I’m pleased to find that a new study validates what I’ve been seeing in client projects and industry conversations: social media is taking on a larger role in business decision-making processes. Social media is enabling decision-makers to reach out to larger numbers of people (the size of their unique influencer ecosystems) and to tap into their influencers through online as well as offline channels. These are among the preliminary findings of a study conducted this summer under the umbrella of the Society of New Communications Research (SNCR). SNCR Research Fellows Don Bulmer, SAP, and Vanessa DiMauro, Leader Networks lead the research and analysis and have begun releasing preliminary findings. Their full report will be released in January.

On the business front, about 4 in 10 respondents incorporate social networks into 4 steps of their decision process:

  • seeking peer referral
  • reading blogs
  • gathering opinions through an online network
  • looking the company up on a social network

Other findings relative to social media and influence:

  • Information obtained from offline networks still have highest levels of trust with slight advantage over online (offline: 92% - combined strongly/somewhat trust; online: 83% combined strongly/somewhat trust)
  • Approximately three quarters of respondents rely on professional networks to support business decisions: 40% gather opinions via their online networks and 39% look up companies on their social networks.
  • Reliance on web-based professional networks and online communities has increased significantly over the past 3 years for essentially all respondents

Don has shared one of the interview excerpts, and for me, this comment puts the study results into context:

“I find that I will network offline at events and meetings where I establish connection with many people and I use online tools to follow up and maintain connect. I may meet 20 or so people at an event and then immediately then put them into Plaxo or LinkedIn to keep and maintain connection. I try to maintain my status and activity regularly to keep engaged and keep people informed.”

The methodology for the “New Symbiosis of Professional Networks” study involved a mixed methods approach supported by quantitative data gathered via online survey of 356 professionals to understand their perceptions and experiences with social media in support of their decision-making. Select interviews of 12 professionals were also conducted using a semi-structured interview guide as part of the second phase of the study. All respondents were either the decision makers or influenced the decision process within their company or business unit, and company size ranged from less than 100 to over 50,000 full-time employees.

Find more at Don’s blog and Vanessa’s blog.

Popularity: 7%

Vendor-side influencer relations programs tend to focus on public relations, analyst relations and blogger relations. I’ve talked before (e.g. here and here) about the value of broadening these programs to include other types of influencers, such as the research leads at professional associations. Announcements today from CEA and ESA underscore why this makes so much sense.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) today debuts CEMarketMetrics.org, a enhanced version of its well known Market Activity Reports and Analysis (MARA) service. The service, available only to CEA members, tracks shipments of more than 50 CE products from the factory to U.S. consumer sales channels through weekly and monthly reports. Data is supplied directly to the CEA from the manufacturers. Members used it to measure market trends and compare their sales against industry performance.

Meanwhile, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) today releases results of its 2009 holiday shopping poll. Conducted by KRC Research, the market research covers consumer holiday spending plans relative to computer and video games. This is a timely poll from a proven source, presenting juicy data points to media and bloggers.

So what’s the take away? Why makes these kinds of associations so attractive as additions to influencer relations programs? Here’s how I look at it:

  • Industry associations such as CEA and ESA are continuing to improve the extensive market research delivered to their members, and members can become involved in scoping and participating in these studies with their peers. Read between the lines: that means helping shape the focus and timing and therefore downstream findings of landmark studies.
  • These groups are continually making better use of online and traditional media to promote their story lines, guest speakers and member sponsors.
  • Lobbying and government relations outreach extends the groups’ influence across industry participants and across government and regulatory leadership. This can add additional touch points to most public affairs programs.
  • Association-produced events extend influence to buyers, media and other interested publics.
  • Most associations are already experimenting with social media and collaboration tools for stickier peer to peer networking.
  • There is no question about the bias of these groups. They clearly represent their member interests. Plus, vendor involvement in major initiatives is usually spelled out. No wasting time investigating those points. Partner, counter, parry as appropriate.
  • Managing relations with industry associations depends on many of the same skill sets used in successful PR and AR programs.

Popularity: 3%

Edelman's TweetLevelYou can’t do influencer relations without a good set of tools for identifying influencers and measuring and tracking their influence. Here’s a new tool for your consideration: Edelman’s TweetLevel, by Jonny Bentwood. TweetLevel calculates an “importance” rating of 0-100 for anyone with a Twitter handle. And, it’s free to use.

Most of the big agencies provide their clients with pricey dashboards and services for monitoring company reputation, PR programs and more. So it’s refreshing to see this Twitter discovery and ranking tool out in the public domain offered free of charge.

The total “importance” score is based on measurements in 4 areas: influence, popularity, engagement and trust. The underlying data comes from a combination of respected 3rd party influence/activity ranking sources, such as TwInfluence, and original Edelman calculations.

TweetLevel saves you time and gives you repeatable results, which we all need. From there, it’s up to you. It can’t tell you who the influencer is engaged with or whether the Twitter exchanges are positive, negative or neutral.

How would you use it today? A couple of ways to consider even now, during beta:

  • Benchmark your top execs relative to your competitors - capture a baseline immediately; chart changes periodically.
  • Benchmark your top influencers - compare their TweetLevel importance relative to each other and relative to your expectations; chart changes periodically.
  • Explore new influencers - use it when you come across someone new who’s commenting on your keywords, whether part of regular monitoring or special programs such as lead development, customer support, or evaluating requests for media/blogger guest passes.
  • Benchmark your company account relative to your competitors - capture a baseline immediately; chart changes periodically.
  • Popularity: 5%

    While the wildly successful “Groundswell” book by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff continues winning acclaim — most recently from the American Marketing Association — Josh has announced work in progress on a new book. This time, he’s teamed with Ted Schadler as co-author.

    The title is “Harnessing the Groundswell: Drive Your Business With Empowered Employees and Customers”. The authors say this next Groundswell book is not a sequel…

    “It focuses on individuals empowered by technology — both employees and customers — and how businesses can efficiently turn them into a force for better performance.” - Josh Bernoff

    Look for the book in summer 2010 from Harvard Business Press.

    Josh is carrying forward some precedents established with the first Groundswell book project. For example, you can keep up with progress and more at the Groundswell blog.

    In case you missed it, Charlene Li started her new book project a few months ago. She’s engaging with the community in full force. You can vote on the title for her book right now — check out this post. I’ll write more once she settles on the title. Hers is due out in May 2010.

    Popularity: 8%