Media Metrics: Passionista Social Club
Few marketing theories have enjoyed such long-lived consensus as the existence of "opinion leaders." Since the glorious days of radio, marketers have gone to great lengths to reach a small number of these disproportionately influential people in the hope that they'll actively absorb and interpret their media messages for the lower-end media users.
It started back in 1940s, when early mass media researchers Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld discovered that personal contacts and word-of-mouth proliferates marketing messages more effectively than newspapers and radio. Although more complex models of information propagation emerged in the following decades, the "two-step flow" model continued to survive almost entirely intact. According to its most popular application, the Roper Influentials model developed by Ed Keller and Jon Berry, this elite 10 percent of the population serves as the conduits of new information, trends, ideas and purchase preferences to the other 90 percent.
It seems the rules of admittance to the exclusive Influencers' Club have radically relaxed. Social media advances have all but erased the obstacles to becoming an information disseminator. A typical teenager with a blog can ostensibly amass and disseminate more content about brands and, potentially, influence more consumers in their purchase decisions, than the most connected and respected opinion leader of 1970s. Is he an Influential, then? Does the 1-to-9 ratio still hold?
Increased complexity in the media landscape led Columbia University professor Duncan Watts to challenge the two-step model with computer simulations. In 2007 he concluded that it's no longer feasible that influence is driven by the elite of the highly-connected few. Recent findings by Ted Smith, a research fellow at CNET Networks, also suggest that most people are moderately connected and are as able and willing as the highly connected to share marketing messages with others.
If everyone is an opinion leader, there are no opinion leaders to target exclusively. The next logical step would be to retreat to the principles of mass marketing - a prohibitively costly option in the age of media fragmentation. Looking for a viable alternative to mass marketing strategies, MediaVest and Yahoo went into the field to study the extended stratum of active and connected consumers. Collaborating with Conifer Research to run in-depth ethnographic interviews, the research included an extensive survey and mined comScore's MegaPanel (a metered panel that includes over a million of continuously measured U.S. consumers) to explore motivations and behaviors of people who act as digital content providers and disseminators, creatively contribute to online communities and, potentially, influence others in their brand perceptions and purchase behaviors.
The findings revealed that with everyone connected and the threshold to information diffusion close to zero, a keen interest, a passionate involvement with a particular hobby, field of activity or content becomes the main attribute differentiating the would-be information disseminators from others who passively absorb and may be influenced by that information. The research shows that these "Passionistas," unlike universally authoritative Opinion Leaders, are quite specialized in their expertise and influence. And one thing is for sure: there are lots of Passionistas out there. Projected to the larger online U.S. population, roughly 25 to 45 million adults 18 years and older are Passionistas. Which means the ratio of Passionistas to general audience is around 1-to-4.
Quantitative results from comScore behavioral profiling data show that when it comes to online content corresponding to the object of their passions, Passionistas spend six minutes for every minute spent by an average user; they also visit these sites three times more often than their average visitor. Relative to the population in general, Passionistas search for category-related terms three times more often.
Passionistas are not necessarily the super-connected ones; their personal networks are comparable in size to those of a passively engaged consumer. The critical difference is the propensity in which they communicate with their network. Whatever form of digital communication and social networking, Passionistas show a statistically significant difference in their daily use of nearly all forms of online communications to connect with their friends and families.Edwin Wong, Yahoo!'s Director of Consumer Insights, notes that Passionistas are engaged with their content of interest all of the time, but the level of engagement does not remain consistent. There are peaks and valleys. A YouTube video, a news item on drug traces in the tap water, a single good ad, or a massive marketing event with a ton of surrounding media - like the release of the iPhone or a new Indiana Jones movie - will spark heightened activity.
These "Spark events" generate the most intense interest, as well as the period of greatest need for Passionistas. They seek detailed information and are increasingly more driven to be the first to find and discuss every detail possible. Sharing is an intrinsic part of the Passionista dna; it's no good knowing the news unless you can share it.
These needs create opportunity for brands to provide "passion critical" information and services. According to comScore, Passionistas' search behavior gives marketers at least 100 opportunities a year to connect with them at the moment in time when the connection to a passion is most top-of-mind.
Passionistas have no aversion to ads. On the contrary, when advertising feels like content and reflects their interest, they have the propensity to grab on to mass media messages, digest them and very quickly accelerate their importance by driving them out into the media long tail. Mostly, they seek ads that can be customized to their needs and wants, have a strong connection with their sources for up-to-date information and the prominent products, services and brands in their niche. And they reward the collaborating brands with good buzz and affinity.
If marketers take advantage of this focused online time and reach Passionistas with ads relevant to their pursuits, Passionistas have shown they'll include them in their content sharing and distribution activities. Advertising should no longer be purely about message delivery, but about message propagation into personal and trusted networks, online or offline.
The digital world has changed consumer advocacy from a marketing end benefit to an upfront part of the marketing strategy that can be managed and promoted as its own communications channel. Passionistas are ideal targets within any demographic, as reaching them today means digital content sharing and dissemination tomorrow and, if done right, influencing others in their brand perceptions and purchase behaviors.
Yaakov Kimelfeld, Ph.D., is vice president of digital research and analytics director, at MediaVest USA.