Marketers have known for a while that they need to find opinion leaders discussing their products on social networks if they want to control their branding message. But new research says there are different kinds of opinion leaders, with two types giving brands distinctly different but equally valuable types of information.

The research by Carolin Kaiser and Freimut Bodendorf of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg was published last month in Internet Research, an academic journal, and used text-mining algorithms to track discussions about Apple’s iPhone products on 17 German websites and social networks. For a decade, researchers have been looking at online opinion leaders and how a handful of people can influences the opinions of large groups of people, but Kaiser and Bodendorf were able to identify two key types of opinion leaders in social networks: discussion leaders and knowledge leaders.

Why It’s Important

Previous studies have found that 34% of Twitter users and 22% of Facebook users post opinions on products at least once a week, and those opinions have a big impact on purchasing decisions. In fact, people weigh online recommendations from other consumers equally to their own experience, and a 2009 study suggested they may place more weight on online recommendations than offline recommendations from friends when making purchasing decisions.

All of this has put a greater emphasis by marketers to figure out what people are saying about their products in online forums and to try to influence that. Just five years ago, that was a relatively easy task, as influence in different sectors was usually confined to a handful of bloggers. Now, however, big brands can have thousands of opinion leaders influencing opinions about their product, and those opinion leaders are often spread out over a wide range of social networks and online forums. 

Social networks have also put greater weight on the types of relationships between people within a network, and analyzing those relationships has not been addressed in more than a handful of empirical studies.

Kaiser and Bodendorf used a series of algorithms to mine forum discussions and found that there were several different types of discussion leaders. Two in particular stood out in their ability to influence consumer opinions: discussion leaders, who tended to exchange lots of statements with other users about a product, and knowledge leaders, who had a high level of expertise and ended up answering lots of questions about products.

Discussion Leaders

Discussion leaders tend to be in central positions in social networks and also tend to spend time trying to get people to share their opinions. As a result, there tends to be a lot of agreement between discussion leaders and the people they interact with in online social networks.

For that reason, Kaiser and Bodendorf argued, discussion leaders can be valuable in helping marketers spread positive opinions about their product or brand.

“Marketers should monitor the opinions of discussion leaders continuously in order to estimate the opinion development of the network at an early stage. Marketing managers can exploit the influence of positive-oriented discussion leaders to spread information on their products,” Kaiser and Bodendorf wrote. “In addition, they can try to win neutral discussion leaders by providing them with free samples. Negative-oriented discussion leaders can be countered by discussion.”

Knowledge Leaders

Knowledge leaders know a product; as a result, users often ask them direct questions. There tends to be less agreement in opinion between knowledge leaders and the people they interact with, as knowledge leaders are more apt to allow and consider opinions that differ from their own.

“Due to their expert knowledge, weaknesses and strengths of products can be recognized on the basis of their opinions,” Kaiser and Bodendorf said. “Thus, valuable information for product improvement can be gained.”