Freberg, Karen; Graham, Kristin; McGaughey, Karen; & Freberg, Laura. (2011). Who are the social media influencers?: A study of public perceptions of personality. Public Relations Review, 37, 90-92.

Social media are about establishing a virtual community, where individuals can share information with each other in an open source environment, and create a virtual dialogue between all echelons of organizations and individuals. A mature public relations literature has identified the characteristics of effective spokespersons, but relatively little is known about audience perceptions of the social media influencer. The California Q-sort technique by Jack Block was implemented among 32 undergraduate students. The q-sort identified core perceived attributes of four sample social media influencer: Brian Solis, Deirdre Breakenridge, Charlene Li, and Jeremiah Owyang.


Biographical fact sheets consisting of a color photograph and publicly available information were prepared for each of the four sample social media influencers. YouTube videos featuring each social media influencer were selected on the basis of comparable length and context. A total of 32 undergraduate students participated in this study (eight students per SMI). Four sample SMIs selected by the researchers: Brian Solis, Deirdre Breakenridge, Charlene Li, and Jeremiah Owyang.

The California Q-sort (CAQ) gives a participant a series of 100 attributes to rank order depending on how well the attribute describes the target. Attributes were sorted into nine categories (1 = least characteristic or salient to 9 = most characteristic or salient).

Key Findings

1)      Participants viewed the social media influencers as verbal, smart, ambitious, productive, and poised.

2)      The attributes that were seen as least characteristic of social media influencers were self-pitying, indecisive, easily frustrated, self-defeating, and lacking meaning in life.

3)      Social media influencer attributes were compared with attributes of CEOs from a previous study by the authors, and found that both groups were perceived as smart, ambitious, productive, poised, power-oriented, candid, and dependable. The SMIs and CEOs were perceived as NOT being victimized, likely to give up, self-defeating, lacking meaning in life, doubting adequacy, submissive, fearful, anxious, and thin-skinned.

Implications for Practice

Social media influencers (SMIs) represent a new type of independent third party endorser who shape audience attitudes through blogs, tweets, and the use of other social media.  Public relations professionals have to understand what personality attributes make these individuals credible among other key publics. Obtaining detailed subjective audience impressions of an SMI adds a new dimension to practitioners’ abilities to assess SMI capital, which has relied heavily on less precise measures such as number of followers. Once salient SMIs for a brand or organization have been identified, the California Q-sort provides practitioners with a method for evaluating and comparing the subjective impressions of relevant audiences to each SMI.

Article Location

The full article is available for purchase at:

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
Follow on Twitter

Leave a Reply