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Jared Watson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NYU

Welcome to the third episode of The Art of Sway! Each week, our CEO and host Danielle Wiley sparks candid conversations with industry insiders and influential tastemakers, in order to uncover all the ways influence impacts our work, our lifestyles, and the choices we make.

This episode features guest Jared Watson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NYU. Danielle and Professor Watson’s lively discussion includes the study of influence in academia (“it may be the most important part when we think about marketing today”), the surprising power of parasocial relationships, and how the experts REALLY feel about those CGI influencers.

A few standout moments:

  • (14:37) Jared’s reaction when he found an account that had 3 million people — even though it wasn’t a real person (!!)
  • (15:16) The “special tribe” that tends to follow CGI influencers
  • (17:26) People feel the loneliest we’ve ever felt in history, and that human aspect makes us all feel more connected to parasocial relationships

We hope you enjoy this episode! Scroll down for a full show transcript.

Dr Jared Watson, NYU, The Art of Sway Podcast
Danielle Wiley, The Art of Sway Podcast
Dr Jared Watson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at NYU

Episode 3: Jared Watson Transcript

Danielle Wiley: Welcome to The Art of Sway. This is a podcast that brings you inside the world of marketing through the lens of influence. I’m your host, Danielle Wiley. Each week through candid conversations with industry insiders, we will uncover how influencer marketing is making an impact across all consumer buying habits and is changing the way we talk to each other. Let’s dive in. This conversation with Jared was so fascinating. I’ve known him for a couple of years and we always have so much to talk about, but some of the things that you will get to hear are unbelievably Lil Miquela’s role in his interest in studying influencers and teaching about influencer marketing, how the different generations view sponsored content, and some of the more notable things he has discovered in his research of influencers and influencer marketing. Enjoy.

Danielle Wiley: Dr. Jared Watson joined the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University as an Assistant Professor of Marketing in July 2018. Professor Watson’s research investigates the context dependent nature of how consumers use information across the internet. One stream of research explores how the various elements of product reviews such as average ratings, number of reviews, text of individual reviews and so on, can differentiate influence preferences. In other projects, he investigates how companies can provision guidance to influencers for their digital activation strategies, and when and why consumers trust influencers more generally. His work has been presented at academic conferences worldwide and has been published in the Journal of Marketing. Before joining NYU Stern, Jared completed his PhD at the University of Maryland. Prior to entering academia, he was a sales manager for a Fortune 500 CPG brand. Well, hello Jared. Thank you for joining. It’s great seeing you. We’ve had some nice chances to get together in person in New York, and then we did a LinkedIn live I think, once during COVID, but-

Dr. Jared Watson: Thanks for having me.

Danielle Wiley: … it’s always great to catch up. So everyone heard in your bio that you are an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Stern School of Business at NYU, so I wanted to start just talking a little bit about your journey to there because I know you also you come from the marketing world which is awesome. But talk a little bit about your journey to being a professor and why you [inaudible 00:02:45]-

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah, totally. I think I have a interesting journey relative to other academics. I’m a first generation college student, and so when I went to get my Bachelor’s degree, I had no thought of getting a PhD. I didn’t know a PhD existed, especially within the business context, and my goal was to be the CMO of a Fortune 500 company. That was the vision, so I figured get my Bachelor’s, I’d go work for a few years, I’d go get my MBA from Harvard or Wharton, and then ultimately make my way up the food chain. And so after undergrad, I went to work for PepsiCo under the Frito-Lay banner, and while I was there, I noticed a lot of just interesting observations in the field and everyone I would talk to get an answer they would say, “Oh, this is just how we do it.”

Dr. Jared Watson: And I was like, “Well, that’s interesting. Why are we doing it that way? We’re a multi-billion dollar organization. I would think there would be scientific rigor at this level,” so I had that just eating away in the back of my brain. And one day I ran into an old professor at the grocery store, so still a PhD is not on my radar, I don’t know what exists. I’m happy where I’m at, and that professor and I just started chatting and catching up, and ultimately she had said, “Wow, if you have these questions and you can’t get an answer, have you thought about getting a PhD?” And I was like, “No, I don’t know what that is,” so we started those conversations and ultimately that’s what led me to academia was these very practical, grounded questions I had in industry, and then the opportunity to answer them.

Danielle Wiley: I love that. So many I clients are still, I guess, they need to go take your courses. I find that so many clients are still stuck in that, “That’s just how we do it,” especially in looking at traditional versus social media. The amount of money that’s still gets poured into TV with lack of measurement and no data whatsoever, proving that it moves the needle is mind boggling to me, but that’s just the way it’s always been done.

Dr. Jared Watson: And so who are you to be the one to rock the boat, right?

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. We’ll let you rock the boat. So we met actually through a mutual contact in New York because you teach Influencer Marketing as part of your curriculum and what you do which is so fascinating to me because I, mean, it didn’t even exist when I was in school. But how is it being taught in universities today? Is it its own major? How has this influencer marketing as a curriculum and a line of study evolved?

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. No, I think sadly it mirrors the trend in industry which is, who are we to rock the boat? Why should there be courses on influencer marketing? And so it’s not especially a focus by and large across academia, but slowly there are individuals like myself at other institutions that are like, “Hey, this is a very important part of the marketing mix. Maybe the most important part when we think about marketing today, and so if our goal in academia is to train the future leaders of industry then we need to understand what’s happening.” So it’s a little bit of a bootstrap’s mentality and figuring out like, “Hey, what is this? What’s going on?” And for me personally, I thought of it as a mutually beneficial opportunity. I’m fascinated by the influencer marketing space, who better to talk to about than the people who are most influenced by those which is our younger millennial, Gen Z clientele.

Dr. Jared Watson: And so it’s really a collaborative effort between me and the students to unpack, “Hey, what’s actually happening? Okay, great. Now, let me try to explain the psychology of the why. Let’s try to reverse engineer the effectiveness that we’re seeing today.” And so it’s an iterative process. It’s an ongoing process, by and large, it’s still some sub component of either the Digital Marketing curriculum or for myself, it’s part of the Consumer Behavior curriculum where we try to attack it from the psychology perspective, but we’re starting to see some approaches looking at certificates in influencer marketing and maybe more special social marketing classes, social media marketing, where we would see a greater attention paid to this.

Danielle Wiley: And it seems, I mean, I don’t know a ton about academia, but I know in some of the work that we’ve done with you, we’ve shared some data so that you can… Because for us, we’re like, “Okay, this program worked so let’s recreate it,” and you guys dive into such a deep like, “Well, was it the use of this particular emoji? Or what language did they use?” It’s so fascinating to see how you guys unpack the why of programs that have been successful, but in doing that, you’ve been working with colleagues at Dartmouth or at various other universities, and you just me introduced to someone at the U of M last week. I mean, do you guys have some secret message board of people teaching influencer marketing?

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. No, I think what ultimately happens, and you’ve probably found the same, is just within your field you find your tribe. And so there’s people that you admire that are doing things akin to what you’re doing. There are people who are experts in something you need to leverage for your own personal gain, and so you create that sort of professional and personal network of other academics, and it’s just some form of homophily where we start to gravitate towards each other like, “Oh, we’re seeing each other at the conference, we’re going to each other’s talks, we’re reading each other’s research,” and so you naturally self select in some capacity into these groups.

Danielle Wiley: Well, and I would think too that since the study of this really is in its infancy, I mean, you guys can use all the knowledge and sharing of best practices and key learnings that you can get. You can’t build this on your own. Are there actually textbooks? Do I need a textbook?

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. So there’s not a textbook that I’m aware of. There are some popular press books. I’ve used one book called the Influencer Code for my course, but ultimately, I think when we’re thinking about influencer as a marketing channel, it’s not that influencers are systematically changing consumer behavior. There’s something about influencers that are leveraging the things we know about consumers already in a new package, and so ultimately what we’re trying to do is understand what are those things about influencers that we already know about consumers. We have decades upon decades of research around spokespeople, around credibility and trustworthiness, social connections, and all of these underlie the effectiveness of influencers.

Dr. Jared Watson: It’s just packaged in a different capacity, and so oftentimes in my course, I’ll use Bob Cialdini’s book Influence which is decades old. It’s not about influencers per se, but it is about social influence, and so then in reading that book and discussing it in class, we understand, “Oh, this is what influencers are doing when they make these actions, when they’re going live on the marketplace and responding to comments. Oh, that’s some form of reciprocity when they’re offering us some discount code. Oh, that’s a foot in the door technique,” so we’re able to draw these parallels to things that we’ve known about the human psychology for the better part of the century. It’s just updated for the 21st century.

Danielle Wiley: And what’s been the most surprising thing that you’ve found through some of the research that you’ve done? I thought of this because you mentioned the discount codes, and I think you had done some research into whether that’s helpful or harmful.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yes. I think there’s a couple things that I found especially surprising. One is, with the younger generations, influencers are more credible and more effective than any other form of influence even your friends and your family, and so thinking about how you acquire information to make a decision, many of these people turn to social media before they turn to consumer reports, before they turn to the company’s website even before they turn to their friends and family. And that’s fascinating to me because when we think about why we would traditionally think a spokesperson is effective, it’s because they’re this credible source of information.

Dr. Jared Watson: If we’re saying, How do I become strong? We’re like, “Oh. Well, it would make sense that the protein powder Arnold Schwarzenegger uses would work for me. He is a mass of a person, and so I should use that product,” but now we’re looking and we’re saying, “Well, here’s a person that’s actually like me, but they’re within reach of where I can be,” so they’re a little more fit. They’re a little closer to my true ideal that’s within reach, and so I’ll trust them more than that bodybuilder when I’m looking at my fitness supplements. It’s an interesting trade off to say that it’s not that we’re looking for expertise of information, we’re looking for fit of information with someone that we think is representative of us, so that was one big surprising thing to me early on.

Danielle Wiley: And I mean, I came from Edelman, so I always look at their trust barometer, and it always shows that we trust people like ourselves the most, but what I think is interesting, and looking at the generations, to your point, the younger ones really do get most of their information and recommendation from influencers. What I’ve seen with Gen Z is that there’s this expectation… I mean, and a lot of this is just anecdotal because they’re living in my house.

Dr. Jared Watson: Sure.

Danielle Wiley: But this assumption that everything is sponsored and so they’re just okay with it whereas with the older, like my generation and above, there’s like, “What do you mean that’s sponsored, that’s terrible?” So I think some of it might have to do with just that. Well, of course, it’s sponsored, and so I’m just going to find the person who’s most like myself and trust that.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. That was, I’d say one of the insights from some ongoing research I have here with a professor at Dartmouth, Lauren Grewal and fantastic PhD student at NYU [inaudible 00:13:11], and you have decades of research that talk about what undermines credibility. And it’s, “Oh, when people are being paid to tell you something then that’s not effective,” and there are decades of research on this. And so to your point we said, “Oh. Well, that seems like that’s going to be a travesty for the influencer industry when the FTC mandates disclosures,” and we really saw no effect of that. And to your point, when you talk to Gen Z, everything is sponsored. The assumption is that everything is sponsored, but that the influencer is being selective about what they choose to promote so they can still be authentic and they can still be credible. Good for them, they’re able to make some money while doing it.

Danielle Wiley: And so how does this tie into CGI influencers which I have feelings.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah, I’m so fascinated by the rise of CGI influencers, and that’s actually what got me interested in influencer marketing in the first place.

Danielle Wiley: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. And so I had came across Lil Miquela which is, I think probably one of the most prominent, and everything that we know about the human mind works in opposite of the success of Lil Miquela. And the question is, “Well, what is this accountant expert in given that it’s an avatar? How authentic can this account be given that it’s a computer program? We know that someone is hiding behind the avatar creating this information,” and so on the surface, it would seem to lack credibility, it would seem to lack authenticity, but when I looked at the account maybe back in 2018, I think there were over 3 million followers. And I was like, “How does this account have 3 million followers?” And that led to partnerships with major brands, and so we saw major luxury brands, we saw fast food chains doing promotional content.

Dr. Jared Watson: One of the early things with that research was I found, “Oh, this is a special group of 3 million people, so this isn’t the average population. This isn’t just Lil Miquela is as influential on average relative to another influencer with 3 million people.” It was, this is a tribe of 3 million people that gravitate towards this CGI thing. It could be due to novelty, it could be due to a love for CGI. It could be a multitude of things, and so at that point in time when we were doing this research, we realized, “Well, we need to take a step back and understand why influencers are effective in the first place before we can understand why a CGI influencer is effective,” and so that led to this interesting pivot. Going forward, I think it’s a really interesting thought experiment given the rise of the metaverse. We see people putting up digital storefronts, we see digital real estate sales being transacted, and so if we’re shifting to this digital first marketplace, the digital influencer I think is this natural sort of extension.

Dr. Jared Watson: But there are these challenges when we’re thinking again, about what does that mean about authenticity? What does that mean about expertise, credibility or more broadly trustworthiness? Can I act on the information given that I don’t know who the person controlling this is and their fit relative to me? I have to try to infer that from the language, from the brands they’re promoting, all of these things, so I think it’s a fascinating time. It’s a little scary in that I think people might be a little too optimistic about the value of digital influencers or CGI.

Danielle Wiley: Or CGI.

Dr. Jared Watson: In that one of the reasons is, yes, somebody can control it. Meaning that you’re not running the risk of the CGI influencer doing anything illegal or inappropriate and having this blow back on your brand, it can operate 24/7. You can pre-program them to post, to do anything at any interval you would like, but you do lack that human element.

Dr. Jared Watson: And that might tie into one of these other surprising things that we’ve learned in this research is that across time we actually see that people report feeling lonelier than ever before, lonelier than 2000, than 1980, than 1960, but technology has made it easier for us to connect than ever before in theory. It’s so much easier to call someone across the country, across the continent, across the world. Yet, we’re feeling lonelier than ever before, and one of the things that we’ve discovered in our research is that people feel some sort of connection to influencers. It’s a parasocial connection, a one way relationship, and so the question becomes is, how does that extend to the CGI space when we know that’s not a real person? There’s someone behind it, but we’re lacking that connection, and so I think there’s very much a large and prominent space for real influencers today because of that human element that is so valuable in cultivating the engagement.

Danielle Wiley: The other thing that I’m seeing recently which is a new development and is so interesting to me, are influencers who are people, but they’re characters. We see a lot of it on Twitch when we do programs, so like Cosplay and just people having an entire alter ego. We did TikTok program recently, and actually one of the most successful TikToks in the program was this guy in character as this grandpa rapper that he does, but it’s not him that’s kind of related to the CGI. It’s not a real person yet, you’re taking this recommendation, and that wasn’t even, like with Lil Miquela, I think you could argue some of that might be top of funnel and just brought awareness. She is “[inaudible 00:19:10]” in quotes. She is reaching 3 million people. Are they actually clicking with this TikTok that we did? People were actually clicking.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. I think to your point, yes, this is a character, but this character is interesting to its audience. And the audience therefore understands or perceives that the creator of this character understands me. The creator of this character knows my needs, knows my wants, knows my personality. Therefore, I’m interested in engaging with this because while it is the character, I know the creator and the creator is suggesting that this is a product I should be interested in.

Danielle Wiley: There is that, you call it parasocial? There’s this meme that I love, and it’s like this woman sitting, it looks like it’s a subway station, on the floor, and there’s a large advertisement with a person on it and she’s sitting on the floor hanging out with the billboard, and it was like, “This is how I am with my podcast posts.” You really do get to feel like you know someone even though it’s a completely one way relationship.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. I mean, I think if we take a step back and just think about the celebrity space and we think about what happens every time a celebrity passes, every time there’s a major transgression, there’s this outpouring of emotion. People will sob because their favorite musical artist or their favorite actor dies, and yet they’ve never met that person, that person has never interacted with them, but they feel like they know them. A celebrity gets pulled over for being inebriated in public, and we feel ashamed because that was our favorite person. It’s all about feeling like we’re part of their life or knowing that they’re part of ours without actually having that physical proximity.

Danielle Wiley: We do a lot of educating with our clients on the difference between celebrity and influencer and how those intersect or don’t intersect, and typically will define program… Certainly influencers can be celebrities in their own right, but for the purposes of putting a program together we’ll say, “Okay, we’re defining celebrities as someone who got their fame outside of social media and then has a big following in social media.” And then we’re calling them an influencer if their fame comes purely from the social media realm, and we also spend a lot of time explaining why influencers do have, despite that relationship, that parasocial… That’s my new favorite term, relationship that people might feel they have with a celebrity that an influencer is going to have more of an impact at bottom of funnel because that relationship feels a little bit more real and maybe more-

Dr. Jared Watson: Organic.

Danielle Wiley: …yeah. And more authentic, less aspirational. That person feels more relatable.

Dr. Jared Watson: Yeah. I think to your point, one of these benefits of social media is it’s a little bit easier for us to say, “We were there when they had a thousand followers or 10,000 or a hundred thousand.” That’s a lot different than the celebrity space where it’s like, “We were there when there were 10 million or a hundred million.” It’s a little bit harder to claim that connection of being a day one supporter with the celebrity space because of this broad exposure all at once whereas with the influencer space on social media, we start off a little bit closer to them than others and others join more gradually.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah. I could talk to you forever about all of the nuances, so we typically end the podcast by asking our guests what commercial from their childhood still sticks with them. That must have been the most influential in whatever way.

Dr. Jared Watson: Sure.

Danielle Wiley: We’ve gotten some pretty funny answers, but…

Dr. Jared Watson: So you can define childhood a few different ways, but I’ll go back about 20 years, and it’s got to be the Starburst Berries and Cream commercial which if you’re not familiar with it, it’s something of a millennial anthem. And it actually started going viral again, maybe a year ago, maybe six months ago, on social media. And so it was fascinating to see my students be exposed to this thing that was really an anthem of a commercial for my generation. Is there more you want to know about it?

Danielle Wiley: No, That’s good. It’s just been so interesting to hear what people, so much of it is generational. We talked to one guest who didn’t really watch any commercials as a kid, so her favorite was one that she heard from others, and then just the difference between ’70s babies and ’80s babies and ’90s babies. And it’s just fun to note what stuck with people. Mine was a cleaning product, it’s very embarrassing.

Dr. Jared Watson: Well, I wonder if there’s even at the generational or the temporal level of things, of what sticks out. So for me, it was the humor and it was specifically an awkward cringey humor which I love to this day. So when you think about the cleaning product was it-

Danielle Wiley: It was the song. I can still sing the whole thing.

Dr. Jared Watson: … the jingle.

Danielle Wiley: Yeah, the jingle just stuck with me, and I spent so much time watching TV with… I mean, every Saturday morning I was just glued to the, I mean, every bit of TV I watched had commercials interspersed in it, you couldn’t escape them. Well, this was awesome. Thank you so much. And if people, Jared always has a ton of interesting things to say, so if you want to find him on Twitter, he is @drjaredwatson, and you can also find him on LinkedIn as Jared Watson. And I think that’s it. Thank you so much. This was terrific.

Dr. Jared Watson: Wonderful. Thanks for having me.

Danielle Wiley: Thank you for listening. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. Please check back next Monday for a new episode featuring marketing conversations through the lens of influence. I am your host, Danielle Wiley, and this is The Art of Sway.

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