For starters, rather than trying to identify opinion leaders, an increasingly popular method of penetrating an online community to seed an effective word-of-mouth campaign is to ask people who are interested in spreading the word to step up and identify themselves, said Leonard M. Lodish, a professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the school's MBA course on entrepreneurial marketing. For example, he said, there's the time-tested strategy of offering incentives to people who can refer other people to your product or service. The Internet tends to accelerate as well as exaggerate the effects of this, he said.
At one startup Lodish is familiar with, three people self-identified themselves as interested in the brand by referring 1,500 customers apiece to the company. "I wouldn't necessarily call them opinion leaders, but ordinary people who got interested in the product and decided on a personal basis to spread the word," he said.
"Most trends are started, not by one influential, but by a critical mass of easily influenced people, each of whom is exposed to an idea or product by a single member of their community," said Watt, who calls the people who trigger these cascades "accidental influentials."
If you buy into Watt's theory, you realize how difficult it is to identify these accidental influentials. Just ask Marilyn Davenport. Back in 2003, she was formulating her newest strategy for spreading the word about Rock Bottom Restaurants, a micro-brewery restaurant chain based in Louisville, Colo. Davenport had tried television and radio spots as well as direct mail, with mixed results. She decided to attempt something different: targeting loyal customers, as identified by the frequency at which they dined at Rock Bottom restaurants, who would then theoretically spread the word through their respective social networks, both online and off. She hired BzzAgent to help develop her campaign and waited for the results to pour in.
The only problem was, they didn't, because a funny thing happened: These hand-picked loyal customers didn't deliver the goods.
"We found out that the best spokespeople for our brand -- the ones who did the best job getting the word out -- weren't at all the ones we expected," said Davenport. Instead, it was people whom Davenport classified as "light" users, customers who only came in very infrequently, who turned out to be the best spokespeople for the restaurant.
As it happened, researcher David Godes, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, was interested in this very topic and studied the Rock Bottom campaign while it was in progress.
"There are definitely people who influence others out there, but there's often a mistaken leap of faith about what to do about them," said Godes. He pointed to the practice of companies mining their customer databases, as Rock Bottom did, to identify their most lucrative accounts as the ones most likely to spread the word about their products or services. "Generally, experts in a certain area have already said what they're going to say about something," Godes said. "Where you get the most impact for your marketing dollar is when you get new, less influential people talking to others."
Marc Cantor, founder of Macromedia and CEO of Broadband Mechanics, which builds tools and environments to enable online communities, divides online marketing into first-, second-, and third-level strategies. First-level strategies are the traditional mass-media campaigns that people are really tired of and that no longer work. Second-level campaigns are more subtle and involve giving something to the community, such as contributing to a worthy cause that the community values, be it Open Source or breast-cancer research. The third-tier approach is to "circle the end user experience with a compelling product, and let people decide for themselves what's in it for them," Cantor said. "Non lock-in is this year's black. It involves listening to consumers and actually giving them what they want."
Steve Rubel, senior VP in Edelman's me2revolution practice, observed that there's already a lot of "influence fatigue" happening out there. "You need to join the community rather than impose yourself, and that's an extremely labor intensive process," he said.
Intuit has established user communities around its Quicken and Quickbook products that consist of discussion boards, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds and, by the end of the year, wikis. Intuit made a choice not to simply target influentials, and certainly not to use the communities as an explicit marketing tool. Instead, the community is managed from within the product development part of the business, and users interact with the actual developers and product managers who are working on the software.
"That was a very conscious decision on our part," said Scott K. Wilder, group manager of the small business online community at Intuit. "It was our belief that we'd have more credibility and that more users would use the site that way." Not incidentally, the power of any word of mouth that results from these efforts is much greater, he said.
If there's one thing that everyone agrees on, it's that marketers need to invest a great deal more effort into how online social networks and Internet communities actually work with respect to selling products and services at the grass-roots level.
"It's an emerging medium, and the rules haven't yet been established," said Umbria's Edan-Harris. "We're still learning what does and doesn't work."