Or simply a variant of viral marketing?

Whichever, Mediaedge:cia UK believes it may have hit upon the next killer app in account planning: consumer word of mouth.

A study carried out by the WPP Group-owned media network, claims it is possible to identify those consumers who most influence their peers. The agency dubs these desirables Transmitters -- people who are heavily involved in a brand category and use a variety of products and services within that sector.

'Transmitters' are more likely to express their opinions of these brands, both positive and negative, and are more responsive to advertising campaigns, the agency avers.

Among the brand categories most discussed are sport, holiday destinations, shopping for home or family, education, fashion, healthy food, along with cinema films and cars. Of less appeal to the chattering classes are personal grooming, cosmetics and savings and loans.

David Fletcher, head of the agency's research unit MediaLab, argues that the study refutes a long-held belief that 'opinion leaders' or 'early adopters' are a homogeneous group of consumers.

Says Fletcher: "In practice this shouldn't be a surprise, since what makes someone a transmitter in finance is unlikely to make he (or she) a transmitter in food or fashion. Opinion formers exist only where they are defined by a category."

"Identifying who drives word of mouth and tapping into it is within reach of virtually any brand," evangelizes Fletcher. "Word of mouth is the holy grail of brands, and now the opportunities are there for the taking."

Marketers should incorporate the word of mouth factor into their brand philosophy, urges the agency.

And 'transmitters' should be targeted with greater impact by incorporating elements into the marketing mix which may seem unimportant to a broader audience. For example: channels that enable the 'transmitter' to interact with a brand.

Data sourced from: mad.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff