Instagram followers), North America


Farivar, S., Wang, F., & Yuan, Y. (November 2020). Opinion leadership vs. para-social relationship: Key factors in influencer marketing. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 102371.

[Link to paper]


Carleton University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and McMaster University, Canada

Remember: Because of the groundbreaking nature of this paper, it could be disproven in the future (although this is rare). It also may not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.

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