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Making word of mouth marketing work: Finding the influencers

11th Aug 2008
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Since the explosion of social media, word of mouth has become an increasingly popular part of the marketing mix. So where can you find the small group of influential customers that will facilitate word of mouth campaigns - and how can you get them to shout about your business? Verity Gough finds out.

By Verity Gough, staff writer

There have always been influential people that have swayed others’ opinions, from the cool kid with the new toy in the playground to the blogger whose posts strike a revolutionary chord. But since the advent of Web 2.0, these ‘influencers’ have really come to the fore.

The public relations sector has always been about influences but now businesses are even incorporating them into their marketing budgets. According to PR Week/Manning Selvedge and Lee’s fifth annual marketing management survey, 69% of marketing managers targeted influencers, while 43.4% said they would target consumer-generated media such as word of mouth, online social networks and YouTube.

This indication that businesses are now paying more than just lip service to this form of marketing is something Jennifer Kirkby, director of Mutual Marketing, has seen for herself. “In the past, I would have thought of my influentials as external to my marketing,” she admits. “Now I think about who the influentials are in my customers’ space because I now focus on my customers rather than product.”


"It begins with the content creators, which is a relatively small percentage. Then there is a larger percentage that are content consumers."

Rohit Bhargava

The key to understanding the world of the influencers is to understand what kind of people they are and what drives them. According to New York Times journalist and author of 'The Tipping Point', Malcolm Gladwell, influentials fall into three different categories: Connectors, mavens and salesmen.

Connectors are the people who link us to the rest of the world, mavens are the ‘information specialists’ who accumulate and share knowledge with others, while salesmen are the ‘persuaders’ who possess the powerful negotiation skills needed to make others want to agree with them.

Gladwell’s insights have become a common way of categorising influentials, despite being written several years before the social networking boom. But since his book, there have been other categorisations put forward. In 'The Influentials' by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, influencers are grouped into three categories: social influencers, category influencers and brand influencers.

Categorising influentials

However, as social media moves on, so too does the way in which influentials are categorised. Rohit Bhargava, senior vice president of digital marketing and strategy at ad giant Ogilvy and author of Influential Marketing Blog, has himself become something of an influential. He suggests businesses look at it in terms of content creation. “It begins with the content creators, which is a relatively small percentage,” he explains. “Then there is a larger percentage that are content consumers. These people go online, they browse, they read things and email. But they are not creators or bloggers; they are not submitting reviews to Amazon or commenting on blogs. They are not interacting.”


"It has become much easier and more efficient for companies to identify and to communicate with their influencers."

Brad Fay, president, Word of Mouth Marketing Association

In the middle of these two groups is a third, which Bhargava says is often forgotten about but is nonetheless important. “Content sharers are the ones that find interesting content then either save it online so someone else can find it, add it to a list or pass it on.”

The new breed of influentials favour the ‘virtual hangouts’ littered about the internet and can be found commenting on blogs, digging posts, setting up groups or telling the virtual world what they are doing every minute of the day on sites such as Twitter.

Brad Fay, president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association believes that the internet naturally attracts influencers, particularly because of the two-way dialogue that has opened up as a result of Web 2.0. “It has become much easier and more efficient for companies to identify and to communicate with their influencers,” he explains. “People who are interested in engaging in a two-way dialogue with brands in particular tend to be more likely to be influencers.”

Steven Hershberger, principal of ComBlu and a co-chair of the WOMMA Influencer Council, believes that influencers naturally populate online communities. "Individuals that make up a network do not exist without influencers in their midst and influencers do not exist without surrounding themselves with others that make up the network," he says. "There is a symbiotic relationship between the two."

Seeking out the ‘thought leaders’

Bhargava, however, is quick to point out the error many companies make when it comes to targeting influentials is thinking of them as generic when, in fact, it is the complete opposite. “Influencers need to relate to what you are talking about,” he says. “For example, if we were working on digital cameras for Sony, there are a certain number of bloggers or people who would be influencers for anyone buying a digital camera. Those would not be the same influencers if I was trying to sell baby food.”

Bhargava adds that companies also need to change who they perceive as being experts because influentials come from all walks of life. And what’s more, they may be found in multiple categories based on what they are passionate about or what they do for a living. “I like photography and if you ask me [to recommend] a great digital SLR camera, I’d have an opinion, but I’m not a professional in that category.


"Influencers are as likely to be on the receiving end of advice as to be on the sending end of advice on every conversation they participate in. So they are simply more engaged, and it is very much a two-way engagement."

Brad Fay, president, Word of Mouth Marketing Association

“I am a professional marketer but the reason people are influential is because of the voice and the number of people who read their work. It’s not necessarily because of what they do for a living or because of any sort of training that they have.”

A further characteristic of the influencer is the desire to help others connect. “Influencers serve as a bridge, connecting people,” Bhargava adds. “It could be online or through real life events – let’s not forget that people do actually meet up in real life.”

But Fay also believes that there are misconceptions about influencers that need to be dispelled. "There are some that have characterised influencer marketing as marketing to the know-it-alls who are running around telling people what to do all the time - like the tiresome people at parties," he chuckles. "But what we find is that when we look at influencers, they are as likely to be on the receiving end of advice as to be on the sending end of advice on every conversation they participate in. So they are simply more engaged, and it is very much a two-way engagement."

So once you have identified your influencers, how should you go about engaging them? Kirkby suggests inviting the more interested customers who comment in forums or blogs to participate, perhaps asking them to review or offer their opinion on your products. “It’s a good way of finding out who does have some influence in your area and what they are saying – after all, everyone wants their slice of fame,” she says.

"One of the very practical things I suggest to marketers who are interested in doing this is to make a concerted effort to get to know their strongest brand advocates," adds Fay. "Identify those people who are not only loyal to their brand but who are also very passionate about the brand and telling others about he brand. Find out what it is that they like about the brand, why do they love the brand. Because sometimes the reasons those advocates are so passionate about the brand are different from the formal brand architecture that a marketer has developed for the brand as a whole. And you can learn a lot by listening to your advocates and they can often times point you in the right direction, so that you can take advantage of word of mouth."

Influencers are important. They’re the people who sit at the heart of online communities and can help businesses manage and run the community. They can act as spokespeople for your brand and can magnify the power of word of mouth. And being able to identify and interact with them is fast becoming an integral part of the modern marketing mix.


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