In Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell pulls apart the viral movement of certain products, ideas and messages. He breaks-down real life cases of social epidemics, including best selling novels that seemingly came out of nowhere, the re-emergence of Hush Puppies from seemingly little marketing activity, crime in New York and spikes in drug consumption in small geo pockets. The findings are fascinating and, in my opinion, relate directly to what is commonly referred to as influencer marketing. The most successful marketing always comes through word of mouth. Even in the age of mass communication and million dollar advertising budgets, word of mouth is still the most powerful form of marketing. Think about the buying decisions you make, and no doubt many will have been influenced by a recommendation. Viral marketing hits are a result of word of mouth at scale.
Contagion & Epidemics
I like Malcolm Gladwell’s use of the word epidemic. I think it creates a really vivid picture of word of mouth marketing. The emergence of fashion trends and unknown best selling books can be thought of as epidemics: ideas, products, behaviours and messages that spread like viruses.
With word of mouth, as with epidemics, little changes can have big effects, and big changes can happen very quickly from seemingly small events. In fact, one slightest change in society, in the people communicating or sharing an idea, or the way they share a product, can be what Malcolm refers to as the tipping point: the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point when something goes from obscurity to viral.
The examples in this book demonstrate that just a small percentage of people do the majority of work. In social epidemics, these people are always exceptional, whether highly sociable, energetic, knowledgable or influential amongst their peers.
The law of the few
Of these ‘exceptional people’ Malcolm identifies three different categories that create the tipping point in an epidemic: Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople.
To paraphrase, in order to make an idea contagious, Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople alter the idea in such a way that the extraneous details are dropped and others exaggerated so the message acquires a deeper meaning. Any marketer looking to start an epidemic needs to employ one or several of these influencers in order to translate the message, behaviour or product into something that others want to follow and share. So, if you want to make word of mouth contagious, the most effective way is to put all of your resources into concentrating on these groups of people.
The Six Degrees of Separation theory tells us that everyone is six connections away from being connected to anyone else in the world. But, despite popular opinion, this doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and everyone else is linked to those few people.
In fact, we don’t have social circles, we have social pyramids, with one person at the top who connects everyone else in the group. These are the people that link us to everyone else, who introduce us to other people in just a few small steps.
These people at the top of the pyramid are the Connectors. They’re important in social epidemics, but not purely because of the number of people they know. They’re also important because their network spans different worlds, subcultures and niches. This wide network amongst different types of people is what makes them so important in a social epidemic because this is how the idea or behaviour spreads quickly into different communities of people.
We rely on Connectors to give us access to opportunities and worlds to which we don’t belong. The closer our idea or product comes to a Connector, the more chance it’ll spread. Epidemics happen when word of mouth reaches a Connector, who amplifies the message.
Connectors aren’t the only people who matter in a social epidemic. Sometimes they learn about new information through a completely random route simply because they know so many people and new ideas regularly pop up. But, Malcolm’s research shows that, as there are people we rely upon to connect us with people, there are also people that we rely on to connect is with information. These people are referred to as information specialists, or Mavens.
Mavens collect information on a given topic or area, it’s their obsession, their passion, and once they have a lot of information on this product or idea, they want to share it. What differs a Maven from an expert is that a Maven is socially motivated. Experts talk about cars because they love cars. A maven will talk about a product or idea because they want to help you make a decision.
Mavens know things that the rest of us don’t. They read more magazines and blogs than the rest of us (on the given area that they’re specialists in). They have the social skills and the knowledge to start word-of-mouth epidemics, and what sets them apart is not so much what they know, but how they pass the information along. The reason they attract someone else’s attention is because they help for no other reason than that they want to help.
Maven’s aren’t persuaders. They’re teachers, but even more emphatically they’re students who share and trade what they know.
In a social epidemic, Mavens are the ‘data banks’ that provide the message. Connectors are the ‘social glue’ that spread the message. Salespeople are the group that have the skills that persuade others to accept a product, an idea, or a message when we’re unconvinced. The salespeople tend to be good at expressing emotions and feelings, which makes them more emotionally contagious than the rest of us.
This book without a shadow of a doubt goes into the must read category, whether you’re officially a marketer or not, it’s in all our interests to learn how an idea spreads as each of us has an idea that’s close to our hearts.
You can buy The Tipping Point here.