In search of true marketplace influencers: Influentials inspire buyer confidence

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Recognizing the power of word of mouth, a growing number of marketers are now integrating it into their marketing mix. In fact, at last year's 4A's conference, Jim Stengel, global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble, declared "there is no `mass' in mass media anymore" and urged marketers to leverage more targeted approaches, including word of mouth.

Exactly how to tap this force, however, is where opinions begin to differ. Some urge marketers to target the "elite" by securing celebrity endorsements or the approval of "cool, hip and trendy" brand advocates. Others argue that everybody should be a target for word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. As with most decisions, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, namely in a consumer segment called the Influentials.

The real world is increasingly fragmented based on consumer needs, wants, values and lifestyles-and their propensity to engage in word-of-mouth behavior. And in the real world, marketing decisions must strike a balance between effectiveness and efficiency.

Strategies focused on harnessing the power of the Influentials segment aim to engage the one in ten consumers most apt to impact the decision making of others. Decades of research by my former firm, Roper (now part of GfK NOP), finds that Influentials are twice as likely as the average American to be asked for their opinions and twice as likely to make recommendations.

Influentials fit in and stand out. They are seemingly average people, found in all communities across the nation and spanning all demographic groups. But they have earned the trust of their friends and neighbors and have wide social networks. As a result, they exercise great influence on the marketplace.

Word-of-mouth marketing campaigns that leverage Influentials enable marketers to tap into the most connected, active and social population segment by fueling their natural interest in new ideas and products. Marketers should seek them out, start a conversation, listen and provide them with timely and credible information about the things that they care about ... and then let them do the heavy lifting.

In his book, "Grapevine," BzzAgent founder and CEO Dave Balter decries Influentials as a "myth" and argues that because everybody talks about products and services, word-of-mouth marketing is therefore about everybody. What he misses is the fact that these people are part of his community because they are interested in new products and passionate about sharing what they have learned with their friends. In other words, they sound remarkably like the Influentials! Many probably are.

Influentials are not a mythical group. They are your neighbors and mine. They are a powerful consumer force that's just waiting to learn about your next new product, and, if it's worthy, to spread the word.

Ed Keller is co-author of "The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy" (Free Press).

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