Influencing the Influencers

When AOL Instant Messager first hit the Web in the mid-1990s, a friend of mine grabbed a retailerinspired screen name: GapGal. And that she was.

Constantly decked out in company apparel, she even worked there over the summer. Although she branded herself as a bona fide Gap advocate—and we all knew this—she was also our trusted source for the latest fashion trends.

Since word-of-mouth marketing has always been one of the most powerful resources when researching brands, the boom of searchable social media channels, such as blogs, online communities and photo sharing, has further amplified this concept.

According to a new Yahoo! Survey, called “Engaging Advocates through Search and Social Media,” some consumers compare the value of an opinion they read online to a recommendation from a trusted friend. Through these channels, retailers can create a dialogue with these brand advocates—I call them the GapGals of Gen Y.

Yahoo! defines advocates as a small niche of people who can significantly influence others. According to the survey, 50% of these connected opinion leaders go out of their way to recommend products and brands to others, compared to only 17% of non-advocates. Additionally, about 41% of advocates have written about their online purchases.

Clearly, advocates are more likely to spread the word, but the significance lies within the pull of these voices: People are actually listening.

“It’s that one drop of water that’s going to make a big splash in the ocean,” Lorna Bernstein, VP of Yahoo! Inc., said at the Shop.org conference in Orlando, Fla., last month.

And what a splash. Advocates tell more than twice as many people about their purchases than non-advocates do. Since advocates tell an average of 20 people about their purchase, the message has potential to reach a total of 105 million people. Since 8.3 million non-advocates told about 8 people each, only 69 million are reached—a number significantly less than the advocate influence.

“We really need to stop treating all consumers the same,” Bernstein told e-tailers. “You need to recognize and identify these advocates so they can do the work for you.”

She added that advocates also have a 2-to-1-conversion impact across most categories, “so you need to figure out how and where to reach these advocates and act now.”

By learning where these advocates are online, Bernstein said retailers can save themselves from creating new blogs and other features from scratch.

“The magic of working in the multichannel world comes from not thinking of your channels merely as sales channels,” Bernstein said.

“For example, an ecosystem of MySpace and Mommynets, or influential [“mommy blog”] sites, recommend products to friends, and influence, affect and create the most loyal purchasers imaginable,” she added. “Hitting demographics at these types of online places will be monumental for retailers.”

“You don’t need to recreate your own blog because, honestly, who cares?” Bernstein said. “You should go to the hottest and most popular blogger out there and give them a reason to talk about your brands.”

“The conversation is already happening,” she said. “You just need to be a part of it.”