Three steps to put a parasocial relationship to work for your business

parasocial relationships

By Keith Reynold Jennings, {grow} Contributing Columnist

Something serendipitous happened during the mass shelter-in-place earlier this year.

I was re-reading a book, in preparation for a course I was taking, at the same time I was re-watching — okay, okay binge-watching — some of my favorite Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown episodes.

The combination of those two things at that moment in time sparked a unique insight and opportunity I believe is hiding in plain sight for us.

By “us,” I mean anyone whose job is to get people to try, buy, give to or do something: marketers, sellers, fundraisers, recruiters, leaders, etc. And by “opportunity,” I mean a tactic you and I can leverage starting today.

This article offers an exploration of this opportunity and how anyone might take advantage of it for your business.

Let’s kick this off with the show I was watching.

I’ve Got the World on a Screen

In case you’re not familiar, Parts Unknown, was an award-winning food and travel television series created and hosted by the late Anthony Bourdain. I loved this show. I still love this show.

In each episode, Bourdain traveled to some locale in the world and explored its food and culture through conversations with tuned-in locals.

But that’s not really what happened.

What really happened is that episode-by-episode, season-by-season, Anthony Bourdain took ME to locales around the world and introduced ME to their food and culture through the conversations he had with tuned-in locals.

With Bourdain as my guide, I could teleport anywhere. And I did!

I eavesdropped on table talk between Bourdain, chef Sean Brock and Bill Murray in Charleston, South Carolina. I accompanied Bourdain and chef Eric Ripert to the Leshan Giant Buddha in China’s Sichuan Province. And I sat alone with Bourdain as he savored Vietnamese street food with a cold can of beer.

Sadly, I’ll never get to meet him. And I’m probably never going to sit in that little nook of the world experiencing those smells, sounds, and tastes. But I can enter that world, if only for a moment, through my screen and learn about and appreciate it.

When the world learned of Bourdain’s passing, many who had never met him, felt they had lost a friend. We recently witnessed a similar public response with Chadwick Boseman’s passing.

Clearly, something is going on that transcends the traditional two-way relationship.

The Power of the Parasocial Relationship

In Episode 177 of The Marketing Companion podcast, Mark Schaefer and Brooke Sellas discussed the fascinating idea of a parasocial relationship.

Coined by two sociologists in the 1950s during the explosion of television, the parasocial relationship describes the one-way relationships people develop with people they watch on television (and now online), but don’t actually know in real life.

In that podcast episode, Brooke revealed her obsession with the Real Housewives franchise and told a funny story about encountering one of the cast members at an event.

She has a parasocial relationship with the Real Housewives.

Millions of people think they know Dolly Parton, but they’ve never met her. Millions think they know the Kardashians, but they’ve never met them. Five or six people feel like they know Mark Schaefer (joking! I could not resist!).

I felt I “knew” Anthony Bourdain.

That is a parasocial relationship.

But these powerful and emotional relationships aren’t to be discounted or ignored. They can be leveraged in positive, productive ways.

That’s where the book I was reading comes in.

How Nonprofits Use Avatars to Activate Giving

In their book, The Generosity Network, Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker introduce nonprofit leaders to a collaborative, exponential approach to fundraising that goes way beyond the chicken dinner gala.

That’s probably not relevant to you.

What is relevant is a chapter introducing what they call “the power of the avatar,” which reveals a tactic nonprofits have effectively used for years.

“By bringing the realities of work in a distant land vividly to life in a partner’s living room, the avatar uses technology to make the world a smaller place.”

Individuals who donate time and energy to a nonprofit through its programs are much more likely to become financial donors. And, according to the authors, one of the most effective tools for connecting an individual with a cause is through use of an avatar.

For example, a high net worth philanthropist likely won’t have the bandwidth to travel to Kenya to visit a nonprofit’s classrooms where kids are being taught entrepreneurial thinking. But a representative of the nonprofit in Kenya can provide a live or recorded broadcast that lets the philanthropist virtually tour the school, meet some of the students and ask questions to the staff.

Avatars are real people in the field who provide others (i.e. prospective donors, customers, clients) access to something when their circumstances prevent it.

At its highest level, avatars are the people we “would love to be if (our) life circumstances were different.” But this tactic isn’t limited to nonprofits.

Anthony Bourdain was my avatar. Through Bourdain, I was able to experience new food and culture in unknown parts of the world.

That’s the power of the parasocial relationship and the avatar.

How You Can Leverage Avatars in Your Business

So what does all of this talk of Anthony Bourdain and nonprofit avatars mean for you and me in our markets?

We’re living and working in a season where most people don’t have physical access to much of the world. With mass, long-term work-from-home in place at many companies, mass travel restrictions and mass budget cuts, we are cut off from the people, places and things we long for.

This moment in time is ripe for helping connect people to new ideas, people, places and things. It’s ripe for you to give your customers and prospects access in ways they can learn and grow. Ways they can better get their job done.

Here’s how I’m starting to leverage this avatar tactic.

In my role, I have more than a thousand employees who want to actively serve in their local communities, but many can’t be in the field as volunteers due to the risks of COVID. However, through avatars, I can bring the work of our nonprofit partners to our employees through virtual lunch-and-learns, video field reports on social media, narrative-driven videos and other ways.

Here’s how you can begin to leverage the power of the avatar in your business:

1. Choose your avatar(s).

Think about which people in your organization could be best serve as impactful avatars for your customers, clients and prospects.

In their book, McCrea and Walker emphasize the power of the CEO as “avatar in chief.” Most employees and customers never get access to CEOs, which makes a Founder, CEO, Managing Director or Partner an attractive avatar.

The key is to choose someone others will watch, listen to and engage.

2. Choose your channel(s).

Identify which medium makes the most sense for your avatar(s) to connect with your customers, clients or prospects. Zoom? Social media? Email? Text? Video? Podcast? Handwritten letters?

As with all marketing, it shouldn’t be the channel that’s most convenient for you. It should be the channel most preferred by those you seek to serve.

3. Choose one parasocial relationship to test.

I’m about to begin testing virtual lunch-and-learns. I was impressed with how Jazz at Lincoln Center used artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, as an avatar to host live Q&As with musicians, donors and fans throughout the summer.

Next month, I plan to test introducing our employees to ways they can make a difference by letting them hear from and ask questions to nonprofit leaders on the front lines trying to solve food insecurity, student homelessness and other crises specific to our local communities.

What is an avatar avenue you can test sooner than later?

I hope this has given you some actionable ideas for connecting with and serving your community of customers during this tough season.

Please share any insights, experiences or improvements you may have on this idea in the comments.

Keith Reynold Jennings is an executive and writer who serves as vice president of community impact for Jackson Healthcare. He’s also an advisor to goBeyondProfit. Connect with Keith via Linkedin and his monthly letter, Root Notes.


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