News Analysis: Time to meet the 'techfluentials'

A new report from Burson-Marsteller has identified an influential species of opinion leader in the technology industry. Alastair Ray identifies what makes these people tick and their importance to hi-tech brands.

A new breed of opinion influencer is stalking the streets. According to a report by Burson-Marsteller, this group of 'techfluentials' is having an important impact on technology brands' reputation and sales.

They do this not just by chatting to friends and colleagues but also via email, blogs and message boards. Their activity, argues the report, helps set the tone in the technology sector, and they need to be carefully managed.

The typical techfluential will have a BlackBerry, a smartphone, a hybrid car, multiple computers, broadband access and wireless networking at home.

But most important of all, they will communicate their preferences to potentially thousands of people.

'They set the vibe, the pulse of public opinion. It makes more sense for marketers to cascade their messages through this group,' says B-M director of knowledge development Idil Cakim. 'As PR practitioners, we need to start thinking about reaching out to alternative channels as well as traditional channels.'

More than a buzzword

Many might argue that techfluential is merely the latest buzzword for the early adopter. But Cakim says the difference is that techfluentials broadcast their opinions.

'They have a propensity to stand up and speak, and technology helps get their voice out there further and faster,' she says.

Research by Yahoo! last autumn identified a similar group, which it labelled 'social sparks'. Although its study focused on marketing, corporate communications manager Polly Devaney says the scepticism of techfluentials towards PR was echoed. 'Effective communication really has to tap into the psyche and get influencers' attention over and above fairly standard PR,' she claims.

New communication channels are becoming vitally important. But media such as discussion boards and blogs are very different from print or TV.

They are immediate, there is no restriction on space and no editing to sift out any bile. Obsessions can have free rein in a blog.

These channels also allow influencers to disseminate their thoughts without having to go through a third party such as a print journalist. 'The renowned technology pundit Esther Dyson's blog is so massively followed that she doesn't need it to be picked up by The New York Times,' says Axicom chief executive Julian Tanner.

And a recommendation from one blog will often get cross-referenced. Drew Cullen, editor-in-chief at technology news site The Register, says: 'People will go and have a look at a technology site like Boing Boing, they'll talk about it on their own blogs, it gets distributed and occasionally there might be a big story that would go on our site.'

However, many bloggers are wary of approaches from PROs. Mantra managing director Debbie Wosskow says: 'They've got to feel like they are not being PR-ed. They've got to feel they are having an interaction with the company, that the company is asking them for feedback and thoughts and in that sense is acknowledging their guru status.'

Some, however, want to be treated in a more traditional way. Justin Hayward, associate director at Ogilvy's corporate and technology practice, cites bloggers who sign up to websites that syndicate their copy. 'These bloggers want to be seen as journalists,' he says.

Journalistic credibility

Indeed, many of B-M's techfluentials have built up their credibility in spheres beyond technology, including publishing. A good example, says Tanner, is the Red Ferret Journal, produced by Sunday Times writer Nigel Powell. Tanner says that as well as freeing them from editorial styles and dictates, blogs give writers more space to talk about the issues that matter to them.

Computer Weekly executive editor Tony Collins agrees that being a technology journalist adds credibility. 'I can't remember the number of people who I have recommended Dell to,' he explains. 'These are people who would not have dreamed of buying mail order without the assurance of informed recommendation.'

Cullen says PROs need to be selective about which blogs and techfluentials they target: 'We are talking about a relatively few, (better-known) alpha-blogs.' He points out that technology companies are already communicating with the authors of these. 'Intel engages with semi-professional hardware review sites and has done so for many years, but it will only pick the very best,' he says. 'There are dozens of these sites in the UK but Intel will only engage with two or three of them.'

Hayward adds that Microsoft has been particularly good at bringing techfluentials on board via beta-testing programmes. 'Recent launches have had beta programmes of more than 500,000 and all of them can provide feedback and comment,' he says. 'It's a hugely useful piece of pre-launch activity.' The benefit of communicating this way can help overcome traditional PR problems.

Technology opinion formers, whatever one chooses to call them, are crucial for technology firms. But most observers caution that this does not mean companies should throw out their conventional marketing and communications techniques to reach the mass market.

FROM BROADBAND TO BLOGS: THE TECHFLUENTIAL LIFESTYLE

- Techfluentials have a strong propensity to talk about what they like. Eighty-one per cent talk about their experiences with a company over the phone or in person, 51 per cent give feedback via a company website, and 33 per cent write their own blogs. Forty-six per cent post messages on discussion boards.

- Techfluentials are influenced by quality and function rather than price. Design is also a key factor - more than three quarters say their purchasing is based on design and style.

- They are socially conscious. More than four out of ten have bought products and services after learning about a company's social responsibility.

- Eighty-three per cent of them use new technology to solve business problems, while 78 per cent believe the latest technology will give them a major business advantage.

- Nine out of ten have broadband at home, nearly half live in wireless houses and 20 per cent have smartphones with PDA and email.

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