Over at Discover magazine’s terrific Intersection blog, Sheril Kirshenbaum asks readers: “How might we shift public attitudes to be less wasteful and save energy on a massive scale?”
A major finding from social science research is that individual behavior choices are often shaped by perceptions of what other people are doing, especially our peers and other trusted individuals. A key agent in this process are what researchers call opinion-leaders, special individuals across communities and social groups that can serve as vital go-betweens and information brokers, passing on messages about energy conservation that speak directly to their otherwise inattentive peers, co-workers, and friends. In this “two step-flow of information,” opinion-leaders do not necessarily hold formal positions of power or prestige in communities, but rather serve as the connective communication tissue that alerted their peers to what mattered among political events, social issues, and consumer choices.
In a paper published last year (PDF) with my former student John Kotcher (now on the staff at the National Academies), we reviewed the several decades of research in the area, describing in specific ways how opinion-leaders can be used in both climate change and energy conservation campaigns.
Here’s part of what we wrote relevant to opinion-leader campaigns targeting consumer decisions, highlighting past research from the field of consumer behavior on the role of “market mavens” as opinion-leaders:
….previous research has identified “market mavens” as holding expertise and influence in broader marketplace-related information rather than just a type or class of consumer good. Market mavens are enthusiastic advice givers, with studies showing that mavens do not have to be early users or purchasers of a product to pass-on information. In lieu of personal product use, a market maven’s expertise derives from closer attention to magazines and consumer-focused Web sites. They also exhibit greater participation in activities such as using coupons, recreational shopping, reading advertisements, responding to direct mail, and providing retailers with personal information (Feick and Price, 1987; Walsh, Gwinner, & Swanson, 2004). In surveys, market mavens are identified using a six item scale first developed by Feick and Price (1987) [We include these measures in the appendix to the paper].
Market mavens can be valuable targets in …. campaigns promoting new energy-efficient products or consumer technology. Applied to these campaigns, Clark and Goldsmith (2005) recommend appealing to several identified personality attributes of market mavens including status and perceived uniqueness. Yet they also warn that market mavens do not want to purchase products that place them “too far outside” of perceived norms. The implication is that campaign messages and advertising should emphasize the “different but still socially acceptable” nature of a product, focusing on its newness and status-enhancing attributes.
An example relevant to [energy conservation] is the marketing success of Toyota’s Prius. In focus groups, prospective hybrid buyers say they believe that driving a distinctively-shaped Prius sends a conspicuous signal about values, a message that respondents expect to generate acclaim from peers. As auto manufacturers continue to introduce hybrid versions of their traditional models, they are now careful to let “buyers broadcast their earth-friendliness” by way of three-inch hybrid labels, and/or unique grille, wheels, or tail lights (Brand Neutral, 2006; Kerwin, 2003; Schneider, 2004).
In general, mavens talk significantly more about campaigns and sales at stores, and pay closer attention to advertising and special offers (Higie, Feick, & Price, 1987). Research also shows that market mavens are motivated psychologically by a sense of duty to pass on product information; by a sense of pleasure they derive from doing so; and by a desire to appear as a “competent helper” to friends and peers…
…this research suggests that advertising to mavens should emphasize appeals such as “Now that you know how [insert energy saving product] work, you have a duty to tell others.” Additionally, stores should make it easy for mavens to enjoy spreading the word about sustainable products, adding social media features to a campaign and creating rewards such as “bonus points” when mavens get others to purchase a product (Walsh, Gwinner, & Swanson, 2004). Overall, market-mavens hold important implications for big-box store chains such as Wal-Mart that have set “green” campaign goals that include selling fluorescent light bulbs and other energy-saving products. In reaching mass consumers, market-mavens are likely to be the central go-betweens for these stores.
What do readers think? Does the influence of opinion-leaders speak to your own personal experience?
I will have more on research related to opinion-leaders and energy behavior in a second post appearing later today.
Nisbet, M., & Kotcher, J. (2009). A Two-Step Flow of Influence?: Opinion-Leader Campaigns on Climate Change Science Communication, 30 (3), 328-354 DOI: 10.1177/1075547008328797