Outside of the social sciences, the term opinion leader is widely used to allude to celebrities in politics and the media and to public intellectuals, who are thought to have and to hold large followings. In the social sciences, the term refers to everyday influentials whose advice is sought and acknowledged by family, friends, and neighbors.

In this restricted sense, the term dates to Paul Lazarsfeld and colleagues' The People's Choice, an empirical study of how voters make their decisions during the course of a presidential campaign. Expecting to document the influential power of the media, the Lazarsfeld team found instead that those who made up their minds or changed them during the campaign were more likely to attribute influence to word-of-mouth than to radio or ...

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