Guest Post: Engaging Opinion Leaders for Social Change

By Nina Keim

Word of mouth has always been central to documentary films. Whether in the 19th century where the Lumière brothers needed publicity for their innovative films or in 2004 when Michael Moore got people talking about his controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. And yet, documentary films advocating for social issues often struggle to mobilize a public around an issue. One major problem is that documentary films attract audiences that are already highly interested in the issue while failing to attract non-engaged audiences. This is specifically true in today’s media environment where the number of news outlets rises every day and people can tailor their media exposure to their individual interests. Moreover, there is an increased need for specialized promotion tactics for social-issue documentaries to actively engage the audience and ultimately impact social change. Documentary filmmakers are challenged to find an adequate strategy to communicate their issue to those who are not active, engaged and interested.

Targeting opinion leaders offers great promise in this context, but also in the scope of intercultural communication and public diplomacy. Opinion leaders are individuals across different social groups who are more attentive to specific issues, care about the topic, and are very good at providing information to their social environment. Taking the role as a film marketing tool, opinion leaders can assist increasing positive word of mouth about a documentary film and recruit more people to watch it.

Especially for independent film productions which only have a limited budget for advertisement and promotions available, a positive word-of-mouth awareness is crucial to direct the audience’s attention to the film. Getting the word out and creating buzz can help independent films be more successful at the box offices while keeping the advertisements and marketing expenditures low, but there are more opportunities to take advantage of opinion leaders.

In the scope of my graduate research I analyzed how opinion leaders can be leveraged to increase the social impact of social-issue documentaries. I have identified opportunities at three core stages of the film production process at which opinion leaders can support the advocacy for social issues.

First, in an upstream engagement opinion leaders can provide valuable information and key contacts during the production stage of a film and assist in framing the issue in accordance to the overall movement. Second, opinion leaders can engage in a midstream process by applying their skills as campaign strategists, for example, producing short-cuts of the film and campaign material that resonates with the constituent’s own social environment. Third, opinion leaders can recruit more people to watch the film and function as discussion facilitators and coalition partners for filmmakers by delivering messages in the frame of the documentaries it in a downstream engagement.

Of course, practitioners will face obstacles such as opposing agendas between the filmmakers and the opinion leaders, especially in an upstream engagement. While the filmmakers aim at a cinematic appeal to the film, opinion leaders primarily seek to communicate a specific message. Guaranteeing the filmmakers’ independence will help overcoming the feeling of losing creative control. On the other side, listening to opinion leaders before shooting the film allows them to share their perspective and believe in the filmmakers’ skills.

Looking at this rather theoretical approach on how opinion leaders can be actively integrated, practitioners in the field of social-issue documentary films might ask how these engaged individuals or issue-specific organizations can be identified.

The most profitable method deriving from academic research on opinion leaders by Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Gabriel Weimann, and Ed Keller and Jon Berry, is a self-estimation test. The test identifies opinion leaders by asking individuals in surveys to what degree they consider themselves as an opinion leader. This method is cost-effective and can be adopted in both the real-world and online environment. Questions should inquire about how involved they are, how much they participate in social interactions, and how often they express their own opinion.

Even if conducting surveys is not possible for every documentary film campaign due to costs or the time required, the method can be applied as a rule of thumb in order to monitor the movement and guess where opinion leaders are to be found. When it comes to communicating a specific cause, opinion leaders for social-issue documentaries traditionally function as information brokers for the wide public and therefore hold formal positions of influence in community groups, professional societies or associations.

With the overall goal to impact social change and increase civic engagement integrating opinion leaders at all three phases is crucial to be successful. It allows documentary makers to connect specific issues to opinion leaders, to create ownership and to promote a sustainable civic engagement in addition to buzz about the film itself. In times shaped by interactive media, message overload, and challenges to target audiences, partnering with opinion leaders early on in the film promotion will advance the advocacy work to a new level and assist filmmakers and advocates not only to compete in today’s media environment but also to more effectively increase policy action.

Nina Keim is receiving her Master’s degree in Public Communication from American University. Her research focuses on opinion leaders in strategic communication. She also produces podcasts for PR on Air and researches for the Center for Social Media.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.