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August 5, 2014 | Research Brief

Leading Opinion Online


The Idea

Design online networks to foster high-quality content from opinion leaders. 

The Research

Opinion leaders usually evolve slowly over time, bolstered by growing numbers of peers who trust their assessments. While this phenomenon can be difficult to measure offline, online networks where users establish links to others to indicate trust — such as Facebook “likes” or YouTube followers — offer a unique environment to capture the evolution of opinion leaders. Firms rely on opinion leaders to create buzz and critical word-of-mouth for products, increasingly important in today’s social media and product marketing landscapes.

Typically, online users become network opinion leaders based on three things: how many people are already connected to and trust them (giving them more visibility within the network), and the number and quality of their reviews, based on how useful and informative other users find their opinions. Professor Kinshuk Jerath, along with Yingda Lu of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Param Vir Singh of Carnegie Mellon University, created a model to analyze the roles these factors play in shaping opinion leaders on the online review site Epinions, where users review consumer products ranging from home and garden items to cars and movies. 

Practical Applications

Marketing Managers, Social Media Managers, Web Designers

You can use this research to design online networks that encourage opinion leaders to write high-quality reviews. The researchers found that while the usefulness and informativeness of an opinion leader’s online review was a more important short-term factor in attracting a following, the leader’s network position — for example, how many followers or connections they already had — was more important in the long run. The latter can hamper the inherent quality of reviews on the site, because this allows opinion leaders to rest on their laurels, Jerath says, knowing their large following is already intact via established trust links. This means, for instance, that once you follow someone on Twitter, all their tweets arrive directly in your feed — regardless of quality. The opinion leader has a built-in audience, increasing their visibility and making it easier to reach even more potential followers.

To remedy this, Jerath recommends implementing expiration dates for trust links, so that a thought leader’s large following has to be continually re-earned with well-written, quality content. You can also create a scoring system for reviewers that rates both past and more recent reviews, allowing users to see a more comprehensive picture of an opinion leader’s quality.

Kinshuk Jerath is associate professor of business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Yingda Lu, Kinshuk Jerath, Param Singh

"The Emergence of Opinion Leaders in a Networked Online Community: A Dyadic Model with Time Dynamics and a Heuristic for Fast Estimation"

View abstract/citation  Download PDF  

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