NEW YORK: General Mills, Virgin America and Walt Disney are among the brand owners successfully connecting with influential online consumers.

Forrester has released a study discussing how marketers can discover and encourage enthusiasts using the web.

"Not all advocates are created equal - someone who 'likes' your brand or follows you on Twitter is not an advocate (yet)," said Augie Ray, an analyst at the research firm.

"Building a program can be costly, so you need to invest wisely in advocates who can create the biggest bang for the buck."

More specifically, Forrester stated "mass influencers" - that minority of internet users whose views regarding goods and services carry the largest weight - constitute the essential audience for brands.

"These are the people who combine influence, trust, relevance and scale to create powerful advocacy," added Ray.

"Fans and followers are helpful for brands, but the people who bring the greatest value in social media are not just fans but advocates - people who can and will support, engage, and share information from and about the brand."

Converting individuals potentially meeting such criteria into fully-fledged promoters is one possible strategy, although it requires a nuanced approach.

Entertainment group Walt Disney pursued this goal through its World Moms Panel, which gives participating mothers free trips and park tickets for answering questions.

It picked contributors based on their "excellent knowledge" concerning Walt Disney World Resort, ranging from recreational activities to budgeting.

"Our Moms Panel has significantly grown since its launch in 2008 and has successfully tripled in traffic and size," said Meg Crofton, president of Walt Disney World Resort.

"It's recognized as a highly diverse, well-rounded resource for families … They have assisted guests with everything from planning weddings and coordinating family reunions to providing suggestions on Adventures by Disney and Disney Cruise Line vacations."

Elsewhere, other companies are attempting to identify customers shaping the opinions of their peers via systems such as those offered by Klout, which employs a 100-point scale to rate an individual's relative importance.

Virgin America, the airline, allied with Klout to hand free flights to select Twitter members on its new routes from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Toronto.

"We've always tried to find interesting ways to engage with guests over social media," Abby Lunardini, Virgin America's director, corporate communications, said.

"Klout seems like such an interesting idea to see how you can help spread the world online."

Procter & Gamble's cosmetics line CoverGirl, food giant Kraft and coffee chain Starbucks have all used this platform to reach consumers considered to be aficionados in particular categories.

General Mills has leveraged a more direct model to securing the buy-in of this target demographic, constructing a number of dedicated websites.

MyBlogSpark, for example, allows certain bloggers to test goods and respond to surveys.

The Pssst network gives users, who opt-in, a "behind the scenes look" at the company and acts as a channel to gauge popular perceptions about its products.

Through MyGetTogether, General Mills partners with Pssst members to run real-life events with the same objective.

"If you believe that 10,000 people are smarter than one, then we become better by listening to our market," said David Witt, General Mills' brand and relations manager.

"When you have great news, who do you tell after your family? You tell your friends, of course. That's the philosophy we try to engender."

Data sourced from Forrester/Awareness Networks/CNN/Disney; additional content by Warc staff