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From cars to cameras, who are the people that make you buy what you buy? They are hyper-influencers, word-of-mouth marketing mavens using social media to influence sales.

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Picture the scene. It was the fall of 1992 and with a year of post-graduation ‘real work’ under my belt, it was time to get my first real car. I was a nervous 23-year-old sitting behind the wheel of a 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse Turbo. Sitting equally as nervous next to me was the car’s owner, as we went on a test drive. I was pulling out into heavy traffic, and the vortex of wind from tractor trailers speeding by the tiny two door sports car made it rock. As a clearing appeared, the owner said the following seven words to me.

‘You know you’re in third gear, right?’1990 mitsubishi eclipse turbo

I said ‘Um, oh yeah.’ And nervously put it into first.

His next question was, ‘You DO know how to drive a stick, right?’

I replied, ‘Yeah, I kinda learned a bit over the summer on my boss’ truck.’

His final fearful question was, ‘So … what are you driving right now?’

I responded without hesitation, ‘A 1975 baby blue Dodge Dart.’

So how did I get here? How did I end up in this situation, with this car, jumping an entire decade, going from a rusted sedan that my Dad bought for $1500 and somehow got me through college, to a 5-speed, 195-hp mini rocket?

The answer?

I am a hyper-influencer.

What does that mean? Read on…

As Wired Magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson has said, ‘There is a new generation of forward thinking people who are not content to be passive consumers – they want to watch or read what they want, when they want, and where they want. They want to have the ability to comment on and respond to what they are seeing. In some cases, they want be content creators in their own right.’reddit alien

This new generation has emerged dramatically in the social media era of the web, on sites I work on such as Wired.com and reddit.com. And I identify myself as one of them.

Who is the hyper-influencer?

They’re predominantly male, educated, affluent, professional, in their 30s, and index off the charts in comparison to their peers on other web sites for the following activities:

1) interested in learning about the next new thing
2) researching products
3) seek or post reviews online
4) publish a blog/personal webpage

and not surprisingly if you’re hearing the sound of my voice…

5) listening to podcasts

What do hyper-influencers say about themselves?

They also index off the charts for the following statements:

1) I use new technologies before they are completely proven or accepted by my peers
2) My friends and colleagues often ask for my advice
3) I am confident in expressing my opinions in front of others
4) When I come across a technology I’m not familiar with, I spend time to research and figure out how it works

For example, 80% of reddit.com visitors share their technology expertise with their friends. 80%!

So here is what I characterize as…

The 5 defining characteristics of a hyper-influencer:

1) Burning desire to be in the know
2) Intense research
3) Passionate evangelism
4) Rush from distribution of information
5) Rewards for your investment

So how has this word-of-mouth changed over the past 15 years?

Here are two personal case studies.

CASE STUDY # 1) The glorious turboturbo gauge
OK, back to the car story. There’s a break in traffic, but another tractor-trailer is barreling down the highway. I pop the clutch, hit the gas, and make my move. My heart nearly stops as I come within milliseconds of stalling the car, but I gain control and am on the road. I throw it into second, glance up at the grill of the 18-wheeler closing quickly in the rear-view mirror and stomp on the accelerator. The turbo kicks in and our heads snap back as I jump from 15 miles per hour up to 40 in a heartbeat. And that’s when the devilish smile was plastered across my face.

So lets look at how I got here. First, the burning desire to be in the know. I knew a car was a major investment that I would have to live with over the next several years. Make the wrong choice, and you’ve doomed yourself to costly trips to the shop and miles of boredom. I needed to know the right car for me.

The reason I was in THIS year of THIS model of THIS car was intense research. Over the previous months, I spent my daily commute analyzing every car I passed on the highway. I eliminated trucks and Jeeps and big sedans and slow, heavy clunkers. I eventually narrowed it down to a handful of models, and I knew this car was named Car and Driver’s 10 best for several years in a row.

Where did I learn this valuable information? Brace yourself boys and girls.
From a MAGAZINE in a public LIBRARY.

I actually found and posted that Car and Driver 1990 Ten Best List.

So what happened next? After equally intense research surrounding loans and insurance, I told my other friends about my find. It was with this passionate evangelism that not one, but two of my friends bought the same model cars. Yes, even as a 23-year-old, I was influencing almost $25,000 worth of products, which was more money than I was earning at my first job.

[Side note: Back then, these care were only $13-$20k brand new! I specifically remember paying $10,500 for my 2 year old version. My friend Ed Sheehan emailed to remind me that he bought a used Eclipse like me, then 3 months later a guy ran a stop sign and totalled it, and he turned around and bought another NEW one with the insurance money, so the grand total was 3 cars.]

After all the hours of research I logged, and putting my recommendation out there and reputation on the line to some of my closest friends, it was almost a drug-like rush from getting others to see your point of view and act on it.

So how did it pay off and reward me as an investment? The first is enjoying every day I owned that car, and knowing I had helped my friends. But one day at a local repair shop for a routine visit, the mechanic said I had a damaged power steering rack, and with the warranty long expired it would cost me almost two thousand dollars to fix.mitsubishi motors

Rather than get angry, I sat down and wrote a letter to the chairman of Mitsubishi Motors North America – yes, printed on paper and mailed to him with a stamp, not via email. I explained how happy I had been with the car for so long, and that both of my friends had bought his cars, and how disappointed I would be if I were no longer able to recommend his vehicles.

To my surprise, 3 days later I got a personal phone call. He said to bring it to the local dealership, talk to the manager, and if it was found to be a normal defect and not due to an accident or abuse, they would fix it. For free. And they did.

CASE STUDY # 2) The Sony Cybershot DSC-T500sony T500 camera

So what has changed in 15 years? Well, the same five hyper-influencer characteristics that I used then are relevant now, with 2 enormous additions.

1) The internet provides virtually unlimited research
2) Social media sites make product evangelism instantaneous and viral

So this fall with my blog and podcast in full swing and a vacation coming up, I was ready to upgrade my aging digital camera with the broken battery door to something new. While I had made the decision not to do a video podcast, I wanted to be able to use video on my blog and for fun. While not close to the investment as a car, I knew that I needed to make a good decision as I’d live with this camera for a few years. Here’s how the decision process went:

Should I buy a quality digital video camera?
I entertained the thought of buying a full-function video camera. The new, high definition handhelds were a huge improvement over the shoulder toting VHS models of yesteryear. But they were still big enough that you’d have to lug them separately, and the sheer quantity of movies they allow you to take so easily, leaves you with gigabytes of footage sitting on your hard drive waiting to be edited in iMovie. That’s a pass.sanyo- videocamera

What about a mini digital video camera?
I always had my eye on the Sanyo Xacti, and know people rave about the Flip. Both had new, improved HD models, and the small size, cool looks, and easy transfer tempted me. But the bottom line was, it was still a separate device in addition to a handheld digital camera. Pass.

What about a DSLR?
I had an old-school Minolta X-370 in high school and actually did a decent job of lugging it around. I enjoyed the satisfying click of locking in different lenses for different situations. So I thought long and hard about investing in something like the Nikon D90, taking some classes, and really expanding on my slight photo-taking talent. On a business trip to the Wired office in San Francisco, I hung out with expert photographer Jon Snyder. Within minutes, I knew the chasm of knowledge between even a tech geek like me and a real pro like him was enormous. And I just couldn’t make the leap to having to lug the camera.

View Jon Snyder’s amazing photos covering a Nine Inch Nails story for Wired. And on his personal website JonathanSnyder.com, take a minute to flip through “Portfolios… Book 1.”

The solution
With my 46′ widescreen luring over my shoulder as I researched, I knew that widescreen 16:9 HD was the only way to go. What I wanted was a new point and shoot digital camera I could take anywhere, but one that had the newest features, including the ability to take short HD videos to be used on the web.

And that’s when, through my research, I heard about the Sony Cybershot T-500, a new model that takes 720p HD video. Now you might be asking, hey Jim, ummm, don’t you work for Wired? And yes, that’s true. I found out from Wired’s Gadget Lab guru Dylan Tweney that there were 1-2 other cameras that already offered this, and I looked into them. But one look at the Sony and I was sold. And get this, it hadn’t even come out yet!

I was such an early adopter, that I decided to buy a camera that wasn’t for sale!

I then set about doing things only a true research geek would do.
– I set up Google alerts to track any bloggers that might have a sneak preview
– I lurked on the Amazon sales page
– I visited the Sony website
– I researched video sites to find out how I’d need to edit this video
– I learned my options for Sony memory stick storage
– And I even visited the Sony store in Manhattan, only to find out that I knew far more than the full time employee there, who told me with full assurance that it had 4GB of internal memory (um, that would be 4MB, thanks)

So with my research done, the new baby arrived a week before my vacation.  I practiced taking widescreen photos and videos around New York City.

SAMPLE PHOTOS (Click to view larger)





NOTE: You must go to Vimeo in order to watch it in High Definition.

HD video using Sony Cybershot DSC-T500: Saxaphone in Central Park from Jim Hopkinson on Vimeo.

Who does this much work!?!?!?

A hyper-influencer does.

In the old days I would have had to mail that magazine page from Car and Driver to each friend and talk on the phone. The problem was finding enough information. In the current digital world, I can self-publish a blog that reaches thousands, send a Twitter update, or email my entire Facebook list with a click. I’m helpful now because there is too much information out there and I help people focus.

And all was well and good… until…

Tokyo, Day 8 of 10.broken camera
I’m playing some type of Rock Band game in a crazy Japanese arcade.
And the next time I pull the camera out, the 3.5′ LCD is going haywire. Frazzled.

I would later realize that it wasn’t sitting on the camera wrong while in my pocket. After all, it had been fine all week. No, what surely transpired was the butt end of the drumstick I was using in the game, pierced the screen as the camera sat LCD side up in my front pocket. As of now, my new toy was a pile of useless transistors.

All’s well that end’s well for the Hyper-influencer.

Yes, it took multiple calls to Amazon.com call centers around the globe, and eventually escalating calmly to a manager, but I laid out my hyper-influencer resume:
- I was a long-time Amazon customer and evangelist
- I owned and used an Amazon credit card
- I am an Amazon Prime member
- I had a blog and was part of the Amazon Affiliates program

And like an old-school car dealership owner in a pre-internet age, the manager told me they would overnight a brand new camera to me so that I had it in time for Thanksgiving with my family. You could say they sent it to me ‘turbo fast.’


The thoughts and personal reviews of the products here are purely my own, so make sure to go to Wired’s product reviews section or download the Gadget Lab video podcast on iTunes to get expert reviews on everything from laptops to Lamborghinis from Wired technology editors.

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