Opinion Leaders: Past, Present and Future

Last week in class, we discussed a number of historical grassroots movements.  From Christianity, and its call to “spread The Word” to the Tea Party, we examined their similarities but also how methods of communication have changed over the last 2,000 years.

So imagine my surprise when a friend forwarded an article by Carl Elliott from recent edition of The Chronicle for Higher Education on the evolution of “Thought Leaders.”  I was surprised to learn that developing “opinion leaders” as a  marketing strategy dates back to 1955 and the publication of Personal Influence by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz.

At its core, the effort to develop opinion leaders was an attempt to facilitate face-to-face conversations (the “opinion”) about a particular product or service from a highly credible source (the “leader”).  “It is not hard to see why marketers liked this idea,” Elliott writes. “Mass-media advertising can be expensive. What if there were a way to avoid the masses and simply concentrate on the special people.”

Today opinion leaders are still a crucial part of pharmaceutical industry marketing practices (and no doubt countless other industries).  But as we discussed in class on Tuesday, the communications landscape has changed markedly since the publication of Personal Influence in 1955.  And so has the role of the opinion leader.

Today, nearly everyone is an opinion leader, or has the potential to be one.  Because we are so completely inundated with marketing messages (at least 3,000 per day by most estimates), savvy marketing and communication professionals are working to generate face-to-face conversations between their members/supporters/customers and their neighbors, friends, and business colleagues.

Not only do these conversations cut through the clutter, they are far more credible than traditional forms of mass media.  What would influence you to try a new restaurant? A newspaper ad or a personal recommendation from a friend?  And as in 1955, generating those personal conversations is far less expensive than a flashy and eg0-boosting media campaign.

As we wrapped up our conversation in class, we agreed that the future of communications remains largely unknowable (implantable chips that deliver messages into our conscience, one person suggested).  But it seems clear that with the ever-increasing decentralization of media and communications, the power of those “ordinary opinion leaders” will likely continue to grow.

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

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