PR Shops Aim for Deeper Bonds With ‘Influencers’

As Kafka noted, the history of the world is handed down by word of mouth. Plenty of brand awareness is, too, and PR agencies are continuing to make strides to harness the power of this oldest and perhaps most elusive form of communications.

Two weeks ago, Omnicom’s Ketchum introduced its Influencer Relationship Management database, a proprietary Web-based tool that, in a seven-step process, helps the PR agency identify key influencers (journalists, bloggers, etc.) who could turn companies’ products into “must-haves” for certain sets of consumers.

Once the influencers are identified and in the database, Ketchum and the client contact them and send them information or products. A relationship gradually develops, and the influencers may eventually become members of company panels or be invited to speak at forums, etc.

Ketchum used to draw up lists of 2,000-3,000 names, but the IRM system focuses on 150-200—”the cream of the crop,” said Paul Rand, director of Ketchum’s global technology practice in Chicago and head of the IRM practice. “We as an industry are going through a big evolution; what typically worked in the past does not necessarily work today,” said Rand.

Influencers are an elite group: They are the 10 percent of Americans who have the power to influence the habits of the other 90 percent, according to a 2003 RoperASW study of over 3,000 visitors to WashingtonPost.com. That study also found that online influencers are very active in passing information along.

“There’s a huge mass of new influencers on the Internet. There’s niche areas where you do have big-time thought leaders,” said Katie Paine, publisher of The Measurement Standard newsletter and a PR consultant.

Computer maker Gateway is one of the first companies to use IRM, as it expands beyond its core computer business into home electronics. By year’s end, the San Diego firm will roll out dozens of new products, such as DVD players, plasma TVs, digital cameras and home-theater equipment. “All good marketing is intended to get word of mouth started—that’s the most efficient and cost effective way to communicate,” said Brad Williams, director of communications at Gateway. “From a $90 million ad campaign to a news release, every marketer looks to increase word of mouth.”

Ketchum is not the first PR firm to study influencers. Burson-Marsteller began researching “e-fluentials,” or online opinion leaders, in 1999, also in conjunction with RoperASW. The WPP shop now works with clients to manage influencer relationships through its Knowledge Management Practice. Independent Edelman uses its Relationship Index tool to track how consumers feel about clients, among other things.

“The most controllable thing is the ads, then it’s PR. … Word of mouth is so powerful, because people believe influencers—they think they are authentic,” said Jennifer Scott, general manager of StrategyOne at Edelman, New York.

Ad agencies are also zeroing in on influencers. In June, Euro RSCG sponsored a retreat for top executives at the Copperhead Inn and Spa in Shandaken, N.Y., to spend a few days talking to teens, tweens and parents, with the aim of determining who drives high-tech decisions at home.

The subject has also been the focus of several books of late. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, published in 2000, examines the way connectors, mavens and salesmen spread ideas. Last year, Emanuel Rosen published The Anatomy of Buzz: How to Create Word of Mouth Marketing. And this past January, RoperASW researchers Ed Keller and Jon Berry came out with The Influentials.