Since Milgram's groundbreaking experiment, refinements from a bevy of researchers have empirically proven that the small world phenomenon is real. While there's still a debate over whether the whole world is indeed a small one, there is uniform agreement that there are many small worlds within the whole. Popular examples are mathematicians and actors. Mathematicians created the "Erd"s number" as a way to track their distance from math luminary Paul Erd"s through shared publications. Elsewhere, movie fans created the parlor game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," in which the goal is to figure out how many movie connections away any actor or actress is from performing with the busy actor. The fun of these games is in finding who the hyper-connected people are. Research shows that while many people are six connections away from anyone else, it also shows that there are a few highly connected people out there.
What makes the small world phenomenon meaningful is that certain types of individuals can be as influential as mass media under the right conditions. In the midst of our social networks, there are select people we think of when we need expert help. In turn our experts gravitate to a handful of über-experts, who appear to know everything about a specific topic. These select few are mavens. When mavens speak, people listen. And when mavens express opinions that "stick" as meaningful, hyper-connected people get the message out, and mass opinions change.
Connectivity is speeding up and morphing with the proliferation of e-mail and blogging, but the fundamental influence of mavens remains. BuzzMetrics tracks the evolution and impact of opinions in the blogosphere. In a white paper on trans fats, BuzzMetrics illustrates the importance of mavens with sticky messages. They report how the topic of trans fats evolved from an esoteric subject into a national health craze with no appreciable news coverage, convincing Frito-Lay to remove these common artificial fats from their snack foods in less than a year.
Marketers have long tried to pin down these influencers. But as Lawrence F. Feick and Linda L. Price pointed out in The Journal of Marketing in 1987, "Targeting mavens with communications may be difficult." Research shows that though mavens actively consume all media that touches their areas of interest, they are otherwise hard to describe, with no discernable demographic characteristics.
But marketers know the value of mavens and have set traps to collect them. Examples abound, but most involve phone numbers and Web sites providing free expert information on products and product areas, delving into the art, science, and market pricing for specific topics. After finding mavens with these info honeypots, marketers try to empanel them. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) databases identify the mavens and treat them with special care. Intuitive marketers are less formal. They connect with mavens by building them into their social networks.
In all cases, marketers check new ideas with their mavens before investing. Clever marketers then leverage mavens with free merchandise to introduce new products to the public before the official advertising and promotions are launched. In the case of new products, marketers also pay attention to early adopters to maintain positive word-of-mouth.
Online researchers would do well to take note. Instead of using statistically meaningless quota samples, they could provide value in trapping and reporting on category mavens and other important influencers, such as connectors. These new research panels, like well-managed CRM databases, could easily evolve into new high-impact personal media channels.
Imagine the value of ready-made word-of-mouth media channels. Or better yet, imagine auctioning them off like Google, tracking their impact with BuzzMetrics, and discovering their true value.
Mark Green is senior vice president, media services, ACNielsen Analytic Consulting, and the founding partner of the Media Learning Institute. (firstname.lastname@example.org)