Online Influencers Rely on Company Web Sites

So-called “e-fluentials”, a group that represents approximately 10 percent (11.1 million) of the U.S. adult online population, influence an estimated 14 people each, for a total of 155 million. Reaching them is crucial for companies that want to create a buzz.

As a group, e-fluentials were identified last year in research by Burson-Marsteller and RoperASW. E-fluentials affect millions of consumers’ purchasing decisions, and this year’s research found the online information source used most often by e-fluentials is company Web sites.

Across a wide variety of sectors — technology, retail, finance, pharmaceutical and automotive — company Web sites (85 percent) were found to be more widely used than online magazines (62 percent) and opinion sites (55 percent) as sources of Internet-based information among e-fluentials who advise on companies and products. These findings may help companies that want to proactively manage their relations with online customers because for all of the spreading of the word about good products and services, e-fluentials spread negative experiences to 55 percent more people than positive.

“An e-fluential is the rock that starts the ripple,” said Chet Burchett, president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller U.S.A. “Each one communicates with an average of 14 people, so word travels in ever-widening circles, growing exponentially with each successive wave. Our new research shows that an estimated 11 million e-fluentials reach 155 million U.S. adults with their messages. We can harness this tremendous communication force because we now know not only what kind of people e-fluentials are, but also what they do, both online and offline.”

The ability of e-fluentials to spread messages makes them preferred players and partners in direct- and viral-marketing campaigns. E-fluentials also wield tremendous clout offline: 77 percent vote, 55 percent sign petitions, 48 percent email government agencies, 47 percent email congressmen or senators and 40 percent serve on committees of local organizations.

“E-fluentials can be reputation-builders or busters,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, Burson-Marsteller’s chief knowledge & research officer. “It’s crucial for companies to build trust and value with influential visitors to their Web sites so they can neutralize the negatives and nurture the positives. Company Web sites that provide e-fluentials with straightforward, easy-to-use information-retrieval systems are pivotal in building and enhancing the value of brands, products and services in the public eye. Other consumers count on e-fluentials to be their hunters and gatherers of online information.”

The research found that e-fluentials are receptive to email from companies they know, indicating the vital role played by familiar brands in email viral marketing campaigns. Although not all e-fluentials open every unsolicited email message — in fact, 94 percent report having deleted such email on occasion — nine out of 10 have read unsolicited email from people or Web sites they know.

“Once they open these emails, e-fluentials bring motion to the campaign by passing on the information to others and visiting the Web sites mentioned in the message. These findings underscore the importance of identifying these community opinion leaders and building strong, positive relations with them,” Gaines-Ross said.

Burson-Marsteller also asked e-fluentials specific questions about holiday shopping preferences during the 2001 holiday season. Newspapers topped the list of sources for holiday shopping information with 59 percent of the e-fluentials surveyed indicated they most likely would be paying attention to newspaper articles and ads for tips on where to shop and what to buy. Friends (45 percent) were the second most-cited source, while family and Web sites (39 percent each) tied for third. Only 12 percent reported that they would be tuning in to their televisions for shopping ideas.

Television (12 percent) fared poorly as an information resource for e-fluential holiday shoppers. Only 10 percent of e-fluentials said they would be paying attention to direct mail and catalogs in 2001, even less than the percentage of those who said they would consult message boards and chat rooms (12 percent). Only email (6 percent), online banner ads (4 percent) and outdoor ads (4 percent) fared worse.

“Web sites are clearly gaining on some communication channels and leaving others in the dust as places e-fluentials go to get the facts and opinions they need to form their own highly sought-after recommendations,” Gaines-Ross said.

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