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Word of Mouth Marketi ng Associ ati on


MEASURING
WORDOF
MOUTH
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Edited by:
Wal ter J. Carl , PhD
Department of Communi cati on Studi es
Northeastern Uni versi ty
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Word of Mout h Market i ng Associ at i on
Challenging the Infl uentials
Hypothesis
Duncan J. Watts, Col umbi a Uni versi ty
Abstract
Whether they are cal l ed
"opi ni on
l eaders"
(Katz
and
Lazarsfel d 1955; Lazarsfel d, Berel son and Gaudet
1968),
"i nfl uenti al s" (Merton
' 1968;
Wei mann 1994;
Keller and Berry 2003),
"influencers" (Ran
d 2004),
"e-
fl uenti al s"
(Burson-Marstel l er
20Oi ),
"hubs" (Rosen
2000),
"mavens" (Gl adwel l
2O0O)
,
or by some other
name, t he i dea t hat a smal l number of
"speci al "
i ndi vi dual s have an i mport ant ef f ect on t he opi ni ons,
bel i ef s, and consumpt i on habi t s of a l arge number
of
"ordi nary"
i ndi vi dual s has become convent i onal
wi sdom i n the word-of-mouth marketi ng communi ty.
I n t hi s paper I chal l enge t hi s i dea, whi ch I l abel t he
"i nfl uenti al s
hypothesi s" both i n terms of the avai l abl e
empi ri cal evi dence, and al so i n terms of i ts theoreti cal
underpi nni ngs, and argue t hat i t has never been
adequatel y demonstrated, or even preci sel y speci fi ed.
I al so di scuss how bi ases i nherent t o
Measuri ng Word of Mouth, Vol ume 3
Measuring Word of Mouth
anecdotal evi dence have enabl ed the hypothesi s to remai n popul ar i n spi te of i ts seri ous shortcomi ngs, and ar-
gue that i nfl uenti al s i denti fi ed retrospecti vel y are acci dental products of ci rcumstance that are unl i kel y to repeat.
Fi nal l y, I concl ude by sketchi ng out some al ternati ve approaches to accommodati ng i nfl uence processes i n mar-
keti ng campai gns.
Introduction
Si nce the publ i cati on of Katz and Lazarsfel d' s semi nal work, Personal l nfl uence (1955), the study of what they
cal l ed opi ni on l eaders-or i nfl uenti al s as they have al so become known (Merton 1968)-has occupi ed an i mpor-
tant pl ace i n the l i teratures of the di ffusi on of i nnovati ons (Col eman, Katz and Menzel 1966; Rogers 1995; Val ente
1995; Burt 1999), communi cati ons research (Wei mann
1994), and marketi ng sci ence (Myers
and Robertson 1972;
Chan and Mi sra 1990; Coul ter, Fei ck and Pri ce 2002; Vernette 2004; Van den Bul te and Joshi 2007). More recentl y,
the i dea that i nfl uenti al s pl ay an i ndi spensabl e rol e i n word-of-mouth marketi ng has become conventi onal wi s-
dom i n the marketi ng communi ty as wel l . Gl adwel l
(2000),
for exampl e, cl ai ms that "soci al epi demi cs" are dri ven
"by the efforts of a handful of excepti onal peopl e," and Kel l er and Berry (2003)
cl ai m that "One i n ten Ameri cans
tel l s the other ni ne how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy." They concl ude, i n fact, that "Few i mportant
trends reach the mai nstream wi thout passi ng through the Infl uenti al s i n the earl y stages, and the l nfl uenti al s
can stop a woul d-betrend i n i tstracks" (Kel l erand
Berry,2003, pp21-22); and the market-research fi rm Burson-
Marstel l er concurs, cl ai mi ng that "The far-reachi ng effect of thi s powerful group of men and women can make
or break a brand, marshal or di ssol ve support for busi ness and consumer i ssues, and provi de i nsi ght i nto events
as they unfol d"
(Burson-Marstel l er
2001). Al l one needs to do, i t seems, i s to fi nd these i ndi vi dual s and i nfl uence
them. As a resul t, "l nfl uencers
have become the
' hol y
grai l ' for today' s marketers." (Rand 2004).
Unfortunatel y, as Peter Dodds and I suggested i n a recent paper (Watts
and Dodds 2007), the grai l anal ogy may
be more apt than most marketers woul d l i ke to thi nk. We argued, i n fact, that what we cal l the "l nfl uenti al s
Hypothesi s"-that a smal l mi nori ty of speci al i ndi vi dual s wi el ds di sproporti onate i nfl uence over the maj ori ty-i s
not supported by systemati c empi ri cal evi dence. nor does i t fol l ow from accepted theori es of i nterpersonal i n-
fl uence or the di ffusi on of i nnovati ons. Furthermore, wi th the use of si mul ati on model s, we demonstrated that
under many ci rcumstances i nfl uenti al s were l i kel y to have at most a modest i mpact on publ i c opi ni on change,
rel ati ve to ordi nary i ndi vi dual s. When i nfl uence or i nformati on i s propagated vi a word-of-mouth, we concl uded,
most of what differentiates successful from unsuccessful diffusion, is related to the structural properties of the
word-of-mouth network as a whol e, not the properti es of a smal l number of speci al i ndi vi dual s.
Subsequentl y, cri ti cs have suggested that our anal ysi s attacks a straw man (Creamer 2007)-a contri ved ver-
si on of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s that nobody actual l y bel i eves. In order to address thi s concern, I wi l l restate
our argument and show how, far from bei ng a straw man, our proposed model of i nfl uence propagati on merel y
formal i zes vari ous cl ai ms that advocates of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s have al ready made i nformal l y. The prob-
l em, I wi l l argue, i s not that our anal ysi s mi si nterprets the i ntended cl ai ms of the hypothesi s, but that the cl ai ms
themsel ves are based on a combi nati on of unstated assumpti ons, ambi guous anal ogi es, and bi ased sampl i ng of
evi dence that together yi el d the appearance of expl anatory power wi thout actual l y expl ai ni ng anythi ng at al l .
Once thi s i mpl i ci t theory i s made expl i ci t, i t becomes cl ear that the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s-however pl ausi bl e i t
sounds-does not necessari l y, or even typi cal l y, fol l ow from the theori es of di ffusi on upon whi ch i t i s
(i mpl i ci tl y)
based.
What is the "lnfluentials Hypothesis"?
What Dodds and I cal l ed the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s compri ses not one, but two fundamental cl ai ms about i nter
personal i nfl uence: fi rst, that some peopl e are more i nfl uenti al than others; and second, that these same peopl e
are i mportant, not onl y because they i nfl uence more of thei r peers di rectl y, but al so because they exert a di s-
proporti onatel y great i ndi rect i nfl uence on the much l arger communi ty of whi ch both they and thei r i mmedi ate
i nfl uencees are a part. Gl adwel l (2000, pp. 19-21), for exampl e. starts out by cl ai mi ng that "...what we are real l y
sayi ng i s that i n a gi ven process or system some peopl e matter more than others. .." Acknowl edgi ng, however,
that thi s cl ai m-the fi rst cl ai m of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s-i s "not, on the face of i t, a parti cul arl y radi cal no-
ti on" he then goes to cl ai m that "When i t comes to epi demi cs, though, thi s di sproporti onal i ty becomes even
2Q2
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more extreme: a ti ny percentage of peopl e do the maj ori ty of the work" He concl udes, fi nal l y, that "Soci al epi -
demi cs work i n exactl y the same way. They are al so dri ven by the efforts of a handful of excepti onal peopl e." l f
our characteri zati on of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s i s a straw man, therefore, i t i s not because we mi si nterpreted
the i ntended meani ng of what Gl adwel l cal l s the "l aw of the few." Qui te cl earl y, he i s cl ai mi ng (a)
that some peo-
pl e are more i nfl uenti al than others; and (b) that these same peopl e are di sproporti onatel y i mportant to the out-
come of i nterest. What then. i s the status of these two cl ai ms?
How i nfl uenti al are the i nfl uenti al s?
That some peopl e are more i nfl uenti al than others seems sel f-evi dent. Kel l er and Berry, for exampl e, argue that
"The Infl uenti al s are evi dence of somethi ng that many peopl e know i ntui ti vel y, that not al l opi ni ons are created
equal . Some peopl e are better connected, better read, and better i nformed. You probabl y know thi s from your
own experi ence. You don' t turn to
j ust
anyone when you' re deci di ng what nei ghborhood to l i ve i n, how to i n-
vest f or r et i r ement , or what ki ndof car or comput er t obuy. " ( Kel l er andBer r y, p. l 5) Asadescr i pt i onof i ndi vi dual
experi ence, thi s statement sounds pl ausi bl e-when we thi nk about what we' re doi ng when we seek out opi n-
i ons, i nformati on, and advi ce, i t does i ndeed seem that we focus on some peopl e over others. l t does not fol l ow
from thi s observati on, however, that we are onl y, or even mostl y, i nfl uenced by our peers as a resul t of "turni ng
to them," nor i s i t cl ear that when we are i nfl uenced i n other, l ess consci ous ways, we are i nfl uenced by the same
peopl e as those we turn to. Fi nal l y, the experi ence of val ui ng one person' s opi ni on over another' s tel l s us l i ttl e
about how many i ndi vi dual s l i ke us thi s person i nfl uences Just because I regard my fri end Bob as an authori ty on
musi c, real estate, or educati on pol i cy, does not on i ts own tel l me anythi ng about how i nfl uenti al he i s.
The fi rst cl ai m of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s i s therefore persuasi ve i nasmuch as i t reaffi rms the i mpressi ons we
have of our own experi ences; but as an empi ri cal matter, our anecdotal i mpressi ons are l argel y uni nformati ve.
Ever si nce Katz and Lazarsfel d
(1955),
therefore, a central goal of i nfl uence research has been to devi se more ob-
j ecti ve
and rel i abl e measure of i nterpersonal i nfl uence. Katz and Lazarsfel d, for exampl e, defi ned i nfl uence i n
terms of "effects:" observed changes of opi ni on wi th respect to some parti cul ar i ssue, over some i nterval of ti me.
Havi ng i denti fi ed such an effect, Katz and Lazarsfel d empl oyed l abori ous i ntervi ewi ng techni ques to i denti fy
i ts source. whi l e taki ng pai ns not to suggest any parti cul ar source to the i ntervi ewee. Thus i ntervi ewees were
asked to refl ect on the process by whi ch they came to change thei r mi nds, and onl y i f they vol unteered the i n-
formati on that a parti cul ar person had been i nfl uenti al i n thei r deci si on were they asked who that person was.
Subsequentl y, Katz and Lazarsfel d attempted to veri fy the reported i nfl uence by i ntervi ewi ng the named i nfl u-
encer, and onl y when both i nfl uencer and i nfl uencee agreed both on the nature and di recti on of the i nfl uence
coul d i t be sai d to have been veri fi ed.
Absent an experi mental setti ng i n whi ch changi ng opi ni ons coul d actual l y be observed di rectl y, Katz and
Lazarsfel d therefore proposed veri fi ed acts of i nfl uence wi th respect to previ ousl y i denti fi ed changes of opi ni on
as the gol d standard of i nterpersonal i nfl uence studi es. Unfortunatel y, they were forced to abandon thi s stan-
dard once the practi cal di ffi cul ti es of adheri ng to i t became apparent
(for
exampl e, because named i nfl uencers
l i ved i n di fferent towns, and therefore coul d not easi l y be i ntervi ewed). Thus they rel uctantl y opted for what they
themsel ves acknowl edged was a l esser standard of sel f-assessment, i n whi ch i ndi vi dual s nomi nated themsel ves
as bei ng i nfl uenti al . Subsequentl y, the sel f-assessment method has been suppl emented by other techni ques,
notabl y (a) "strength of personal i ty" measures
(Wei mann
1994; Kel l er and Berry 2003) whi ch are hypothesi zed to
correl ate wi th i nfl uence; (b) "key i nformants" who desi gnate i nfl uenti al s (Laumann
and Pappi 1976); and
(c) soci o-
metri c measures (Col eman, Katz and Menzel 1957; Merton 1968) i n whi ch i ndi vi dual s who are named frequentl y
by thei r peers as, for exampl e, advi ce gi vers, or subj ect-matter experts, are consi dered i nfl uenti al .
None of these metri cs, however, requi res ei ther a measurabl e change of opi ni on wi th respect to any parti cul ar i s-
sue, or any veri fi cati on of the i nfl uence rel ati onshi ps i denti fi ed. Rather, al l four ki nds of measures deri ve from re-
spondents' opi ni ons regardi ng the characteri sti cs of i ndi vi dual s (ei ther
themsel ves or others), not speci fi c events.
Thi s common feature, moreover, i s parti cul arl y probl emati c for i nfl uence research because respondent dri ven
data i s notori ousl y unrel i abl e. Bernard et al .
(1984),
for exampl e, report i n a survey of several dozen studi es of i n-
f or mant accur acyt hat r oughl y500/ oof al l r espondent dr i vendat ai ssi mpl yi ncor r ect . I npar t t hesei naccur aci es
ari se because recol l ecti ons of past events suffer from severe memory bi ases (Schachter 2001), such as recency
203
Measuri ng Word of Mouth
bi as
(Festi nger
1957; Gi l bert 2006)-when i ndi vi dual s recal l thei r past atti tudes as bei ng more si mi l ar to thei r
current atti tudes than they real l y were-and hi ndsi ght bi as (Hoffrage, Hertwi g and Gi gerenzer 2000), accordi ng
to whi ch subj ects update not onl y thei r pri or bel i efs, but thei r memory of pri or bel i efs, when new i nformati on
i s presented to them. Another i mportant source of error i s that subj ects tend to "fi l l i n" detai l s of partl y remem-
bered events, substi tuti ng "stock footage" l i ke cul tural norms or rol e percepti ons for actual events and peopl e
(Bernard
et al . 1984; Gi l bert 2006). Thus when asked to whom they go for advi ce, respondents may si mpl y name
i ndi vi dual s whose rol es posi ti on them as advi ce-gi vers (e.9. parents, spouses, bosses) rather than fi rst recol l ect-
i ng the l ast ti me they actual l y sought advi ce, and onl y then determi ni ng who i t was who advi sed them.
The combi ned effect of these errors poi nts i s that exi sti ng measures of i nterpersonal i nfl uence do not actual l y
measure i nfl uence at al l . Concl usi ons about i nfl uenti al s that are based on such methods are therefore subj ect to
unknown but possi bl y l arge bi ases. Just because an i ndi vi dual scores i n the top
' l 0o/o
of a strength of personal i ty
test does not mean that the person actual l y i nfl uences the other 90ol 0, or i s even more i nfl uenti al than average. In
fact, i t i s not cl ear what i t means. Further compl i cati ng the si tuati on i s that di fferent methods i ntroduce di fferent
bi ases. Unveri fi ed sel f-assessment, for exampl e, may prompt i ndi vi dual s to overstate thei r i nfl uence over others,
out of thei r desi re to be percei ved i n a certai n way, whereas the soci ometri c techni que, i n whi ch respondents are
asked to name i ndi vi dual s whom they respect, or from whom they woul d ask advi ce, may si mpl y refl ect the sta-
tus hi erarchy of the l ocal communi ty. l t i s not cl ear, therefore, that ei ther of these measures refl ects who actual l y
i nfl uences whom i n any parti cul ar way, or that the fi ndi ngs of di fferent studi es are i n any way comparabl e.
Recentadvances i n onl i netechnol ogi es-tracki ng bl og posti ngs (MarketSenti nel , Onal yti cal and l mmedi ateFuture
2005; Niederhoffer, Mooth and Wiesenfeld 2007), or product referrals (Leskovec, Adamic and Huberman 2007)for
exampl e-show some promi se for repl aci ng survey-based respondent dri ven data wi th more obj ecti ve, obser-
vati onal methods. Even these methods, however, face seri ous chal l enges i n i denti fyi ng who actual l y i nfl uences
whom, as opposed to si mpl y who communi cates wi th whom. Unti l i t i s possi bl e to i ntegrate the observati on of
i nterpersonal communi cati on regardi ng some parti cul ar topi c wi th observati ons regardi ng (a)
other potenti al
sources of i nfl uence (news
medi a, tradi ti onal adverti si ng, i ndependent research, personal experi ence etc.), and
(b) subsequent consumer atti tudes, bel i efs, or behavi or, empi ri cal methods for measuri ng i nfl uence, and thereby
i denti fyi ng i nfl uenti al s, wi l l be at best crude approxi mati ons, and at worst confusi ng and mi sl eadi ng representa-
ti ons of real i ty.
How important are they?
Al though troubl i ng, these measurement i ssues do not represent the core probl em wi th the i nfl uenti al s hypoth-
esi s. Whether or not they can be i denti fi ed rel i abl y wi th exi sti ng methods, i t i s probabl y sti l l the case that i nfl u-
enti al s of some descri pti on do exi st. Preci sel y who i s more i nfl uenti al wi th respect to what i ssues and at what
ti mes may be consi derabl y more compl i cated than i s usual l y thought, but the fi rst-order message of the i nfl uen-
ti al s hypothesi s-that some peopl e are more i nfl uenti al than others-i s al most certai nl y correct. Some peopl e,
however. are al so tal l er than others, yet that i s not necessari l y an i nteresti ng quanti ty for marketers to measure.
Presumabl y any quanti fi abl e attri bute X, however defi ned and measured, wi l l di spl ay some vari ance across a
l arge popul ati on; thus i t wi l l al ways be possi bl e rank the popul ati on from "most X" to "l east X" and subsequentl y
parti ti on them i nto groups, whether "top 100/o of X," "bottom quarti l e of X" or any other choi ce. The rel evant
questi on for marketers i s whether or not the top 100/0, say, of scorers on some measure of i nfl uence exert suffi -
ci ent i mpact on the outcome of a word-of-mouth campai gn to
j usti fy
thei r
' hol y
grai l ' status.
In addressi ng thi s questi on, i t i s i mportant to note that the cri ti cal connecti on between the two cl ai ms of the i n-
fl uenti al s hypothesi s i s the assumpti on of i nfl uence spreadi ng from person to person, i n the manner of a di sease
or some other ki nd of contagi ous process. The connecti on between i nfl uenti al s and contagi on i s most expl i ci t i n
Gl adwel l ' s anal ogy of "soci al epi demi cs," but a si mi l ar connecti on i s i mpl i ed throughout the l i terature on i nfl uen-
ti al s. l n hi s semi nal work on the di ffusi on of i nnovati ons, Everett Rogers (1995,2811cl ai ms that "The behavi orof
opi ni on l eaders i s i mportant i n determi ni ng the rate of adopti on of an i nnovati on i n a system. In fact, the S-shape
of the di ffusi on curve occurs because once opi ni on l eaders adopt and tel l others about the i nnovati on, the num-
ber of adopters per uni t ti me takes off." Kel l er and Berry make a si mi l ar poi nt when they cl ai m that i nfl uenti al s
ar e" l i ket hecent r al pr ocessi nguni t sof t henat i on. Becauset heyknowmanypeopl eandi ncont act wi t hmany
244
't""'!+WffiW'Wffi&
peopl e i n the course of a week, they have a powerful mul ti pl i er effect, spreadi ng the word qui ckl y across a broad
network when they fi nd somethi ng they want others to know about." (Kel l er and Berry, p. 29)
The ul ti mate i mportance of an i nfl uenti al , i n other words, shoul d be j udged
not i n terms of the i ndi vi dual s he
i nfl uences di rectl y-hi s i mmedi ate "nei ghbors"-but i n terms of the total number i nfl uenced, both di rectl y and
al so i ndi rectl y, vi a hi s nei ghbors, hi s nei ghbors' nei ghbors, and so on. Once agai n, i t seems sel f-evi dent that i n-
fl uenci ng more i ndi vi dual s i n one' s i mmedi ate nei ghborhood necessari l y i mpl i es i nfl uenci ng more i ndi vi dual s
overal l -that i s, i f person A i nfl uences 9 peopl e and person B i nfl uences 3 peopl e, surel y person A i s more effec-
ti ve than person B. Wel l perhaps, but how much more effecti ve? A si mpl e l i near extrapol ati on woul d suggest
that al l other thi ngs bei ng equal , person A woul d ul ti matel y be responsi bl e for i nfl uenci ng, both di rectl y and i n-
di rectl y, three ti mes as many peopl e as person B. Gl adwel l , however, makes a stronger cl ai m-that the ul ti mate
i mpact of i nfl uenti al s i s greater than proporti onal , i n fact "extreme"-and i t i s thi s cl ai m that woul d seem to ac-
count for much of the enthusi asm surroundi ng i nfl uenti al s. But on what basi s does hi s cl ai m, or any such cl ai m,
for that matter, rest?
Presumabl y i t has somethi ng to do wi th the dynami cs of whatever "spreadi ng" process i s taki ng pl ace on the
network of word-of-mouth i nfl uence, but thi s observati on merel y begs the questi on of what spreadi ng process,
and what network. one i s tal ki ng about. Gl adwel l draws the anal ogy wi th the spread of a di sease, and a number
of popul ar di ffusi on model s-the Bass model for exampl e
(Bass
1969)-are moti vated by the same anal ogy. The
anal ogy i s pl ausi bl e, because i deas do someti mes seem to spread i n the way of a vi rus, j umpi ng
from person to
person wi th some probabi l i ty as a functi on of the i nteracti ons between "i nfected" and "suscepti bl e" i ndi vi dual s.
But the anal ogy i s ambi guous i n a number of respects that turn out to be i mportant. For exampl e, i f a fri end tel l s
me about a new product today, does i t matter (to
my probabi l i ty of adopti ng i t) that I heard about i t from another
fri end yesterday? The di sease model assumes that i t does not matter-that al l contacts are i denti cal regardl ess of
hi story-but i ntui ti on, now worki ng agai nst the di sease anal ogy, suggests at l east that i t mi ght.
Empi ri cal work on thi s matter i s l i mi ted, but some recent work by Young (2006)
suggests that when i ndi vi du-
al s are maki ng adopti on deci si ons under uncertai nty, thei r adopti on rul e i s not wel l represented by the di sease
model -i nstead, i ndi vi dual s adopt onl y when a "cri ti cal threshol d" of adopti ng nei ghbors has been exceeded.
Threshol d model s of thi s ki nd have al so been popul ar as model s of soci al i nfl uence and di ffusi on for many years
(Schel l i ng 1973; Granovetter 1978; Morri s 2000; Watts 2002), but the assumpti ons underpi nni ng them are very
di fferent from those moti vated by the di sease anal ogy-whereas di sease model s assume no memory effects,
threshol d model s assume that memory of past events pl ays a cri ti cal rol e. The di fference may not seem i mpor
tant, but recent work (Dodds
and Watts 2004; Dodds and Watts 2005) has demonstrated that the two types of
model s can generate very di fferent dynami cs, even under the si mpl est mi xi ng assumpti ons. Reasoni ng about
contagi ous processes sol el y by anal ogy and i ntui ti on, i n other words, can be deepl y mi sl eadi ng; thus cl ai ms
about the i mportance of i nfl uenti al s that are based on unstated assumpti ons and ambi guous anal ogi es shoul d
not be taken at face val ue no matter how pl ausi bl e they mi ght sound.
By cl ari fyi ng the assumpti ons i mpl i ci t i n the "soci al epi demi c" anal ogy Dodds and I tested the i nfl uenti al s hy-
pothesi s by model i ng the spread of i nfl uence throughout a l arge network of i ndi vi dual s, and measuri ng the
i mportance of i nfl uenti al s rel ati ve to non-i nfl uenti al s over a wi de range of condi ti ons. Because so l i ttl e rel evant
empi ri cal i nformati on i s avai l abl e regardi ng the preci se structure of i nfl uence networks or the mechani sms by
whi ch i ndi vi dual s i nfl uence one another, we tested a wi de range of assumpti ons. In al l cases, i nfl uenti al s were
defi ned as the top 10% most i nfl uenti al of al l i ndi vi dual s-a defi ni ti on that was not cri ti cal to our qual i tati ve con-
cl usi ons, but whi ch i s consi stent wi th the defi ni ti ons of other researchers (Kel l er and Berry 2003). Preci sel y how
much more i nfl uenti al than average the top 1001o coul d be, however, was al l owed to vary consi derabl y, by al teri ng
the shape of the "i nfl uence di stri buti on," whi l e keepi ng the average l evel of i nfl uence constant. In some cases,
whi ch we l abel ed "homogeneous i nfl uence networks," i nfl uenti al s were onl y a few ti mes more i nfl uenti al than
average
(sti l l
a l arge di fference), whi l e i n other cases-"heterogeneous i nfl uence networks"-they were dozens
of ti mes more i nfl uenti al . We al so studi ed the effects both of threshol d model s and di sease-styl e di ffusi on mod-
el s, thus avoi di ng "stacki ng the deck" agai nst i nfl uenti al s by hand pi cki ng some conveni ent set of assumpti ons.
245
Measuri ng Word of Mouth
And fi nal l y, we studi ed di fferent ki nds of networks-some random, and others i nvoki ng si mpl e noti ons of group
Structure.
Overal l , we found that there were i ndeed some condi ti ons under whi ch i nfl uenti al s were much more i mportant
than average. These condi ti ons, however, were rel ati vel y rare, and requi red strong assumpti ons both aboutthe
i nfl uence and i nfl uenceabi l i ty of i nfl uenti al s. Under most condi ti ons, by contrast, i nfl uenti al s were onl y modestl y
more effecti ve i n tri ggeri ng soci al epi demi cs than average, and often not any more effecti ve at al l . The reason
i s si mpl y that when i nfl uence i s propagated vi a some contagi ous process, the ul ti mate effects typi cal l y depend
far more on the gl obal structure of the network than on the properti es of the i ndi vi dual s near the start. Thus
one cannot necessari l y say much about how i nfl uence wi l l propagate beyond any i ndi vi dual ' s i mmedi ate envi -
ronment j ust
by l ooki ng at that i ndi vi dual , or even that i ndi vi dual and hi s i mmedi ate nei ghbors-one needs to
exami ne the non-l ocal envi ronment as wel l . Just as forest fi res requi re a conspi racy of wi nd, temperature, l ow
humi di ty, and combusti bl e fuel that extends over l arge tracts of l and, soci al epi demi cs tend to be dri ven not by
a few hi ghl y i nfl uenti al i ndi vi dual s i nfl uenci ng everyone el se but rather by a cri ti cal mass of easi l y i nfl uenced
i ndi vi dual s i nfl uenci ng other easy-to-i nfl uence peopl e. To be sure, i nfl uenti al s do have a greater than average
chance of tri ggeri ng thi s cri ti cal mass, when i t exi sts, but thei r overal l i mpact was typi cal l y l ess than proporti onal
to the number of peopl e they i nfl uence di rectl y. Thus whi l e i ntui ti on woul d suggest that an i ndi vi dual who di -
rectl y i nfl uences three ti mes as many of hi s peers as an average person woul d offer a mul ti pl i er effect of three,
and Gl adwel l woul d suggest an even greater i mpact, we found that i t was typi cal l y l ess than three-often not
measureabl y better than the average i ndi vi dual at al l .
These resul ts, of course, are specul ati ve. Si mul ati ons are, i n the end, more l i ke thought experi ments than real
experi ments, and as such are better sui ted to provoki ng new questi ons than to answeri ng them. Careful empi ri -
cal work i s therefore needed-both i n esti mati ng i nfl uence networks and al so i nterpersonal i nfl uence mecha-
ni sms-before any fi rm concl usi ons regardi ng the i mportance, or l ack thereof, of i nfl uenti al s can be drawn. The
mai n poi nt of our anal ysi s, however, was not to show that the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s i s necessari l y wi ong, but
that i t i s not even wrong-that i t i s so i mpreci sel y and ambi guousl y speci fi ed that one cannot say for sure even
what i s bei ng sai d. For exampl e, the cl ai m that i nfl uenti al s (however
defi ned) are i mportant (i n
some sense) be-
cause they
(somehow)
spread thei r opi ni ons
(defi ned
i n some manner) throughout some (unspeci fi ed)
network
i s a statement that sounds l i ke i t says somethi ng, but i n fact rel i es on so many unstated and ambi guous assump-
ti ons that i t says nothi ng i n parti cul ar at al l . Our model , by contrast, may be wrong, but at l east i t i s cl ear how one
woul d go about provi ng i t wrong, i n whi ch case a more accurate model may be proposed i n i ts pl ace-a step i n
the ri ght di recti on.
The "Accidental Infl uentials"
l f the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s does i ndeed say very l i ttl e, however, how i s i t that i t seems to expl ai n so much? The
enduri ng popul ari ty of the hypothesi s, that i s, ari ses not onl y from i ts i nherent pl ausi bi l i ty, but al so from i ts seem-
i ng abi l i ty to account for numerous i nstances of otherwi se puzzl i ng soci al phenomena-stori es i n whi ch the
choi ces, opi ni ons, or efforts of a few i ndi vi dual s appear to have been cri ti cal i n spurri ng or quashi ng demand for
some product, changi ng the resul t of an el ecti on, or otherwi se al teri ng publ i c opi ni on. Gl adwel l empl oys these
anecdotes to great effect, but he i s by no means the onl y person to do so-i nvari abl y any argument agai nst the
i mportance of i nfl uenti al s must rebut the rej oi nder that "i nfl uenti al s
obvi ousl y matter" because of some cl ted
i nstance when i t seems cl ear that they di d. There are, however, some probl ems wi th thi s ki nd of anecdotal em-
pi ri ci sm.
Fi rst, many of the exampl es that come to mi nd are about i ndi vi dual s whose i mportance deri ves from the mass
medi a or other ki nds of non-personal i nfl uence. l t i s possi bl e, for exampl e, that Oprah Wi nfree' s advocacy of a
previ ousl y unknown book dramati cal l y i mproves i ts chances of appeari ng on the bestsel l er l i st, but to the extent
that i s true, i t i s an exampl e of the power of mass medi a, not word of mouth. Li kewi se, i t may be the case that
a fashi on desi gner woul d be wel l advi sed to have some cel ebri ty actress arri ve at the Oscars weari ng hi s dress,
but agai n, that i s because her arri val i s bei ng recorded, broadcast, and commented upon by the mass medi a.
Advocates of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s have actual l y been reasonabl y expl i ci t on thi s di sti ncti on (see, for ex-
ampl e Kel l er and Berry 2003, pp. 28-29), but i t i s frequentl y overl ooked i n practi ce, especi al l yas i nternet-based
l ub
:..ilrl(l.
&ffW #?.$ffi
publ i shi ng and communi cati ons bl ur the boundari es between broadcast and word-of-mouth medi a. When a
popul ar bl ogger expresses hi s enthusi asm for a parti cul ar product, for exampl e, potenti al l y thousands of peopl e
read hi s opi ni on; but i s the correspondi ng i nfl uence anal ogous to that of an Oprah endorsement, a personal rec-
ommendati on from a fri end, or somethi ng el se? By fai l i ng to di sti ngui sh between these types i nfl uence, many
more stori es come to mi nd i n whi ch "i nfl uenti al s" have pl ayed a rol e, but i n process the meani ng of the hypoth-
esi s i tsel f becomes further muddi ed.
A second, and more seri ous probl em wi th anecdotal evi dence i s that i t suffers from the l ogi cal fal l acy post hoc
ergo propter hoc-"after thi s, therefore because of thi s"-whi ch asserts that i f event X preceded event Y then Y
was i n fact caused by X. Thus i f a smal l group of east vi l l age hi psters start weari ng hush puppi es, and subsequent-
l y the brand' s fortunes revi ve, i t i s tempti ng to concl ude that the revi val was caused by the hi psters. Many other
expl anati ons are al so possi bl e-other peopl e may have been weari ng them as wel l , for exampl e, or perhaps they
si mpl y responded to the same envi ronmental cues as the hi psters-but because narrati ve expl anati ons have di f-
fi cul ty accommodati ng l ogi c any more compl i cated than "X happened then Y happened" the possi bi l i ty of mul ti -
pl e or i ndi rect causes i s typi cal l y overl ooked i n favor of si mpl e, l i near causati on (Ti l l y 2006). The post-hoc fal l acy,
i n other words, mi stakes a narrati ve descri pti on of events for a causal expl anati on. Demonstrati ng that X caused
Y
however, even i n a si ngl e ci rcumstance, requi res us to account not onl y for what actual l y happened, but al so
what mi ght have happened but di d not.
Determi ni ng al l the thi ngs that mi ght have happened, but di dn' t, i s of course a tri cky busi ness; thus the most
common way to avoi d post-hoc reasoni ng i s to conduct experi ments, or perform randomi zed tri al s, or at l east try
to compare l arge numbers of i ndependent cases i n whi ch somethi ng si mi l ar to X happens many ti mes (the stan-
dard approach of stati sti cal studi es). l f Y does not fol l ow X si gni fi cantl y more than woul d be expected by random
chance, then i t general l y accepted that nothi ng about causati on can be asserted. Unfortunatel y, thi s observati on
hi ghl i ghts a thi rd probl em wi th anecdotal evi dence: we onl y tel l stori es about events that spark our i nterest. We
do not try to expl ai n al l the events that di d not attract our i nterest-why, for exampl e, al l the other thi ngs that
east vi l l age hi psters may or may not have deci ded to try out over the years di d not subsequentl y go on to become
br eakout hi t s. Nor dowehavet heabi l i t yt or epl ayaver si onof hi st or yi nwhi chever yt hi ngi st hesameexcept t hat
the hi psters are not weari ng hush puppi es. Thus whi l e our si ngl e anecdote sounds i nformati ve, i t does not actu-
al l y enabl e us to say wi th any certai nty whether east vi l l age hi psters actual l y caused even one soci al epi demi c,
l et al one whether they are more l i kel y than anyone el se to cause another.
Together, these probl ems-ambi guous l anguage, post-hoc reasoni ng, and bi ased sel ecti on of events-seri ousl y
undermi ne the useful ness of anecdotal evi dence. Any ti me we noti ce somethi ng of i nterest, whether i t be a sur-
pri se bestsel l er, a breakout arti st, or a hi t product, i t wi l l al most certai nl y be the case that some rel ati vel y smal l
number of peopl e were i nvol ved earl y on, especi al l y i f i t i s uncl ear preci sel y what ki nd of peopl e we are l ooki ng
for
(probl em 1). These peopl e wi l l subsequentl y seem to be speci al si mpl y because they di d X and then everyone
el se di d X
(probl em
2). And because we have onl y one event to expl ai n one event (probl em 3), our expl anati on
" XcausedY" cannot becont est edbyanyobser vat i onsof si mi l ar ci r cumst ancesi nwhi chYdi dnot f ol l owX. l f one
i s l ooki ng hard enough for a few speci al peopl e to whom to attri bute causal i ty, therefore, one wi l l probabl y fi nd
them. Correspondi ngl y i f one i s not l ooki ng for other causes, one wi l l not fi nd any al ternati ves to chal l enge the
expl anat i on t hat one expect ed al l al ong.
The apparent expl anatory power of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s may therefore be l i ttl e more than an arti fact of the
i nfl uenti al s-ori ented worl dvi ew that we bri ng to the anal ysi s i n the fi rst pl ace. Otherwi se ordi nary i ndi vi dual s, by
vi rtue of the parti cul ar ci rcumstances they happen to occupy at a parti cul ar poi nt i n ti me, i nfl uence some num-
ber of others, who then i nfl uence others, and so on, ul ti matel y generati ng a si gni fi cant event. Retrospecti vel y,
one can al ways fi nd i nfl uenti al s about whi ch we can tel l stori es, and one can al ways "expl ai n" known outcomes
i nt er msof t hesei nf l uent i al s. But t heseexpl anat i onsonl ywor ki nr et r ospect . Nomat t er howmanyanecdot es
we accumul ate, the i nfl uenti al s "responsi bl e" for the previ ous fad, say, are unl i kel y to be responsi bl e for the next.
They are, i n other words, "acci dental i nfl uenti al s" (Watts 2007)-i ndi vi dual s who seem to have pl ayed an i mpor-
tant rol e i n an outcome that we now know happened not because of any speci al attri butes of thei r own, but on
account of the acci dental confl uence of a possi bl y l arge number factors, whi ch may never recur together agai n.
247
Measuring Word of Mouth
There i s nothi ng you can measure about them, therefore, that wi l l tel l you anythi ng that i s necessari l y useful to
you, because next ti me i t wi l l be somebody el se.
The acci dental nature of i nfl uence can be i l l ustrated wi th an exampl e of real epi demi c. When the SARS epi demi c
expl oded i n earl y 2003 i n the Pri nce of Wal es Hospi tal i n Hong Kong, a subsequent i nvesti gati on reveal ed that a
si ngl e pati ent had di rectl y i nfected fi fty others, l eadi ng eventual l y to 156 cases i n the hospi tal al one
(Toml i nson
and Cockram 2003). Because thi s event i n turn l ed to propagati on of the epi demi c beyond Hong Kong, some
observers concl uded that the spread of epi demi cs depends di sproporti onatel y on the acti vi ti es of a few "super
spreaders"
(Masuda,
Konno and Ai hara 2004; Smal l , Shi and Tse 2004; Bassetti , Bi schoffand Sherertz 2005). In ret-
rospect, thi s concl usi on appears sound-after al l , there were a few peopl e who i nfected many others, and those
events di d i nvi gorate the epi demi c, whi ch mi ght otherwi se have di ed out. A cl oser l ook at the case (Toml i nson
and Cockram 2003), however, reveal s that the real source of the probl em was a mi sdi agnosi s of pneumoni a.
Instead of bei ng i sol ated, as one woul d normal l y do wi th a pati ent i nfected wi th an unknown respi ratory vi rus,
the mi sdi agnosed SARS pati ent was pl aced i n an open ward wi th poor ai r ci rcul ati on. Even worse, because the
di agnosi s was for pneumoni a, a bronchi al venti l ator was pl aced i nto l ungs, and proceeded to spew vast numbers
of vi ral parti cl es i nto the ai r around hi m. The condi ti ons i n the crowded ward resul ted i n a number of medi cal
workers becomi ng i nfected, as wel l as other pati ents. The event was i mportant i n spreadi ng the di sease-at l east
l ocal l y-but what was i mportant about i t was not the pati ent hi msel l so much as al l the parti cul ar detai l s of hi s
ci rcumstances. Pri or to the event i tsel f, nothi ng you coul d have known about the pati ent woul d have l ed you to
suspect that there was anythi ng speci al about hi m, because there was nothi ng speci al about hi m.
Even once the Pri nce of Wal es outbreak had transpi red, i t woul d have been a mi stake to then focus on super-
spreadi ng i ndi vi dual s rather than super-spreadi ng ci rcumstances. The next maj or SARS outbreak, for exampl e,
took pl ace shortl y thereafter i n a Hong Kong apartment bui l di ng, the Amoy Gardens, and the person responsi bl e,
who become i nfected at the hospi tal whi l e bei ng treated for renal fai l ure, had di arrhoea. Thi s ti me the i nfecti on
spr ead t o 300 ot her i ndi vi dual s i n t he bui l di ng vi a a l eaki ng dr ai n and ot her pr obl ems wi t h t he bui l di ng i nf r a-
structure, not a mi sdi agnosi s and a venti l ator (Toml i nson
and Cockram 2003). Whatever l essons one mi ght have
l earned about super-spreaders i n the Pri nce of Wal es Hospi tal , therefore, woul d have been next to usel ess i n the
Amoy Gardens. A better approach, and the one that the WHO and i ts affi l i ated agenci es successful l y i mpl ement-
ed, was to ramp up screeni ng and i sol ati on procedures across the board. By focusi ng on generi c transmi ssi on
mechani sms, not speci al i ndi vi dual s-by, i n effect, treati ng al l i ndi vi dual s as potenti al super spreaders-what
coul d have been a devastati ng pandemi c was brought to heel i n a surpri si ngl y short ti me, and wi th rel ati vel y few
deaths.
Conclusion
Li ke pl anni ng for epi demi cs, marketi ng i s typi cal l y conducted as a prospecti ve exerci se-thi nk of who or what
mi ght hel p your brand and try to expl oi t the rel evant forces i n your favor-but i t i s usual l y onl y i n retrospect that
we l earn what works. l t i s very easy to get these di fferent vi ews of cause and effect confused, yet doi ng so tends
to undermi ne the useful ness of the i nsi ghts we thi nk we have gai ned from experi ence. The i nfl uenti al s hypoth-
esi s, l i ke the myth of super-spreaders, i s a theory that can be made to fi t the facts once they are known, but i n
gl ossi ng over the speci fi c mechani sms by whi ch i nfl uence propagates, says l i ttl e about how the next event of
i nterest wi l l take pl ace, or who wi l l pl ay an i mportant rol e i n i t. As such i t i s at best a conveni ent fi cti on, and at
worst a mi sl eadi ng model of how publ i c opi ni on real l y changes. The real worl d i s consi derabl y more compl i cat-
ed, and causal i ty i s harder to ascri be, as some word-of-mouth marketers have al ready begun to di scover
(Godes
and Mayzl i n 2004; Wasserman 2007).
Abandoni ng the premi se that a mi nori ty of speci al i ndi vi dual s i s necessari l y responsi bl e for soci al change, how-
ever, does not undermi ne the rel evance of i nterpersonal i nfl uence, or the effi cacy of word-of-mouth marketi ng.
Rather, as word of mouth marketers i mprove thei r abi l i ty to track the i mpact of speci fi c i nterventi ons, a more
compl i cat edandl essdet er mi ni st i cvi ewof i nf l uencei sl i kel yt oemer ge. Suchavi ewmi ght benef i t bydevel opi ng
more real i sti c and empi ri cal l y-grounded versi ons of the si mul ati on methods that Dodds and I advocated i n our
st udy. Model sof t hi ski ndmi ght beused, f or exampl e, t omodel var i ous" seedi ng" st r at egi es, t est i ngt r adeof f s
between the cost of recrui ti ng di fferent i ndi vi dual s and thei r expected i mpact, or between focusi ng on cohesi ve
208
-+3,W#ffi?trg?ffi
groups i nstead of randoml y scattered i ndi vi dual s (Watts
and Dodds 2008). Al ternati vel y, word-of-mouth market-
ers may benefi t si mpl y by acknowl edgi ng that i nfl uence processes are i nherentl y unpredi ctabl e. As Steve Hasker
and I have suggested previ ousl y (Watts
and Hasker 2006), they coul d then devote l ess energy to predi cti ng how
or through whom a gi ven product wi l l succeed, and more to the busi ness of detecti ng and fosteri ng success that
i s al ready happeni ng, whether i t was anti ci pated or not. Fi nal l y. word-of-mouth marketi ng may benefi t by l ever-
agi ng tradi ti onal mass-medi a techni ques, l i ke ad-buys and mai l i ng l i sts, but addi ng "vi ral " functi onal i ty (Watts
and Peretti 2007).
Al though di fferent, al l these approaches acknowl edge the i mportance of word-of-mouth i nfl uence wi thout at-
tempti ng to reduce i ts operati on to the i nfl uence of a few "speci al " peopl e. As a resul t, they l ack the ti dy, i ntui ti ve
appeal of the i nfl uenti al s hypothesi s, and al so i ts dramati c cl ai m to be abl e to do so much for so l i ttl e. Li ke di ets
that promi se rapi d wei ght l oss wi thout sacri fi ce, however, the cl ai m that a few speci al i ndi vi dual s can magi cal l y
make or break a brand i nvari abl y gl osses over some i mportant detai l s-i n parti cul ar that the i ndi vi dual s i n ques-
ti on are onl y ever evi dent i n hi ndsi ght. I suspect, i n fact, that many word-of-mouth marketi ng efforts that are os-
tensi bl y di rected at i nfl uenti al s i n real i ty target ordi nary i ndi vi dual s i n a l argel y ad-hoc manner. No doubt many
of these campai gns fai l , but some succeed, and the myth of i nfl uenti al s i s thereby perpetuated. By avoi di ng the
probl em of havi ng to i denti fy i nfl uenti al s i n advance, however, pragmati c approaches l i ke those outl i ned above
wi l l ul ti matel y serve word-of-mouth marketers better than even thei r best l oved myths.
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