Parasocial relationships. You might not have heard of them, but you’ve probably been in one.
Parasocial relationships are defined as one-sided relationships between a media figure, and a fan or a follower. The follower expends emotional energy on the media figure, but the media figure isn’t aware of the individual follower’s existence, just fandom as a whole.
The term ‘parasocial interaction’ originated in 1956, from media researchers Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, as the rise of mass communication came about. In recent years, parasocial relationships have become more prominent in communications theory due to the prevalence of online influencers who share most of their lives for everyone to see.
A parasocial relationship is formed when we discover something likable and trustworthy in a public figure. These figures seem to understand the follower, despite never actually meeting them. The follower feels that their thoughts and values are publicly represented and amplified by the object of the parasocial relationship.
Parasocial relationships became more intense during a time when socialising came to a standstill, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people felt isolated and found solace in media figures.
So how are parasocial bonds formed?
When a person is repeatedly exposed to an influencer or media figure who they find authentic and relatable, it can spark an affection for that figure, which might develop into loyalty and trust.
Parasocial relationships are often associated with young people, with almost 60 per cent of adolescents reporting that they have imagined a relationship with the public figure they feel a connection with.
But this phenomenon isn’t only common amongst the young. Older people are just as prone to experiencing parasocial relationships. Think of your favourite television character, or a heartthrob you were obsessed with as a teenager. Before social media was even a thing, there was Beatlemania in the 60s and boybands such as NSYNC and Backstreet Boys in the 90s. These public figures presented a likeable personality, that provoked feelings of companionship and even love in their fans.
Brands, politicians and organisations can be the objects of parasocial relationships too
Parasocial relationships aren’t restricted to celebrities. People can experience parasocial relationships with brands, organisations, and politicians too. These types of entities take advantage of this in order to inspire loyalty in their followers, resulting in profits, support, or votes.
Brands are increasingly using this information and taking advantage of it to realise their business needs as social media provides more opportunities for connection. It’s important to be aware of how to navigate them in a respectful way. Here are three things to think about in creating a parasocial relationship with your audience.
1. Ask questions.
Asking your audience questions enables two-way communication. Asking your audience questions about topics that matter to them, will make them feel as if they are heard, and their opinions are valid. This will ultimately further engage your audience and deepen their loyalty.
2. Be authentic and relatable.
Fostering a relationship with your audience means you must be transparent with them, to garner their loyalty and trust. As individuals, we are drawn to those that emulate the same values and ideals as us. Providing a sense of relatability will ultimately allow your audience to connect with you on a more personal level.
3. Tell a story.
One thing that draws people in are stories. Bonus points if it’s a story that drives emotion. People often engage with stories that resonate with them. For example, if you share content relevant to an experience that an individual has faced, it will spark emotion in them and they will be more inclined to engage with that content.
Parasocial relationships are not new but there are more opportunities than ever to create them. Finding ways to encourage your audience to relate to your public persona can result in a lasting and valuable bond.
Have you experienced a parasocial relationship?