While it’s not an official word in any dictionary we’ve found, petfluence and petfluencers themselves have become firmly entrenched in the annals of social media marketing.

In other words, the crazy world of petfluencers on social media is just that: CRAZY.

There’s no denying the appeal of a cute animal-friend moment.

Animals, in general, have been known to captivate throngs of internet-goers (oh, hello, #MPRraccoon!), but do they have the power to influence them?

There’s little doubt that our furry friends (or scaly or whatever type of companion you have) can affect behavior.

Amazon came to count on it during their Prime Day hiccups:

If Amazon learned one thing from the first hour of 2018’s Prime Day, it’s this: When all goes to hell with your servers, pimping out the company’s pups is a pretty good way to curry favor among deal-hungry shoppers.

(Thanks to Maria Coppola and Katie Robbert for the Amazon reference.)

So, this week’s Big Question wants to dig into the phenomenon a little more:

What is Petfluence, and as a pet owner (or not) how does it affect you and why?

Petfluence: The Data Doesn’t Lie

Christopher Penn has, of course, been looking at so-called petfluencer data, and the numbers are as thumb-stopping as a dog in a fedora.

Courtesy of Christopher Penn @ BrainTrust Insights

It’s admittedly a little (very) disconcerting to see dogs and cats managing social channels better than their human counterparts (yes, we know the animals aren’t really managing their socials, but you get the point, don’t you?).

Ultimately, when it comes to social media, it’s about reach and engagement.

And petfluencers dominate.

But why and how do they resonate with us so much?

Why Petfluence?

On the surface, the “what is petfluence?” question isn’t difficult to answer.

We are affected, and in some cases influenced by, “pets”.

While it’s easy to relate to that notion, “why” is still a pretty compelling question.

According to Andrea Huspeni, it’s because they bring us together:

When it comes to the influencer world, pet influencers are probably the most neutral kind.

They bring us together, rather than split us apart.

There is usually no major political agenda, strong opinions or messages.

Plus, we aren’t feeling bad about ourselves. We aren’t thinking “Why can’t I look like her? Why can’t I be as strong as him?”

It is more about giving people a break from the constant barrage of news, drama, and stress happening in their world with something that can make them smile and be happy.

They resonate with us and make us feel good, which is something we can all use.

The reach with petinfluencers is vast, as animals tend to make us feel good, forget our worries and focus on the positive aspects in our life.

From a brand standpoint, having a sure-fire ambassador resonate with your audience is a complete win.

Rather than worry about someone having an embarrassing experience that gets covered by the media because of something they said.

From Beth Gordon:

I think pet influencers resonate so much with us because:

  1. They are typically one step further removed from our problems than human influencers.
  2. Pets/animals are non-polarizing.
  3. Animals make people feel good about the world. Emotions make people engage, but only positive emotions create lasting engagement.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, animals feel genuine. Dogs can’t put on a fake smile.

Psychology and Emotion

Joe Sinkwitz works with influencers of all kinds, and his data suggests there is a deep(er) connection at play between petfluencers and their audiences:

Pet influence works psychologically very similar to baby influence on people; caregivers that see a pet or baby is cute/happy/calm/playful or whatever adjective they might be looking for when using a product and the trigger is that my pet or baby may exhibit the same desired behavior if the product is purchased.

Having two cats myself, if I see an Instagram of an elder cat feeling rejuvenated after eating a particular cat treat, I know that I might feel that heartstring tug to see if mine might react similarly.

This psychological trigger is so effective on caregivers that one can also see the data on dating profile matches when pets and babies are used.

Compounding this further is that people are more likely to trust the motives of a pet for peer influence; in the cat eating a treat example, I know that if the treat isn’t palatable, a cat isn’t going to eat it, so there’s an additional lift in the perceived honesty of an endorsement.

Ultimately, there’s also still a bit of novelty with pet influencers; while we have many in our own network, they are vastly outnumbered by humans, so the data is still accumulating on whether these accounts will stand the test of time.

Based on the psychology of caregivers and the perceived trust of animals’ intentions amongst purchasers of pet products, I’m inclined to think they’re here to stay.

According to Christopher Penn:

People see pets and animals as extensions of themselves, sometimes like children, and sometimes as literal extensions of consciousness (anthropomorphizing).

So for working with petfluence, one key aspect is understanding your audience and what psychological attributes align best with the petfluencers you’re considering.

Petfluence Positive and Negatives

From Emma Li:

It’s obvious that pets provide humans with a source of empathy, happiness and even support.

With easy access through social media pages, we are anthropomorphizing our pets more than ever.

On the scientific side, we have actual proof now that pets can provide comfort, assistance, and even help release endorphins and lower blood pressure in humans.

We are investing in our pets just as much as they invest in us.

From a pet owners standpoint, there are a range of negatives and positives that the Instagram world has changed.

Positives: you can see a huge focus on spreading the news in regards to health issues, breed issues, and bringing together a pet-based community.

More than ever it is easier to find dog-friendly cafes, reviews, and honest takes on pet products, vets or personal experiences.

Petfluence is bringing together a huge digital community with a wealth of information, support, and also advice for new pet owners.

On the negative side, there is, of course, obvious trolling and even criticism for certain pet owners choosing certain cute pet breeds based on their Instagram influence.

It does affect the pet market. You do hear nasty stories regarding puppies being bought just for the Instagram photo. Or certain marketing schemes coming together purely due to the monetary value social petfluencers bring in.

As a pet owner with our own pet Instagram, we’ve faced negative commentary and trolling from something as innocent as “Your pet needs a wash,” to threats of theft.

More than ever you have to be wary of the health, security, and safety of your pets.

Petfluence: It’s Getting Ridiculous

Looking at Christopher Penn’s data, and bearing witness to full-fledged (furred?) brands like Grumpy Cat Limited, it’s clear there is something to the phenomenon (furry or otherwise).

But is it true influence, or just fluffy fanfare?

It’s tough to say. Sometimes reach and engagement are enough, right?

Maybe. As a result, though, the question of influence, what it means, and how to qualify/quantify it is an ongoing one in our industry.

While follower counts shouldn’t be the metric to measure against, it does seem that rampant popularity, for whatever the reason can generate real sales and marketing results.

For example, from Deirdre Lopian:

Grumpy Cat has grown so much she now has a product line and legal team. She just won 700K in a lawsuit. Which begs the question: Is Grumpy Cat the Kylie Jenner of Petfluence?

Petfluence: It Isn’t New

Deirdre Lopian was quick to point out that petfluence may be experiencing crazy levels of ubiquity on social media, but the whole idea of an animal mascot currying favor isn’t a new one.

Off the top of our heads? Morris the Cat; Spuds Mackenzie; Joe Camel; Chester Cheetah; The Geico Gecko; Duke from Bush Beans (to name a few… and we can’t forget about those Budweiser Puppies and their Clydesdale pals).

It works. Animals strike that emotional and psychological chord Andrea Huspeni and Joe Sinkwitz refer to.

Where Does Petfluence Fit?

Still, knowing that it (petfluence) works isn’t enough. That’s like saying “we need a website,” or “we should really be on Facebook.”

From Matt Maxey:

I think of “Petfluence” as very much a top of the funnel entry method for conversations… be that about your product, service, or in my case travel destination.

For the most part, everyone enjoys dog/cat photos because they are where the internet is still innocent and fun.

If you can use that to draw eyes or start a conversation about, or make an emotional connection to your product, service, etc., it’s a no-brainer.

As for their effectiveness…

Last June, Franklin, TN, was named the pilot city for Mars Pet Care’s Better Cities For Pets national initiative.

We launched (with petfluencers at a big kickoff event) and in the year since our visitation with pets has grown dramatically.

Direct impact… hard to tell, but it sure started the conversation about Franklin being a very pet-friendly place to visit.

Petfluence: Still a Bit of a Mystery

Like any marketing and/or communications strategy, using an influencer (petfluencer, micro-influencer, whatever-influencer) needs to be done properly. What that means seems to be in flux right now.

It’s clear that influence alone doesn’t create conversions.

Like Matt Maxey says, the tactic serves well to drive traffic to the top of the funnel. The rest is up to you.

Overall, Carol Prigan probably summarizes it best:

I’m really not sure what “Petfluence” is other than people sharing pictures and videos about their funny and cute pets.

I think storytelling is a big part of this. We love to follow the antics of these pets because we like the breed and/or can relate to their actions.

There are pets who become “spokesanimals” and probably influence some buying decisions, but I don’t buy Bush’s beans because they have a golden retriever talking about the beans. I prefer dachshunds.

Up Next: Brand Storytelling

Carol Prigan’s contribution got us thinking about what storytelling really means.

Rather, what it really means in a marketing and communications context.

We discuss storytelling all the time, but it seems to be evolving into a bit of a buzzword in our industry.

What does it really mean to tell stories on behalf of a brand, product, and/or service?

The definition of “story” itself is somewhat flexible.

An account. A narrative. However you describe it, storytelling is an age-old craft ever evolving.

But when marketers say they’re experts in brand storytelling, what do they mean?

There are few Instagram feeds we would consider worthy of being called a story, or an example of good storytelling. But maybe that’s not the point.

If the content and its application help communicate what the brand in question is all about and how it can fit into your life, perhaps that’s a brand story well told.

But then there are examples of brands (and their marketers) telling ACTUAL stories, like the Airbnb short “Wall and Chain.”

What do you think?

The next Big Question asks:

How do you define brand storytelling, and what are your favorite examples?

You can answer here, in our free Spin Sucks Community, or on the socials (use #SpinSucksQuestion so we can find you).

Mike Connell

Mike Connell is the director of client services at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. He is also a contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks, the leading source for modern PR training, trends, and insights. Find more of Mike's musings on his blog, Communative. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

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