Online opinion leaders visit corporate websites frequently and use them as an important source of information, according to a new study conducted for international public relations agency Burson-Marsteller by RoperASW.
Across a wide variety of sectors—including technology, retail, finance, pharmaceutical, and automotive—company Web sites (85 percent) were found to be more widely used than online magazines (62 percent) and opinion sites (55 percent) as sources of Internet-based information among what B-M calls e-fluentials.
According to B-M’s U.S. president and chief executive Chet Burchett, “These findings constitute a wake-up call for companies to proactively manage their relations with online customers.” The firm’s research shows that e-fluentials spread negative experiences about companies and products to 55 percent more people than positive experiences.
“An e-fluential is the rock that starts the ripple,” says Burchett. “Each one communicates with an average of 14 people, so word travels in ever-widening circles, growing exponentially with each successive wave. Our new research shows that an estimated 11 million e-fluentials reach 155 million U.S. adults with their messages. We can harness this tremendous communication force because we now know not only what kind of people e-fluentials are, but also what they do, both online and offline.”
On average, an e-fluential relates a given positive experience to an average of 11 people, but spreads word of a negative experience even wider to 17 people. This powerful effect makes them preferred players and partners in direct- and viral-marketing campaigns. (These opinion leaders wield tremendous clout offline as well as online: 77 percent vote, 55 percent sign petitions, 48 percent e-mail government agencies, 47 percent e-mail congressmen or senators, and 40 percent serve on committees of local organizations.)
E-fluentials can be reputation-builders or busters,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, Burson-Marsteller’s chief knowledge & research officer. “It’s crucial for companies to build trust and value with influential visitors to their Web sites so they can neutralize the negatives and nurture the positives. Company Web sites that provide e-fluentials with straightforward, easy-to-use information-retrieval systems are pivotal in building and enhancing the value of brands, products and services in the public eye. Other consumers count on e-fluentials to be their hunters and gatherers of online information.”
E-fluentials are receptive to e-mail from companies they know, the study showed, indicating the vital role played by familiar brands in e-mail viral marketing campaigns. A surprising nine out of 10 say they have read unsolicited e-mail from people or web sites they know.
“Once they open these e-mails, e-fluentials bring motion to the campaign by passing on the information to others and visiting the Web sites mentioned in the message. These findings underscore the importance of identifying these community opinion leaders and building strong, positive relations with them,” says Gaines-Ross.