The Net of Influence Influencers are critical to business success. But the last thing you want to do is treat them like a mass market. Instead, do the hard work of cultivating them in a personal network.
By John Battelle

(Business 2.0) – The era of carpet-bombing your brand into existence through a shock-and-awe network TV campaign is over. So what now? Marketers struggling for meaning in a post-mass-media world are turning to the concept of "influencers"--people in a position to shape others' opinions. Get them to give your product great word of mouth, the theory goes, and your business will flourish.

Push a bit on this particular noodle, though, and it feels all wet. According to The Influentials, a 2003 book from market researchers Jon Berry and Ed Keller, you can target a cohesive set of influencers--21 million strong--as a single group.

But the idea that one large überclass of community leaders determines the fate of all products seems utterly silly to me. So allow me to posit a different approach: For any product you're selling, there is a unique set of roughly 150 such leaders, each of whom you can and should get to know personally.

Hard to believe? Paul Rand is developing proof. Rand, an executive at Ketchum Communications, is launching a program to identify the folks critical to a business's success and target them with intimate and relevant programs and messaging. What Rand has found, time after time, is that the number of influencers for any given product is about 150.

This reminded me of a concept advanced in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. We tend to max out social networks at about 150 individuals (it has to do with group dynamics and how our brains are wired). Below that number, a group is small enough to operate on personal relationships rather than rules and hierarchy. This rings true for villages, military units, corporate divisions, and, I'd argue, communities of interest. A smart marketer will capitalize on that fact.

I challenged Rand to prove that connecting to just 150 people would produce results for, say, a packaged-goods company. "Hot cereal!" he responded gleefully. A large client (Rand asked me not to identify the company) found that folks were avoiding hot cereal because they thought it was too heavy on carbohydrates. To reverse that trend, the company might have spent millions on ads featuring steaming bowls of porridge. But it decided to test Rand's assertions, and together they identified and interacted with opinion leaders in the health, diet, and fitness worlds. While Rand can't give away details, he says his customer is happy with the results, which led to, among other things, a national association of dietitians recommending eating whole-grain foods for breakfast. To help make that happen, Rand cultivated his client's influencers with handwritten notes, face-to-face meetings to discuss their work, and awards recognizing their roles in the health community.

So how do you find your own influencers? In the entertainment business, for example, they'd include the obvious elite--media critics and senior executives in the business, but also well-respected reviewers on Amazon, crossover voices like Wil Wheaton (a sometime actor who now has a wildly popular weblog), and outspoken critics of Hollywood. In technology, your influencers would include large corporate customers, industry analysts and journalists, selected policy wonks, and a sampling of early adopters--the folks who eagerly try out new technology.

Instead of hiding behind marketing programs, make it your business to create a personal network. Identify the communities that consume or champion your product, as well as the controversies (like the health value of hot cereal, for example). Then start talking to people. Don't try to sell them anything, just ask for input. Most people like being asked for their opinions, particularly if their ideas affect how the product is made. Include critics--if you can learn why they dislike your product, and integrate their input, they may become your greatest champions. Over time, this network will start to spread positive word of mouth, and good things will happen.

The act of maintaining a network of influencers may not come naturally, but if you don't already have one, you're out of touch with the very people determining your success. Get out and meet them--it's a lot cheaper than a Super Bowl ad and, I'd wager, a lot more effective.