Book Review: The Tipping Point

Book Review:
The Tipping Point:
How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

    Malcolm Gladwell
    Little, Brown & Company, 2000
    ISBN: 0-316-34662-4

This is not a self-help book. It doesn't promise you riches in 7 easy steps. It doesn't promise to take your salesmanship to another level. It won't even help you quit smoking. What it may do is "reframe the way [you] look at the world" (257). Essentially,

    ...the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread like viruses do. (7)

On the face of it, this thesis doesn't sound too savoury, but the argument that the mechanism whereby trends are adopted resembles the mechanisms of epidemiology seems to have some merit. Consider the following three characteristics of an epidemic:

  • The epidemic receives its initial impetus from a very small number of contagious individual.
  • The epidemic features a serious infection not easily shaken. (The spread of the common cold does not constitute an epidemic.)
  • The epidemic occurs within a specific context. (Environmental circumstance is an important factor in the epidemic's spread.)

In any given epidemic, it is generally a minute change in one or more of these three characteristics that causes the disease (or idea, or social phenomenon) to propagate wildly. Such minute changes constitute the "Tipping Points" in epidemics. Little things cause dramatic changes.

The Law of the Few

From the first characteristic, Gladwell derives the Law of the Few, according to which a very small number of people (of very specific types) are responsible for increasing the popularity of any idea or trend. These people may spread enthusiasm for an idea simply because they know and can influence an incredible number of people (Connectors), or because they know and communicate an incredible amount of information on a subject (Mavens), or because they are incredibly persuasive (Salesmen).

The Stickiness Factor

From the second characteristic, Gladwell derives the Stickiness Factor, according to which the content of the message is as important as the enthusiasm with which it is delivered. For an idea to be propagated as an epidemic, it cannot travel in one ear and out the other. In other words, the message must be sticky. The message must have impact.

The Power of Context

Conditions must be precisely right for propagation to reach epidemic proportions. According to Gladwell,

    ...we are more than just sensitive to changes in context. We are exquisitely sensitive to them. And the kinds of contextual changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are different than we might ordinarily suspect. (140)

According to this principle, receptiveness to messaging is influenced at least as much by the context in which it is delivered as by the quality of the message or the authority and/or persuasiveness of the source.

Lessons Learned and Applied

I said earlier that this is not a self-help book. For the most part, Gladwell doesn't explore potential applications for the principles revealed by his study. It's really up to each of us to find applications for this "reframed" world view in our own fields. Let me take a stab at applying the "three rules" to Sales & Marketing.

The Law of the Few is applicable to targeting. Gladwell cites Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm as an example of the Tipping Point at work. Recall that, in the technology adoption life cycle, a chasm occurs between the early adopters and the early majority. Because these two groups do not reference each other, adoption often stalls at this point. To cross the chasm, Gladwell suggests we cultivate the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen in our audience, because these are people who tend to act as innovation translators. They render innovation more usable to the masses.

The Stickiness Factor is applicable to messaging. We want to deliver messages that have impact, but we tend to look for impact in mere stimulation. We use flash and shock value to capture attention, but it is not enough to merely capture that attention. Gladwell cites testing done by the developers of children's shows such as Sesame Street and Blue's Clues, in which it was discovered that children do not pay attention when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. Rather, they pay attention when they understand, and look away when they are confused. Thus, to have impact, messaging must engender understanding. We understand what affects us profoundly, both personally and professionally.

The Power of Context is applicable to general market conditions. Successful Sales & Marketing campaigns require not merely an awareness of your product's qualities and your immediate competitive advantage, but also an accurate view of market conditions.

Of course, the reason Gladwell doesn't pursue real-world applications for his world view is that it is very difficult to identify and manipulate the small changes that will trigger epidemics. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the actions required are often counter-intuitive, and when we try to tweak targeting, messaging, and context, our efforts may even have the opposite effect from that intended.

Measure, Measure, and Measure Again

Herein lies what may be the greatest insight Sales & Marketing professionals can derive from this book: measurement is the critical activity in Sales & Marketing campaigns. Markets are complex, and targeting and messaging are inexact sciences at best, so it is critical that organizations measure the results of their campaigns, and use those results to adjust targeting and messaging. There are numerous direct marketing campaign management and Web analytics tools that organizations can adopt to automate this kind of information gathering and analysis. Given the lessons of the Tipping Point, such tools may offer significant value.

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Copyright © 2007, Tom Woodhead | Last Updated December 22, 2007