Spotting the Creators of Peer Influence

Here's How to Find the People Who Generate 500 Billion Impressions a Year

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Josh Bernoff
Josh Bernoff
Everyone knows people make impressions on each other -- it's called word of mouth. The question marketers always asked us was: just how many impressions? And who is responsible for the mass of those impressions?

Now we know. People make over 500 billion impressions on each other about products and services every year. And a small group of mass influencers are responsible for 80% of those impressions. This is the beginning of what we call Peer Influence Analysis.

Here's how it works. Start by counting every instance in which a person influences another person online about a product or service. (We model this from Forrester's 10,000 person survey, which asks how frequently they post, in what places, how many followers they have, and what products and services they post about.)

This influence comes in two types.

First, there is influence from people posting within social networks: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and so on. We call these instances influence impressions. Based on our surveys, we estimate people in the U.S. create 256 billion influence impression on each other in social networks every year. (Has anyone ever measured this number before?) Of these influence impressions, 62% come from Facebook.

Second, there is influence created by posts: blog posts, blog comments, discussion forum posts, and ratings and reviews. We call these influence posts. We estimate that people in the U.S. create 1.64 billion influence posts every year. If around 150 people view each of these posts (a conservative estimate, based on our research), that's another 250 billion-plus impressions. Blog posts and blog comments account for about 40% of these posts.

Add the impressions from both social networks and posts together and you get the 500 billion impressions.

Once you start analyzing this huge pool of influence, you can draw some very interesting conclusions. Here are a few.

  • People's influence on each other rivals online advertising. For comparison, for a 12-month period ending September 30 last year, Nielsen Online estimates advertisers created 1.974 trillion online advertising impressions, compared to the 500 billion impressions people make on each other about products and services. So people's online impressions on each other about products and services are about one-fourth of the online advertising impression. And peer impressions are more credible than advertising, since they come from friends. Take those numbers into your next budget meeting!
  • A minority of people generate 80% of the impressions. Take a look at the graphic. About 6.2% of the online adults generate 80% of the influence impressions. Around 13.8% of the online adults generate 80% of the influence posts. We call these two groups Mass Connectors and Mass Mavens (if you've read "The Tipping Point" you know where we got the names.). If you're a marketer, you probably want to know who these people are (demographics, where they share, that kind of thing) -- once we've identified them, we can find that all out through the survey.
  • You can do peer influencer analysis for any type of product or service. For example, mass influencers in consumer electronics are far more concentrated, somewhat more affluent and quite a bit more male than the general mass influencers. If you want to build a word-of-mouth strategy, you have to start with the information on mass influencers in your market.

It's time to start analyzing peer influence with the same discipline we apply to media. And it's time word-of-mouth got a budget that reflects the amount of influence people have, and who has it.

If this interests you, you can learn more here.

Josh Bernoff is co-author of "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," a comprehensive analysis of corporate strategy for dealing with social technologies such as blogs, social networks and wikis, and is a VP-principal analyst at Forrester Research. He blogs at
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