Newswise — Old-fashioned "word of mouth" might be more useful in advertising than previously thought, especially in digital media, according to collaborative research by a Miami University faculty member and his colleagues. The findings, to be published in the December 2007 issue of Journal of Advertising Research, resulted from a study co-authored by James Coyle, assistant professor of marketing in Miami's Farmer School of Business and of interactive media studies; Elizabeth Lightfoot of CNET Networks; and Ted Smith and Amy Scott of MedTrackAlert.

The findings contradict a common advertising practice of segmenting and pampering the few elite and highly connected consumers believed to have the most persuasive power by suggesting that instead, most people can influence consumer behavior through viral communication or word of mouth. "This study provides a fresh alternative for those who have been confused by the mysticism of influencer marketing consultants," said Smith who is a CNET Networks Research Fellow and president of MedTrackAlert.

Researchers conducted a survey of Web-site visitors, performed in-depth interviews and analyzed Web site usage patterns.

"We find that trying to track down key influencers, people who have extremely large social networks, is typically unnecessary and, more importantly, can actually limit a campaign or advertisement's viral potential," said Coyle. "Instead, marketers need to realize that the majority of their audience, not just the well-connected few, is eager and willing to pass along well-designed and relevant messages."

The study reinforced that consumers respond more to messages that are unique and trusted. In addition, consumers who believe they are capable of performing the advertised behavior are more willing to pass along information to friends and relatives within their social networks.

Coyle added that this isn't new. "It's always been this way. What's changed is that digital media makes it so easy for everyone to forward messages to contacts within their social networks. For most everyone, digital media just extends a very human desire to help others."

This study brought to light the potential power of the Internet to drive influence in a wide range of industries, noted Coyle.

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Journal of Advertising Research