Who are Opinion Leaders, and Why Do They Matter?

Opinion leaders can shape public opinion at the grass roots level

Opinion Leaders
Getty Images / Thomas Barwick

People who were once called insiders or decision-makers are now more commonly referred to as "opinion leaders" or even "influencers." For marketers, finding and enlisting opinion leaders to help sell a company's product or idea can be critical to reaching an untapped audience.

So who are opinion leaders? Simply put, an opinion leader is someone who is active in a community. That can mean an online community or a physical community like a city or town.

It's somebody who speaks out and gets asked for advice a lot. 

Opinion Leaders Aren't Just Hangers-On

Note that an opinion leader is different from a community gadfly. He's not the guy who shows up to every city council meeting and asks question after question about an obscure pet issue. No one is changing their behavior based on the gadfly's opinion.

But people may be swayed by what the opinion leader has to say. And that's why opinion leaders are so valuable to marketers: They've already established their authority in a given area and can use it to persuade their followers (who are the marketer's potential customers)

True opinion leaders make up a very small segment of the population, and most are not overtly trying to influence people (hint: someone who portrays him or herself as an opinion leader probably isn't one). 

Opinion Leaders and Social Media

Social media has helped define what an opinion leader is.

After all, opinion leaders are just normal people (not wealthy, and usually not elected officials) who have the skill to stay on top of "what's new" and have wide social networks to share that information.

It's not a perfect metric, but a verified Twitter user with a large following is likely to be considered an opinion leader.

Likewise, a YouTube star whose videos are highly viewed has influence over his or her following.

Identifying Opinion Leaders

There are other people with natural stature and credibility in a given community. Sometimes that status is earned via commonly accepted measurements, such as awards or a record of financial success. Sometimes influence and expertise are earned through longevity. 

But you don't have to be an award-winning executive to be considered an opinion leader. Barbers, bartenders and hairdressers often know more about what's happening in a community than anyone else and are likely to have some influence among their longtime customers that may be worth tapping into.

Not All Opinion Leaders are Created Equal

Just because someone is an opinion leader in one area doesn't mean they carry that influence across the board.

The woman who's taught piano lessons for 15 years is more of an authority on what kind of piano music is best for young children than the neighborhood auto mechanic. But you're not likely to seek the piano teacher's opinion on what kind of new car to drive. Likewise with opinion leaders.

While he or she may be able to convince people to buy your products, be sure you're approaching the opinion leader most likely to resonate with your audience.