An increasing number among the most powerful and influential segment of online consumers – those who shape perceptions of brands, products and services – are concerned that “advocates for hire” leave biased opinions on consumer websites, according to a new study by WPP Group’s Burson-Marsteller.
The majority of these online influencers – dubbed “e-fluentials” – are less likely to purchase a product when they suspect a paid professional has left biased comments about the product on a consumer website.
Shortcuts to charts that appear in this article:
- e-fluentials’ awareness of commercial activity on consumer websites
- Actions e-fluentials take when they suspect “fake” posts
- e-fluentials’ number and types of contacts with others
- Motivations of e-fluentials for spreading the word
“E-fluentials have gotten savvier about online dialogue since we first identified them in 2001. They are increasingly frustrated about commercial activity on discussion boards and opinion websites intended for consumers,” said Ame Wadler, chief strategic officer of Burson-Marsteller. “Their mounting concern calls for complete transparency because arousing suspicion among e-fluentials can trigger negative word of mouth as opposed to the intended positive buzz.”The research offers insights to guide online and offline communications with influencers:
- Be transparent: 48% of e-fluentials say they believe there is commercial activity on opinion websites, up from 39% in 2001. And 30% of e-fluentials today say this is a big problem, compared with 20% in 2001. Revealing commercial affiliations assuages concerns; subterfuge creates cynicism and could result in backlash.
- Avoid the hard sell: 57% of e-fluentials are less likely to purchase a product when they suspect a paid professional has left biased comments on an opinion website. E-fluentials are receptive to new messages from companies, as they enjoy being the gatekeepers of information. However, they are not receptive to direct sales tactics and prefer to be approached as respected opinion leaders in their communities.
- Substantiate messages with third-party back-up: 76% of e-fluentials double-check information with other online sources when they suspect commercial activity on opinion websites. Companies should therefore provide links to consumer blogs and news articles that support their message.
Other findings from the study are presented below.
E-fluentials Talk… Online and Off
- E-fluentials love to talk and they spend nearly one full day (over 21 hours) per week conversing both with colleagues at work (9.2 hours) and with friends and family outside of work (11.7 hours).
- E-fluentials spend approximately 21 hours online each week:
- Eight hours per week are spent interacting with others and sharing opinions about entertainment and consumer topics such as movies (82%), retailers (82%), restaurants (75%) and celebrities (66%), followed by more serious topics such as national and global issues (64%), doctors and health issues (46%) and local and community issues (45%).
- E-fluentials spend seven hours reading email, four hours reading news online and three hours reading discussion boards.
- However, they still spend a significant amount of time using old-fashioned in-person and telephone conversation to get their messages across: 96% of e-fluentials talk about good and bad product experiences face-to-face and 79% share product news over the phone.
E-fluentials Enjoy Being E-fluential
E-fluentials share information for the sheer joy of being “in the know”:
- They are most likely to tell others about a good or bad product experience simply because they want their friends and family to know about it (94%).
- 72% say “sharing opinions and experiences is part of who I am.”
- An equal number (72%) say it is their obligation to “warn people about problems” with products.
- A small minority share opinions with friends because they get paid to do so (15%) or to get free stuff (10%).
e-fluentials also enjoy sharing their knowledge in public forums: 64% have offered their opinion at an organization meeting in the past 12 months, compared with only 25% of non-fluentials.
About the study: Burson-Marsteller partnered with MSI International to conduct a survey of online US adults, age 18 and older. A total of 1,000 online interviews were completed in July 2007. Among the respondents, 150 were identified as e-fluentials. The Burson-Marsteller e-fluential research series also includes e-fluentials 2001, Tech-fluentials, Mom-fluentials and Youth-fluentials.