Email, IM's, chatrooms, blogs, discussion boards. Today much of our communication takes place online. From MySpace to Yahoogroups to Blogspot many of us have relationships with people we may never meet in person. The researchers call this Computer-Mediated Communication. This blog will explore in laymens terms the findings of this research.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Best Advertising is Word of Mouse???

[Author's note: I've been off-line for a couple of months while moving. But I'm back now and I will try to be posting at least one article review each week. ]

Marketing experts have known for years that word of mouth advertising is the most influential. The problem has always been how to get people talking. The more sophisticated marketer learned not to try to get everyone's attention, but rather to get the attention of the "opinion leaders" in a community.

Opinion leaders were not necessarily politicians or entertainers. They could even be virtual unknowns in terms of news coverage. However, they are the people that other people seek out for advice. For instance, everyone knows the guy or gal in the office who knows "all about computers (or cars or movies or home decorating or the latest trends in fashion, etc.) Those are the opinion leaders. I want to get the office computer whiz on my side if I am trying to sell software. I want to make the fashion diva at the club believe that my new line of clothes is THE trend for summer.

If I reach them, then they will influence others. This process is called "Two-Step Flow." (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955)

A study just published in The Journal of Computer Mediated Communication suggests that the same process takes place on line, but with a much wider reach than is found in face to face communities. (Sun, Youn, Wu, and Kuntaraporn, 2006). Traditional word-of-mouth diffusion of information usually takes place within small groups through face-to-face interaction. Thus, if I find a new restaurant, and I am talking to a friend about fine dining, I might mention that restaurant to them as a possibility for their next night out. Likewise, if my friend knows that I am familiar with the local dining establishments, he or she might ask me for some recommendations.

The same sort of thing happens online. However, the individual providing the information and the individual seeking the information may have never met. In addition, the speed of the diffusion of information is much faster. If I discover an interesting web site, I may send out an e-mail to 30 people. By the end of the day, 15 of those people may have sent it out to 30 of their friends. By the end of the week several hundred people may have received the e-mail.

And e-mail isn't the only vehicle for this diffusion of information. We have blogs, e-mail discussion groups, newsgroups, discussion forums, and interactive review sites. And, there is a great deal of crossover. An individual receives an e-mail about a new product. Then they post that e-mail on a blog. Someone else uses that blog entry as the basis of a review on their personal web site. That review is read by others who begin to disseminate information off-line through the traditional word-of-mouth venues.

This is what makes online rumors, urban myths, and hoaxes so tenacious. Once the great Internet grapevine begins to operate information (or misinformation) travels rapidly, and it almost takes on a life of its own.

Word-of-mouth online is also powerful and believable. The social influence of word-of-mouth stems from the fact that the one receiving the information knows that the one providing the information has no known bias influencing their opinion. In contrast, an advertisement or company brochure is viewed more skeptically.

The researchers discovered that opinion leaders online tend to be innovators and skilled at Internet usage. The online opinion leader is among the first to adopt new products or services. These are the individuals who download the beta versions of software. They are the ones to purchase or update their computers with each improvement in hardware. They are the trendsetters in fashion, business trends, home decorating, etc.

They are also skilled in Internet usage. This means more than just being able to log on, fill out online forums, and find their way around the search engine. It also means that they are familiar with the Web resources available to them online in a given field.

The opinion leader, the researchers found, is also an opinion seeker. Online, even more than in face-to-face encounters, the line between the two becomes blurred. Additionally, there appeared to be more opinion leaders online than there are in face-to-face communities. Distinctions based on status are less important online. Additionally, more people have the means to influence others because of the communication possibilities of the Internet.

There are implications for online marketers in understanding the dynamics of this two-step flow of information. First, the savvy marketer needs to understand the dynamics of the opinion leaders in their marketplace, and craft their marketing message accordingly. Rather than trying to sell their product to*Everyone*, a more targeted approach aimed at opinion leaders may be more productive.

The marketing message, in addition to taking into consideration the demographics unique to each field,needs to emphasize the innovative aspects of the product or service. If you give opinion leaders the opportunity to be the first to try something new, and if that product or service is perceived as having value, then those first adopters will promote that product or service.

Whether it's word-of-mouth, or word-of- mouse, the research confirms that personal influence is still the best advertising.


Katz, E., & Lazarsfeld, P. (1955). Personal Influence. New York: The Free Press.

Sun, T., Youn, S., Wu, G., and Kuntaraporn, M. (2006). Online word-of-mouth (or mouse): An exploration of its antecedents and consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 11.


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