Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lessons from The Tipping Point

I listened to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell on CD on a flight close to a year ago and took some notes on it. I wrapped up my classes and have a little time, so thought I'd finally summarize some of those notes here. In the interest of saving myself time, I'm going to leverage the Wikipedia article liberally (via quoting) and then add my notes on top of that.

What is a Tipping Point?
From Wikipedia:
Tipping points are "the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable."[1] Gladwell defines a tipping point as a sociological term: "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point."[2] The book seeks to explain and describe the "mysterious" sociological changes that mark everyday life. As Gladwell states, "Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like virusesdo."[3] The examples of such changes in his book include the rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies shoes in the mid-1990s and the precipitous drop in the New York City crime rate after 1990.
Main Lessons:
The main take-aways and lessons from the book are as follows:
  • Concentrate your resources on connectors, mavens, and salesmen
  • Manipulate size of the group you are addressing to alter how well they can accept your message
  • Change your message or presentation to be more sticky
  • People are powerfully influenced by their surroundings, so make changes to that environment that can serve as subtle cues to people
  • We are moving into an age where word-of-mouth is even more important than before
The Laws of Epidemics:
Gladwell describes three laws or rules governing epidemics and their ability to achieve critical mass. Those are the following:

1. "The Law of the Few"
Here's how the Wikipedia article summarizes it:
  • "The Law of the Few", or, as Gladwell states, "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts."[4]According to Gladwell, economists call this the "80/20 Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the 'work' will be done by 20 percent of the participants."[5] These people are described in the following ways:
  • Connectors are the people who "link us up with the world ... people with a special gift for bringing the world together."[6] They are "a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack [... for] making friends and acquaintances". [7] He characterizes these individuals as having social networks of over one hundred people. To illustrate, Gladwell cites the following examples: themidnight ride of Paul Revere, Milgram's experiments in the small world problem, the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" trivia game, Dallasbusinessman Roger Horchow, and Chicagoan Lois Weisberg, a person who understands the concept of the weak tie. Gladwell attributes the social success of Connectors to "their ability to span many different worlds [... as] a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy."[8]
  • Mavens are "information specialists", or "people we rely upon to connect us with new information."[9] They accumulate knowledge, especially about the marketplace, and know how to share it with others. Gladwell cites Mark Alpert as a prototypical Maven who is "almost pathologically helpful", further adding, "he can't help himself".[10] In this vein, Alpert himself concedes, "A Maven is someone who wants to solve other people's problems, generally by solving his own".[11] According to Gladwell, Mavens start "word-of-mouth epidemics"[12] due to their knowledge, social skills, and ability to communicate. As Gladwell states, "Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know".[13]
  • Salesmen are "persuaders", charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They tend to have an indefinable trait that goes beyond what they say, which makes others want to agree with them. Gladwell's examples include California businessman Tom Gau and news anchor Peter Jennings, and he cites several studies about the persuasive implications of non-verbal cues, including a headphone nod study (conducted by Gary Wells of the University of Alberta and Richard Petty of the University of Missouri) and William Condon'scultural microrhythms study.
There were a couple things that I noted while listening to the book that I'll highlight out of the above. First was related to connectors. The main criteria for these folks is that 1) they know lots of people, and 2) that they know a diverse set of people - i.e. they are able to span cultures. As linked above, this highlights the importance of weak ties and how these actually prove to be more important than strong ties. Gladwell also talks about the connectors' importance in the diffusion model, particularly in crossing the chasm. Because these people are the translators between worlds, they can make your product more palatable or usable for the mainstream.

Second was related to mavens. These are folks that want and like to help others. They don't persuade, they just broker information. They keep the markets honest. As an example, "market mavens" keep track of prices for you to let you know when there are legitimate deals to be had.

2. "The Stickiness Factor"
From Wikipedia:
The Stickiness Factor, the specific content of a message that renders its impact memorable. Popular children's television programs such as Sesame Street and Blue's Clues pioneered the properties of the stickiness factor, thus enhancing the effective retention of the educational content in tandem with its entertainment value.
This reminds me of a book that we read at Duke called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The book extends the concept of "stickiness" explaining why some ideas are memorable and impactful and why others are not. One example from Gladwell's book that I found interesting, in addition to the Sesame Street example, was the tetanus shot booklet. The key change that the school health administrators made to the book to increase participation by students was something simple - the addition of a map and the times the clinic were open. Why? Because it was practical and personal and showed how the idea fit into the students' lives.

3. "The Power of Context"
From Wikipedia:
The Power of Context: Human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. As Gladwell says, "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur."[14] For example, "zero tolerance" efforts to combat minor crimes such as fare-beating and vandalism on the New York subway led to a decline in more violent crimes city-wide. Gladwell describes the bystander effect, and explains how Dunbar's number plays into the tipping point, using Rebecca Wells' novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, evangelist John Wesley, and the high-tech firm Gore Associates. Gladwell also discusses what he dubs the rule of 150, which states that the optimal number of individuals in a society that someone can have real social relationships with is 150.[15]
I was familiar with the broken windows theory (as well as the criticisms of it from reading Freakonomics), so I found the "Rule of 150" most useful here. The rule basically states that 150 is the maximum number of people with which we can have a genuinely social relationship. For me personally, I can guarantee you that number is a little high. But the main takeaway is that if you're looking for groups that can serve as incubators for your epidemic, they must be below 150 people in size. Your goal should be to create many small movements first. These will spawn larger movements.

Moving into the Age of Word-of-Mouth:
Gladwell provided some additional perspective on why he thinks we're moving into an age where word-of-mouth will be even more important. He provided several reasons:
  1. Rise of isolation - Teens today have become increasingly isolated in their lives. The use of cell phones, emails, social networking sites, etc. have assisted this, but at the same time has allowed teens to fill the "dead spots" in their lives with additional time interacting with their friends. This world is ruled by word-of-mouth.
  2. Rise of immunity - This is an interesting argument for why mavens are so important now. Traditional notions of value have been based on scarcity - the less of something there is (e.g. gold) the more valuable it is. The opposite tends to be true today. The network effects associated with things like phones, fax machines, and social networking sites suggest the law of plentitude. The proliferation of these things also means inundation - of phone calls, emails, etc. You become more selective in your use of these and become immune to these traditional forms of communication, instead relying on people who you admire, respect, and trust. The cure, then, to break through this immunity is by finding and leveraging mavens.
  3. Critical role of maven - As was just discussed, mavens are critical in breaking through the immunity that has been build up to traditional forms of communication. How do you find these mavens, though? Connectors will find you (that's what they do). But mavens are more difficult to find. You have to set "maven traps". An example provided was with Ivory soap. From Wikipeida: "In the book he gave the example of the toll-free telephone number on the back of a bar of Ivory soap, which one could call with questions or comments about the product. Gladwell's opinion is that only those who are passionate or knowledgeable about soap would bother to call and that this is a method by which the company could inexpensively glean valuable information about their market.".

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