Who Is Your E-Fluential?

In 1945, two researchers, Katz and Lazarsfeld, published a landmark study exploring the way opinions and attitudes spread. They found that there are certain people, whom they called “opinion leaders,” who have particular influence on the way their friends and associates feel about certain subjects.

According to the study, opinion leaders are media junkies and are looked upon by others as experts on certain topics. Because of their influence, marketers have tried to learn how to target opinion leaders to efficiently spread messages and ideas.

According to a different theory, there is another group of people that should be coveted by marketers — early adopters. Early adopters are among the first people to try out new products. Technology marketers have learned that they have to reach early adopters first before mainstream, more cautious customers buy their products.

A true marketing sweet spot is people who are both opinion leaders and early adopters. These folks, sometimes called “chat leaders” or “product evangelists,” can act as an unpaid, enthusiastic sales force for your product or brand.

Unfortunately, almost all of the research done on early adopters and opinion leaders has been about their activities in the non-Internet environment. Belonging to a neighborhood social group is seen as a sign that you have influence in your community. But what about moderating an online discussion group? Until recently, this type of activity wasn’t accounted for in measuring a customer’s influence.

The Internet is, in many ways, a world unto itself. There are people with huge influence online — they pass along messages, participate in chat rooms, run a web site — but aren’t active in their “real world” community. (They might not even leave the house.) Market researchers have started to explore whether we can segment and isolate people who have influence online.

This would obviously make e-marketing more efficient. And it’s especially true with viral marketing, which encourages people to pass along messages, promotions, or product information. Targeting people online who spread messages can be a cornerstone to an efficient, targeted campaign.

Some initial work has been done. An interesting study was recently published that isolated behavioral and attitudinal patterns of certain folks, called “e-fluentials,” who influence others on the Internet. According to the study, e-fluentials are such active participants in shaping the online dialogue that they affect the attitudes of eight other people through the Internet.

While interesting, the study is only a first step. No segment of people, whether they are opinion leaders offline or e-fluentials on the Net, is generic and monolithic. For example, a person who has influence over software purchases isn’t the same person who raves about the newest shampoo. In fact, the original opinion-leader study emphasized that opinion leaders are influential in limited spheres.

E-marketers need to focus on people that are influential in their target for their product. Like all good marketing, this requires a deep understanding of your customer and prospects, garnered through qualitative and quantitative research.

But remember, no matter how well you target your e-fluentials, messages of little relevance or value won’t be successful. Good targeting is only a piece of the puzzle.

It is gratifying to learn more about the way customers interact on the Internet and how that applies to our online efforts. Contributions like the e-fluentials study can only make e-marketing more effective.

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