"Search is built on forums," said Alan Boughen, senior partner and director at NeoOgilvy. "You have to have a strategy that says: 'Let's make sure the opinions of these people are heard.'"
Research from Yahoo and ComScore underscores how valuable doing so can be. Brand advocates of auto marketers, for example, influence 52% more people than none advocates. The reason why they should is simple math, said James Lamberti, VP-search solutions at ComScore, which worked with Yahoo to reveal a piece of research on the subject. Of about 144 million internet adults, about 13.5 million purchased a vehicle in the last six months. About 5.1 million of those were advocates who, on average, talked to about 20 people each about the purchase, for a total of 105 million people. About 8.3 million of those car buyers were nonadvocates, who talked to eight people about the purchase, for a total of 69 million people who heard about it.
The research pinned some digital traits on these influencers: They conduct about 25% more online searches, they have wider online social circles, are 119% more likely to use instant messenger and 40% more likely to use podcasts. And about half have written about their purchases online.
They're also more than twice as likely as nonadvocates to lead to sales. About 718,000 friends purchased cars recommended by the 5.1 million advocate car buyers while 502,000 people purchased cars recommended by the 8.3 million nonadvocate car buyers. And perhaps surprisingly, advocates are more likely to talk about positive experiences they've had with brands than nonadvocates are.
Don't fear spontaneity
Stan Joosten, innovation manager at Procter & Gamble, said brands should be less afraid of all the spontaneous chatter about their products going on throughout the internet because it's actually more positive than most marketers might assume. For example, a search on Flickr for Pringles reveals hundreds of pictures showing the brand in an innocuous -- and often creative -- light.
"People find a much bigger upside than they were aware of [when it comes to online brand chatter]," he said.
Michele Madansky, VP-corporate and sales research at Yahoo, pointed to examples of how advertisers are using those influencers through social-media programs such as the Honda Element MySpace program, a Nikon-sponsored Flickr gallery and a deal between CompUSA and Bazaarvoice, a company that helps retailers add consumer reviews to their sites.
CompUSA, for example, bought the keywords Sony-plus-review and sent searchers not to the Sony section of the CompUSA site but to the Sony user-review section of the site. Doing so sent sale conversions soaring 60% and each purchaser was spending 50% more than the ones coming through the official Sony section of the CompUSA site.
"Thanks to the internet, purchasing patterns have been irrevocably changed and now we're showing word of mouth has been irrevocably changed," Ms. Madansky said.
Don't try too hard
But, warned P&G's Mr. Joosten, if a marketer screws up in the social-media space by, say, selling too hard or obviously or trying to censor negative comments, the repercussions can be more severe.
"There's a stronger impact when you do it wrong in social media than when you mess up in a TV commercial," he said, because it's more personal. Imagine, he added, "if I threw a dinner party and then tried to sell you Tupperware afterward. You'd never come back."