Understanding Opinion Leaders

Defining Opinion Leaders

Opinion leaders are those people who are able to influence the purchase decisions of consumers. These consumers will view the opinion leader as having a strong degree of knowledge in regards to the product category or a good understanding of the social acceptability of a specific purchase.

Generally, opinion leaders have more influence over high-involvement purchase decisions, as the consumer is less experienced and less certain with these types of purchases and will often seek out information to assist with their decision. These consumers are therefore known as “opinion seekers”.

Academic definitions of opinion leaders

There are multiple, yet related, definitions of what constitutes an opinion leader. Here are some academic definitions:

“Someone whose opinions are highly respected and utilized by the respondents to help in making decision across a variety of situations. This person can be someone with whom the respondents have personal contact or someone in public life whose advice is derived from public statements.”

Cosmas, C., & Sheth, J. (1980)

Opinion leaders are “trusted and informed people who exist in virtually all primary groups.” Because they are “models” of opinion, they can be major influencers on a marketing effort through word-of-mouth communication to circles of relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

Corey, L. (1971)

The evolution of opinion leaders

The concept of opinion leaders has been explored academically since the 1920s. Originally, opinion leaders were able to influence their direct circle of family, friends and associates – primarily by their knowledge of products and of news and information. In other words, they tended to be seen as quite well-informed.

Opinion leaders were also key media personalities over time – such as, journalists and various celebrities primarily in the entertainment field.

However, in today’s internet world, the scope of opinion leaders has significantly expanded to include; popular bloggers and YouTubers, other “social media” influencers, plus a broad array of celebrities and notable personalities.

In addition, popular discussion forums and comparison rating sites have also become a form of opinion leadership, as they influence the purchase decisions of many consumers.

Characteristics of opinion leaders

  • They tend to have strong opinions
  • They try to motivate you to follow their advice
  • Are perceived as knowledgeable in the product category OR knowledgeable to the social status of the purchase/brand
  • Individual (non-media) opinion leaders will generally be in the same social group as the consumer
  • In terms of new product adoption, they will either be innovators (online opinion leaders) or early adopters (opinion leaders in our social circles)
  • They are generally perceived to be successful in life, making their advice worth following
  • They tend to be aware of news, announcements and other developments regarding the product category

Why are opinion leaders important in marketing?

Opinion leaders are able to influence other consumers. In today’s communications world, there is a natural resistance by consumers to avoid or discount advertising communications, which has been the traditional form of communications from a brand.

Communications from opinion leaders are seen as credible, believable and unbiased. In other words, the consumer (the opinion seeker) believes that the opinion leader is independent to the brand/firm, as opposed to advertising from the firm.

Communications from opinion leaders are often framed in personal discussions, or via interesting online methods such as videos and blogs – as a result, they are more likely to be read/viewed by consumers as well. These consumers may even share these communications by their own social media networks as well.

Therefore, we have the combination of greater attention being paid to the communication, and greater credibility being assigned to it = more influence on the consumer’s purchase decision.

That is why many marketing campaigns now include a communication plan to target influencers online and general opinion leaders in the community, as this is often seen as a more effective communications approach.

For example, launching a new computer game would be quite effective if it was promoted by a popular YouTuber, or a new fashion item worn by a popular Instagramer.

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