"Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."
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How did an unknown author end up becoming a bestselling author?
What made Sesame Street one of the most popular, and effective, kids educational TV shows in history?
And how did Airwalk become the number three footwear brand, behind Nike and Adidas?
And I guess, more importantly, why should you even care to know the answers to these questions?
Well, as Malcolm Gladwell so intelligently explains in his book, each situation above has one main, and central, piece: The Tipping Point.
The Tipping Point is the difference between lighting a spark, and starting an inferno.
It’s the difference between Rebecca Wells having 7 people attend her book readings for one book, and 700 people attend for another.
It’s the difference between simply occupying kids with television, and actually revolutionizing kids’ educational television with Big Bird and the rest of the Sesame Street family.
It’s the difference between Airwalk’s $16 million in sales in 1993, $44 million in sales 1994, and $150 million in sales in 1995.
So it’s worth to not only be aware of The Tipping Point, but to also understand it.
After all, I’m sure we all have ideas, products and messages, we want to Tip, as well.
And yes, there’s more to it than sharing a link on Facebook or Tweeting about it.
The Big Idea
The Tipping Point of an Epidemic
"The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point."
In order to understand the emergence of television shows, products and fashion trends, or “the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers”, Malcolm suggests that we “think of them as epidemics”.
Epidemic is defined as “a rapid spread or increase in the occurrence of something: an epidemic of riots.”
Not only are epidemics a result of some form of contagiousness, where little changes can have big effects, but also, and more importantly, epidemics don’t start gradually – they occur dramatically.
And it’s that third aspect of an epidemic – the dramatic change; the point at which an epidemic actually becomes an epidemic – that’s called The Tipping Point. Every emerging television show, product, fashion trend and book, has a Tipping Point.
“The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”
But what determines when, and how fast, the idea, product or message, tips?
What determines the “tipableness” (my term, not Malcolm’s) of an epidemic?
The following Insights outline the three fundamental areas that determine when, and how, an epidemic tips.
“Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit the infectious agents, the infectious agents itself and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating.”
The Law of the Few: Finding Connectors, Mavens & Salesman
"…the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of the people with a particular and rare set of social gifts."
People play a critical role in tipping an epidemic.
But it’s just not anyone. These are people with a “particular and rare set of social gifts.”
Malcolm calls them Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. It’s “The Law of The Few”.
And a single person can be one, two, or even all three of these “types of people”.
Connectors have “a special gift for bringing the world together.” They are the kind of people “who know everyone.”
Perhaps the most important trait of a Connector is that they genuinely enjoy connecting with, and keeping in touch, with people. And that’s why they blur the line between acquaintances and friends. They don’t mind taking the time to connect with someone, even if that person isn’t their best friend.
As a result, they have a wide circle of friends, across different “worlds and subcultures.” And it’s this aspect that lends itself to the “tipableness” of a Tipping Point. A Connector can introduce an idea, product or message, to a wide audience.
“Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of Connectors.”
Mavens are people who “connect us with new information.” While Connectors are “people specialists”, Mavens are “information specialists.”
Similar to how Connectors genuinely care about connecting with people, Mavens genuinely care, and take pride in, sharing detailed information about ideas, products and messages with you. And that’s what sets them apart. They genuinely want to inform, and help, you. And that’s what gets someone’s attention.
Pop Quiz: Guess how Connectors hear about the ideas, products and messages?
That’s right, from Mavens!
“A Maven is a person who has information on a lot of different products or prices or places. This person likes to initiate discussions with consumers and respond to requests. They like to be helpers in the marketplace.”
Salesmen are, well, Salesmen. While Mavens may know a lot of information, they aren’t there to persuade you one way or another. They’re just there to educate and help. Persuading is left to the Salesmen.
They have a certain charm and likability to them – a certain level of energy and enthusiasm – that you can’t help but get excited and intrigued by their message. And that’s what sets Salesmen apart.
“Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there is also a select group of people – Salesmen – with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.”
The Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context
""In epidemics, the messenger matters: messengers are what make something spread. But the content of the message matters too.""
No matter how connected, well-informed, or persuasive the people who spread your idea or message are, it won’t get very far if it isn’t actually worth spreading.
“Is the message – or the food, or the movie, or the product – memorable? Is it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action?”
In other words, will it stick?
How sticky is your idea or message?
Malcolm calls this “The Stickiness Factor”.
And the structure and format of your message, determines its stickiness.
“If you paid careful attention to the structure and format of your material, you could dramatically enhance stickiness.”
So how do you improve the stickiness of your message?
How do you know which structure and format will actually work?
Well, you conduct market research. You test the different structures and formats of your message with your target market to see which ones stick.
For example, Sesame Street hired psychologist Ed Palmer to head up their research team, and they tested the structure and format of each episode with their target audience: children. Throughout their research, they kept track of exactly when, and where, children paid attention, plotted their findings on a graph, and then analyzed the results. Sometimes the findings had them going back to the drawing board.
Now, you don’t need to go out and hire a psychologist, a big research team, and run every single test under the sun before actually shipping. The key point here is to pay attention to how people are responding to your idea and message, and learn from it.
In what circumstances is it sticky? What peaks their interest? What doesn’t?
This is pretty much like a “beta” release. But what’s important, is that even after you ship, you continue to track how sticky your message is. Otherwise it won’t stick for very long.
And a key variable to pay attention to is the context of the message. Malcolm calls this “The Power of Context”.
“Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”
Pay attention to the environment, conditions and circumstances of not only the timing, but also the location of our messages. Sometimes it’s as obvious as understanding that we live in an age where social media technology is an extremely power tool for communication.
Other times, like in the case of New York’s crime rate, it’s understanding that something physical like graffiti is a powerful feature, and signal, of a crime environment. And taking steps to clean it up is a powerful action and message against it.
I wish I could go into each and every example Malcolm outlines in The Tipping Point. The use cases he shows are well worth reading the book front to back; whether it’s Sesame Street, Airwalk, teenage smoking or New York’s crime rate.
But then this would turn into a digital copy of The Tipping Point, instead of an actionable summary.
So, I’ll close by re-emphasizing that whatever it is that you are trying to tip – an idea, product or message – pay close attention to the people who spread your message, the structure and format of your message, and the context in which you are spreading your message.
Because a change in any of those, can lead to your very own Tipping Point.
“In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action.”