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Preparing a media plan aimed at opinion leaders requires accurately identifying and describing the attributes of this target as well as measuring its affinities with different media. Our research findings on women's fashion, particularly magazines, reveal that a media plan targeted at opinion leaders can succeed, that these opinion leaders tend to be positive toward and discuss advertising media, and that they read more women's fashion magazines and have significantly more affinities with such media than nonopinion leaders.
THE INTEREST IN OPINION leadership was first investigated by sociologists in the United States in the 1950s. Their studies showed how those opinion leaders who are more exposed to media process the information they receive and forward it to their immediate circle of friends or relatives (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1955). In marketing, the opinion leader is someone who informally influences the attitudes of other individuals in an intended direction (Reynolds and Wells, 1977). A great number of marketing researches conducted in the 1970s and 1980s highlight the potential of opinion leaders as a media target because they provide a primary "word of mouth" source of information in interpersonal communications: their immediate environment (friends, colleagues, neighbors, social contacts) seeks their views before or after buying a product or service (Bearden and Etzel, 1982; Dichter, 1966; Montgomery and Silk, 1971; Newman and Staelin, 1973). Research has also shown that information spread by word of mouth has a greater impact on decisions to buy than other marketer-dominated sources of information such as publicity (Herr, Kardes, and Kim, 1991; Price and Feick, 1984).
More recently, the theory of social networks has revived interest in opinion leadership (Iacobucci and Hopkins, 1992). A social network includes a large number of players and a structure of interknit relationships; at the same time, leaders could be viewed as "opinion brokers" who carry information across the social boundaries between groups (Burt, 1999). The influence wielded by an opinion leaders will depend on its degree of "centrality" in the group and on the strength of the links that join members of the network (Reingen and Kernan, 1986). In a postmodern context, consumption is part of a world of symbols and images (Firat and Venkatesh, 1995). Consumption enacts a social code that reflects affiliation to a given social network. The judgments of a group on individual choices and on the appeal of a product become more important than the product itself. Within the group, the opinion leader's judgments would be given greater importance and emulated by his immediate environment for expressing support for the norms of the group.
While opinion leaders provide an attractive target for advertising media, a media plan centered on this target raises a number of questions: how can opinion leaders be identified in a given segment? Do the media they read statistically differ from the media read by nonopinion leaders? This article aims to address these questions by trying to identify the specific characteristics of these opinion leaders as a media target. We will first discuss opinion leaders as a potential target for a given media plan. We will then go on to make different hypotheses on opinion leader attitudes to advertising media. Finally, we will discuss our research results on the women's clothing fashion market in France.
THE POTENTIAL OF MEDIA PLANNING AIMED AT OPINION LEADERS
The role of the opinion leader in interpersonal communications
According to Engel, Blackwell, and Miniard (1995), the opinion leader directly (by word of mouth) or indirectly (by people's imitating his or her behavior) has a major impact on his immediate environment. The theory of the diffusion of innovation stresses the dual role of opinion leaders as information transmitters (Feick and Price, 1987; Gatignon and Robertson, 1985; Johnson-Brown and Reingen, 1987) and influencers because their status imparts social visibility to the product. In his model, Rogers (1983) ranks opinion leaders as interfaces between innovators and early majority.
Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) had initially formulated a two-step flow communication model in which the opinion leader first interprets the information provided by its source, then forwards it to his immediate environment. Current research has uncovered numerous ways in which opinion leaders and receivers interact (Aassel, 1983; Yale and Gilly, 1995). Some authors prefer the term "influential," which they regard as forwarding information on consumer products and brands, rather than the term "opinion leader," which implies a dominant position in the exchange of information. However, this term is somewhat ambiguous. In effect, being an influencer implies having a "strong personality" (Weiman, 1991) and feeling different from other people and seeking to act differently (Chan and Misra, 1990). If this were true, the opinion leader would influence all consumer products, but this assumption has been invalidated by King and Summers (1970).
Strengths of a media plan aimed at opinion leaders
Regardless of the nature and sphere of influence occupied by the opinion leader, a media plan benefits from the opinion leader in the following two ways.
It leverages its audience. The "two-step flow" and "multistage interaction" models both regard the media as an essential information source for opinion leaders. The latter will then be overexposed to advertising in their areas of interest. Moreover, because opinion leaders have an enduring involvement with consumer products or services (Venkatram, 1990), the opinion leader likes to discuss consumer products with his/her immediate environment: much of the information that reaches this indirect audience will tend to originate from messages contained in advertisements.
It increases advertising persuasion. Information exchanged in interpersonal communication has a stronger impact on consumer purchasing than advertising (Herr, Kardes, and Kim, 1991). The views of the opinion leader are recognized as authoritative, and his/her advice is followed because it is deemed to be unbiased and impartial. Prior to purchase, the judgments of the opinion leader on consumer brands shape and fashion the beliefs of his immediate environment; these judgments contribute to customer satisfaction (or dissatisfaction). A consumer brand endorsed by the opinion leader will tend to increase its appeal among its target. Conversely, a poorly rated brand may be swiftly rejected by the opinion leader's environment because in interpersonal communication the individual receiving the information gives greater weight to the negative attributes (Holmes and Lett, 1977; Mizerski, 1982).
How to target opinion leaders in a media plan
This entails three stages: identifying a subgroup of opinion leaders in the chosen marketing target; selecting relevant variables (social and demographic, lifestyles, attitudes) to distinguish opinion leaders from the remainder of the target; ranking types of publications according to the affinity they elicit on the part of opinion leaders.
Stage 1: Selecting a method to identify opinion leaders. The current method used to identify opinion leaders measures the volume of information they exchange and the degree of influence they exert. Three methods are available to do this but only the aforementioned method applies to the marketing of consumer products and services.
Sociometric. Respondents are asked to name the people they turn to for advice. An American survey conducted among 20,000 general practitioners and specialist physicians revealed that on average each physician seeks medical advice from five colleagues and friendly advice from three other colleagues (Collins, Hawks, and Davis, 2000). This method is effective in industrial marketing because the parent populations are small; however, this is unwieldy when applied to mass consumer products.
Key informants. This method, applied in ethnography and psychosociology, uses participant observation: an observer (group member) appoints one or more individuals who act as opinion leaders. This approach is relevant to organizational research (sales forces, industrial buyers, etc.) but unsuitable for quantitative marketing studies.
Self-designating. Respondents self-assess their influence in a given category of consumer products or services by answering a series of standard questions. This is a suitable solution for quantitative studies. By using measurement scales with verbal ratings, opinion leaders can be identified within a given population. Different scales have been developed and compared in North America (Childers, 1986; Flynn, Goldsmith, and Eastman, 1996; Goldsmith and Desborde, 1991; King and Summers, 1970). Although the results of this research confirm that these scales converge and are reliable, the King and Summers (1970) scale raises methodology issues due to the way responses are recorded and the fact that one item reduces Cronbach's alpha value. In addition, scale dimensionality has not been clearly resolved: Goldsmith and Desborde (1991) identify two dimensions, whereas Flynn, Goldsmith, and Eastman (1996) and Childers (1986) have identified just one. Finally, the external validity of the method is questionable because opinion leaders characteristics differ from one culture to another (Marshall and Gitosudarmo, 1995).
Stage 2: Identifying the specifics of opinion leaders. In the late 1960s, some authors argued that opinion leaders were polymorphic, i.e., that they embraced many categories. Today, it is agreed that an opinion leader is rather monomorphic and that only a small percentage (13 percent) has a leadership in more than four categories (King and Summers, 1970). However, opinion leadership may be shared between similar product categories (Myers and Robertson, 1972). On the other hand, the opinion leader tends to have enduring involvement with the product category in which he exercises his opinion leadership (Richins and Root-Shaffer, 1988; Venkatram, 1990). The opinion leader's expertise must be perceived by his immediate environment but this is not enough of a …