BOB GARFIELD: The blogosphere's impact on politics and culture is trumpeted everywhere these days, especially in the blogosphere. But how much influence do bloggers really have? That question was addressed in a study released last week by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and BuzzMetrics, a market research company specializing in Internet chatter. The study looked at the last two months of the presidential election season and found that, when it came to the main issues dominating the campaign, bloggers were followers as often as they were agenda-setters. But some bloggers and Internet surfers do greatly influence other aspects of life in America. At least that's what many members of the food, pharmaceutical and technology industries think. In recent years, they've hired BuzzMetrics to find out who exactly these trend-setting influencers are. BuzzMetrics President and CEO Jonathan Carson says it's like finding needles in the hay of tens of thousands of public chatrooms, blogs and email list-serves.
JONATHAN CARSON: What we do is, we look first at the individuals that talk most frequently, but that's not the only characteristic, because sometimes you get people that talk a lot with nobody listening, so we also look at their ability to start robust conversations, what's the word counts of the conversations that ensue. And in the blogosphere, we look for characteristics like the number of individuals linking to that blogger or the number of individuals that cite them within their own blogs.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so tell me please, some of the insights that you've divined from tracking these people.
JONATHAN CARSON: For the food industry, we found 500 consumers that we feel are most influential for nutrition trends. This has been important for the food industry, because in the past several years, they've missed out on many big grass roots trends. Low carb is the big obvious example. And what happened there is the scientists said it's junk science; it's a fad; just ignore it. Meanwhile, consumers were going into their offices, looking into the cubicle next to them, seeing their colleagues eating a pound of bacon every morning and losing all this weight. So low carb became this grass roots trend that defied what the scientists believed would happen. That turned into a multi-billion dollar mistake for these food companies, because they weren't tapping in to the pulse of the consumers. We believe that we've created the bridge by which to study these grass roots movements.
BOB GARFIELD: Now Jonathan, as you know, there is another sort of influencer business, and that is people recruited and planted in bars and on line to seed public opinion on behalf of marketers. How do you know that your influencers aren't actually shills?
JONATHAN CARSON: Well, we have various tools within our database to kind of ferret that out. The kind of easiest tool that we have is based on an instinct of human laziness. When companies are hired to masquerade as consumers in these deceptive marketing practices, they tend to use the copy and paste function frequently, and so we're able to identify those duplicative messages within our database.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I've got to ask you this. On our show a few weeks ago, we had some stories about soldier bloggers in Iraq who were sharing with the world at large their experiences in the military, with varying degrees of interference from the command chain. Now, I understand that you had inquiries from the Defense Department to keep track of what the soldier blogosphere is up to. Can you tell me about that?
JONATHAN CARSON: We've had various conversations with individuals in the government, and I think that the military faces a unique circumstance where the so-called trade secrets or insider information has life and death ramifications. So, rightfully so, they're looking at the dissemination of information very cautiously. At the same time, I think the military has an intuitive appreciation for the fact that they can avoid the charges of, of kind of propaganda that they typically have to deal with in their communications by allowing soldiers to talk with that human voice.
BOB GARFIELD: I can foresee a situation where a client of yours is told what I'm saying on a subject that could affect his business, and instead of changing his product line he decides instead to shut me up or to shut me down. Has that happened yet, and have you taken any steps to keep clients from trying to shoot the messenger?
JONATHAN CARSON: We certainly counsel our clients that that is not the way to market within this new world, and it's been demonstrated in numerous case studies that if you go in with a heavy hand and try and shut up your opposition, there will be backlash. Apple Computer is kind of going through it right now. It's suing a number of bloggers for releasing trade secrets or insider information about the company's new products. There's been a huge backlash amongst a community that has always been very pro-Apple. And so I think that marketers are learning their lesson very quickly that that's not the way to behave within this new world.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Jonathan, thanks so much.
JONATHAN CARSON: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Carson is president and CEO of BuzzMetrics. [MUSIC]