The role that opinion leaders should play for word-of-mouth marketing is an often discussed subject. Some practitioners entirely reject their importance and, maybe too hastily, simplify and just quote Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds as back-up. Others claim that it cannot work without them, and they might rely on Keller/Berry, for instance.
I follow Emanuel Rosen, who says (p. 106, “The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited”): “[...] it really depends on how much it costs you to reach these influentials and what you get in return,” in that I believe both views are be correct – depending on the situation. In order to provide a simple guide for deciding which role the identification and targeting of opinion leaders may play in WOM marketing, I would like to propose the following visualisation (click on image for a larger view):
Two issues need to be looked at for this approach:
One, am I marketing a product that carries a high risk for the buyer (a financial risk, for instance, such as a car – because it is expensive, or a social risk, such as new clothes – because peers might consider them out of fashion)?
Or am I marketing a product that has a very low risk for the buyer (chewing gum, frozen food, or a can of soda).
The second aspect refers to the type of marketing effort:
Do I need a fairly quick response and fast results because my briefing calls for some form of defined campaign? Or am I starting to embark on a long-term effort to build relationships with people whom I want to involve long term in WOM marketing and community building efforts? Depending on where the targeted consumers find themselves within this grid, different types should be addressed in different ways.
Let’s assume first that you want to market a chewing gum with a WOM campaign. What are the chances that people will trust an opinion leader more than a “normal” friend? Not very high. There may be a friend who loves chewing gum above all else and knows the strangest brands, and he might introduce a new gum more often than others, but his word of mouth will be as good as anyone’s when a new brand gets introduced. The “regular” friend who comes by and says “here’s a new chewing gum by brand X, why don’t you give it a try” is as credible as any gum geek might be – there is only so much to know about chewing gum. And purchase risk is minimal.
So as a marketer you’ll want to rely on large numbers – any marketing programme that gets thousands of people talking and enables lots of sampling and sharing is helpful here. Forget the “opinion leaders”. Go for consumers who bring interest, passion, a desire to share something with a friend. Which is the lower left corner in the image above. To recruit them, an open invitation to test the new product or brand can work. It is often useful to use screeners for recruiting among the applications, though. Not because you need opinion leaders. But maybe you want a certain demographic, or you have people answer specific questions about their preferences, or you ask them to justify why they and not someone else should be allowed to test the product. That allows you to check involvement first, and make sure that people don’t just sign up for free stuff, to keep for themselves.
We also call this “Push WOM Marketing” because it works spontaneously, without WOM recipients asking for recommendations – they simply get a new idea or product from a friend.
Now how does it work if you want to build long-term relationships that lead to on-going word of mouth for your brand? Let’s stick with chewing gum: Again, a “chewing gum opinion leader” may be interesting, but probably not interesting enough to warrant major investments in finding her. So again, an open invitation should be extended – on Facebook, through a newsletter, or somewhere else where it might make sense (maybe on Twitter?), to all those who want to engage with the brand. And when they’re signed up on the platform, they can be more intensely involved with the brand – for instance, by applying the principles of Empowered Involvement. Which is what this website is all about. (To read more, here is a post that explains the idea behind it.) And that would be the the upper left corner of the visualisation.
If we now move over to the right hand side, we start talking about opinion leaders. Because this is where you’ll need them: when we have high purchase risk – let’s say a car purchase as an example – the buyer needs to get information from a respected independent source that knows more than she does herself about the category, about the brand, about the market. When you buy a car you start asking around. And you’ll respect more the advice from someone who is known to know.
The same goes for the word of mouth that someone produces spontaneously about cars. When any friend, as knowledgeable as anyone else, recommends a certain car brand, you might take that with a grain of salt: “What does he know … ?” But when the known car geek and enthusiast who reads every consumer report and subscribes to every car blog and runs a couple car blogs of his own proclaims a certain car brand to be great, then this is likely to have more impact on your perception of the brand, and ultimately on your buying decision.
So that is why, campaign-wise, it makes sense to invite those who openly know more about cars than others. Maybe they have a commanding presence on car forums, or because their blogs on cars are widely read. Or they draw a major crowd on Twitter, and tweet a lot about cars.
To get back to the visualisation – if you want quick effects, this will be slightly disappointing … Quick effects will not be achieved easily. An opinion leader knows about her status and importance, and trying a quick shot at addressing her won’t work (at least in most cases). So ideally, you start in the upper right box and build relationships with them. Potentially also through Empowered Involvement. And once you have done that, they will much more favorably respond to your campaign initiatives below. Involving opinion leaders long term is something we also call “Pull WOM Marketing” – because you are building a relationship with people from whom others “pull” information when it’s needed.
I hope that this visualisation helps as a guide for understanding how opinion leaders may or may not be important for word-of-mouth marketing.