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Research With Thought Leaders vs. Social Networking Influencers

October 20, 2010

This is an interesting article about the nature of “influencers” in the social network universe and how to strategically approach word of mouth advertising with them. It also has application to any form of market research that is tapping influencers in the online community. It cites research conducted by Forrester that I found to be intriguing. The study findings divide influencers into three distinct categories that each require an individualized approach. Based on the level of detail in the article I would presume that they included some qualitative methods to generate their findings.

Social networking influencers are defined as people who influence their friends through services like Facebook or who influence the readers of their blogs by expressing opinions and/or rating products and services. In contrast, thought leaders are people who influence others through their professional accomplishments and reputations.

I have used traditional methodologies to speak with thought leaders in both the pharmaceutical and educational realms. Identifying who is or is not a thought leader is an interesting process and I have to admit that I have had mixed results in terms of the ultimate quality of the interviews I conducted. It is great when you find someone who is charismatic and visionary. However, sometimes thought leaders who look good on paper stand out in stark contrast (and not in a good way), to their more inspirational peers.

Contrasting the advice in the article with my experience with thought leaders I would make the following two critical comparisons:

Mindset – Social network influencers are loyal protectors of their “tribes” while business thought leaders are the prestigious leaders of their fields.

Approach – Social network influencers respond to relationship while business thought leaders are motivated by the trappings of fame and power.

One thing I would add as a final and important caveat is that market research with thought leaders or social network influencers should be viewed as an enhancement to research with “regular” participants. Their views are often helpful in identifying trends and their opinions about the experience of their fellow tribe members or the rank and file of their field are interesting but they are not necessarily accurate or representative of the norm.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 21, 2010 4:15 pm

    This NPR story is an interesting expose regarding the nature of physician “thought leaders”. It is not a “happy” story.

    http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=130730104&m=130732147

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  1. Ideal, average and outliers… selecting market research study participants « Qualitative Query

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