Influence from Consumer-Generated Content

An Interview with Flemming Madsen, Managing Director of Onalytica

 

The Internet is emerging as a powerful publishing platform for consumers to express their opinions, share ideas and influence others. Indeed, the volume of consumer-generated content – including blogs, message boards, social networks and chat/community group discussions – has grown exponentially in recent years.

 

Today, companies such as BrandIntelCymfonyNielsen BuzzMetrics, Umbria and UK-based Onalytica are monitoring this online chatter and leveraging data-mining techniques to understand consumer sentiment and identify emerging trends. 

 

Not surprisingly, consumer-generated content is becoming a powerful tool in the green space to help shape opinions or brand perceptions.  Today, for example, individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are leveraging the web to influence the behavior of multi-national corporations.  Given the viral nature of the Internet, such initiatives are often highly effective at influencing opinion or brand perception.  If done effectively, the Internet can be leveraged to achieve “disproportionate voice”. That is, substantial influence can be attained by enlisting the support of a handful of key influencers and by leveraging viral tactics to spread an idea or an opinion.

 

Corporations are playing catch-up as they monitor buzz to understand public opinion and interject their views into the dialogue or enlist advocates to do so on their behalf.

 

Companies such as Onalytica have emerged as leaders in the green space by measuring green “influence” online.  Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Flemming Madsen, Managing Director at Onalytica, to discuss how individuals, NGOs and corporations use the Internet to exert green influence.  Here is what he had to say:

MG: Public opinion is swayed by information gathered in the public domain – including articles in the press, consumer blogs and PR campaigns.  How does Onalytica measure influence and map relative influence from each source?

FM: People want to understand who the influencers are in order to make their PR campaigns more effective.  The exercise is to find out where you get the most influence for the time you spend engaging. 

 

[To identify influencers] we use ‘citation analysis’.  This is a technique that has been used for thirty years to measure the influence of academic journals and is the sort of de facto standard for measuring influence in the academic space. 

 

What we do is take everything that is written about a certain issue – say climate change – and we analyze who is referencing whom in this context. We extract those citations, map them by reference source, turn them into mathematical equations and solve them to get influence.  

 

We also count [citations] to get their popularity.  Popularity is how many talk about you.  But, you do not need to be popular to have good influence.  And because the cost of engaging with a stakeholder is closely related to their popularity, those that are more popular have more demands on their time.  But the value is more related to the influence. [see “Influence and Popularity on the Topic of Blog Marketing” publication] 

MG: How do individual consumers and consumer advocacy groups use the Internet to voice their opinions on environmental issues? 

FM: Our [Kimberly-Clark] analysis is an example of how a relatively small and unresourceful environmental NGO can utilizes the web to get, what some may describe, as a disproportionate voice.

MG: How did that work? 

FM: The fact is that at NGOs the people tend to be tech savvy and able to move faster that those that they are trying to influence.  It gives then a huge edge in getting their message to market [online].  Actually, you could mount a campaign like the one against {a company like] Kimberly-Clark with only a few people and have impact.  That was unheard of say 15 years ago.  They way you could do it is by leveraging the Internet and social networking better than Kimberly-Clark. 

 

In the old days Adam Smith said that the market was governed by an invisible hand.  But, today, that invisible hand that disciplines the behavior of corporations is largely social media. [see “Brands Under Attack” publication]

 

Yet, what is typically the case is that [the NGOs] are not as influential as they are popular.  What that means is that NGOs have more tracking with people who themselves do not have much influence. NGOs are much more popular than actually influential.

MG: And by influence you mean having an impact on corporate behavior? 

FM: No, on swaying the opinion.  So, for example, you say that we should fish less cod because we are fishing all of the cod out of the ocean.  If an environmental group said that, the issue may get good traction, but it does so with those who already believe that we should fish less than we do. 

MG: So they are not swaying many people in the middle.

FM: They are not swaying as may as their popularity should lead us believe. Those that they impact are more often those that do not have influence themselves rather than policy makers, corporations, journalists, and so on.

MG: So people that have influence are those that have a network that they can, in turn, influence.

FM: Yes. 

MG:  Tell me how corporations are leveraging the Internet to generate PR on green issues?

FM: We have done some interesting work in relation to green issues.  For example, a very big publishing house came to us last year before they published a book about climate change and asked us to provide them with a list of the most influential bloggers on this issue in several countries so they could seed part of the book them and gain traction with the community before it was published.  We also tracked the sentiment about the book and how it faired in the discussion, including to what extent it raised the influence of the author in the community.

 

We also have interest from producers of certain raw materials and oils that are keen to understand what the environmental NGOs are saying about how to behave.  They are also keen to understand who are the gatekeepers in the environmental community that they could talk to about their side of the story. 

MG: How are organizations monitoring the impact of brand campaigns or PR initiatives in market?

FM: We benchmark an organization’s relative influence on certain topics of importance.  There is an increased acceptance that if you want to be seen as credible supplier of anything – say bread – then you need to be an authority on all aspects of bread not just have a great bread brand.

So organizations want to make sure that they to an increasing extent own the topic not just the brand.  For example, a pharmaceutical company may want to be considered an expert on the use of drugs that they have.  So that every time that there is something written in the press, the journalist will consider the pharmaceutical company an authority on this issue.

MG: Are corporations encouraging consumers to participate in social media like blogs and social networks?

FM:  There is good research to document that if people have a good outlet for any grievances or frustration towards a brand, they will vent it in a moderated tone of voice versus what they would do on a blog. 

MG: What about when NGO’s do exert influence via the Internet? How do corporations counter-act negative PR?

FM: [In the case of] Kimberly-Clark, if they wanted to, they could employ their online assets to effectively silence this. 

MG: How would Kimberly-Clark go about doing that?

FM:  They would use a technique commonly known as ‘crowding out’ whereby you if you are a big corporation you would take all of your online assets and arrange them so that when people search for your keywords you are occupying the first three, four pages of Google with your own assets.

MG: Sort of an intercept strategy?

FM: More like clogging up everything that is written about the topic with your message.  And because you have such a huge presence and have a lot of web sites, they could do it.

4 Responses to Influence from Consumer-Generated Content

  1. Interesting concept, but how successful is this technique?

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  4. Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my
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