Strategic Comms #45: How to Develop an Influential Strategy

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(This is the 45th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

Who are the influentials?  That is, who are those one in ten people that tell the other nine how to vote where to eat and what to buy?  According to Ed Keller and Jon Berry, the authors of The Influentials, they are not who you might think they are.  For instance, they are not necessarily professionals and executives, people earning over $75,000 a year or college graduates.

To identify influentials, Keller and Berry’s company RoperASW developed a survey to gauge how politically and socially active people are.  The survey includes a number of criteria ranging from whether they attended a public meeting on town or school affairs within the last year to whether they were an active member of a group seeking to influence public policy or government.

What they found was that this group of people was influential not just in politics but in virtually every category.  They also found that they shared a number of characteristics.  For example, they are generally activists, people who are connected, and people who have active minds with many interests and hobbies.  They also share similar personality traits.  That is, they have a clear sense of what matters, believe in growth and change, balance the interests of the community with the self, place family first and are engaged in life.

Using the Law of Diffusions from our last blog post (see Strategic Communications Part 44: How to Reach Your Tipping Point), influentials can be broadly thought of as the “early adopters” (see Exhibit 1).  Everett Rogers, who developed the Diffusion of Innovations theory, describes someone in this category as “the individual to check with” before adopting a new idea.  As we discussed, once you reach your initial 15 percent to 18 percent of the market – that is, your innovators and early adopters – you will have reached your tipping point and your idea, product or service will likely reach epidemic proportions.  This is largely because of the “The Influence Spiral” produced by influentials.


Exhibit 1

Influentials are twice as likely to make recommendations as the average person.  Moreover, given their large networks, they have a “multiplier effect” when they make recommendations.  Multiplying the percentage of influentials who have made a recommendation on popular issues such as movies or restaurants by the average number of people they told and projecting this nationally based on the influential proportion in the population (one in ten) shows that they generate tens of millions of recommendations a year.

So, how do you get into the conversation?  Keller and Berry propose six rules for developing an influential strategy.  Given the proliferation of media and information sources, the old model of simply pushing out messages to the public has become increasingly less effective.  In addition, influentials place more weight on information from word-of-mouth sources than they do from businesses or traditional sources.

Therefore, first, in regard to strategy, you need to be where the information is; that is, you should target media that is information-oriented.  This is not to say that they need to be newspapers and magazines as influentials are also consumers of media that is both entertaining and informative such as talk shows, etc. that package information in engaging ways.

Second, influentials are more likely to complain when they experience a problem with a product or service and are more likely to do something about it such as contact the manufacturer or corporate headquarters.  The lesson here for businesses is that when consumers complain, you had better listen.

Third, Keller and Berry recommend that companies get out into the community.  Specifically, one of the best ways for companies to earn favor among influentials is to support a local cause.  There a several ways to do this including supporting youth activities, preserving or protecting the environment, sponsoring community events and incorporating cause-related marketing.

Fourth, because influentials have a utilitarian approach to buying, companies need to focus on products or services that make their lives easier, for which they are even willing to pay more.  However, there are exceptions that influentials are willing to make.  These exceptions are for products or services that relate to their passions and that they see as truly special.  Hence, the fifth strategy is keeping up with these exceptions.

Lastly, influentials develop strong brand loyalties, especially to those that they deem different and better.  They also tend to stick with them so that they can devote more of their time to things that matter.  Despite this, companies need to continually prove the value of their brands.

So what does this mean for developers?  There are several key takeaways.  First, you need to conduct an analysis of who the influentials are in the community in which your project is located and ensure that they are brought into your education and outreach efforts.  This is critical not only to leverage their disproportionate influence but to mitigate any negative impact from detractors.

As another takeaway, influentials can be identified by monitoring local public hearings and reviewing local articles, op-eds and letters to the editor in light of their civic engagement.  Local newspapers can also be used as a vehicle to reach team, too, given the influentials’ penchant for information-oriented media.

And further, though many developers choose to support a local cause as a means of being a good corporate citizen, these efforts hold particular sway among influentials as the research shows.  Therefore, your corporate social responsibility program should be considered as well when developing your influential strategy.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email


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