Paul Dwyer
Somewhere between a firm’s advertising efforts and consumers actually making a purchase, influential people in social networks are sharing word-of-mouth news and information in a process that is notoriously difficult to measure.

But identifying opinion leaders and capturing the “buzz” surrounding products and services may have just gotten a lot easier. Marketers can track developing conversations in online communities that form around the goods that a company offers—from TV show fans to Harley Davidson lovers. Texas A&M University researcher Paul Dwyer, a doctoral student in marketing at Mays Business School, proposes a new theoretical model in this spring’s Journal of Interactive Marketing that lets firms identify how popular a particular word-of-mouth instance is and how influential the online users who originate such posts.

Dwyer begins his new metric approach with an adaptation of Google’s “PageRank” measure. Google judges each site we search for as important—listing it higher in our search results—based on the number of Web sites that it links to, and in return the number of Web pages that link back to it. In Dwyer’s model, the more users that comment on a post on an online message board, the more “value” the internet community assigns to the post.

Communities tend to rely on all-comers as potential experts in a social network characterized by knowledge exchange, in which users value posts based on information content. Those posters who frequently generate responses from other users are more highly valued, thus becoming the missing link of past marketing puzzles: the opinion leader.

“In the past, we’ve had a problem finding those instances of word-of-mouth that attract the most attention,” Dwyer said. “The internet makes it so we can do a better job of finding the most influential people in consumer communities. If we can find that, then we can pay more attention to the messages that draw a crowd.”

And if marketers know what ideas are generating the most attention, they can capture an idea just as it goes mainstream—adapting products and tactics to consumer needs as a result.

Dwyer’s Adapted PageRank metric may also point to a concept known as product involvement. That’s the elusive factor or combination of factors that maintains consumer engagement with and conversation about a product or brand, and holds their interest long enough to encourage repeat purchases. As product involvement grows, so does product knowledge and an interest in sharing information in online product fan communities, Dwyer theorizes. And as it wanes, likewise do the number of contributions and messages to online sites.

Within his model, Dwyer calculates that high-value content—the kind of messages that draw a crowd of responding comments—can explain 10 percent of social network growth.

Firms may consider taking steps to ensure they create or capitalize on just that community of consumers who want to share news and views about their products, such as hosting company blogs.

“We live in an evolutionary economy,” Dwyer explains. “Those who can recognize and adapt to ideas are the ones whose firms survive.”

— Staff Reports