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How do you find your ‘magic middle’ group of influencers?

Posted by Louise Moran on 7th July 2011

You might be surprised to know that Azeem Azhar, managing director of online reputation management firm PeerIndex, is quite a big deal in the fixed line broadband sphere. Or, at least he is to his friends, family and wider online network.

When Azeem recently changed broadband providers, a number of his friends and family followed suit once their existing contract with their current broadband provider expired, on his advice. You’d think that Virgin, BT, Sky and all the rest would have their top customer contact teams on the case, clamoring to speak to Azeem to get him to switch over to their service and inviting him to join their next focus group session, but Azeem is still waiting on that call.

Would you recommend to a friend?

There are certain situations where word of mouth or a recommendation from a trusted source means much more than a flashy ad, an interactive social media PR campaign or blanket PR coverage. Often it’s an emotive decision where we don’t want to form an opinion by trial and error and need to get it right first time round, such as a great restaurant for a special occasion, or an electrician who turns up on time.

Admit it, are you a sheep?

Azeem, speaking at the PRCA Technology Group event on PR evaluation, outlined how in the past we could easily identify key influencers. Jack Schofield, the Guardian’s computer editor, was the man every technology PR practitioner wanted to take out for lunch because a positive mention for a client’s product from Jack was bound to set the tills ringing. Now, if you’re buying a new computer you’re as likely to consult online forums, ask your social network for their recommendations or chat with a tech savvy friend as base your purchasing decision on the advice of a journalist.

Finding your ‘magic middle’

The problem is that professional bloggers and established journalists are bombarded with offers of trials, freebies and samples because everyone is aware of their reach as influencers. The trick is drilling down a bit deeper to find what Azeem called the ‘magic middle’, those individuals who have a disproportionate influence over the purchasing decisions of their peer groups but have the time available to assess and engage with brands.  Say, for example, you have a friend who everyone turns to for restaurant recommendations. If they get a freebie from a restaurant for a meal for two, they’re likely to be so pleased they’ll everyone they know about the experience, in turn generating more bookings for the restaurant.

This approach of identifying influencers who can spread a brand message by word of mouth is nothing new in social media PR campaigns. It is widely used in the pharmeutical industry where 20 to 30% of the marketing budget is spent on influencing key decision makers and opinion leaders. Ethical issues of pharmaceutical lobbying aside, PR has some lessons to learn around brand advocacy, influencer marketing and driving opinions which, after all, are some of the overriding objectives of social media PR.