The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy

Ronald E. Goldsmith (Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, USA)

Journal of Product & Brand Management

ISSN: 1061-0421

Article publication date: 1 August 2004

886

Keywords

Citation

Goldsmith, R.E. (2004), "The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy", Journal of Product & Brand Management, Vol. 13 No. 5, pp. 371-372. https://doi.org/10.1108/10610420410554449

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited


It is a truism that word of mouth (WOM) is an important influence on many consumer product and brand decision. Because WOM is growing in influence, this topic continues to attract the attention of managers, researchers, and theorists alike. In recent years, several best selling business books have examined WOM in its different forms (social communication, opinion leadership, personal influence). Gladwell's (2000) “The Tipping Point” was a journalistic account of social communication and of the key role played by opinion leaders in spreading WOM information. Rosen's (2000) “The Anatomy of Buzz” described how social communication (buzz) took place and how businesses could use it as part of their overall marketing strategies. Now along come Ed Keller and Jon Berry, two principals at the RoperASW public opinion research company, who use detailed research from over 30 years of consumer surveys to profile and to describe “The Influentials”, the 10 per cent of Americans who seem to wield great influence over the other 90 per cent across a variety of attitudinal and behavioral domains.

Thus, “The Influentials” fills an important gap in the body of literature on this topic by basing its conclusions on large quantities of empirical data. By sifting through this mountain of information, Keller and Berry distill a pattern of attitudes and behaviors that seem to define a unique segment of consumers. Keller and Berry present these findings in a logical, systematic way. First, they explain how RoperASW defines and measures social influence. Next, they review background demographics and personality characteristics that appear to underlie this unique behavioral pattern. They provide detailed descriptions of what the socially and politically active influentials believe and do in several areas of life (community policy, politics, personal lifestyles, consumer behavior). Using years of repeated questioning (Piirto, 1992), they can show how “The Influentials” have led public opinion concerning many key issues over the last three decades and thus may be considered bellwether consumers whose attitudes shape future public opinion. The key themes here are “autonomy and self‐reliance.” They present specific forecasts for changes in public opinion on their reading of “The Influentials” current attitudes. Finally, they offer several recommendations for how business should treat these trendsetting consumers.

RoperASW uses responses to a key question to define who is and who is not an influential American. Twelve examples of social and political activism are listed (e.g. held or run for public office, signed a petition, made a speech). Respondents who affirm they have done three or more items on the list are designated “influential.” By comparing these 10 to 12 per cent of Americans with the other 90 per cent a set of contrasts emerge which define and explain how they are different. Interestingly enough, demographics fail to do a good job of characterizing The Influentials. They are evenly divided between men and women, middle to upper‐middle class, with higher than average education. Most are married, own their own homes, and are employed in a variety of jobs but tending toward executive or professional occupations.

Some key findings are that while demographics do a poor job of describing these opinion leaders, aspects of lifestyle and attitudes clearly distinguish them from other consumers. The influentials are not early adopters or innovators (with a few key exceptions), although they are very knowledgeable about many new products and ideas; they are more representative of “early majority” of consumers. It is their exposure to many sources of information (such as public TV, magazines, newspapers, the Internet) and their curiosity about almost everything that makes them both knowledgeable and sought out by other consumers. They have a big circle of acquaintances and like to talk with others. Thus, influential Americans are those who are inquisitive and avid information gatherers who seek to share this information. They are self‐reliant, but care deeply about the welfare of others. They are optimistic but skeptical of public officials. They are activists, involved in their communities. Interestingly, they are also opinion seekers, engaging often in two‐way communications, creating a “multiplier effect”.

“The Influentials” is replete with tables and charts presenting the data on which Keller and Berry's conclusions are based. In fact, this is such rich data they cannot discuss all of it, leaving the interested reader opportunities to discover for him or her self some valuable pieces of information about consumers. The detailed discussions of the survey findings are supplemented with thumbnail descriptions of several actual examples of these consumers. These portraits provide concrete detail of how influentials live and work. Much of the discussion is also informed by the findings from many focus groups conducted with groups of influentials by RoperASW over the years.

There are a few shortcomings with the book. It seemed a bit over long in its effort to exhaustively present a clear summary of the findings. It was repetitious in places. Parts could be tedious, as endless lists of percent comparisons were made between the influentials and other consumers. Since there was little effort to relate these findings to the body of research on these topics in marketing, consumer, and communications research, the evidence stands alone and without context. Moreover, Keller and Berry's topic could be called “general opinion leadership,” that is, they are concerned with WOM defined and conceptualized at the highest level of generality, for society and the marketplace in general. More precise conceptualizing and targeting should be done to focus on opinion leaders and on opinion seekers within specific product domains (Flynn et al., 1996).

In conclusion, “The Influentials” is essential reading for anyone interested in WOM and opinion leadership, at least in the context of American society. No other reference work compares to the detailed evidence it presents. The findings appear to be very consistent with what is already known about opinion leadership and the social communication process. Although most of the emphasis is on public policy issues, there is enough information about opinion leadership for goods and services so that brand managers should certainly give it a look. WOM is probably more important than many of them imagine, and there are concrete steps they can take to win over the influentials to their products. Teachers of marketing or communications and textbook authors in these fields will find here a reserve of valuable and interesting information to update their presentations on social communications. Consumer and marketing researchers who study opinion leadership will need to reference Keller and Berry for the clarity with which they describe this topic and the excellent insights into opinion leadership they provide. Moreover, these findings suggest many new topics worthy of academic research. For example, the growing phenomenon of Internet opinion leadership, or “e‐fluentials” deserves to be studied; and more study needs to be made of opinion seekers, the other half of WOM behavior (Flynn et al., 1996). One can easily envision “The Influentials” being read in seminars devoted to diffusion of innovations or opinion leadership along side the venerable Weimann (1994) monograph of the same name.

References

Flynn, L.R., Goldsmith, R.E. and Eastman, J.K. (1996), “Opinion leaders and opinion seekers: two new measurement scales”, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Vol. 24 No. 2, pp. 13747.

Gladwell, M. (2000), The Tipping Point, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, MA.

Piirto, R. (1992), “The influentials”, American Demographics, Vol. 14 No. 10, pp. 308.

Rosen, E. (2000), The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing, Doubleday, New York, NY.

Weimann, G. (1994), The Influentials, State University of New York Press, Albany.

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