When you want to buy a new BBQ, whom do you ask? If you want to know which smartphone to buy, what blog do you read? And if you're looking for a school in which to enroll your child, whose advice do you seek?

Those people you're calling, emailing, or reading—they're special... the alpha crowd: They are influencers. Not just one person or type, influencers are many people who form a unique profile. Parts of that profile are common across the entire group of influencers, and many are specific to the category we're talking about. So, the school advice might come from the BBQ expert, but probably not.

In this Web 2.0 era of ready access to information everywhere, anytime, we've got a new class of people to whom business and marketing people can and should pay attention.

Those of you old enough to remember, there was a time when you couldn't Google up information to find out what the opinion makers and advocates were thinking. Amazon didn't exist, so we couldn't see what others worldwide thought of a book and learn of its sales ranking. Instead, we had to go to places like churches or synagogues, grocery stores and book clubs, and ultimately hang around with neighbors to find out what "the news" was.

That's because influencers were active, engaged members of local communities. They've always existed—opinion makers and opinion leaders. What's different now? Today they have a much bigger bullhorn available to them—it's called the Web. Where they once talked to 100 people in a month, they can now reach thousands or tens of thousands with a single click, comment, or ranking process.

These alpha influencers are the key to other customers' awareness, consideration, preference, and purchase. They advocate, rank, sort, evaluate, and ultimately create marketplace adoption. They come in the form of users, developers, channel partners, and press people. Many PR people have thought of influencers as "their audience" or writers, but influencers are way more than analysts and writers. They are ultimately the tip of the market.

I recently read the book Influentials by Ed Keller and Jon Berry. This is a great resource for getting some frame of reference on the core aspects of influencers.

Influencers are key conduits of information. It's as if your Aunt Louise suddenly became the world's leading authority on nonfat yogurt and people throughout the world recognized her. Influencers know many people and are in contact with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people in the course of a week. They have a powerful multiplier effect, spreading the word quickly across a broad network when they find something they want others to know about.

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Nilofer Merchant is the CEO of Rubicon Consulting (www.rubiconconsulting.com), a strategy and marketing consultancy based in Silicon Valley that solves complex business challenges for high-tech companies.