Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Influencers proven to be less important than we thought

One of the basic tenets of diffusion theory for the last 50 years has been the premise that opinion leaders are key to the dissemination of ideas and the rate of the adoption process. All this has been called into question by the research carried out by Duncan Watts at Coumbia University (and interestingly I instinctively wrote about my issues with opinion leaders not working well in my book "Undressing the elephant; why good practice doesn't spread in healthcare).

Duncan's work suggests that although the influencer hypothesis has some merit under most of the conditions tested the influencers had less influence than expected. In fact what he found was that it appeared adoption was helped by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals - turning the perspective around.

I did a brief and incomplete literature search of publications with "opinion leader" in the context of healthcare for the last 2 years. I found 18. Interesting to note that of these half suggested their experiment of using what they called opinion leaders worked in disseminating information and half said it didn't work.

So I guess the jury is still out. Though after 50 years it is good to see some new thinking.


Rhian Last said...

I am following this up in my lunch hour (on my own in front of a computer screen......oh dear!). What immediately begs my curiosity is that if adoption is helped by a critical mass of easily influenced individuals, would this group have to be identified first (perhaps by a form of 'commitment mapping'?) Or indeed is there a way of creating a mood os circumstances which would create a mass of easily influenced individuals. Are we all potentially easily influenced individuals in certain given circumstances? I apologise if this is a naive response, and I intend to source wider reading!

Duncan Brown said...

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for posting this, and for commenting on my blog. I've posted before on Professor Watts here.

Now then, when you think of it, saying that influencers are not important is an oxymoron. If someone is an influencer - truly - then by definition they are important. Where much confusion enters is when it is asserted than an individual is influential. Rarely is an objective case for influence, and instead arbitrary criteria are used: seniority, awareness or (worst) celebrity.

I think that Prof Watts draws attention to the over-use of the term "influencer", which is no bad thing. But there is danger in throwing out the whole concept.

I've sen the power of tapping true influencers, and it enhances sales and marketing dramatically. But it does need to be done with care and attention.

I'll post more on this issue shortly - thanks for reminding me!