Opinion Leader

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Description of Opinion Leader. Explanation.

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Opinion Leader

Definition Opinion Leader. Description.


An Opinion Leader (OL) is an individual capable to repeatedly persuade and influence other people's behaviors according to her/his own preferences.


An Opinion Leader, also known as Influential, is someone who has the power to informally manipulate attitudes and behaviors of other individuals. The concept has been researched by Robert Merton in 1949 and lately developed by Katz and Lazarsfeld.


Opinion leadership is achieved and sustained through a leader’s technical competence, social skills and compliance with values and norms of his current social system. It is a type of informal leadership where the persuasion is indirect and frequent in time. Usually the relationship between an OL and his followers is based on their admiration and willingness to look like the leader.

Often in the followers’ perspective, OLs are of a higher social status, more exposed to international activities and relationships, and more concerned with any forms of external communication. These characteristics are not necessarily true, they could be only the followers’ perception.


Due to their exposure and their influencing abilities, OLs play a fundamental role in society when it comes to spread new ideas, values and beliefs. See also: Persuasion Theory and Persuation Techniques. In addition, they are often exploited to launch new trends and to position products in prospects mind. According to Bass’s Model of Innovation Diffusion OLs are among the first to adopt new hi-tech products. See also: Innovation Adoption Curve.


Types of Opinion Leadership

Marketing and communication literature distinguishes two types of opinion leadership:

  1. Monomorphic opinion leadership. This applies when a leader’s influence is limited to one specific topic. This is a typical leadership style of modern industrial societies characterized by specialization of roles and division of labor. Nowadays, this is the most common style of opinion leadership in developed countries.
  2. Polymorphic opinion leadership. This applies when a leader’s influence covers different topics. This is a more conventional leadership style, nowadays obsolescent, typical of traditional societies. In small towns not dominated by industrial logics and media culture, some elder and highly respected people might give advices on a variety of topics manipulating thus behaviors of surrounding people.

Targeting Opinion Leaders

Recent marketing thinking sees OLs as the most powerful tools for advertising. In a world where Word-of-Mouth is challenging media effectiveness, more and more companies are targeting OLs in their marketing campaigns. In a research from Ed Keller and Jon Berry (“The Influentials”, The Free Press, 2003) there is evidence of a shifted preference of today’s consumers towards getting advices and buying inspirations from the neighbor, the friend of the friend, and any individual retained competent in certain fields.


Limitations of Opinion Leaders. Disadvantages

  • One limitation in the use of opinion leadership for marketing purposes is the difficulty to identify them at local level and target them according to their influence range. According to Keller and Berry’s research, in the USA one individual out of ten is a good candidate for an opinion leadership position. The characteristics of OLs are not homogeneous as far as social and economical backgrounds are concerned: they might be of any age, social status and adopting any lifestyle as long as they are regarded as leaders in their group or social context.
  • Another issue is that even if human behavior tends to cluster among friends and in time, the reasons behind this effect are not clear. Perhaps it is due to one person influencing another, perhaps it is simply based on other phenomena, such as the sociological phenomenon called 'homophily" - people's propensity to associate with others who are like them. According to Sinan Aral (What would Ashton do, and does it matter?, HBR May 2013), to accurately estimate social influence by an OL, for example to determine the effect of some marketing campaign, one needs to distinguish behavioral tendencies from behavioral changes to find the effect of someone's behavior over and above other people's prior probability of purchasing.

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