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In a session yesterday at Forrester’s Marketing Forum, Forrester analysts Josh Bernoff and Augie Ray presented research findings on peer influence and word of mouth marketing. Some of the statistics were surprising, and the presentation was rife with practical tips for marketers we thought worth sharing.

Influencers are Diverse

Ray said that when marketers think about targeting influencers, they tend to think of them “like a stew”: tasty, but undefined. He advises thinking about them instead as a “delicious 3-course meal” in which it’s important to savor the flavors of each. He outlined a Peer Influence Pyramid that breaks down influencers into three types: Social Broadcasters (at the top), Mass Influencers (middle), and Potential Influencers (bottom of the pyramid).

Social Broadcasters are few in number but great in scale — they are the top bloggers, most well-connected individuals, and have a lot of followers looking to them for news and advice on the latest and greatest. They have scale but lack trust, in the sense that their followers will click on the links and recommendations they share but still perform their own evaluation of the data — this makes Social Broadcasters better suited for awareness than preference.

At the bottom of the pyramid are the Potential Influencers — this is where the trust really is. These are the proverbial “average consumer” who have primarily networks of people they actually know in an offline context (friends, family, peers). These networks are rich with trust, and make up 84% of the total population of the pyramid.

In the middle are the Mass Influencers, who make up only 16% of the pyramid but account for 80% of the influence impressions about products and services. Ray says of this group, “you can’t ignore the minority that creates the majority of the influence.” You also need different strategies to reach the different types of influencers.

Tips for Reaching the 3 Types of Influencers

Social Broadcasters tend to hate traditional PR and press releases, so according to Ray the secret to dealing with them is to build relationships. This group doesn’t want to hear from you only when you need something, and they want to be respected for their audience. Develop customized offers for them that they can’t refuse, that reflect your understanding of their uniqueness and their point of view. In doing so you may cross over into the rules of endorsements, so be sure to be very familiar with the FTC guidelines regarding this.

To reach Potential Influencers, you need to make things drop-dead easy. This group is not as motivated nor is it as technically savvy as the people higher on the pyramid. Tell your marketing teams to come up with ideas that are so drop-dead great and so relevant to your defined audience that they can’t help but spread. You also want to keep people engaged over time by reaching out and addressing them between major campaigns.

Reaching Mass Influencers in the middle involves giving them something to talk about. Understand their characteristics and give them more content they can’t resist sharing. This part of the pyramid includes the people their friends and family turn to frequently before making important purchases, so don’t forget their significant offline influence and tailor your campaigns accordingly.

Influence Impression Data: 500 Billion Per Year

Bernoff presented a number of research findings around influence impressions, defining two key buckets where people are sharing information about products and services online:

Influence impressions: these happen on social media and networking sites: Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and others. The people who make them know generally who they’re connecting with and who will read them (people they know).

Influence posts: these are more permanent data points in blog posts, ratings and reviews sites, and in discussion forums. These tend to be less directed, in that when putting a post online it’s not usually known how many or who will be reading it.

In the first category, the research study found 256 billion influence impressions occurring per year. Influence posts were numbered at 1.64 billion per year, which accounted for generating another 250 billion impressions. In other words, people are making 500 billion influence impressions on one another about products and services every year.

The research also looked at where those influence impressions are happening. The following graph captures the results of where people are sharing influence online in both of the above categories:

Bernoff and Ray shared a case study of analyzing the three types of influencers in the consumer electronics sector and how to approach them, and stressed that it’s possible (and indeed, necessary) for marketers to be doing this type of analysis in any industry, any product category, and for any age or demographic.

In summary, Bernoff and Ray’s advice to marketers includes:

Build a strategy for reaching all three types of influencers.

Allocate your budget in light of a potential 500 billion impressions of peer influence.

Analyze and reach out to your mass influencers specifically for maximum reach.

What are your thoughts on the Forrester researchers’ findings and analysis? Do you have any other word of mouth marketing tips to share?

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Tags: business, FMF10, forrester, influencers, MARKETING, pr, word of mouth marketing