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