In search of true marketplace influencers: Everyday folks drive measurable results

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Could it be that you're an Influential? Maybe. If you are, I congratulate you. You are special: You volunteer more, read voraciously, share ideas often and have a large circle of friends. You stand out from the herd. But if you're not, well then, you're probably like me. Not purely average, not ridiculously boring-but not classified as an Influential.

Much has been written about the role of Influentials, mavens, connectors, sneezers, alphas, hubs, transmitters and trendsetters. Armchair theorists argue that the power of word of mouth resides in this population subset because they drive the purchasing habits of the rest of us.

The concept is quite nice, as it gives marketers and researchers something to latch onto. After all, the idea that one could run a word-of-mouth campaign with special, influential people sounds a whole lot more exciting than one that collaborates with normal, everyday folks.

Not-so-average returns

So why shouldn't marketers focus exclusively on the Influentials? Because campaign results would be worthless.

I used to believe in the theory of the Influentials as well. For the first year of BzzAgent, my word-of-mouth marketing company, we told people how valuable these "special people" were. But then in 2003, Harvard Business School performed a case study on one of our word-of-mouth programs and the results changed our opinion. Researchers found that everyday people drove more return than anyone else. Since then we've tested the theory over and over across dozens of organized word-of-mouth programs, across tens of thousands of individuals. The discovery of the power of the Everyman has led us to build a network of 110,000 volunteers in our network, ages 13 to 89, from all walks of life and all backgrounds.

What did we find about the Influentials? We found that it's a myth. The people making a measurable difference and driving results are much more familiar.

Want proof? Spend the next 24 hours listening very carefully. Listen to who tells you about products and services-you may discover what Northeastern University did, namely that 15% of every conversation includes something about a product or service. Think about who is influencing you; then observe who you are influencing. What you find should be revealing about the power of the average person. All consumers listen to lots of different people and value their opinions relatively equally, regardless of their social status.

I have spent the last several years developing the first organized methodology around real-world world-of-mouth marketing. And the data I have amassed clearly indicate that one doesn't have to be famous, rich, knowledgeable-or even likable-to generate effective word of mouth. Simply put, you may not be an Influential, but that doesn't mean you don't have influence.

Dave Balter is founder and CEO of BzzAgent and author of "Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing" (Portfolio).

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