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Who are Opinion Leaders, and Why Do They Matter?

Opinion Leaders Shape Public Opinion at the Grass Roots

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Of course, you want to reach a mass audience -- as many people as possible -- using the mass media.

And it's logical to want to reach insiders and decision-makers in your field.

But there's an in-between group that most people never think about: opinion leaders.

Who Are Opinion Leaders?

They don't wear a uniform or belong to a union. You can't identify them by sight.

Opinion leaders are anyone who's an active voice in a community. It's somebody who (a) speaks out and (b) gets asked for advice a lot.

This is different than a community gadfly, like the guy who always shows up to every city council meeting and asks question after question about some obscure pet issue. He's s not an opinion leader. Sure, he speaks out a lot -- but nobody really listens, and people aren’t stopping him on the street to ask about other issues, like who they should support for president or what dentist he recommends.

Identifying Opinion Leaders

One way to identify opinion leaders is to look at letters to the editor for three or four months. After a while, you'll see the same names showing up on different issues. Those people are opinion leaders.

There are other people with natural stature and credibility. Elected officials are opinion leaders.

Karl Rove used to plant rumors at law schools, because he knew law students in any school came from all over the state and had connections with educated, powerful circles of friends and family. He was right about that. I think it's immoral use law students to spread evil rumors, but Rove was right to see law students as opinion leaders. They're young, highly educated and connected.

But it's not just educated elites and people holding office. Barbers, bartenders and hairdressers often know more about what's happening in a community than anyone else. 

The easiest way to find out who opinion leaders are in any community -- whether it's a town, an institution or a profession -- is to ask people, "If you needed to know what was happen, or wanted advice, who would you call?"

The same names will start showing up. Those are your opinion leaders.

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