Traditionally the media and industry analysts have been revered as major market influencers (the people your target audience – those you’re trying to sell to – listen to). A leader position in an analyst report or positive product review was the holy grail of PR efforts. While these influencers continue to wield power, the collective influence of consumers is widening.

An increasing number of people are participating in online conversations – sharing opinions and influencing purchasing decisions (explicitly or implicitly) – as part of their daily routine. At the same time trust in consumer opinions posted online is growing, as social networks become dynamic ecosystems that develop and nurture relationships between people and the content they share.

As social media adoption goes mainstream, we cannot ignore the growing influence consumers have on brand affinity and purchasing decisions.

Here are some interesting tidbits for you to consider as you create your 2010 marketing plan:

  1. Social networks are gaining in popularity. Facebook has over 300 million active users and Twitter was declared the top word of 2009 by the Global Language Monitor. Need I say more?
  2. Online consumer opinions are becoming more trusted. An April 2009 Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey found that people trust consumer opinions posted online as much as editorial content and more than traditional newspapers and magazines.
  3. Social media content influences buying decisions. A study by SNCR Research concludes that traditional influence cycles are being disrupted by social media as decision makers utilize social networks to inform and validate decisions.
  4. People find products through social network sites. According a study released by Performics on how consumers use social networks to discover products 30% of respondents admitted to learning about a product, service or brand on a social network site, 44% recommended a product on Twitter and 39% have discussed a product on Twitter. 48% of people who saw a brand’s name on Twitter went to a search engine to look for the product.
  5. The volume of user generated content is growing. According to MarketingVox and Nielsen BuzzMetrics, “25% of search results for the world’s Top 20 brands link to user generated content.” If this trend holds, it is possible that user generated content will dominate search results as customers far outnumber the number of employees of even the largest brands.

As people embrace and exercise their ability to share their opinions through social networks, we as marketers must take note, listen to the conversations and evolve how we engage with our consumers.

As I reported back in August, Traditional PR is Not Dead, by any means, but the influence of bloggers is certainly gaining ground and should not be ignored as you develop your 2010 public relations strategy.

According to a blog post entitled,Statistics Show Social Media is Bigger Than you Thinkby Erik Qualman there are over 200,000,000 blogs and a reported 34% of bloggers post opinions about products and brands.

With over 1.5 million new blog posts every day and 77% of active Internet users reading blogs, coverage in the blogosphere can greatly increase your potential brand exposure and drive interest from target audiences.

Another upside is the fact that today’s journalists increasingly rely upon blogs and microblogs to find story ideas and conduct research. According to a new survey from Middleberg Communications and the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR), 66 percent of journalists use blogs and 48 percent use Twitter and other microblogging sites to assist them with reporting.

These findings shouldn’t surprise any of us considering the growing lists of journalists using Twitter and other social networks.

To engage this new audience of influencers, you will first need to find the bloggers that cover your space. Free tools like blog search engine Technorati or Google can help you build and research your list. As a starting point, I would recommend that you identify no more than 20 targets.

Next subscribe to the RSS feeds and get in the habit of reading the posts and comments daily. This will help you monitor target blogs for topics that merit commentary or present possible opportunities to engage — but don’t jump in just yet. Blogger relations require different tactics than traditional PR because most bloggers don’t get paid to cover a specific beat.

Technorati’s 2009 State for the Blogosphere report claims over 70% of bloggers are hobbyists and self-expression and sharing expertise are the primary motivations for these bloggers.

According to our social media maven, Susan Getgood, the success of your blogger relations program depends upon how well you translate PR and marketing messages into stories that will resonate with your target bloggers on some personal level. Unlike the news media, bloggers don’t necessarily require the story to be new. Relevant is often more important, although this space will have a tendency toward wanting the latest news.

First and foremost, make sure that you understand your target blogger’s motivation for blogging and personal interests before you attempt to post a comment or pitch a story. With all the noise in the blogosphere, you must provide real value in order to be worth a post or better yet a longer-term relationship.

Finally, make a commitment to be in this for the long haul because blogger relations are very personal and an ongoing program is more effective than a campaign approach.

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

As of this writing, the celebrity gossip scandal involving golfer Tiger Woods is still unfolding, but enough is known to serve as a teachable moment in PR crisis management both for individuals and businesses.

Woods has parceled out information about the circumstances of his car crash in morsels just small enough to create an appetite for more. He has tried to balance the need to answer the media’s questions — not to mention those of the police — with his desire to protect his privacy.

Businesses sometimes find themselves in a similar dilemma when news comes out that makes them look bad and they try to respond to it while at the same time protecting their privacy. The best plan is to get out as much information as one can as soon as possible in order to prevent speculation from taking the place of known facts in the story.

The bare-bones facts in the Woods case are these, according to news reports. Woods left his Florida home at 2:25 a.m. Nov. 27 in his 2009 Cadillac Escalade and promptly ran off the road, knocked over a fire hydrant and hit a tree. Woods’s wife, Elin Nordegren, appeared on the scene soon after and reportedly used a golf club to break the rear windows on the car to free him.

Woods was taken to the hospital, treated for facial cuts and bruises and released.

After holding off Florida Highway Patrol investigators’ requests to interview the couple for three days, Woods’s silence created a vacuum filled by media speculation and gossip, including mention of a previous report in the National Enquirer that Woods may have been involved with another woman. The snickerers online found an alternative reason why his wife was wailing on the Escalade with a golf club.

Sunday, Woods issued a statement that prompted more questions than it answered. It read, in part: “This situation is my fault. I’m human and I’m not perfect. I will certainly make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Those with cynical motives can take off and run with “I’m human and I’m not perfect,” in any number of directions, and they probably have.

In his statement, Woods asked the public to respect his own and his family’s privacy. While even as a celebrity he is entitled to a certain amount of that, playing the privacy card has its downside. Deliver a carefully worded statement but offer no opportunity for questions and you only invite more criticism.

Monday, Woods spurred the next news cycle by revealing he wouldn’t be playing at a charity golf tournament in California this week that is to benefit his Tiger Woods Foundation.

An Associated Press story, published Saturday, laid out the public relations crisis management dilemma he faces:

“Assuming Woods has crisis management advisers, he had better get them on the phone. Assuming they answer, he had better listen to their advice. Say something, and say it soon,” wrote the AP’s Tim Dahlberg. “’I was always a believer that you should come out and say what happened, apologize if need be and take it from there,’ said John Rowady, president of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing agency.”

Say something and say it soon could be good advice for a business faced with a crisis to manage, too, be it a lawsuit, a high level executive departure or a product recall. Public relations experts advise convening a crisis management team to draft a response plan and carry it out.

In the article, “A startup roadmap for crisis communications,” Wendy Lane, founder of the PR and marketing firm Lane PR, lays out a well thought out crisis response plan.

In brief, Lane advises a company set up a response team ahead of time that includes one or two top executives and representatives of the public relations department. Any public statement, or statement to employees, should be drafted by group consensus within the crisis team. While company officials should reach out to key constituencies affected by the news – such as board members, key clients or vendors – information should not be distributed piecemeal. If someone hears a tidbit of news from a colleague rather than a supervisor, that prompts rumors.

Communicating to those outside the company, including the news media, should also be similarly well-coordinated. In October, I covered a story in which T-Mobile, a wireless carrier, had to notify users of its Danger Sidekick smartphone that, due to a server failure, backup information on their phones, like contacts, calendar entries and e-mail addresses, had been erased.

T-Mobile and Sidekick (a company owned by Microsoft) quickly acknowledged the problem, apologized profusely, temporarily pulled the Sidekick off the market, disclosed as much as they knew and gave disgruntled customers gift cards as compensation for their loss. Within a few weeks, lost data had been restored for most subscribers. The company made the best of a bad situation with a coordinated plan.

It remains to be seen how the Tiger Woods situation will play out. While crisis management professionals advise a more proactive stance than Woods seems to have taken, he still retains strong “brand equity.” He’s a successful golfer, both on the course and at the bank and is a positive role model for all kinds of people. He may have some reputational capital in reserve to survive whatever additional bad publicity lies ahead.