Interview with Karen Freberg on Influencer Personality Traits, Part I

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Karen Freberg, who just completed a PhD. in Communications at The University of Tennessee and co-authored a ground-breaking study on the personality attributes of social media influencers. This summer Freberg is practically on tour, presenting her studies at several conferences and bringing some much needed research and analysis on influencer personality. Be on the lookout for her—you won’t regret it. In the meantime, have a look after the jump at the first of two parts discussing Freberg’s findings as well as some of her general thoughts on the social media landscape.

The primary goal of Freberg’s research, as noted in one of her abstracts, was to “demonstrate the personality attributes associated with social media influencers and how this perceived personality profile impacts their overall online reputation and effectiveness among their key followers.” They found strong results suggesting the best players in social media, the most effective influencers, share some pretty specific personality traits.

It’s really a first in this field. “Looking at the academic research,” Freberg said, “studies have touched a little bit on [personality traits of social media influencers], but they haven’t tested it. My friends and colleagues have known there are certain personality characteristics that seem to be similar across the board, but now it’s great to see that there’s research to back those up. So I think that this is a great start, and I would love to continue this research and look at other influencers and other situations.”

To test, Freberg and her team used the tried and true California Q-sort as their methodology, which provides a set of attributes that subjects rank, one by one, according to how characteristic they are of a given entity (person, organization, etc.).

“There are many different versions, but the one that we decided to do was the California Q-sort by Jack Block,” she said. “This has been tested over the last thirty years, done on many different studies, assigning specific attributes on personalities and specific entities, corporations, individuals, and it’s pretty reliable. Compared to other q-sorts, the Jack Block q-sort has a hundred different attributes on personality. It’s pretty thorough.”

So participants chose one social media influencer out of four: Brian Solis, Deidre Breakenridge, Jeremiah Owyang or Charlene Li. They read a profile on their influencer and watched a short video.

“Then,” Freberg said, “they were presented with the hundred flash cards of each of the attributes laid out on a table. They had 9 different envelopes they could go to, ranging from 1 being the most likely characteristic to 9 being the least. There were a limited number of attributes that could be assigned to each envelope.”

The trends in attributes started piling up. They found the attributes that most characterized the social media influencers in the study were intellect, social skills, responsibility, power and trustworthiness. They were not anxious, lacking in self-confidence, self-pitying, indecisive or submissive, as marked by the attributes that least characterized the social media influencers in the study. These characteristics might seem obvious, but keep in mind the q-sort breaks down personality into very specific traits. Freberg noted some of the finer differences when comparing social media influencers to some of the other roles she has also studied.

“I was able to do a couple of different studies looking at different roles,” Freberg said. “We did a q-sort looking at CEOs in one study, and then we did another study looking at generals. When you are looking at different roles, looking at what is different for them compared to the social media influencers, there is a difference. Social media influencers are more confident, but more open, more perceived to be confident in sharing their expertise, exhibiting a willingness to do that, whereas the CEOs are still on the side of being reserved. People don’t know exactly what they are up to.”

Such cross-examination across roles opens more and more doors, and Freberg is quick to point this all out as just the beginning. This is especially true when thinking about the kinds of applications this sort of research can have with social media as a vehicle for communications, for brand management, as we look for the best ways to engage these new networks. Freberg had many insights on this, but we’ll give your eyes a break. Look for Part II with Freberg next week, when we springboard off this study into some deeper and wider areas. Until then, I’ll leave you with a tidbit from her on how social media influencers act as brand or product endorsers:

“I think what you are seeing with these third party endorsers is that they are participating in a discussion. They are very pay-it-forward thinking in terms of making sure people are well informed on what’s going on. They are trying to build this community, making sure people have the information that they need, producing and curating it so people can redistribute it to their own followers. They are basically like a hub of information.”

Follow Freberg on Twitter at @kfreberg