Are You an `Influential'? Advertisers Want You Marketers Take Aim Via Word of Mouth

Article excerpt

Dr. Jeff Dalin gives new meaning to the term word-of-mouth advertising.

While his patients lie back with their mouths gaping awkwardly, Dalin can be heard over his dentist's drill expounding on matters far beyond the usual floss-and-tooth-decay discussion.

On a typical day he may suggest a mutual fund safe enough for college savings, a luxury car with a dependable service record or a family movie worth the admission price. The friendly, 38-year-old St. Louisan says he isn't an expert on these things; his patients seek his advice because they trust him - with more than just their mouths.

"Do they listen to me? I don't know. But they're not in a position to argue," he quips. "It's one of the perks of the job."

To marketers, Dalin is more than a dentist. He is an "influential," one of an estimated 10 percent of the U.S. populace whose opinions affect the buying decisions of others.

Influentials like Dalin are cogs in an unseen but ever-powerful marketing machine: word-of-mouth advertising.

About half of all Americans admit to conferring with a rumor mill before buying everything from haircuts to health care. To marketers, this informal daisy chain of anecdotes, war stories and consumer tips can make or break a product or business. Advertisers fear negative word of mouth, so they try to harness the grapevine for their good.

They do that by targeting influentials like Dalin.

"Which has more credibility, an advertisement, or your neighbor and best friend?" asked Marcia Armstrong, marketing professor and associate dean of Washington University's Executive MBA program. "We're all skeptical about advertising."

So why are advertisers spending an estimated $162 billion on advertising this year? A significant portion goes to campaigns targeting influentials. The idea is to make them human marketing multipliers who will readily talk up a product, Armstrong said.

"We've got to try to get to those opinion leaders," she said. "They are the hub. . . . They have a greater influence on a greater number of people" than regular consumers.

Are you an influential? Most Americans aren't. A new study by Roper Starch Worldwide in New York defines influentials as those who are politically or socially active, said Jon L. Berry, a spokesman and editor of consumer behavior newsletters. "They are most likely to write a letter to the editor," he said. "They tend to be more informed, ahead of the curve."

Influentials are the first to try new products or services. They read consumer books and magazines, making a hobby out of keeping informed. According to Mediamark Research Inc. in New York, advice purveyors tend to read such magazines as Yachting, Boating, Walking, Financial World, Barron's, Compute and Fortune.

On the other hand, people most likely to solicit their advice read Mature Outlook, Popular Hot Rod, American Legion and Soap Opera Weekly.

That doesn't mean that the rest of us are lemmings who follow but never lead. Roper's survey shows that the average consumer passes the word to 3.9 people, vs. the 4.5 people influentials reach.

But, it is what influentials discuss that sets them apart. One in three recommended a car or light truck in the past year; one in three recommended computer software; one in four recommended computer hardware and one in five gave advice on investments, consumer electronics or insurance. …