The three paradoxes of the opinion leader in marketing and communication

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Opinion leadership or intellectual authority is a response to the complex online environment where trust is the most valuable currency; But, what exactly is this type of “influential leadership” and what is it for marketers?

Marketing has been around as long as people have been competing to sell products or services; Although the medium of dissemination has evolved from print to moving image to the Internet, the basic principles of communicating the benefits of a product to consumers have not changed;

Influencermarketingandcontent marketing may seem like new techniques created in the Internet era, but they are merelyevolutions of tried-and-true methods. What the web has changed, however, is a level playing field, allowing individuals to broadcast messages with a reach comparable to that of large companies;

In this era, where access to powerful forms of mass communication technology is almost universal, how can we use our capabilities effectively and responsibly? This is where the opinion leader comes in.

What is an opinion leader?

Before we get down to business, let’s reflect on who would want to describe themselves as an opinion leader and why; Indeed, the question ariseswhat is an opinion leader? If used carelessly, the expression can come across as hopelessly smug or slightly Orwellian; But it describes an increasingly important practice in contemporary marketing; So let me define what I really mean when I talk about thought leadership;

Thought leadership is about knowledge transfer, it involves showcasing an individual’s expertise with the goal of becoming a trusted authority within a subject area. Put this way, it seems to have little to do with selling products or services; And, as we shall see, for it to be successful, it is essential that opinion leadership activities are distinct from product promotion activities;

The voice of authority and trust

It is also clear that this form of leadership is nothing new: voices of authority and trust have always existed in one form or another; What sets contemporary thought leadership apart is how it develops relationships, interacts and builds trust in online media;

A brief aside: in my previous definition of opinion leader, I mentioned “authority within a subject area”; This is an important distinction for a successful approach; It’s the difference between being an opinion leader and being a big mouth.

I won’t name names, but we have all seen examples of highly respected public figures with a strong online presence who become objects of ridicule when they stray too far from their area of expertise; Opinion leaders are catalysts for informed debate and not simply the loudest voice in the room;

Opinion leader vs. influencer marketing

To better understand the concept at hand, it is necessary to distinguish how it differs from other slightly similar practices, like influencer marketing An influencer is an individual with some degree of public profile-whether a micro influencer with a niche following or a megastar with millions of followers-and who is willing to accept remuneration in exchange for allowing a brand access to those followers.

Modern influencer marketing is closely linked to social media, but it is an age-old practice that predates the Internet: Roman gladiators were paid to promote products centuries before the printing press arrived in Europe.

And although the marketing of influencers has problems arising from their unregulated nature, the results speak for themselves: almost 40 years after Nike closed its deal with basketball star Michael Jordan, that perfect synergy between a charismatic public figure and a distinctive product is still echoing to this day.

Authenticity vs. monetisation

Moderninfluencers are individuals with an online presence, real people, often representing themselves directly; And while the same is often true of opinion leaders, that is the only real similarity between the two; Influencer marketing is much more transactional than opinion leadership..

A influencer quantifies the size of its audience and the degree of interaction it exhibits, in order to set a price for every second of video, pixel of screen space, paragraph of text or social media share it sends to that audience.

More followers equals more money, and often anything goes if it makes the audience grow. In contrast, opinion leaders use the same range of media to engage in conversations, express opinions and offer reliable information on a topic, building their credibility and reputation, all without actually endorsing a product;

Virtual influencers

I mentioned earlier that influencersare “real people”; So, for the sake of completeness, I will also address the phenomenon of the virtual influencercreated with CGI. Strictly speaking, this is not influencer marketing at all: it’s a way for a brand to simulate the aesthetics directly related to influencer marketing in a completely controllable way, without the unpredictability that comes with using real people.

Virtual influencers are akin to the cash-strapped versions of brand mascots such as the Michelin doll or Captain Findus. It hardly amounts to innovation y and is certainly incompatible with the level of authenticity that opinion leadership requires.

Opinion leader vs. content marketing

Nor should opinion leadership be confused with content marketing. A swimwear manufacturer that publishes a blog post about the best beaches is doing content marketing; A broker that feeds an online glossary of market terms or a bookstore that publishes reviews of the latest releases are doing content marketing;

A thought leader can produce similar types of content, but there is an important additional aspect to thought leadership that content marketing lacks: opinion leadership requires an agnostic voice, in contrast to direct content marketing, which always focuses in some way on the product;

The swimwear manufacturer is not going to create content marketing on market vocabulary, for example; And if the bookshop publishes content about beaches, it is likely to focus on “the best books to read on the beach”;

This is where the term opinion leadership can be a bit misleading; Misinterpreted, the term might suggest “telling people what to think,” but it is better understood as provoking and leading a conversation, exploring new ways of thinking, helping to generate knowledge . None of these things are consistent with the direct product-focused messages found in content marketing;

The first paradox of the opinion leader

One useful way to distinguish opinion leadership from other forms of onlinemarketing we have discussed is intent. To do this, we have to go back to the question of why someone would want to be an opinion leader; What are the benefits? After all, what is the point of a marketing practice that is inherently incompatible with product promotion? This is the first paradox of this leadership;

The answer is simple: opinion leadership is about being known as an authoritative voice on a subject that engenders trust; Trust and a reputation for impartiality can generate business opportunities:customers will look for an opinion leader, instead of the opinion leader having to pitch ideas to potential customers; This makes leadership a powerful tool, even if it is only suitable for promoting certain types of products or services;

The second paradox of the opinion leader

This brings us to the second paradox: while becoming an opinion leader is desirable, establishing oneself as such can be counterproductive, because these are neutral voices, who do not convey a product-related message – as content marketing does – and do not hide their biases or affiliations, a problem that has negatively affected the marketing of influencers. The title of opinion leader is obtained in a much more organic way through theacquisition and display of genuine knowledge.

Opinion leadership has exploded because at a time when online media has given rise to more voices than ever before, the media has become more vocal than ever; gain more reach with your marketing messages, discerning among these who is worth listening to has become the main challenge for consumers.

There have always been charlatans and swindlers, but the massive reach of online marketing and the ability to use tactics such as the astroturfing (the method of using multiple, seemingly unrelated accounts to post positive comments and generate the impression of broad support) to, at relatively minimal cost, give the impression that a product is widely supported, have changed the landscape;

This brings us to the real crux of the matter of the usefulness of opinion leadership: the ability to establish a genuinely reliable voice in an age where reliability is often feigned with good SEO used in bad faith;

Let’s take an example of a voice of authority ad absurdum. Albert Einstein’s name is synonymous with rational thinking – who could be a greater opinion leader? Even posthumously, the physicist’s acumen is so highly prized that companies clamour to pay to be associated with his image,that is defendedfiercelyby his heirs.

But Einstein, for his part, was well aware of how opinion leaders can be abused, and rejected product sponsorships as he considered them “the corruption of our time”. And she was right, because the use of a respected figure as a marketing mascot is a perfect example ofwhat intellectual leadership should not be.

The third paradox of the opinion leader

Thought leadership requires building an audience that respects your ideas on a topic and consumes your content out of pure interest; The majority of the audience of some of these leaders will never buy their product: they maintain a link precisely becausecontent is not corrupted by commercial interests. This is the third paradox of thought leadership: the followers whose trust you strive to earn do not directly contribute to your business objectives, but they are vital to giving your voice legitimacy, which, in a virtuous circle, attracts a larger audience, ultimately elevating you as a voice of authority;

In short, opinion leadership recognises that trustworthiness is the most valuable currency on the internet, something that cannot be falsified – at least not for a long time – and which will be lost the moment it is used irresponsibly; Put this way, thought leadership does not seem complicated at all; It is simply a rational response to the central dilemma of network life: opinion leaders are the most adept at balancing influence and responsible use of influence;

*Article written by Martina Hoffard, Marketing Director at Spectrum Markets;

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