Opinion Leaders: The Bad Influence Your Parents Warned You About

Mohamed Fallah
Feb 5, 2016 · 5 min read

It has become quite common for private and public organizations to rely on opinion leaders in their marketing and branding campaigns. No one would blame them either, opinion leaders have a strong influence on the people around them; if this influence were used to create more product demand, many organizations would reap huge rewards. Though, the question remains what exactly is an opinion leader? and why are they so important?

The original idea of opinion leaders was created after a study on social influence conducted in the 1940s by two very intelligent researchers, Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, found that people make social decisions based on influence and information they receive from experts in a certain area (opinion leaders). The theory that was created following the results of this study came to be known as the two step flow theory. The basic idea is that the media disseminates a message that is picked up individuals who pay close attention to them, after which these individuals create their own interpretations of the messages and give this interpreted information to others. The model looks at opinion leaders being individuals who have a following or, authority, on one issue or another. Thus, these opinion leaders become the go to source for personal information, and in turn, influence the people that follow their opinion. This theory has since been challenged and contested and has given way to other ideas and theories (e.g. multistep flow theory). Yet the ideas of the theories are still used, successfully, in political and marketing campaigns.

Why are opinion leaders still targeted and used by business if the overall idea has been scrutinized? The answer lies with technology, specifically, the internet. As the internet became the pervading medium it is today, many massive organizations began to advertise and operate within it. Two of the biggest are Google and Facebook. In the case of Facebook, advertisers needed to find a competitive edge on other advertisers, and so, they began to turn to individuals with large followings on social media, now referred to in the digital age as ‘Influencers’. By marketing to these people, advertisers were able to reach audiences that they would not have originally planned for, and with name recognition comes more buying intent. The ‘Influencers’ market has grown so exponentially that the teenagers and other people running these successful social media accounts are now focusing on making money off of their statuses. In fact, parody accounts on Twitter can generate up to a thousand dollars per post for their owners. Cameron Asa, who runs one of the most profitable parody accounts on twitter: @TweetLikeAGirl, generates from four to eight hundred dollars per tweet. The idea is that, any advertiser that pays the money will have their content personalized to reach his roughly 1.6 million followers, without factoring in the re tweets of course. David Orr, who runs dozens of successful parody accounts, including @YaBoyBillNye, was even more ambitious in his remarks stating that “ Some people are content to make $200 to $400 on their accounts [per post]” Speaking of Asa he said he could hire a COO and turn his simple influencer status into a thriving business. As successful as this advertising has been for the people with a following on social media, the major ad companies have been seeing even more success.

Companies have began to expand their use of influencers to cover almost all communications and marketing operations, ranging from product launches to crisis management. A 2014 study found that companies have become so reliant on influencers that 48% of executives stated they provide up to 20% of their overall budget to influencer relations. Shopify also conducted a study of social media visits as they resulted to online purchases. Of the 37 million visits to social media analyzed, they found that 529 thousand resulted in direct online purchases. Polyvore had an average order price of 66.75 dollars, and Facebook was at 65 dollars. Facebook also boasted a 1.85% conversion rate, which basically means that 1.85 percent of all visits result in a purchase. With all of this success, it becomes more worrying that these businesses are now incorporating influencers into their advertising on a grander scale.

So what does this all mean? It means that we are trapped in a continuous cycle of advertising and product influence on most of our social media accounts. Now you may think that you are not influenced by the information you see online, but i am sorry to say you are lying to yourself. You may not neccessarily be influenced knowingly by ads online, but you are still influenced. A study conducted by Facebook shows that people are still going out and buying products being marketed on their news feed even if they had not clicked on them. Facebook partnered with Datalogix, a firm that records the purchasing patterns of more than 100 million American households. In this partnership Facebook was granted access to purchase records of people through the stripe code on their loyalty cards, or any gift card used. They then compared the purchases of people with the ads they were exposed to and concluded that ads on Facebook are working. Now it is clear this study is used to appeal to advertisers to keep utilizing Facebook, but the scary thing is that the data is valid. This means that every time you log in to your many social media accounts, you are opening yourself to continuous, non time bound advertising.

Imagine then when these already hugely successful social media sites become havens for influencers who are paid to use their social status to market to us. The results would become even more rewarding for the advertisers. It should not be hard to imagine, this phenomenon is already occurring as evidenced by Rebecca Pearson’s story. The moral of this story is simple, we need to be careful of our use of social media, but how can we start exactly?

I don’t know about you but the idea of my classmate Paul, from the 4th grade, getting paid because I decided to follow his advice and buy a selfie stick is not exactly flattering to me. Yet, this kind of scenario plays itself out on social media a lot more than we imagine. So the key to avoiding as many of these situations as possible is to be attentive to the information you see on your news feed, and to choose carefully the pages and people you decide to follow and subscribe to. If I had done this with my friend Paul, I would have probably been able to save enough money to buy my dad more than a pair of socks for his birthday!