Online Influencers: How The New Opinion Leaders Drive Buzz On The Web

Bloggers, discussion-board denizens, and social networkers are courted by marketers, who believe they build buzz that can make or break new products and Web sites. But there's growing controversy surrounding

May 5, 2007

14 Min Read
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David Hahn has spotted a trend. As director of advertising for the popular online business networking site LinkedIn, he's being asked pointed questions by large advertisers about his ability to help them find "influentials" -- those people within the LinkedIn community who are the most likely to go out and spread the word about a particular product or experience. "Some of them are requesting it specifically, while others are more implying it, but it comes down to the same thing," Hahn said. "Marketers are very interested in the value of online social networks, and how leaders in those networks can be used to drive proactive behaviors in the population."

Hahn isn't alone in his observations. "The notion of the online influencer is quite the thing today in the marketing world," said Janet Edan-Harris, CEO of Umbria, which monitors chatter in cyberspace communities for corporations wanting to know what's being discussed online about their brands and products. "Companies are incredibly eager to get to those people. Do that -- or so the conventional wisdom says -- and you'll be in marketing heaven."

But new research, as well as growing business experience, suggests that such thinking may be overly simplistic. The effectiveness of using online word-of-mouth campaigns -- or using individuals rather than traditional media advertising to spread the word about products or services -- is increasingly viewed as an effective way to reach consumers. But the popular notion that frequently accompanies this, that there are special individuals who hold the key to the hearts of entire online communities, is coming under fire.

Dave Balter certainly thinks so. As CEO of BzzAgent, a word-of-mouth marketing firm, Balter three years ago had a revelation: The so-called influentials, or opinion leaders, in online communities can't be influenced in a way that accelerates the success of a word-of-mouth campaign.

"We actually believed in the idea that influentials drove market trends at that point," said Balter. "But upon closer look, we found out it didn't add up. The sales data of our campaigns didn't match the profiles of the opinion leaders we had targeted, and it really caused us to re-evaluate some of our core assumptions." Today, when a client comes in with the goal of influencing the influentials, "we tell them that's fools' gold," says Balter. "It sounds really great, it sounds really sexy, but the results simply don't fly."Duncan J. Watts, professor of sociology at Columbia University who studies networked communities, recently conducted research that indicates there is no hard evidence that the long-held belief in opinion leaders as, well, leaders, has any basis in fact.

This indeed is what Edan-Harris has concluded from her experiences working with online communities. "We said, 'Wait a minute, is this really a correct assumption, that there are individuals on the Internet that have that much influence?" she said. Her conclusion: "Not nearly as much as everyone seems to think."

Despite this, companies are putting significant dollars into efforts to find these online opinion leaders, whether they're bloggers, contributors to discussion boards, or members of online social networks. Indeed, a whole cottage industry has sprung up based upon the notion that all marketers need to kick off a successful marketing strategy with a list of Internet opinion leaders. Yet Watts calls much of the current thinking on this topic "sloppy." "This is a very simplistic notion, that there are magic people out there, and if I can just turn them on, I've got it made," he said. Call them opinion leaders, mavens, or connectors. Conventional wisdom says that 90% of the population is unduly influenced by these individuals. Whether spreading the news about innovations, ideas, or commercial products, these influentials are supposedly the main conduit of information that the rest of us use to make critical decisions about our lives.

And with the expanding universe of blogs, online communities, and social networks such as MySpace, FaceBook, and LinkedIn, the appeal of this idea has become even more entrenched. There's a growing perception that the increasingly ubiquitous availability of broadband coupled with the rise in popularity of blogs and online communities make influentials even more influential.

This theory predates the Internet by decades. The notion that a small subset of individuals has disproportionate influence was formulated more than 50 years ago by academics Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz in their book Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications. But it was Malcolm Gladwell's 2002 best-selling The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference that popularized the notion. Gladwell divided people into connectors, people who bring other people together; mavens, who get a kick out of passing along knowledge to others; and salesmen, who like to persuade others of the validity of an idea or product. When taken altogether, Gladwell argued, these archetypes create "epidemics" that spread like viruses throughout the population, triggering massive trends that couldn't be achieve by traditional top-down imposition of messages on the general public. The Influentials, by Jon Berry and Ed Keller, published a year after The Tipping Point, comes to many of the same conclusions.It's critical to understand, however, that all these proponents of opinion leaders as drivers of social and commercial trends aren't talking about media stars or personalities, but about otherwise seemingly ordinary members of a community who, through accumulation of knowledge or number of connections with others, act as catalysts for change.

Not surprisingly, marketers of all stripes almost at once began trying to take advantage of this -- at first offline, and now increasingly within the online social networks rising in popularity.

"The largest companies had already established influence-based programs and are now extending that model into the online social networking space," said Matthew Hurst, a scientist at Microsoft LiveLabs who follows online marketing trends. "It's not the notion of influence that's new, it's the technology that is now enabling it to a greater degree."

Not surprisingly, a rapidly increasing number of companies have leaped into the fray to help firms identify the influentials in cyberspace. Buzzlogic is one of them. Launched in April, Buzzlogic is dedicated to this idea that opinion leaders in online social networks can be identified, and their influence measured.

An early Buzzlogic beta customer is Protuo.com, a Web-based career management portfolio service that provides matchmaking between employers and potential employees. Not having the funds to buy expensive marketing spots in TV, radio, or mainstream print media, Jennifer Gerlach, VP of marketing, hired Buzzlogic to find the people who are the most influential in the human resource/employee professional space, contact them, and get them to buzz about the product. "We noticed that once one blogger wrote about our service, then suddenly a bunch of other people were writing about it. All at once, there were reviewers everywhere," said Gerlach, who just snagged a major feature in Inc. that she attributes to the online influentials campaign. She said she can map increases in site traffic precisely to blog mentions, and views the campaign as a huge success.But despite this apparent triumph, a steadily growing number of online marketing experts would argue that, rather than being responsible for the deluge of publicity that Protuo.com is experiencing, the bloggers targeted by Buzzlogic were simply tapping into a sort of zeitgeist waiting to happen -- in this case, intense interest in how the Internet could be used to bring employers and candidates together more efficiently than traditional job boards are capable of doing.Indeed, a growing school of thought is that influentials aren't so much leading trends as acting as mouthpieces for underlying social movements that are either already in progress or lying fallow waiting to be triggered. Thus successful marketing doesn't depend so much on finding influential people and seeding them with ideas so much as doing the kind of research that exposes embryo trends, and then helping influentials discover them.

"If it's just one person in an online social network giving their opinion -- no matter how supposedly influential that person is -- unless his or her taste matches what the market is already prepared for, it's not the most useful mechanism to use when trying to trigger a trend," said Omar Ismail, founder of Productwiki.com, a wiki that collects input from the blogosphere about brand-name products and allows participants to rank them. "Ninety-nine percent of the time that simply won't work."

Columbia professor Watts compares the way that trends start to the way major forest fires spread: What matters isn't so much the match that started the blaze as the condition of the forest. "You don't necessarily devote your energy to sparking a particular tree as much as identifying the places that have the right conditions for a blaze," he said.

This in fact is what Umbria does by focusing on tracking online conversations taking place in discussion boards and social networks as well as blogs. "It's much more important to identify those themes that are gaining momentum than try to find opinion leaders," said Edan-Harris. "You want to ride the wave rather than trying to start one on your own." By listening first to the conversations and being nimble enough to use the Internet to craft campaigns that jump on an existing trend, "you get much better results than attempting to generate your own little epicenter," she said.

Protuo.com's Gerlach agreed with some aspects of that. "There has to be a story around your product, and that story has to resonate in the world for the opinion leader strategy to work," she said.Herein lies the problem with swallowing the influentials theory whole cloth, said Watts. Much of the so-called evidence of how the process works is a matter of reverse engineering. "Once something happens -- if there's a best-selling book coming out of nowhere, or a surprise political upset -- you can always go back to the beginning and find the event or person that seems to have triggered it," he said. "You can always tell a causal story in retrospect." But, he added, there are lots of reasons why a trend may catch on, and many of them are unknowable.

"There's only one magic bullet for trying to influence the influencers, and her name is Oprah," said Ben McConnell, author of Citizen Marketers: When People Are The Message. "If you try to go after influencers in the wild, you may as well put your money into a bunch of traditional advertising, you will get the same effect." Successful word of mouth depends on such things as what the cultural zeitgeist is, and what the needs of the market are, he said. "There are so many variables, it's like trying to make it rain," McConnell said.

This isn't necessarily bad news for marketers. "It's not that, 'Oh my gosh, everything is totally random and impossible to plan,'" said Watts. "But your plans have to be premised on the right understanding of the state of the market."

Michael Shore, VP of worldwide consumer insights for Mattel, directs an organization that increasingly monitors blogs, social networks, discussion boards, and forums to figure out what the market might want from toys in general and Mattel products in particular.

But unlike many other global consumer-brands companies, Mattel isn't interested in simply smoking out those individuals who are inordinately influential in their online communities and pushing top-down marketing messages onto them. Despite the fact that this has become the strategy du jour in the online world, Shore's philosophy is a more holistic one."We're not just interested in opinion leaders. We'd consider that too narrow a focus," says Shore, who hired MarketTools.com to help him develop and get involved with online communities. Instead, he uses the online universe to do what he calls "cultural assessments" that involve analyzing language, behavioral patterns, and values. Armed with that information, Shore said, Mattel gets valuable information from the Internet that it uses to shape future product development as well as marketing campaigns.Once companies accept the fact that it's not as simple as hyper-marketing to obvious opinion leaders, there are a number of steps that logically follow.

For starters, rather than trying to identify opinion leaders, an increasingly popular method of penetrating an online community to seed an effective word-of-mouth campaign is to ask people who are interested in spreading the word to step up and identify themselves, said Leonard M. Lodish, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the school's MBA course on entrepreneurial marketing. For example, he said, there's the time-tested strategy of offering incentives to people who can refer other people to your product or service. The Internet tends to accelerate as well as exaggerate the effects of this, he said.

At one startup Lodish is familiar with, three people self-identified themselves as interested in the brand by referring 1,500 customers apiece to the company. "I wouldn't necessarily call them opinion leaders, but ordinary people who got interested in the product and decided on a personal basis to spread the word," he said.

"Most trends are started, not by one influential, but by a critical mass of easily influenced people, each of whom is exposed to an idea or product by a single member of their community," said Watt, who calls the people who trigger these cascades "accidental influentials."

If you buy into Watt's theory, you realize how difficult it is to identify these accidental influentials. Just ask Marilyn Davenport. Back in 2003, she was formulating her newest strategy for spreading the word about Rock Bottom Restaurants, a micro-brewery restaurant chain based in Louisville, Colo. Davenport had tried television and radio spots as well as direct mail, with mixed results. She decided to attempt something different: targeting loyal customers, as identified by the frequency at which they dined at Rock Bottom restaurants, who would then theoretically spread the word through their respective social networks, both online and off. She hired BzzAgent to help develop her campaign and waited for the results to pour in.The only problem was, they didn't, because a funny thing happened: These hand-picked loyal customers didn't deliver the goods.

"We found out that the best spokespeople for our brand -- the ones who did the best job getting the word out -- weren't at all the ones we expected," said Davenport. Instead, it was people whom Davenport classified as "light" users, customers who only came in very infrequently, who turned out to be the best spokespeople for the restaurant.

As it happened, researcher David Godes, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, was interested in this very topic and studied the Rock Bottom campaign while it was in progress.

"There are definitely people who influence others out there, but there's often a mistaken leap of faith about what to do about them," said Godes. He pointed to the practice of companies mining their customer databases, as Rock Bottom did, to identify their most lucrative accounts as the ones most likely to spread the word about their products or services. "Generally, experts in a certain area have already said what they're going to say about something," Godes said. "Where you get the most impact for your marketing dollar is when you get new, less influential people talking to others."

Marc Cantor, founder of Macromedia and CEO of Broadband Mechanics, which builds tools and environments to enable online communities, divides online marketing into first-, second-, and third-level strategies. First-level strategies are the traditional mass-media campaigns that people are really tired of and that no longer work. Second-level campaigns are more subtle and involve giving something to the community, such as contributing to a worthy cause that the community values, be it Open Source or breast-cancer research. The third-tier approach is to "circle the end user experience with a compelling product, and let people decide for themselves what's in it for them," Cantor said. "Non lock-in is this year's black. It involves listening to consumers and actually giving them what they want."Steve Rubel, senior VP in Edelman's me2revolution practice, observed that there's already a lot of "influence fatigue" happening out there. "You need to join the community rather than impose yourself, and that's an extremely labor intensive process," he said.

Intuit has established user communities around its Quicken and Quickbook products that consist of discussion boards, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds and, by the end of the year, wikis. Intuit made a choice not to simply target influentials, and certainly not to use the communities as an explicit marketing tool. Instead, the community is managed from within the product development part of the business, and users interact with the actual developers and product managers who are working on the software.

"That was a very conscious decision on our part," said Scott K. Wilder, group manager of the small business online community at Intuit. "It was our belief that we'd have more credibility and that more users would use the site that way." Not incidentally, the power of any word of mouth that results from these efforts is much greater, he said.

If there's one thing that everyone agrees on, it's that marketers need to invest a great deal more effort into how online social networks and Internet communities actually work with respect to selling products and services at the grass-roots level.

"It's an emerging medium, and the rules haven't yet been established," said Umbria's Edan-Harris. "We're still learning what does and doesn't work."0

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