This is a book about influence in America. More specifically, it's about people in America who exercise influence. It's not about the first names that might come to mind when you think about the people with influence in this country -- the leaders of government, the CEOs of large corporations, or the wealthy. Rather, it's about millions of people who come from every city and town and who shape the opinions and trends in our country.
RoperASW, the marketing research and consulting firm at which we work, has dubbed these people the Influential Americans®. Roughly 1 in 10 of the adult population of the United States, the Influential Americans are the people who make the society, culture, and marketplace run. The most socially and politically active Americans -- we screen them from the general population on the basis of their involvement in local affairs -- the Influentials are active in their communities. They are highly engaged in the workplace and in their personal lives as well. They are interested in many subjects and are connected to many groups. They know how to express themselves and do so. And, because of their position in the community, workplace, and society, their opinions are heard by many people and influence decisions in others' lives.
Almost certainly you know one of them. There may be an Influential on your block, in your workplace, or in your family. You probably talk with at least one in the course of a week. Chances are you seek out an Influential when you have an important decision to make. Influentials are the kind of people you turn to when you need help. They often know the answer to the question you have. If they don't, they know someone who does. They get your attention. They have people's respect.
At RoperASW, which has been helping companies to "manage and master change" since our founding in 1923, we use the Influentials every day in our work. We have come to see them as the thought leaders, trendsetters, and bellwethers for America. They are at the leading edge of what Americans are thinking, doing, and buying. If we want to gauge the prospects for a new product, service, legislative initiative, or idea to go on to mainstream success, we look at how it is regarded by Influentials. When we test trends, a core function of our business, we look at how they play out with Influentials. They are the canaries in the mine shaft for looming political issues. They point the way to the future. On many levels, the Influentials prove the axiom laid out by our founder, Elmo Roper: "In America, the few act for the many."
At the same time, the Influentials are testimony to the democratic notion that more than a handful of people control the levers of change in America. At 1 in 10 of the population, they are a large group: 10 of every 100 Americans 18 years old or older, 5,000 in every city with 50,000 people 18 or older, and, on a national level, 21 million people.
Who are the people who are leading trends in America? How can I better understand them? What makes them stand apart? Are there certain demographic markers? What makes them tick? Do they have a different mind-set from other people? How do they spread influence? What are they saying today? Where are they pointing the society tomorrow? How can I apply their insights and ideas to my company, nonprofit organization, or political campaign? Can I persuade them to spread the word for my product, service, organization, or idea? We are commonly asked these questions by our clients, who as leaders in industry and public policy in fields ranging from advertising, marketing, and media to automotive, technology, telecommunications, packaged goods, restaurants, hotels, airlines, and federal departments and agencies, need to know what's on the minds of the nation's opinion leaders. For decades we've been able to give them answers that come from our continuous monitoring of Influentials. Our clients have used the ideas and insights distilled from our research on Influentials to guide strategic planning, product development, and marketing and to see what's on the horizon.
For example, in early 2002, the Influentials signaled an early alert that Americans would be traveling more for vacations and personal reasons in the coming months. They were putting the "post-9/11" fear of flying behind them and were ready to take to the air again. Good news for the airlines and destinations that rely on them as travelers and time to crank up marketing budgets and cut back a bit on the rock-bottom incentives to travel. We also saw, however, that Influentials were adamant that security be tightened substantially -- and that otherwise a large number of Influentials would take to the road for driving vacations instead of flying (and through their actions and words influencing friends, families, and others to do the same).
Years before most people had heard of digital still cameras, Influentials were aware of them. By March 1997, two in three had heard of them, 1 1/2 times the response of the public as a whole. They were well into the adoption curve. By early 2001, one in six Influentials owned a digital camera (double the rate of the public as a whole), and a comparable proportion were planning to buy one in the next year or two (more than double the public as a whole). Three in ten had viewed personal photos over a computer in the past month, about triple the rate of the total public. The net effect pointed to an increasingly digital future for photography. Good news for companies selling digital cameras and software to help people archive, edit, transmit, and tinker with their digital photo collections. Good news for product possibilities: "Like how you look in one picture of the Eiffel Tower, but prefer the backdrop of another? Use Photo Pro for the Home." Problematic, however, for traditional silver emulsion film photography.
Companies and public policy clients use Influentials as a gauge of their image in the "vital center" of public opinion. When the percentage of Influentials with a moderately or highly favorable opinion of the Internal Revenue Service rose by 17 percentage points to 61% between 1999 and 2001, one of the largest gains of any group, it was a good sign for the IRS; the agency's efforts to be more consumer friendly were being noticed. Research on Influentials showed that despite the turmoil in technology stocks after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000-2001, some companies retained a strong public image. More than seven in ten Influentials, a large number, held a favorable opinion of Microsoft. The finding suggested that the software giant was weathering the government antitrust investigations against it and the turbulence in the technology industry and had a strong reserve of goodwill in the marketplace, a favorable position from a consumer standpoint for introducing new products (as we see in more detail as we go forward, a good many Influentials were waiting for the next leap forward in technology).
With this book, we take key lessons we have gained from decades of studying Influentials and bring them to a larger audience. The result is our most comprehensive overview to date of who the Influential Americans are, what they think, where they are leading the country, and how you can become part of their conversation. We think the time is right to open the vault and share our research and insights with a wider audience. Word of mouth, the medium in which Influentials traffic, is increasingly appreciated as an important channel of communications for both public discourse and the consumer marketplace. The recognition is overdue.
The American public has long known the value of word-of-mouth recommendations. According to Roper research, Americans today are far more likely to turn to friends, family, and other personal experts than to use traditional media for ideas and information on a range of topics. We know because, on a regular basis for 25 years, we've been asking people which of a variety of sources -- TV programs, TV commercials, newspaper stories, newspaper ads, magazine stories, magazine ads, online or Internet sources, friends, family, or other people -- give them the best ideas and information on different decisions. More than eight in ten people tell us that their personal network of friends, family, and others is among the two or three best sources for ideas and information about restaurants to try, a response almost 50 points higher than the net response for all advertising sources, a substantial difference. Similarly, seven in ten say friends, family, and other people are one of the best sources on new meals and dishes, places to go on vacation, and prescription drugs -- again, substantially more than the net response for advertising, with differences of 38-50 points. About six in ten rate friends, family, and other people among the best sources on hotels to stay in, how to improve personal health, which movies to see, which brands are the "best," videos to rent or buy, how to plan for retirement, the merits of one car versus another, and how to save and invest money. As the figure shows, Americans generally are twice as likely to cite word of mouth as the best source of ideas and information in these and other areas as they are to cite advertising. There are a few areas in which advertising outperforms word of mouth. For as many Americans citing people as the best sources for tips on movies to go to, for example, slightly more cite advertising. For most decisions, however, word of mouth rules.
Moreover, the person-to-person channel of word of mouth, particularly among friends and family, has grown in importance in recent decades. Drilling deeper into this question shows that, since 1977, the percentage of Americans citing the word of mouth of friends as one of the best sources of ideas for what movies to see has risen by 14 percentage points to 46%, a major increase. There have been significant increases in the importance of word-of-mouth recommendations of friends in a number of other decisions as well, such as where to find the best buys (up 8 points to 37%), analyzing the merits of particular cars (up 7 points to 35%), what clothes to buy (up 7 points to 32%), and which computer equipment to buy (up 7 points to 24%). Family members' value as word-of-mouth sources, although generally not as important as friends', has gone up even more since 1977 than friends', doubling in many areas, with particularly large increases in decisions about restaurants (up 25 points to 49%), meals or dishes (up 23 points to 47%), movies (up 21 points to 33%), places to visit (up 19 points to 42%), improving the appearance of the home (up 14 points to 30%), clothes (up 12 points to 23%), and cars (up 11 points to 28%).
More Americans are bringing in "other people" as well when they make decisions, including colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, and professional experts, such as doctors, pharmacists, financial planners, and other kinds of consultants. Among the areas in which they're turning more to others beyond their immediate circle of family and friends are health issues (up 17 points to 36% since 1977), saving and investing (up 9 points to 27%), home improvement (up 6 points to 16%), and cars (up 5 points to 22%).
This is the bottom line: when Americans make decisions today, it's a conversation. Before Americans buy, they talk. And they listen. The first step in the buying process is to ask a friend, family member, or other expert close at hand what they think. When Americans have an idea, they'll often go back to the friend and family member for input. Depending on the importance of the decision, they'll test their ideas out again as they go along. Flummoxed? Ask a friend. Use your Lifeline, as they say in "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Magazines, newspapers, and television are still important. Today, people get ideas from more sources, one of the side products of a more educated society. In turn, the role of media has changed, more toward supporting the conversation ("Here's exactly why we think you should buy our product" or "Call or e-mail or visit our Web site if you want to learn more") than directing people to a decision ("Buy Brand X").
The Internet has broadened the conversation, allowing people to research purchases, post questions to companies and to other consumers, e-mail their friends, forward Web links, and develop bulletin board relationships with people with similar interests. That the Internet is increasingly important is, at this point, commonly accepted. Our research also shows, though, that the change is more profound than is usually acknowledged. Our research about the sources of the best ideas on decisions shows that, in only a few years, the Internet has become as significant in a number of purchase decisions as traditional media. Americans rate online and Internet sources the fourth best sources of ideas on places to travel (15%, up 12 from 1997, a large increase), behind only friends (50%), family (42%), magazine articles (26%), and TV commercials (17%) and on a par with or ahead of newspaper articles (14%), TV programs (13%), newspaper ads (12%), and magazine ads (10%). For ideas on computer equipment, the Internet ranks second (22%, up 15 from 1997), behind only friends (24%). The Internet is the third most important source for ideas on finding a new job (26%, trailing only newspaper ads and friends), the third for hotels (19%, up 15 from 1997), the fourth for finding the best buys (19%, up 16 from 1997), the sixth for judging cars (17%, up 14), the fourth for ideas on saving and investing (16%, up 12), the sixth for discerning which brands are best (15%, up 12), the sixth-rated source for retirement planning (14%, up 10), and eighth in personal health (10%, up 9). In all these areas, the Internet is competitive with at least some traditional media.
In addition, more Americans are becoming active participants in the word-of-mouth conversation by sharing their experience and expertise with others. Other research shows us that large numbers of Americans make recommendations to others when they find something they like. Six in ten Americans, for example, tell us that they have recommended a restaurant to someone else in the past year. About half have passed along a recommendation on a movie. Four in ten have recommended a television show, one in four a vacation destination, and one in five a retail store, car, or clothing. One in seven have told others about Web sites they like. And the numbers increased substantially in the past decade: up 13 percentage points for movies, 11 points for restaurants, 9 points for TV shows, 7 points for vacation destinations, and 6 points for retail stores. (We report the Influential Americans' responses on this question, as well as where they turn for ideas, in subsequent chapters.)
Young people also place a high value on word of mouth. According to the 2002 Roper Youth Poll, when Americans 8-17 years were asked what most influences their decisions, they placed their parents first in most areas: whether they drink alcohol (71%), what they think they will be when they grow up (53%), which videos they watch (51%), what they buy with their spending money (46%), which TV programs they view (43%), what books and magazines they buy and read (37%), and what Web sites they go to (37%). Best friends, meanwhile, exert the most influence on the kinds of music kids listen to (64%) and their choices of clothing (47%). Kids rate parents and friends about equally on what movies they go to see (45 and 44%, respectively). TV and advertising are rated as lesser influences. On average, only 20% of young people rate TV the most important influence in the ten areas, only 11% say so of advertising, and both are substantially less than the average responses for parents (45%) and friends (34%).
Increasingly, we see Americans talking more about community affairs as well, from schools, development, traffic, and other close-to-home issues, to far-reaching issues, such as the quality of life in the community and the legacy they are creating for the next generation. The tragedy of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington seems to have become the type of "galvanizing crisis" that Harvard Professor Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone said could reverse the long-term decline in Americans' sense of connectedness.
Even before September 11, we saw evidence of this change toward more involvement by Americans, with growing numbers placing more emphasis on community. The events of recent months, however, seem to have made the change "palpable," to borrow a word from Professor Putnam. Even allowing for the predictable letdown as people return to the normal rhythms of their lives, large numbers of Americans began reevaluating their priorities and trying to rebalance their lives with their values -- planning in the coming months to spend more time on family and friends (35% of Americans), go to religious services more often (22%), or do more volunteer and charity work (19%).
This rising tide of conversation about life, the direction of communities and the nation, and everyday decisions about what to read, watch, and buy is creating a major ripple effect in business, government, and other entities. As Americans are talking more among themselves, and are more confident about what they hear from their friends, family, and personal experts, they are growing more selective about when and where they listen to the "official" voices of the society. Tuning out advertising has become part of daily life. Four in ten Americans tell us they "often" switch the channel whenever a commercial comes on, almost triple the level of 1985. Another half flip to another channel at least occasionally. More viewers hit the mute button to turn off the sound of commercials whenever ads come on, one in four doing so often and another four in ten at least occasionally, both double the levels of 1985. Little wonder growing numbers of Americans regard the TV remote control as a "necessity" they can't do without (44%, up 21 percentage points from 1992).
Only one in five Americans say they often just sit and watch the commercials, down from one in three in 1985, with half saying they watch the ads only "occasionally." Three in ten say they "almost never" watch commercials (up from two in ten in 1985).
Marketers who have tried to fight their way through the remote control firewall by loading more advertising into the traditional media or placing ads in new venues seem to have mostly succeeded at instilling a rising level of irritation in the public, like an in-law who follows you from room to room at the family reunion, refusing to leave you alone until he's regaled you with the details of his latest feat. The business community is facing a deepening predicament. Business is working harder and paying more to pursue people who are trying to watch and listen less to its messages.
Back in the days when The Beverly Hillbillies could get a 50 or better share of the audience watching television on any given night, getting your message across to Americans was relatively easy. It wasn't hard for advertisers, like lucky Jed Clampett, to go "shooting for some food" and strike it rich with some "bubbling crude." Television literally made brands. Revlon's sales jumped 54% in 1955, the year it began sponsoring The $64,000 Question on CBS; in 1956, Revlon's sales soared another 66%. The quiz show put Revlon "on the map of corporate America," says Harvard Professor Richard Tedlow in his book Giants of Enterprise. In the 1950s, top-rated series like The $64,000 Question, I Love Lucy, and The Texaco Star Theater were regularly watched by half of households with TVs. Today, a Nielsen rating of 21 wins the season. More shows and networks compete for viewer attention; the number of cable television networks has topped 200. There are more magazines (5,500 consumer titles alone, triple the number of 20 years ago). There are more radio stations (10,500, 1 1/2 times the number 30 years ago). And, of course, there's the Web, which from a smattering of sites in the early 1990s has mushroomed to more than 30 million sites. In writing this book, we are competing for your attention with the mind-boggling 122,000 book titles that will be published this year in the U.S., up from 36,000 in 1970. The average American would have to read 334 books per day, go to 11,000 Web sites per day, peruse 15 magazines per day, and tune into 29 radio stations every day for a year to see everything available to him or her -- and that's not counting the dozens of programs being beamed every day by the hundreds of television networks vying for viewers' attention.
With more to choose from, Americans are customizing their media consumption, creating further fragmentation. In 1980, there were 128 million TV sets in the U.S., or a little more than one per household. There are now more than 240 million televisions in the U.S., enough for every American over the age of nine to have his or her own personal set. According to our research, televisions have spread from the living room (about three in four households have one there) to the master bedroom (over half), to kids' bedrooms (more than one in three, in households with kids), the family room (about three in ten), and the kitchen, den, and guest bedroom (about one in ten each). About 2 million households have a TV in the bathroom. Computers are poised to follow a similar course. Large numbers of Americans are taking advantage of new laws that let people opt out of telemarketing calls, removing their phone numbers from the lists that telemarketers can call. Even Jed Clampett would be hard-pressed to hunt in this thicket. It's hard for a single medium to put a brand on the map, as television did for Revlon in the 1950s.
Political candidates and government officials face a similar dilemma. Aside from times of national crisis, it's harder and harder for the federal government to get people's attention for major presidential addresses, political debates, and other forums that they watched as a matter of course in decades past.
At a time when the number of media is exploding and marketing is becoming more pervasive throughout life, the channel with the greatest influence in America is neither the traditional media of television, radio, or print advertising nor the new medium of the World Wide Web but the "human" channel of individual, person-to-person, word-of-mouth communication. The challenge, then, for society's institutions -- businesses and government and the people who run them -- is to adjust to this new reality in which word of mouth rules and to learn the word-of-mouth rules.
Which brings us to the Influential Americans. Our research suggests that the net effect of the changes of recent years -- the emphasis Americans place on the word-of-mouth recommendations of others, the priority the public places on the social capital of conversation, the growing cacophony of media and marketing messages -- is increasing the value of the Influential Americans. Influentials are much more likely than the average person to make a recommendation when they find something they like and to be sought out for their insights than other segments historically pursued as market movers, such as the affluent, the college educated, and people in executive or professional jobs. If word of mouth is like a radio signal broadcast over the country, Influentials are the strategically placed transmitters that amplify the signal, multiplying dramatically the number of people who hear it. The signal becomes stronger and stronger as it is beamed from Influential to Influential and then broadcast to the nation as a whole.
At a time when increased numbers of Americans are looking for leaders at the top (we know this from our research: almost half of Americans have been saying one of the major causes of the nation's problems is "a lack of good leadership"), the Influential Americans are the reliable, steadying leaders among us. They're engaged in the national conversation. They're more likely than the norm to be in on political discussions (even in 2001, an off year for elections, six in ten Influentials reported they'd had a discussion on politics during the previous week, more than double the response of the public as a whole). They're more likely to participate in online bulletin board discussions as well (Influentials are about twice as likely as the average American to have logged onto a bulletin board, 26 versus 13%). They're hooked into e-mail: two in three Influentials are regular users, about 1 1/2 times the public as a whole, with four in ten Influentials using e-mail every day, double the rate of the total public.
Because they know many people and soak up a large amount of information, Influentials stand out as smart, informed sources of advice and insight. They know a lot about some things and something about a lot of things, and if they don't know the answer, they probably know someone who does. Influentials tend to be two to five years ahead of the public on many important trends, such as the adoption of major technologies (personal computers or cell phones) or new ideas, such as the movement of recent years to rebalance work and family. Influentials have a definite sense of themselves (character and values) and a clear sense about what's important and what's not important. Thus, when they talk, people tend to listen.
The result can spread positive word-of-mouth buzz for products. When personal computers experienced some of their strongest growth in the 1990s, Influentials were being sought out more for their advice and opinion about personal computers and were making more recommendations about computers. Influentials can help foster positive images of companies. Companies to which Influentials are strongly disposed, including Sony, Visa, and Frito-Lay (eight in ten Influentials have consistently had a favorable opinion of these companies in recent years), stand to benefit from Influentials' disposition to them. The rise of Japanese carmakers, such as Toyota and Honda, was recognized early by Influentials. By 1983, 55% of Influentials had a favorable opinion of Toyota, 12 points higher than the public as a whole; today about seven in ten do. The more recent rebound of the American carmakers was perceived by Influentials ahead of the rest of Americans as well.
The Influentials are evidence of something that many people know intuitively, that not all opinions are created equal. Some people are better connected, better read, and better informed. You probably know this from your own experience. You don't turn to just anyone when you're deciding what neighborhood to live in, how to invest for retirement, or what kind of car or computer to buy. You want to talk with people who speak with a sense of authority about what the schools are like, which mutual fund or brokerage will give you the best combination of returns on your investment and customer service, and which cars and computers are good deals and which are lemons -- in words you understand.
Influence has been a topic of growing discussion in business and the society. In television political roundtables, business schools, best-seller lists, and countless conversations in settings in corporations, government, and homes, Americans have been engaged in exchanges on who has influence, who's gaining and losing it, and how influence works.
Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point has arguably been "the tipping point" in this trend. The book popularized theories of mimetics, the spread of ideas, as explanations for sudden changes that seem to spread like epidemics in the popular culture and society, with examples that range from small, cool phenomena (the revival of Hush Puppies after their discovery by New York fashionistas) to the socially significant (the decline in crime in New York City by changing the cultural attitudes toward crime). Gladwell argues that these societal viruses share three key characteristics: (1) the support of a few key people, "mavens" who store up vast stocks of information and are willing to share it with other people, "connectors" who have vast social networks and can get out the word quickly, and "salesmen" who get everyone caught up with their passion for an idea; (2) a "stickiness factor" that makes them uniquely memorable and compelling; and (3) a "context" conducive to the idea.
With the Internet, argues Seth Godin in Permission Marketing, the old advertising technique of "interruption marketing" is wasteful. Businesses should instead use the new technologies (which enable you to learn more about people as you work more with them) to build relationships with the customer's "permission."
In Anatomy of Buzz, Emanuel Rosen posits that certain people are "hubs" who spread word-of-mouth influence across their social networks. The job for business is to identify and develop relationships with these hubs. Rosen cites the Roper Influential Americans as one "hub" who are "ahead of adoption," "vocal," and "avid travelers."
Academics are learning more about how influence works and why some people are persuasive. Dr. Robert Cialdini, in Influence: Science and Practice and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, after studying an array of instances of persuasion, including door-to-door salesmen, ad and PR execs, cult leaders, and other "compliance practitioners," decided there are six categories of persuasion: reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.
Networking is receiving new respect. After interviewing hundreds of professionals about how they had gotten their jobs for his Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers, sociology professor Mark Granovetter found that personal contacts were by far the most common response.
The study of influence is not new. For many years, it was assumed that influence traveled down, with ideas formulated by the elites and then percolating through the social strata. The question was how to organize the process. Walter Lippmann, for example, in the landmark book Public Opinion, argued that it was a "false idea" to expect the public to direct public affairs. People believed what they were conditioned to believe, Lippmann thought. They had too many blind spots, were too subject to stereotypes, were too bound up in the social codes, and were too entangled in commitments and self-involvement to be knowledgeable about affairs of importance to the society. Lippmann believed that many were also none too smart. In fact, many were "mentally children or barbarians," he said. "The mass of illiterate, feeble-minded, grossly neurotic, undernourished, and frustrated individuals is very considerable, much more considerable than we generally suppose." Public opinion as a result was constantly backed up in "eddies of misunderstanding." Society was like Plato's metaphor of the cave: people see only the shadows. Lippmann's prescription was the creation of a "specialized class," "an expert organization" independent of political influence to make "the unseen facts intelligible to those who make the decisions" and "organize" opinion for the press.
Subsequent years produced a lively debate. A far-reaching 1940 study of the presidential election in an Ohio town by Columbia Professor Paul Lazarsfeld found that the mass media, in fact, had a "small" effect on how people voted "compared to the role of personal influence." Interviewing people about what influenced their decisions, the study found that, rather than starting from above and percolating down, influence appeared to be "horizontal." Each social stratum had its own opinion leaders -- the neighborhood barber swapping insights throughout the day with his customers, for example. The media's effect was "two-step": the opinion leaders would digest the articles and broadcasts and then disseminate what they'd learned, mixed with their personal reflections, to their circle of friends and acquaintances. Subsequent research by Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, reported in their 1955 book Personal Influence, gave further support to the horizontal theory. Using the method of the earlier voting study, Lazarsfeld and Katz interviewed women in Decatur, Illinois about what influenced various decisions, such as groceries, fashions, movies, and civic affairs. They found that, in general, personal influence was most important. Young homemakers, for example, took their cues in grocery shopping most often from older women who were more experienced in such decisions.
Public relations executives have long appreciated the value of reaching opinion leaders. In op-ed page advertisements of the nation's major daily newspapers, of the type Mobil Oil pioneered during the 1970s, when oil companies were under a public opinion siege, and in public image commercials like the Archer Daniels Midland spots on Sunday morning news shows, they try to persuade opinion leaders to their point of view. Non-profit organizations have used advertising toward a similar end to stir up public support for their issues. In consumer marketing, growing numbers of companies use high-profile events like the Academy Awards to distribute baskets of goodies to celebrities in the hope that, if they use the products, the rest of us will want to follow.
Roper became involved in influence research in the 1940s, when we were called in by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now Exxon) to develop a research model for sifting out opinion leaders on public affairs. The goal was to help the company gauge its public image among the people who through their words and actions shaped public opinion in the larger community. The objective, as Elmo Roper later described it, was to find "the more articulate" citizens who were "better educated" and took "a higher degree of interest in the world around them." Such people would likely be the people "most articulate in their feelings about big corporations" and "most concerned to attack or defend them." These "politically active neighbors" would influence the thoughts and opinions of their more "politically inert" fellow citizens. They were the "alert citizens who strive to fulfill their obligations to society by performing the simple democratic function of voting and joining with others in groups in the expectation of making their voices heard."
Early research on the segmentation corroborated Roper's theory. Americans who were more politically and socially active did appear to be the thought leaders on public affairs. In a 1950 article in an academic journal, Roper concluded that the segmentation was "a promising tool" that could have "wider applicability and usefulness" in corporate public relations work.
After extensive testing by Roper researchers, what began as a battery of questions to discern political and social activists was distilled to one question that asked respondents which social or political activities they had performed in the past year. To qualify as an Influential, a person had to have done three or more of the items on the list. The natural human tendency of people is to want to answer in the affirmative to at least one thing because they feel that they "ought to." Hence, one item ("signed a petition") was added to the list with the express purpose of excluding it from the identification of politically and socially active Americans. Without this escape clause, it was thought, responses to the other eleven items would be exaggerated. (This was a prescient decision. To this day, upward of one in four Americans answers yes to signing a petition, the largest response of the total public on any item.) The target was to produce the 10% of the public that was most active, a figure that seems both philosophical (reflecting Roper's thinking that the politically active were about 10-12% of the society) and practical (yielding a sufficient base of respondents to produce meaningful data). The current Influential American question reads as follows:
Here is a list of things some people do about government or politics. Have you happened to have done any of these things in the past year? Which ones?
a. Written or called any politician at the state, local, or national level
b. Attended a political rally, speech, or organized protest of any kind
c. Attended a public meeting on town or school affairs
d. Held or run for political office
e. Served on a committee for some local organization
f. Served as an officer for some club or organization
g. Written a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine or called a live radio or TV show to express an opinion
h. Signed a petition
i. Worked for a political party
j. Made a speech
k. Written an article for a magazine or newspaper
l. Been an active member of any group that tries to influence public policy or government
Over the years, we have modified the question slightly to reflect changes in the society -- adding "live radio or TV show" to item g to reflect the rise of call-in shows, adding "state" and "local" politicians to item a to reflect the emphasis on local affairs, and broadening item l from being member of a group for "good government" to influencing policy and government to reflect the increase in special-interest groups, such as environmental organizations.
The original idea was to use the Influentials to track the thinking of the society's opinion leaders on national issues, candidates, and the image of major companies. When the Roper Reports trend research study was launched in 1973, the Influentials segmentation was included because it was thought that it would help Roper Report attract public affairs and public policy clients. Along the way, however, we made an unexpected but very important discovery. Influentials stood out from the mainstream not only for being forward-thinking on social and political issues: they were forward-thinking, brought an activist approach, were engaged in ideas, were attuned to new developments, and exercised influence virtually across the board.
In 1978, in an effort to understand more about trendsetters, we asked Americans if they were "one of the first" people they knew to adopt various behaviors and perspectives or whether they were "somewhat later," "one of the last," or never or always did. The assumption was that the study might produce a group of "firsters" who led the way on everything. After testing a series of approaches, it was our conclusion that no such "magic" group existed. Some segments of the population were "more predictive than others," however, and among those groups, the Influentials stood out as "a thought leader, trendsetter group." The conclusion was reaffirmed by the results of another study in 1978 in which we asked a nationally representative sample of Americans if they were turned to by others for advice or insight on a variety of topics (we report the most recent results of this study in Chapter 1). Analysis of the results showed that "almost everyone is an expert on something" but that some groups were "sought more than others" -- led by the Influentials. In a 1984 survey we tested whether people who were more likely to talk frequently with others about a subject also made a point of reading publications and articles about the topic or paying attention to ads on the subject. We found that the politically and socially active Influentials were overall the most engaged of any of the groups we regularly track, including segments defined solely by their affluence, education, or occupational status, on a range of topics including food, travel, health, sports, home, and investing.
In 1988, we released the first in a series of in-depth reports specifically devoted to the segment. The report, which for the first time used the "Influential Americans" label to describe the group, showed that the Influentials were not only leaders in their community but were also "pioneer consumers" who led the way in new ideas, such as the videocassette recorder (by 1982, 15% of Influentials had one versus 6% of the total public), the home computer (which 16% of Influentials had in 1984 versus 9% of the public as a whole), and catalog shopping (46% of Influentials had bought through a catalog in the past three months compared with 29% of the total public). In three subsequent reports, in 1989, 1992, and 1995, we delved further into the Influentials.
Now with 30 years of continuous research on Influentials, more than 250 studies that have produced a database of more than 10,000 questions and interviews with more than 50,000 Influentials and half-a-million Americans, we continue to see the same patterns. The Influentials may be America's foremost influence generalists, defining the mores for the mainstream on what's important (owning a computer, taking interesting vacations, or having strong local schools), spreading the word about new ideas in persuasive ways, and setting the context in which the society views the world -- the dress codes in the office if not the fashions that come off the runway. Few important trends reach the mainstream without passing through the Influentials in the early stages, and the Influentials can stop a would-be trend in its tracks: they give the thumbs-up that propels a trend or the thumbs-down that relegates it to a short 15 minutes of fame.
To the discussion about word of mouth, influence, and how to market most effectively in today's fragmented media environment, then, we bring four new elements:
1. An identified group that influences change through their words and actions
2. A database of research on this group across a range of subjects from public policy and politics to product purchases, brand attitudes, social and personal values, and aspirations
3. The ability to trend their thoughts and behaviors through 30 years in most areas and 60 years on some topics
4. The analytical experience to project future changes in the broader society and marketplace based on Influentials' current attitudes and behaviors and to acquire an understanding of the two-step process through which Influentials take in information and disseminate it to others
In the chapters to come, we lay out much of what we know about Influentials: the characteristics that most define them (Chapter 1, Who Are the Influentials?); their mind-set (Chapter 2, The Influential Personality); how the influence process works (Chapter 3, The Influence Spiral: How Influentials Get and Spread Ideas); their leadership role in the trend we consider most important to understanding America today (Chapter 4, The Message of Influentials: The Age of Autonomy and the Rise of Self-Reliance); their insights on what tomorrow holds (Chapter 5, The Influential Vision: Seven Trends for the Future); and what they have to say about business, brands, and marketing (Chapter 6, Developing an Influential Strategy: Six Rules for Getting into the Conversation). Along the way, we draw on a trove of research on Influentials. We talk about what kinds of magazines they read and programs they watch -- because these aren't the 1950s, when marketers could scoop up Influentials in that vast pool of Americans watching the same two or three programs every evening. We also introduce you to twelve real-life Americans who embody the Influential ideals, and we present charts, tables, and case studies from our research.
We think word-of-mouth influence will become more important in the years ahead. It's being increasingly recognized. Moreover, the word-of-mouth revolution is fueled by powerful forces. In addition to the rise of new technologies, like the Internet, and the fragmentation of the mass media, there are two trends that may be the major, driving forces of change today.
First, America is a vastly more educated nation than two or three decades ago. A high school diploma, a mark of status in Lippmann's time, is nearly universal. Today, more than eight in ten Americans 25 or older have graduated from high school. In 1960, when JFK was launching the new frontier with education as a central focal point, barely four in ten did. In 1940, only one in four Americans 25 or older had four years of high school. Today, college is a mainstream American experience. About half of Americans 25 or older today have attended at least some college, up from one in six in 1960 and one in ten in 1940. Growing numbers are college graduates. One in four Americans 25 years or older today have had four years or more of college, compared with only one in twelve in 1960 and one in twenty in 1940.
In our research, we have found that with education comes confidence. Americans may not be "smarter" than their parents or grandparents; it took smarts to run a railroad engine, take apart and repair a tractor, and the other tasks of past generations. Americans do seem to be more adept at critical-thinking skills, however, such as parsing arguments, challenging opinions, making calculations, and parrying with others -- skills, not coincidentally, that serve people well in the kinds of conversation in which word-of-mouth influence is spread. We have consistently found in our research that education is a transformative experience; when people go to college, they are exposed to new people, ideas, experiences, and ways of thinking.
If Walter Lippmann were writing today, a good number of people reading him would be as educated as or more educated than he. Government efforts at propaganda increasingly are undermined not only by the mass media (which sometimes get to the front ahead of the troops) but by the "micromedia" of citizen counterpropagandists who feed live reports on their own through e-mail, cell phones, and Web sites that, in turn, often wind up on the evening news or in the morning paper. The window of "fooling some of the people some of the time" has closed. Media manipulation has become a parlor game; viewers analyze the spin in political debates along with political commentators; focus group participants spout their opinions in the argot of marketing. Books on influence and persuasion generate lively discussions on the Web and impassioned reader endorsements. "Wow, I am so glad I read this book," says one reader of Cialdini's Influence in an Amazon.com posting. "It will help me never be fooled again in the market."
Second, in addition to being more educated, the population is also older. More than one in three Americans are 45 years old or older. Between 1973 and 2000, the median age of Americans rose from 28 to 35. By the year 2010, four in ten Americans will be 45 years or older. Age may not make people wiser, but it does make people more experienced and, like education, tends to make people more certain of themselves.
We think it's logical that word of mouth has been growing as Americans have grown more educated and older. The U.S. may have a rich history of people marching to the beat of their own drums, blazing their own trails, doing it their way, following their bliss, doing their thing, and being pilgrims, pioneers, frontiersmen, lone rangers, gunslingers, jazz soloists, rockers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and free agents. But they still turn to others, and they like to be part of a community, feel a sense of comfort in belonging, and juggle many conversations in the course of a day.
More confident in themselves and more skeptical of the "official" wisdom, Americans are more willing to seek out answers from other people. Many families have designated experts, a brother, a sister, or a friend of the family who knows where to find information on the Web if a family member falls ill and knows how to navigate buying a home or how to find someone who knows. The conversation level is rising. The result is increasing the value of people who know more people, are interested in more subjects, and know more about more things -- the Influentials.
In times of change, people naturally seek a guide, someone who's been out ahead of them, who's already identified the issues, addressed them in his or her own life, and can offer good, reliable, informed insights, advice, and information about what's going on now and what's to come, someone they trust. Americans instinctively know this. We believe this is one reason, in this time when messages are coming fast and furious at people from seemingly all directions, Americans are placing increasing stock in the simplest form of communication, word-of-mouth advice and information from people they know and trust.
Getting through to the Influentials is not easy. They're hard to reach. They are among the most critical citizens and consumers in the society. They hold business to higher standards, are harder to persuade, see through hype more easily, and drive a harder bargain than the average American. It's our belief, though, backed by decades of research, that those who take the time and effort to understand the Influentials will be rewarded, both in their success in the marketplace and society today and in the longer-range perspective they gain on where we are going.
For decades, we have used the Influentials to make sense of the present and gain insights on the future. The market is not what it used to be. Communications are not what they used to be. Tonight's meetings at schools across the country may be more important than a mass media ad campaign. For those trying to make sense of things today, we think the Influentials are an important missing link. You're about to find out who they are, what they're thinking, and how to reach them.
Copyright © 2003 by RoperASW, LLC