Talk about practicing what you preach. Malcolm Gladwell became one of the dominant voices in marketing in our early 21st century with the phenomenon known as The Tipping Point. His follow up book, Blink, built on that momentum.
Gladwell is a very likable, highly intelligent, humorous, down-to-earth intellectual. I had the pleasure of spending the day with him not long after The Tipping Point broke (before his speaking fees went through the roof, thank goodness). But recently (finally? inevitably?) someone is challenging his notions about "connectors", "mavens" and "the law of the few."
Fast Company describes Gladwell's main message:
These tastemakers, Gladwell concluded, are the spark behind any successful trend. "What we are really saying," he writes, "is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others." In modern marketing, this idea--that a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trends--is enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you'll reach everyone else through them, basically for free.
Recently, Duncan Watts, a network theory scientist from Columbia University, has tried to debunk tipping point theology in the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times. He's also the author of Six Degrees. His position is that:
"It just doesn't work...A rare bunch of cool people just don't have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There's no there there."
Watts believes that you can't reliably predict who the small group of influencers is in a given situation. In other words, you can't just pick out the cool kids in high school and assume they are always influencing everyone else in all situations. He doesn't deny that people listen to the recommendations and feedback of their peers. It's just not always the "influential" people you would predict. His research shows that it's more random than expected, and that mass marketing is still required to reach the audience who will in fact influence the others.
So which is it? Can you narrowcast your marketing, or do you still need to invest in that broad mass media campaign that many marketers have come to disdain?
In our opinion at Mythology, it's both...and it depends (how's that for a good consultant answer). We believe that it is still entirely valid to target the predictable influencers in scenarios where they can easily be identified. But we believe it's also smart to build in "viral" elements within a broader, mass market campaign where time and budget exist to do so. In other words, even within mass marketing efforts, thinking in terms of "pass along potential" is critical, because you never know who within the audience might snag it and deliver the network affect to a wider audience.
Much of the decision depends on the type of campaign and audience you're working with, how easily the "influentials" can be clearly identified, how much influence they really have, and how much budget you have to work with. In cases where budget is very limited, it is often still smarter to focus the investment on those few who have the higher potential to spread the epidemic for you.
What do you think? Have you ever actually applied the principles outlined in The Tipping Point or related books like The Influentials? What was your experience?