The Influence of Active Online Users

The Influence of Active Online Users

We active online users like to think of ourselves as savvy, hip and influential. We have access to the latest information technology, and more importantly, know how to use it to its full potential. Sure, when we take things to an extreme, we become nerds, isolated from other spheres of life. But used in perspective, PCs and the Internet are empowering.
Just how empowering? Both more, and less, than you might think.
Through their skillful use of communications, the 11 million heavy online users in the United States influence the buying decisions of 155 million consumers both online and offline, according to research by Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm based in New York City.
The company describes these active Internet users as opinion-leaders and has coined a name for them: “e-fluentials.”
“An e-fluential is the rock that starts the ripple,” says Leslie Gaines-Ross, the company’s chief knowledge officer and architect of its research. “Each one communicates with an average of 14 people, so word travels in ever-widening circles, growing exponentially with each successive wave.”
Burson-Marsteller’s research points to the importance of companies maintaining an easy-to-use, continually updated Web site and being responsive to e-mail. “Remarkable few companies respond very well or very often,” she says.
Despite the advent of upstart tools such as instant messaging, e-mail is still the most widely used electronic communications medium. But how influential is it? Not very. You’ll likely get more satisfaction using a more traditional medium.
Say you’re having a problem with a new product you just bought. You could send the company an e-mail message, spelling out your gripe. Or you could visit a “grievance site” such as PlanetFeedback, at <www.planetfeedback.com>, or Complaints.com, at <www.complaints.com>. These sites typically post your complaint to their site and forward it via e-mail to the company that made the product.
Too often, however, when a company receives your complaint via e-mail, you’ll just receive an impersonal, canned e-mail message in response.
Similarly, don’t expect to reach a human being when e-mailing your senator or representative if you have a gripe or would like to communicate your views about an issue. Sometimes your e-mail isn’t even acknowledged, and when it is, the acknowledgement is typically automated and canned.
The reasons are clear. E-mail is so easy to send, and so easy to send in quantity, that companies and congressional offices alike are inundated with it. With e-mail, it’s also easy to hide or fake who you are. For these reasons, some congressional offices have stopped disclosing e-mail addresses to the public.
Nonetheless, the Web sites of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives let you quickly locate contact information for your elected representatives, at <www.senate.gov/contacting> and <www.house.gov/writerep> respectively.
But if you want a response, you’re often better off using a slower and less efficient communications medium — the U.S. Postal Service. (Recent anthrax concerns have caused slowdowns in mail to Washington, so it can be faster to send mail to local congressional offices.) Though you still may receive only a canned response, chances are better that someone will actually read your words.
Trying to leverage information technology, many congressional offices do allow you to communicate by filling out forms at the legislator’s Web site, a process that’s only slightly slower than sending e-mail.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is one of a number of politicians who have come up with a fairly balanced approach. If you send him e-mail, you’ll get back an auto-reply, though an impersonal one thanking you for taking the time to write.
But your views are then forwarded to the legislative correspondent who deals with the issue you’ve written about, according to Bill Reynolds, Specter’s communications director. “We look at this information as a tally of how constituents feel about particular issues,” he says.
In the auto-reply from Specter, you’re also directed to the senator’s Web site if you want a personal reply or more information. There, as long as you provide your address, you can fill out a form stating your views about one of 35 different issues you need to choose among, from abortion to veterans’ affairs. Knowing you are who you say you are, a legislative correspondent responsible for that issue can contact you via e-mail, postal mail or telephone.
To be most empowering, information technology needs to be used responsibly. Senders need to use the technology, not abuse it. And recipients need to take seriously the messages others send, which at the very least, means reading them.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or <www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column>.



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