Competence Helps Influencers Gain Followers — But Is It Enough?

A recent study from Ashley Roccapriore and Tim Pollock shows influencer warmth and images deepen follower engagement.

August 26, 2022

Have you ever wondered what persuades social media users to follow influencers and interact with their posts? According to a recent study by Ashley Roccapriore, a doctoral student in the Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Organizations program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, and Tim Pollock, the college’s Haslam Chair in Business and Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship, these are actually two separate questions with different answers.

“What brings followers in is really different from what gets them to engage at a more in-depth level,” Roccapriore says.

Roccapriore and Pollock followed 488 fitness and nutrition influencers on Instagram for six months to see why and how users chose to engage with them. The researchers looked at two types of social media engagement that are important to influencers: following and interacting. Both kinds of engagement affect the algorithms that determine visibility of influencers’ posts in their followers’ feeds. 

Images and Warmth Deepen Follower Engagement

With only the click of a button, users can follow a social media entrepreneur’s account and begin receiving that influencer’s posts in their feed. When followers take more time and effort to interact with the account — by commenting on posts, for example — that deeper engagement helps to build a relationship that can motivate followers to purchase the products and services an influencer offers or recommends.

Roccapriore and Pollock explored how different modes of communication impact the extent to which followers engage with influencers. Overall, they found that images help social media entrepreneurs gain followers, while words motivate followers to interact with them. For influencers to establish online relationships and encourage deeper engagement from their followers, interacting regularly and showing that they are paying attention to their followers is crucial.

The message matters, too. While demonstrating competence helps build a following, displaying warmth — whether through images or words — is how influencers establish the trustworthiness and authenticity that motivate followers to engage in more in-depth and positive interactions with them. For a fitness influencer, this means that while images of their athletic-looking physique might help to increase their followership, posts that offer encouraging messages for their followers are more likely to generate positive comments. 

Although establishing a warm relationship with followers is essential for an influencer who wants to create deep engagement, the researchers were surprised to discover that expressing warmth in words actually has a negative effect on getting social media users to follow an influencer in the first place. How influencers choose to display competence matters as well. They should avoid self-focused rhetoric such as bragging about their own fitness achievements, the researchers say. This is where images can be particularly effective.

“They need to demonstrate their competence with words at times, but they can let pictures do most of the talking,” Roccapriore says. “Even when giving directions, they can use other-focused pronouns, saying things like, ‘You need to move slowly through the full range of motion.’”

Entrepreneurs who operate businesses solely on social media platforms rely on follower engagement for networking, brand expansion and revenue streams such as endorsements and product placements. For these influencers, understanding which types of communication work best at generating different levels of engagement is vital for their efforts to be effective. 

“I Don’t Need a Degree, I’ve Got Abs: Influencer Warmth and Competence, Communication Mode, and Stakeholder Engagement on Social Media” was published by the Academy of Management Journal in June 2022. The paper can be accessed online.


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,