How to calculate word-of-mouth

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Word-of-mouth may be the world's oldest, and perhaps most effective, form of marketing, but calculated methods of creating such buzz have remained elusive. Public relations giant Ketchum, however, believes it has cracked the code.

The agency's new approach operates under the assumption that fewer than 200 people ultimately shape the buying habits of the other 290,809,577 Americans, and it has set about methodically identifying those so-called influentials. The agency then teaches clients how to neutralize critics as well as approach ambivalent targets and turn them into apostles. The program measures interest in a brand, knowledge of the product as well as media quotes, with the idea that well-cultivated influencer relationships shape public opinion.

Ketchum's 100 to 150 influencers vary by brand, but include financial and industry analysts, scientists, authors, academics, futurists, government officials, grass-roots organizers, advocacy groups and reporters. All are people who orchestrate their own importance by staying abreast of issues but want to be informed without being marketed to. They are identified via Web searches and interviews, tracing information back to a source's source. Last year, Ketchum found that hot cereal sales, for example, were influenced by 163 Americans, from health and beauty experts to anti-obesity advocates. Toothpaste influencers range from dental hygienists to dating experts. Mascara demand not only was shaped by make-up artists, women's magazines and cosmetologists but also by allergists, eyeglass makers and optometrists.

The concept has grown because consumers-overwhelmed by information in all forms-are increasingly skeptical of advertising, said Paul Leinberger, global director, NOP World, whose Roper Reports also has an influencer program.

The premise is seen as "expertise from people who can't be paid to lie," said Faith Popcorn, CEO of Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, a marketing consultancy that has its own influencer program.

high quality

Paul Rand, managing director, Ketchum Midwest, launched its influencer program in September and said the program only works with high-quality products because experts know when someone tries to create buzz out of vapor.

"You shouldn't do an influencer program if you can't back it up. If it's based on marketing fluff and not reality ... you only expose the fluffiness of your offering," Mr. Rand said.

clients line up

Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, has been approached by two Fortune 500 companies for such programs, though he has never participated. "There are people who are brought into the public discourse as a result of these types of arrangements that can help fellow citizens really understand whatever it is that the story is about. On the other hand, these kinds of arrangements can have a tendency to manufacture cheerleaders," he said.

Ketchum charges $35,000 to $150,000 to identify names as well as advise on how to best reach a prospect. Tracking the effectiveness of the program and maintaining data is extra. Fifteen clients have signed on, including a brokerage firm, a sibling Omnicom Group ad agency, a pharmaceutical giant, two package-foods companies, a fuel cell company and a business-to-business conglomerate.

Jane Dalziel, director-communications, Hydrogenics Corp., which has used the Ketchum program, said she believes the payback comes in informing the few analysts who follow the industry. The primary downside is the labor intensive follow-through.

Ketchum also worked with FedEx Corp., which had its own influencer program in place, to identify its 147 influencers, assigning an executive (including CEO Fred Smith) to cultivate each, and tracking the influencers' perception of the delivery company. FedEx then blew out the program globally, identifying 5,000-plus influencers.

"It's critical to know who these people are, where they are on issues and consistently communicate with them so we are able to get the benefit of the doubt," said Eric Jackson, VP-worldwide corporate communications, FedEx.

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