While listening to a set of audiotapes on the history of philosophy, I was struck by how well networked scholars and thinkers were in the 17th and 18th centuries. Long before the age of telephones, airplanes, and computers, philosophers such as Reni Descartes, Thomas Reid, and Immanuel Kant kept up very well with who was who in metaphysics and epistemology and carried on correspondence across national borders and language barriers.
In the Information Age, communication can occur instantly, and making personal contact with people whose opinions count is easier than ever. With a judicious use of email, you don’t have to be a somebody yourself to win the ear of someone with influence.
Strangely, however, I don’t see very many people talking about this as a method of publicity or word-of-mouth marketing.
Earlier this year, the communications consulting firm Burson-Marsteller released a fascinating study that bears on marketing by making one-to-one connections. The study identified “e-fluentials” — about eight percent, or nine million, of the 109 million Internet users in the U.S. When one of these e-fluentials is impressed by a web site or new product, he or she tells an average of eight others, quickly producing an avalanche of interest as word spreads exponentially.
Let’s look at some of the characteristics Burson-Marsteller discovered in the e-fluential crowd.
- They’re three times as likely as the typical online user to be asked for advice online.
- They convey their opinions to four times as many people as the typical online user.
- They email twice as many people as others online and more often participate in online discussion groups.
- They are more than three times as likely as other online users to visit web sites that do not have an offline sponsor.
- They are almost twice as likely as the typical online user to be politically active, make speeches, write a letter to the editor or an op-ed piece, or serve on a community committee.
- They frequently make business contacts online.
We’ve heard a lot about viral marketing but almost always with the assumption that any Internet user has a viral effect equal to that of any other Internet user. This study clearly demonstrates that this is not true. And while a few of the e-fluentials have traditional credentials or online positions, such as editor or forum sysop, giving them unusually wide access to an online audience, that’s far from universally so.
To get an idea of the self-selected character of many e-fluentials, browse the reader reviews at Amazon.com. Occasionally you’ll encounter reader comments submitted by someone labeled a top reviewer. In contrast to formally appointed book critics in the newspaper or on radio, this is someone who provides well-informed, in-depth reviews of books just because he or she likes to do so and whose reviews are highly rated by Amazon.com shoppers. If you were publishing a book, it might be worth your time to figure out which top reviewers gravitated to your topic and make sure they knew of the existence of your book.
Who’s an E-Fluential in Your Niche?
Similarly in your niche, a top e-fluential might not be a popular keynote speaker, CEO, or trade association official but someone who simply knows everyone else active online in that niche and communicates like crazy with them. Specialized discussion lists and web forums provide a convenient window to who those e-fluentials might be. Look for frequent posters who appear to have the respect of other list or forum members. Often they spread their enthusiasm promiscuously, so to speak, from one venue to another.
Almost always you’ll find e-fluentials responsive to email contacts so long as you approach them personally in a spirit of colleagueship. Agree or disagree with something they said. Flatter them mildly and sincerely. Ask questions about what they do. In short, schmooze them the way you might at a networking event. After expressing interest in them, you’ll often find them receptive to what you do.
Remember, this costs only your time.
As for those e-fluentials who do hold traditional offline positions of one sort or another, many are much more approachable by email than by letter or phone. When you spot them quoted in Fast Company or some other business magazine that provides email addresses for those profiled in articles, you have a perfect opening.
Go ahead — send out an email to one. You just might receive a response like the one speaker/consultant Nikki Sweet got when she emailed a CEO she’d read about but couldn’t reach by phone: “Wow, isn’t this email a great invention? The answer to your question is, please feel free to call me anytime — here’s my private telephone number.”