People Who Use People: the Other Side of Opinion Leadership

Lawrence F. Feick, University of Pittsburgh
Linda L. Price, University of Pittsburgh
Robin A. Higie, University of Pittsburgh
ABSTRACT - Most consumer research has explored opinion leadership entirely from the viewpoint of the opinion giver in the exchange. This research examines opinion seeking across a broad range of product classes. In contrast to previous research, this research examines the extent to which the opinion seeker is also an opinion leader in the same product class or in other product classes. In addition, this research examines the information seeking, information transmission and demographic profile of the opinion seeker. The results, based on a national study of over 1500 households, suggest a high overlap between opinion giving and seeking. Further, the results indicate that opinion seekers, compared to the rest of our sample, show greater inclination to seek and diffuse market information. Demographically, the profile of opinion seekers is similar to the profile of opinion leaders.
[ to cite ]:
Lawrence F. Feick, Linda L. Price, and Robin A. Higie (1986) ,"People Who Use People: the Other Side of Opinion Leadership", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 301-305.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 301-305

PEOPLE WHO USE PEOPLE: THE OTHER SIDE OF OPINION LEADERSHIP

Lawrence F. Feick, University of Pittsburgh

Linda L. Price, University of Pittsburgh

Robin A. Higie, University of Pittsburgh

ABSTRACT -

Most consumer research has explored opinion leadership entirely from the viewpoint of the opinion giver in the exchange. This research examines opinion seeking across a broad range of product classes. In contrast to previous research, this research examines the extent to which the opinion seeker is also an opinion leader in the same product class or in other product classes. In addition, this research examines the information seeking, information transmission and demographic profile of the opinion seeker. The results, based on a national study of over 1500 households, suggest a high overlap between opinion giving and seeking. Further, the results indicate that opinion seekers, compared to the rest of our sample, show greater inclination to seek and diffuse market information. Demographically, the profile of opinion seekers is similar to the profile of opinion leaders.

INTRODUCTION

The importance of informational interpersonal influence in consumer decision making has been recognized for decades. Considerable research on interpersonal influence has focused on opinion leaders. Primarily because of their product knowledge, opinion leaders influence others in their purchases. It is important to remember, however, that opinion leadership is social communication between opinion givers and opinion seekers. As a consequence, understanding opinion leadership requires an examination of the relationship between opinion givers and opinion seekers. Despite the importance of understanding this relationship, almost all research has focused on the opinion giver in the exchange (Gatignon and Robertson 1985). Specifically, most consumer research has explored opinion leadership entirely from the viewpoint of the self-designated expert and influencer. Further, researchers have restricted their consideration of interpersonal influence to communications about a single product class (or a researcher designated selection of product classes).

The purpose of this research was to examine the second party involved in the interaction -- the opinion seeker. This research explores the opinion seeker across product classes, employing a receiver-based definition of opinion leadership. In contrast to previous research, this research affords an opportunity to examine the extent to which the opinion seeker is also an opinion leader in the same product class or in other product classes. Moreover, it allows examination of the characteristics of the opinion seeker. By contrasting people who seek the opinions of knowledgeable individuals with those who do not, this research sheds new light on informational interpersonal influence and the relationship between opinion givers and opinion seekers.

BACKGROUND

A variety of research has suggested the pervasive role of interpersonal sources in consumer decision-making (Arndt 1967, Feldman and Spencer 1965, Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955, Ring and Summers 1970). This research suggests that across a wide range of product classes, interpersonal sources are more likely to influence consumer choice than any other source of information (Assael 1984, Price and Feick 1984). Considerable research has attempted to explore the nature of this influence. Three sources of influence have been identified: (1) the information supplied (informational!; (2) Identification with the source (comparative); and (3) pressure to conform (normative). Park and Lessig (1977) suggest that products that are technologically complex or require objective criteria for selection are most likely to be subject to informational influence. Research has suggested that across product types, informational influence is the most important of these three types (Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975, Hansen 1969, Moschis 1976, Park and Lessig 1977, Price and Feick 1984).

In part because of the importance of informational interpersonal influence in consumer decision-making considerable research has focused on the opinion leader. The definition of an opinion leader is an individual who is regarded by other individuals as having expertise and knowledge on a particular subject (Assael 1984). Because of their knowledge on a particular topic, opinion leaders presumably are then used as information sources by opinion seekers. Research indicates that the distinction between opinion leader and opinion seeker is artificial, however. For example, studies have indicated that individuals most likely to influence others in a particular product category are also most likely to be influenced in their decisions about that product category. This finding has been documented for doctors adopting a new drug (Coleman, Katz and Manzel 1957); and consumer adopters of a stainless steel razor blade (Sheth 1971), a new food product (Arndt 1967), and several other low risk innovations (King and Summers 1967). Thus "a consumer who frequently expresses opinions about sports equipment will also be more likely to listen to others' opinions about such equipment," (Assael 1984, p. 413).

STUDYING OPINION GIVING AND RECEIVING

There are a number of ways to study information exchange. Perhaps the ideal way is to use sociometric analysis and trace the pattern of communication among members of a social system (Arndt 1967, Coleman 1959, Jacoby 1972, Martilla 1971, Schiffman 1971). While sociometric methods allow an examination of interrelationships among participants in the transmission of information about products, the approach is practically limited to applications involving small, closed social systems. Since consumer product influence may extend beyond a single social system, other techniques appear necessary.

The most common method of examining interpersonal influence employs some form of self-designation of the opinion leader (King and Summers 1970, Reynolds and Darden 1971, Rogers and Cartano 1962, Silk 1966). Using this approach, opinion leadership has been based on self-designated product expertise and influence in a prespecified product class. For example, research on opinion leaders in clothing fashions would ask a series of questions to establish whether or not individuals have product expertise and believe they influence others in their choice of clothing. Both expertise and influence are defended by the perceptions of the opinion giver. While this approach allows the research to explore the perceptions, attitudes and characteristics of the opinion giver in some detail, it is a view of information exchange defined entirely from the perspective of the self-designated influencer.

An alternate way of exploring interpersonal information exchange would be from the viewpoint of the opinion seeker. However, almost no research has specifically focused on the consumers' use of knowledgeable others to acquire information (Price and Feick 1984). A focus on the opinion seeker appears to have a number of advantages. First, it provides a means for examining a group that has been neglected in past research. This approach allows the researcher to contrast the information acquisition and transmission patterns and general descriptive characteristics of opinion seekers and other respondents. Second, the focus provides a markedly different point-of-view from which to examine the relationship between opinion givers and seekers. In particular, it should yield a different perspective on the extent to which opinion leaders are used by others and on the overlap between opinion seeking and opinion giving. Finally, a focus on the opinion seeker should redirect attention from opinion leadership as one-way influence in a particular product class toward a view of opinion leadership as social communication to acquire product information (Assael 1984). Self-designation approaches usually focus on communications about a particular product class. They do not address the extent to which an opinion leader in sports equipment trades information with an opinion leader in stereo systems. A focus on the opinion seeker should provide a clearer picture of informational interpersonal influence by emphasizing the social communications aspects of opinion leadership.

METHOD

Data used in the study were obtained through telephone interviews with 1531 residents of the contiguous states. The interviews, conducted during the middle two weeks of August 1984, averaged eighteen minutes in length. Random digit dialing was used to obtain the sample. Household heads were selected for interviewing by preassignment of sex to the telephone numbers, alternating male and female. Interviewers screened for the pre-assigned household head. If that person did not exist, interviewers talked to the lone household head. If the person was unavailable, a call back was scheduled. At least three call backs were made to individuals who were unavailable and to numbers that were busy or not answered. The response rate (completed interviews as a percentage of completed interviews, refusals and terminates) was 47 percent. The demographics of the sample, with the exception of sex, closely mirrored the 1980 census and relevant 1984 updates from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The sample somewhat over-represented females compared to our estimate of the proportion of female heads-of-households in the population.

DEVELOPMENT OF MEASURES

Opinion Leaders

As noted previously, consumer researchers usually have used self-designation in a predetermined product class to measure opinion leadership. Most have used a modification of the Rogers and Cartano (1962) scale proposed by Ring and Summers (1970) to identify opinion leaders. Silk (1966) and Reynolds and Darden (1971) have used other self-designation measures.

In this study, opinion leadership was defined to include knowledge and influence and was measured using two self-designation items. First, "Is there a particular type of product that you feel you are very knowledgeable about?" Respondents were encouraged to name all product categories in which they were very knowledgeable. The second item focused on the one product category about which respondents felt they were most knowledgeable. It read: "Do you think that you ever influence other people in their purchase of or opinions about this kind of product?" Respondents who answered yes to both questions were classified as opinion leaders in the product category about which they were most knowledgeable.

In pilot testing, the two-item dichotomous measure of opinion leadership showed a high (.75) correlation with the Ring and Summers (1970) scale. The use of a self-specified product allowed us to more accurately measure opinion leadership across the sample and across product types. Obviously, using predetermined product classes would tend to underestimate the incidence of opinion leadership.

Opinion Seekers

Opinion seekers have been defined as individuals who sought information or opinions from interpersonal sources in order to find out about and evaluate products, services, current affairs, or other areas of interest (Arndt 1968, Feldman 1966, Sheth 1968, Wright and Cantor 1967). In the past, items used to measure opinion seeking, typically in a predetermined product class, service or activity, have been tailored to the individual researcher's study. Consequently, there has been little consistency among the measures. Feldman (1966), for example, researched non-family interaction dyads, defining opinion seekers as people who used non-family interpersonal sources as their dominant source of influence in selecting a physician. Alternatively, Wright and Cantor (1967) classified as opinion seekers people who had frequent discussions about, asked peers for information about, and knew an opinion leader in a particular predetermined topic area.

Opinion seeking in this study was measured by self-designation and based on our measure of opinion leadership. Respondents indicated their acquaintance with an individual who was knowledgeable in up to three product classes. Then, they specified their use of that person to help find out about or evaluate new brands or models in the product class in which respondents identified the person as being most knowledgeable. Specifically, respondents were asked the following questions: "Do you know someone other than yourself, who is very knowledgeable about a particular product?" If yes, "What product is this person knowledgeable about?" If more than one product was offered, respondents were promoted to specify that one about which the individual was most knowledgeable or had the most expertise. Two seven-point items were used to measure the importance of the opinion leader to the opinion seeker: "How important is this person to you (a) for finding out about new brands or models and (b) in evaluating different brands and models of this type of product?" Respondents who said they knew an opinion leader in a self-specified category and who indicated the person was very important (the top three categories on the seven-point scale) in either finding out about or evaluating brands or models were classified as opinion seekers. The choice of the top three categories is somewhat arbitrary but includes all respondents who fell into categories above the midpoints on either scale.

RESULTS

Incidence of Opinion Leadership and Opinion Seeking

Almost one-half of the total sample (46.2%) were opinion leaders in a self-specified product class. Opinion leadership was most prevalent in food (42.8%) and household goods (19.2%). Incidences of opinion leadership in other product categories are reported in Table 1.

Approximately 42 percent of the total sample were opinion seekers; that is, people who knew one or more knowledgeable individuals who helped them to find out about or evaluate products in some product class. The highest incidence of opinion seeking was also in the food category; one-fourth of opinion seekers were opinion seekers in food. A large percentage of individuals were opinion seekers in major durables, somewhat fewer respondents were opinion seekers on other nondurables. Incidences of opinion seeking in the product categories are also listed in Table 1.

TABLE 1

PERCENTAGE OF OPINION LEADERS AND OPINION SEEKERS IN SPECIFIC PRODUCT CATEGORIES

Information Seeking and Diffusion Characteristics of Opinion Seekers

Opinion seekers, by our definition, use knowledgeable individuals to find out about or evaluate products. The questionnaire also examined general information seeking tendencies using three seven-point items: "I often read advertisements just out of curiosity," "I find out about new products sooner than most other people," and "I read advertisements because they are a good source of information about new products." The results, listed in Table 2, indicate that opinion seekers have a greater inclination to seek general marketplace information than the rest of our sample (p < .01).

Although the two step flow model holds that opinion leaders, attending to mass media, provide information to opinion followers (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955, Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet 1948, Rogers 1983), results in several studies (Sheth 1971, Arndt 1968) suggest that people influenced by personal sources were themselves likely to transmit information to others. The information transmission characteristics of respondents were measured using these seven-point items: "I like introducing new brands and products to my friends," "I like helping people by providing them with information about many kinds of products," "People ask me for information about products, places to shop or sales," "If someone asked where to get the best buy on several types of products, I could tell him or her where to shop," and "My friends think of me as a good source of information when it comes to new products or sales." The results, listed in Table 3, suggest opinion seekers were more likely to diffuse marketplace information than other respondents. In fact, opinion seekers were significantly higher (p <.01) on all items measuring information transmission.

TABLE 2

INFORMATION SEEKING CHARACTERISTICS

TABLE 3

INFORMATION DIFFUSION CHARACTERISTICS

Incidence of Opinion Seeking and Opinion Leadership in Same Product Category

Our study required respondents to indicate if they were opinion leaders in a self-specified product category and also if they were opinion seekers in a self-specified product category. Therefore, we were able to examine the coincidence of opinion giving and seeking in both the same and different product categories.

Approximately two-thirds (64.5%) of opinion seekers were opinion leaders in a product category. The percentage of opinion seekers in a product who were also opinion leaders in that same product category ranged from 54.5 percent in sporting goods to 21.3 percent in home appliances. The highest coincidence of opinion seeking and leadership occurred in more frequently purchased products: food (44.2%), health and beauty products (42.0%), household goods (39.2%), clothing and accessories (30.42) and nonprescription drugs (22.7%). There was a somewhat smaller coincidence of opinion seeking and leadership in major durables. Table 4 presents these results. Table 4 should be interpreted carefully because of the small numbers in some of the product categories.

TABLE 4

PERCENTAGE AND NUMBER OF OPINION SEERERS IN A PRODUCT CATEGORY WHO ARE ALSO OPINION LEADERS IN THAT SAME CATEGORY

Demographic Characteristics

Opinion leaders typically have been characterized as higher education, higher income individuals (Assael 1984, Robertson, Zielinski and Ward 1984). It would seem reasonable to expect opinion leadership to be similarly characterized, given the high coincidence of opinion seeking and opinion leadership. Our results indicate opinion seekers are more educated than other respondents, an average of 13.9 and 13.1 years of school, respectively (p< 01). In addition, opinion seekers have higher annual household incomes, $29,960, compared to $24,150 for other respondents (p' 01). Opinion seekers are significantly younger than other respondents, 41.4 and 44.9 years of age, respectively (p< 01). There were no significant differences between opinion seekers and the rest of our sample on race, marital status, people per household or number of children under 18.

DISCUSSION

The results of this research are interesting in a number of respects. First, the results suggest a relatively high incidence of opinion seekers in the population. Although our measure does not define the extent of opinion seeking (i.e., the number of product experts relied on and the degree of reliance),our results provide evidence on the prevalent use of others as information sources by consumers.

Second, our results suggest that opinion seeking is not restricted to particular types of products, but ranges from non-durable to major durable goods. Specifically, the highest incidence of opinion seeking was in the food category. This result is intriguing since food is unlike the kinds of products for which interpersonal influence has been viewed as most important. Results on opinion seeking across a diversity of kinds of products directs our attention to social communications as a means of acquiring product information, rather than focusing on interpersonal sources as a means of risk-reduction or evaluation of complex products.

Third, in contrast to the often suggested role of the passive seeker or follower, our findings suggest that opinion seekers (like opinion leaders are important links in the flow of market information. In fact, the results suggest the similarity of opinion leaders and opinion seekers. In part, this result occurs because of the coincidence of opinion giving and receiving. The finding that almost two-thirds of opinion seekers also view themselves as opinion leaders in a product category substantiates the belief that opinion leadership is more of an exchange of opinions and information than a one-way flow of influence.

Perhaps the most interesting finding in the research involves the coincidence of opinion giving and seeking. Our research demonstrates that interpersonal information exchanges may occur between opinion leaders in the same product category or different product categories. It is interesting to speculate about the reasons some product categories show a higher coincidence of opinion seeking and leadership than do others. Several interpretations of the degree of overlap are possible. For example, the amount of overlap of opinion seeking and opinion leading is probably affected by the pervasiveness of product use, product complexity, economic incentives for seeking knowledgeable individuals, varying levels of product interest, and the level of aggregation of the product categories.

One possible framework for organizing the degree of over lap might be the combined effects of the pervasiveness of product use and product complexity. First, consider the large overlap in sporting goods, a product category with a relatively low level of product complexity and a lover pervasiveness of use relative to food, clothing, automobiles. The large overlap in this category could be a result of sports buffs having conversations with one another about sports equipment. We can also speculate about the relatively small overlap in major durables. This result could occur because many people purchase automobiles, electronic products, and other major durables and have an incentive to seek a product expert (Price and Feick 1984). A relatively smaller number of individuals, however, are likely to have an enduring involvement or are able to obtain the amount of knowledge necessary to be an expert in more technically complex product classes. Thus we might expect to see, and do find a relatively low coincidence of opinion seeking and leadership in these categories. One might want to speculate further that products are highly complex and have a low pervasiveness of use, for example special industrial products or professionally related products, might have an even lower coincidence of opinion leading and seeking.

Our results represent only a first attempt at understanding opinion seeking. While we have demonstrated some important findings about opinion seeking across a wide range of product types, research still needs to pursue the relationship between opinion givers and seekers in multiple product categories. Because of space limitations on the questionnaire, we could not examine multiple product opinion seeking for given individual, nor could we examine multiple product influence on the part of a given opinion leader. Clearly, exploring these multiple product situations are needed in order to better understand the relationship between opinion seekers and opinion leaders. In addition, this study was limited to an examination of opinion givers and receivers for products, not for services or other intangibles. The relationship between opinion seekers and leaders in these choices are also important areas for consumer research.

Perhaps most importantly, our results suggest more research attention be directed to the phenomenon of opinion leadership as a form of social communication. Specifically, more research is needed on the comparison of the type of information transmitted in exchanges between opinion leaders in similar product categories and the type of information transmitted between an opinion leader and an individual who is not an opinion leader in the product category.

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