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The Two Step Flow Theory

What do Al Gore and Kony 2012 have in common? Well, they’re both great examples of a communication theory called The Two Step Flow Theory. In the early days of mass communication, people believed that the media had a direct and powerful influence on audiences. This way of thinking about media influence became known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory. Of course, communication is a complex process and this theory soon proved inadequate.

In the 1940s, American sociologist Paul F Lazarsfeld wrote ‘The People’s Choice’, a book that summarised his research into the November 1940 presidential election. In the course of his research, he discovered that we’re more likely to be influenced by other people than the mass media. Lazarsfeld called these people ‘opinion leaders’. Along with Elihu Katz, he later published a book called ‘Personal Influence’ in which he provided further evidence for this theory.

The Two Step Flow Theory suggests that opinion leaders pay close attention to the mass media and pass on their interpretation of media messages to others. Unlike the Hypodermic Needle Theory, The Two Step Flow Theory maintains that audiences are active participants in the communication process.

And it’s still a theory that still has a credibility today. In a paper presented at the 20th Annual World Wide Web Conference in 2011, researchers looking at the flow of information on the social networking site Twitter revealed that they had found significant evidence to support the Two Step Flow Theory. After analyzing the flow of information, the researchers discovered that news finds its way to people through a number of prominent and influential opinion leaders – who include celebrities, journalists and bloggers. They found “considerable support for the two-step flow of information—almost half the information that originates from the media passes to the masses indirectly via a diffuse intermediate layer of opinion leaders, who although classified as ordinary users, are more connected and more exposed to the media than their followers.”

The Two Step Flow Theory is also of interest to the advertising industry. A long time ago, advertisers realized that word of mouth and recommendations are a powerful way to sell products. Books like The Anatomy of Buzz are all about how important word of mouth is to advertising campaigns. A lot of campaigns set out to use personal influence by targeting opinion leaders. Anecdotally, this is something we can probably all relate to – we’re more likely to buy a product if it’s been recommended by a friend or someone that we trust.

So…what do Al Gore and Kony 2012 have in common? They’re both good examples of opinion leaders in action. It’s important to remember that Lazarsfeld defined opinion leaders as being respected individuals in the community, they weren’t part of the media, they were the type of people that we interact with every day. In the age of social networking, however, prominent celebrities and journalists often sidestep the media altogether and talk with us directly. In some ways, these people – while they might be part of the mass media – meet many of the criteria of opinion leaders.

Al Gore is a great example of an opinion leader. In 2008, he was the focus of a documentary called An Inconvenient Truth which followed his campaign to raise awareness about global warming. He’s a great example of someone who pays close attention to an issue and helps to sway public opinion. As part of something called The Climate Project, Al Gore enlisted the help of one thousand public speakers – what Lazarsfeld might have called ‘opinion leaders’ – to help spread his message about global warming. The campaign reached an estimated audience of over one million people.

Kony 2012 is an online video created by a group of activists aiming to have a Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony brought to justice. Virtually overnight, the video and the campaign became a viral success. To generate exposure for their campaign, the activists enlisted the help of several celebrities – including actor George Clooney. The success of the campaign can be attributed to a number of factors – such as its slick production values and its use of social media – but the importance that these opinion leaders played in spreading this message through social networking sites can’t be overlooked.

The Two Step Flow Theory of communication is superior to the Hypodermic Needle Theory in a number of ways. First, it acknowledges that audiences are composed of individuals who are part of a society. They actively interpret media messages and are influenced by people around them. Of course, this theory has some limitations as well. When we’re thinking about modern communication, it’s very likely that there’s more than two steps in the flow of communication. Nevertheless, the Two Step Flow Theory is still an interesting way to think about communication and media influence.


University of Twente: Two Step Flow Theory

Wikipedia: Two Step Flow Theory

Who said what to whom on Twitter?

A Two-Step Flow of Influence? Opinion-Leader Campaigns on Climate Change