Research and impact | By Hamish Armstrong

Can social media influencers contribute towards societal good?

Research co-authored by Dr Wanqing Zhang finds that influencers play a crucial role in alleviating customer uncertainty and promoting the adoption of eco-friendly technologies when they are active in a social media community.


Social-Media, Influencers, and Adoption of an Eco-Friendly Product: Field Experiment Evidence from Rural China investigated the impact of social media in the trial and adoption of a new environmentally-friendly pesticide among farmers in rural China. The study specifically explored the effects that influential personalities could have when placed in a community on the Chinese social media platform, WeChat.


To measure the effects of different marketing interventions, 643 agricultural farmers across China’s Hubai province were provided with a pesticide containing environmentally-friendly nanotechnology. The farmers were assigned to one of four groups offering varying levels of product support and engagement with others.


These groups consisted of either:


  1. basic instructions for use without extra marketing interventions
  2. a dedicated one-to-one marketing service and support phone line
  3. a WeChat group where they could interact with fellow farmers
  4. and a WeChat group containing an influential personality.


At different stages of the purchase funnel, WeChat groups with a social media influencer yielded higher adoption rates than those without due to increased trial uptake, helped by the presence of a trusted voice to drive discussion and focus conversation on knowledge-sharing. The presence of an influencer also produced more serious discussions among farmers about the product and eased uncertainty and scepticism at a faster rate.


The results also show that influencers can play a significant role in the initial stage of product diffusion through building up authenticity of the new product and supplier credibility, and are excellent messengers of information even if they do not possess product-specific expertise themselves.


“Social media is a low-cost way for organisations to reach out to new customers, but it can also be an important port of information,” explains Dr Zhang.


“In an era of fake news and mixed messaging spread by social platforms, it is important for organisations to provide authentication and advocacy to the information they are providing.


“Our research suggests that the input of influential and respected figures, such as eminent personalities in a village network recruited for our study, can have a big impact on the trust and adoption of a new product or technology — even if they themselves lack specific knowledge about it.


“The findings of our study also show how organisations like governments can structure campaigns, such as dispelling reports of inefficacy and dangers around coronavirus vaccinations and adoption of other medications.


“Finally, the research shows that social media and online influencers can come together to help fight societal ills such as poverty, disease, and pollution.”