Decades of social science research have demonstrated that there is a group of people in any community to whom others look to help them to form opinions on various issues and matters. Whether called “opinion leaders” or “influentials,” these people literally lead the formation of attitudes, public knowledge, and opinions. In the classic book Personal influence, opinion leadership is defined as “leadership at its simplest: it is casually exercised, sometimes unwitting and unbeknown, within the smallest groupings of friends, family members, and neighbors. It is not leadership on the high level of Churchill, nor of a local politico; it is the almost invisible, certainly inconspicuous form of leadership at the person-to-person level of ordinary, intimate, informal, everyday contact” (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955, 138).
Since the introduction of the opinion leadership conceptualization, both practitioners and academics have been keenly interested in its applicability in modern society. Hundreds of studies have been conducted to identify potential opinion leaders, learn of the characteristics distinguishing them from their “followers,” and understand how they exert their personal influence to change opinions and behaviors of the masses (for a review see Weimann 1994). Many of these studies have validated the view that opinion leaders do indeed exist and influence others, in various areas, ranging from fashion and consumer decisions to politics. Such opinion leaders are individuals regarded as having expertise and knowledge on a particular subject. These individuals often provide information and advice to “followers”; therefore, they are more likely to influence purchasing behavior through word-of-mouth communication.
Opinion leaders are seen as having special advantages: First, they are perceived as possessing “expert power” because they are technically competent and are convincing. Second, product opinion leaders have knowledge power because “they have prescreened, evaluated, and synthesized product information in an unbiased way” (Menzel 1981, quoted in Solomon 1994, 385). Third, social power is attributed to them because of their standing in the community. Fourth, their hands-on product experience makes opinion leaders more likely to give both positive and negative information about the product’s performance – unlike paid-for communication, which focuses exclusively on a product’s positive aspects. Finally, they have referent power since, in terms of education, social status, and beliefs, they usually tend to be homogeneous with, or at least similar to, their opinion-seeking counterparts. Therefore, it is imperative that companies conduct research to identify opinion leaders. The knowledge gained from these studies can then be utilized to properly target information at the appropriate settings and media.
Origins Of The Concept
Three major studies laid the groundwork for opinion leadership theory: the “people’s choice” study, the Decatur study, and the drug study. Each study led to a greater understanding of how opinion leaders disseminate information – from the more simplistic two-step flow of communication to the more elaborate model, the multi-step flow of communication. The two-step flow theory asserts that information from the media moves in two distinct stages – from the mass media to the opinion leaders and from the opinion leaders to their followers. The two-step idea was first introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) in The people’s choice, based on a study that focused on the process of decision-making during a presidential election campaign. Despite a number of criticisms by subsequent researchers, the “people’s choice” study is considered one of the most prominent in mass communication research, due to its comparison between the mass media and personal flow of information and influence.
Criticisms are directed at the oversimplification of the two-step flow of communication, which leads to an underestimation of the direct influence of the media. The process of influence is said to be more complex than a single group of opinion leaders listening to the mass media, then feeding their opinions to a group of passive followers. Instead, people who influence others are themselves influenced by others in the same topic area, resulting in an exchange. Opinion leaders are thereby both disseminators and recipients of influence.
With this in mind, a more accurate portrayal of the communication flow would be a multi-step process, rather than simply a two-step process. The two-step flow of communication theory has, however, remained relevant throughout the years. Several recent studies have addressed issues arising from Lazarsfeld, Katz, and Merton’s studies from the 1940s. For example, Weimann led a re-examination of the opinion leader conceptualization in modern studies (1991, 1994), attempting to spark a new interest in the old theory and modify the definition and measurement of opinion leaders. Weimann and Brosius (1994; Brosius & Weimann 1996) examined the process of agenda setting as a two-step flow of communication, highlighting the role of opinion leaders in mediating between media agendas and public agendas.
Who Are The Opinion Leaders?
The early studies on personal influence and opinion leadership resulted in several attributes related to opinion leaders. The most important ones are that opinion leaders: (1) are found at every social level, and in most areas of decision-making influence people from the same social level; (2) are found in both sexes, all professions, all social classes, and all age groups; (3) tend to be more involved than non-leaders in various social activities and social organizations and occupy central positions in their personal networks; (4) are considered experts in their field, but this is informal recognition by close friends, relatives, co-workers, colleagues, and acquaintances; (5) are more exposed to the mass media than non-leaders; (6) are more interested, involved, and up-to-date in the field in which they are influential than non-leaders; (7) tend to be monomorphous, i.e., usually expert in one area but rarely in various areas; (8) manifest a specific communication behavior, i.e., are more involved in formal and informal personal communication than non-leaders; and (9) are usually well aware that they are sources of information and influence for others.
In his review of the opinion leadership concept after the early studies, Elihu Katz (1957) suggested three criteria that distinguish leaders from non-leaders: (1) who one is – the personification of certain values in the figure of the opinion leader; (2) what one knows – the competence or knowledge leaders have; and (3) whom one knows – their strategic location in the social network. A more debatable characterization relied on the use of the mass media, or the two-step flow model.
Measuring Opinion Leadership
Despite the growing research on opinion leadership, the identification of appropriate opinion leaders continues to be a challenge. Several methods have been used. In the positional approach, persons in elected or appointed positions in the community are assumed to be opinion leaders. This approach is inexpensive, but it can be highly inaccurate because it assumes opinion leadership is based upon position, rather than respect. The reputation approach relies upon the nomination of selected individuals as, for example, the ten most influential persons in a community regarding a certain issue. Using the reputation approach generally improves the accuracy of identification, because one is getting information from more than one source about the influence of others in the community. In the self-designating method individuals are asked to identify themselves as being influentials in certain issues. This approach has the advantage of getting input on influence from community members, and therefore is more accurate than the positional approach. A potential pitfall of the self-designating approach is that persons might overor underestimate their influence on others.
Sociometric methods trace communication patterns among members of a group, which allows for the systematic mapping of member interactions. Data is typically obtained by interviewing participants and asking them to whom they go for advice and guidance. These methods are more expensive and difficult to administer. Sociometry works best in a closed, self-contained social setting, such as a hospital, prison, or army base. This mapping of contacts serves to locate persons who are at the center of communications about the issue area. Another method of data collection on opinion leadership and advice-giving is by observing social action within the community. Observation, because of costs related to its application and the length of time required, is the most expensive of the techniques described here, but it is often considered the most accurate.
The key informant approach involves first identifying a limited number of people assumed to be knowledgeable regarding the patterns of influence within a group, and then asking them to identify influentials in that group. Although key informants are selected subjectively as persons likely to have the ability to identify opinion leaders, this method is employed because it usually produces savings in terms of costs and time when compared to other methods. However, it should be noted this methodology is less applicable to sample designs in which only a portion of an audience is interviewed.
Finally, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann suggested a measure, the strength of personality scale (PS scale), which emerged from testing numerous questionnaire items related to self-perceived levels of personal influence (Noelle-Neumann 1983; Noelle-Neumann & Csikszentmihalyi 1992). These early scales were tested and refined after years of pretests with a variety of samples. The final scale included 10 items that were later weighted according to their part–whole correlations with the total scale (Weimann 1991, 1994). The successful identification of the influentials by means of the PS scale, validating the identification by “external” criteria, and the relative ease of administrating the scale led more researchers to explore its potential.
The Future: Opinion Leaders In Cyberspace
The acknowledged significance of opinion leaders in general led recent attempts to explore their existence, attributes, and functions in the online environment. The widespread use of the Internet has enabled huge audiences to easily access an abundance of information about a variety of issues, products, and services. Internet users have made cyberspace into a meaningful place of interaction, information-gathering, and consulting. Moreover, the advent of the Internet, with its constituent parts (the world wide web, forums and lists, chatrooms, email), has also irreparably blurred the classic distinction between interpersonal and mass communication.
Preliminary evidence that virtual contacts have been integrated into information seeking habits is provided by the Pew Foundation studies (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2002). For example, they report that an estimated 52 million web surfers in the US have sought medical information on the web, and approximately half of these report that the information found influenced their decisions about treatment and care. This information was often key in deciding where to go next (e.g., whether to go see a doctor, whether to get another opinion), rather than in final decision-making about treatment. More and more people turn to the Internet and its virtual communities to seek advice, information, and guidance. Within these communities online opinion leaders emerged, generating millions of personal recommendations sent to their virtual followers. Recent studies are revealing the existence of these online opinion leaders in chatrooms, forums, and personal weblogs. In seeking to extend the theory of opinion leadership to the online environment, future research will explore whether the established theories for the offline environment would also help us understand opinion leadership in the online world.
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