The Value of Word of Mouth

Word of mouth is largely responsible for the online success of Hotmail, Matt Drudge, and even the early days of Amazon.com, but how can you ensure word of your site spreads? For starters, make sure the site delivers. But research also suggests that certain groups of people are more likely to influence where people go online than others.

How many people visit your site may have less to do with how much money you spend promoting it, whether or not you buy a Super Bowl commercial, or how many people you reach. It may have more to do with which people you reach.

Research commissioned by communications consulting firm Burson-Marsteller and undertaken by Roper Starch Worldwide claims it has identified online influencers — called e-fluentials — as comprising approximately 8 percent (9 million) of today’s 109 million Internet users. These e-fluentials are estimated to have the power to influence the opinions of another 72 million Americans online. This number is expected to reach more than 128 million individuals by 2005, creating new challenges and opportunities for business, government agencies, and society at large.

“We call them e-fluentials and they have exponential power on the Internet,” said Christopher Komisarjevsky, president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide. “In the old economy — or the offline world — one person was generally thought to have an impact on the attitudes and behavior of approximately two people; however in the new economy, one influential online person has an impact on the attitudes and behavior of approximately eight people. The challenge today and in the future will be for companies, communities, and government agencies to understand e-fluentials and harness their potential impact to achieve measurable business results in this new e-society.”

As an example of how e-fluentials work, Komisarjevsky uses a classic television example.

“In the classic ’70s Faberge Organic shampoo television commercial, a woman tells two friends about the product, and they tell two friends and so on, and as she speaks her image multiplies across the screen. If that commercial ran today and that woman was an e-fluential, she would influence eight friends, with her opinion spreading in multiples of eight rather than two.”

The study polled a sampling of 2,014 Internet users and revealed that e-fluentials influence more people on more topics than other online individuals. The success of low-budget horror film “The Blair Witch Project” is an example of using the Internet to help spread word of mouth. The film’s Web site had a budget of $15,000, but it got 75 million visits in the first week alone, while the movie grossed at least $100 million.

Free email site Hotmail, now owned by Microsoft, is another example of the multiplier effect. According to Business 2.0, the company spent less than $500,000 on a Web-based marketing campaign that resulted in 12 million subscribers within 18 months. Hotmail sign up more than 150,000 subscribers everyday, making it the world’s largest Web-based email provider. Hotmail credits much of its success to the multiplier effect of subscriber word-of-mouth.

“Our data reveals a distinct, identifiable set of Internet citizens who act as online opinion leaders,” said Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge & research officer at Burson-Marstellar. “These cyberworld town criers, whose voices are not measured in decibels but in megabytes, are able to express their opinions at extraordinarily high rates, using the Internet as their virtual soapbox.”

The study further identified e-fluentials as:

  • Marketing Multipliers — have opinions that are far-reaching and radiate to a level of influence disproportionate to their actual size. Four times as many people consult e-fluentials about companies, business, and new technologies.
  • Influentials — extend their influence beyond the online world. Forty-two percent fit the traditional Roper Starch definition of Influential Americans™ versus only 10 percent of the greater American population.
  • Avid Communicators — communicate with more people online, regularly emailing twice as many people as the general online population.
  • Information Sponges — absorb more information than general Internet users and glean it from a more diverse array of sources. Seventy-two percent have visited company Web sites versus only 41 percent of the general online population.
  • Technology Savvy — are Internet experts. Seventy-four percent go online more than once a day vs. 45 percent of the general online population, while 53 percent spend more than two hours a day online versus 22 percent of the general online population.
  • New Product Innovators — are inclined toward new innovations and technologies and this also holds true for their buying patterns. Sixty-eight percent said they sometimes influenced the types of products their friends buy and 61 percent said that they often try new products before their friends and neighbors do.

“We think the identification of a second segment of influential citizens contributes significantly to our understanding of how ideas and information are transferred in our society,” said Edward Keller, president and COO of Roper Starch Worldwide. “While influence will always occur offline as well as online, Burson-Marsteller’s e-fluentials segment creates a new tool for tracking influence on what may well turn out to be the most influential communications medium ever created.”

To further demonstrate the power of e-fluentials, Burson-Marsteller has set up a Web site that identifies whether a person is an e-fluential at http://www.efluentials.com.

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