Following the leaders

Unlike early adopters, ‘leading adopters’ will not buy new products merely to be first to own them. They will only purchase if a new product offers a genuine benefit. This makes them extremely useful to researchers, says Alicia Clegg

Influentials, leading adopters and proactive consumers are some of the names given to a group of people whom agencies are increasingly keen to involve in research. Why? Because these are the people who are thought to matter most to businesses; the ones whose opinions predict and perhaps even determine the fortunes of branded goods and services.

On first reading, one could be forgiven for mistaking the group for the “innovators and early adopters” sought out by companies such as Microsoft in the run-up to product launches. In fact, although they are ahead of the mass market in their readiness to investigate opportunities, leading adopters have no desire to be the first to try out new gadgets; nor do they experiment with styles simply out of a desire to be different. “Leading adopters don’t value ideas just because they are new: they look for real product benefits,” says Liz Tinlin, client director at strategic marketing consultant Added Value.

Because they are closer to mainstream consumers than people at the very forefront of fashion, leading adopters are thought to be well-placed to spot trends that have the potential to appeal to the mass market. Among the developments they are credited with having predicted in research groups are the widespread adoption of online shopping and the decline in support for the war in Iraq.

“They represent the early majority, the people who can tell you where you will get critical mass,” says Tim Wragg, global director of NOP World’s customer management centre of excellence. But leading adopters are not simply people who comment on trends – they help to make them.

While genuine style-leaders tend to be individualistic, leading adopters are intensely sociable. They engage promiscuously in the wider world, through clubs, societies and informal networks. In so doing, they soak up information and pass on tips to other people. They act as “market multipliers,” says Wragg. “They let the rest of the public know what’s good and what’s bad.”

Growth of the grapevine

Common sense tells us that every age has had individuals who have influenced other people’s purchasing. But there is reason to believe that the commercial importance of leading adopters is greater today than in the recent past. One indicator of this, tracked by NOP, is the steady rise over the past three decades in the proportion of consumers preferring word of mouth to other forms of recommendation, such as advertising and editorial.

Opinion Leader Research director Graeme Trayner says: “We are seeing a shift in the nature of influence away from institutional sources, such as big business and politicians, and moving towards a society in which we are more affected by the opinions of trusted friends and associates.”

But it is not just that people are losing confidence in officialdom. The explosion of so-called micro-media – internet chatrooms, blogs and text-messaging – means that the power of advocacy is being amplified, as opinionated people now have the means to make their views known, instantaneously, to a vastly enlarged network of contacts reaching across the world. So can this trend be turned to marketers’ advantage?

One possibility is to use market research as a vehicle for getting new products into the hands of leading adopters, in the hope that they will become advocates, kick-starting a word-of-mouth avalanche. The most sophisticated example of engineering demand in this way is the online community known as Tremor, created by Procter & Gamble in the US with the help of 200,000 teenagers. In return for giving feedback on marketing ideas, the participants receive samples and “sneak previews” of products, which they are asked to rate and – if they like what they see – promote to their friends. So would other brand owners benefit by employing similar techniques?

The grass-roots are greener

Marketers talk a great deal about using research to create a buzz around brands. But there is a problem: however much advertisers might wish it were otherwise, experience suggests that word of mouth sensations – the rebirth of Hush Puppies as a fashionable brand, the transformation of books by unknown authors into international bestsellers – originate not in focus groups but in the energy that flows from grass-roots movements. Such events cannot be predicted or contained: they are simply random happenings that emerge out of nowhere, without any assistance from the corporate world.

“It’s in the nature of word of mouth to be uncontrolled,” says Wragg. If you try to manipulate it, you risk polluting its independence and maybe causing a backlash of hostility towards your brand.”

But that does not mean that research into the opinions of people who lead the market has no commercial value. In fact, as Euro RSCG London chairman Ben Langdon points out, it makes a great deal of sense to concentrate research efforts on discovering the preferences of the people who will work the hardest to promote or detract from the credibility of the brand. “If you focus your efforts on developing products and communications that appeal to consumers who influence others, you automatically improve your chances of success.”

Weeding in the field

But can people who wield influence over others really be pinpointed in the way that market research agencies suggest? Clearly, a lot depends on whether field recruiters are able to differentiate accurately between those who lead and those who follow.

Since the personality traits that set leading adopters apart from the mass market are well understood, the most obvious approach is to ask straightforward questions, such as: “Do you influence the choices of your friends?” The difficulty is that people often have an inflated view of their own importance. “There’s a danger of adopting measures that reflect people’s ego, not their influence,” says MORI chairman Robert Worcester.

To counteract such tendencies, agencies need to develop more objective screening techniques. One approach favoured by NOP, among others, is to use a battery of questions that predict how much influence a particular person exercises by looking at their recent behaviours; for instance, whether they have written to an editor in the past 12 months, made a complaint or taken part in a public meeting. However, though undeniably an improvement on face-value questions, the technique is not perfect as it relies on the accuracy of people’s “self-reporting”.

Another way to approach the problem is to employ “snowballing”, an ingenious technique in which recruiters ask members of a target community to identify the people to whom they would turn for advice. After a while, certain names start to recur, isolating the group whose words genuinely carry weight with their peers. The downside is that this technique is both time-consuming and costly.

As finding people with the right psychological attributes to take part in research is challenging, agencies clearly have an incentive to use the same people, once recruited, on more than one project. The danger here is that, while an individual may possess the personal attributes to sway others, he or she might have no interest in the particular category that is being researched.

Worcester cautions: “Someone who is a leading adopter of electronics equipment may be the last into the market for cars, and have little influence over other people’s choices. You have to screen twice – once for personality and once for knowledge of the category.” So how can agencies ensure that their clients derive value from what is clearly a high-cost research method, with few opportunities for short-cuts?

First of all, it is important to put the approach into context. By and large, peer recommendation works best in sectors that consumers find intrinsically interesting and about which curious laypeople have plenty of opportunities to obtain information that they can share with others. Good examples of such categories include books, music, holidays and cars. Products and services that are technically complex, on the other hand, tend to be more heavily influenced by professional intermediaries. “Although the leading adopter effect isn’t negated, it is tempered in sectors such as healthcare and financial services,” concedes Wragg.

Use the right fertiliser

Secondly, it is important to accept that the views of people who influence others are only a part of the overall research picture. Tinlin says: “It’s no good focusing all your energy on recruiting people with the right characteristics. If you don’t ask the right questions and present your participants with proper stimuli and intelligent hypotheses, they won’t contribute anything that’s of commercial benefit to your client.”

“You have to be able to provide context and know about the broad trends affecting the category,” says Katie Oakley, research director at strategic brand consultancy Headlightvision. “To do that you need to combine lots of techniques, such as cultural analysis, ethnography and semiotics, and talk to a mixture of experts and professionals – such as designers and journalists – as well as to consumers.”

The idea of researching customers who influence other customers is intuitively appealing. The practicalities of doing this are more complicated. But while the commercial value of leading adopter research has yet to be fully demonstrated, there are strong arguments for exploring its potential more fully.

With the advent of the networked society and the erosion of public confidence in authority, consumers are looking less and less to businesses and more and more to each other for information. Leading adopter research, coupled with other forms of market research, promises advertisers a route back into this conversation – and at least the possibility of appealing more effectively to the people who do most to shape consumer opinion.

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