Three Reasons Why Gladwell’s Tipping Point Needs a Rewrite
I loved reading the Tipping Point. I still think it is by far Malcolm Gladwell’s best book, probably because it was his first, and he had the most time to cultivate his ideas with facts and stories. And although published fairly recently in 2000, I believe that some of the ideas need to be refined based on the massive shifts in technology, social networks and human behaviour over the last 14 years.
Let’s look at the Three Rules of Epidemics he cites, and the reason each one needs to be revised.
THE LAW OF THE FEW, HAS BECOME THE LAW OF THE MANY
In Chapter 2 Gladwell examines three key roles that need to be involved in order for an epidemic to occur:
Connectors: are individuals who have ties in many different realms and act as conduits between them, helping to engender connections, relationships, and “cross-fertilization” that otherwise might not have ever occurred.
Mavens: are people who have a strong compulsion to help other consumers by helping them make informed decisions.
Salesperson: are people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others’ buying decisions and behaviors.
Gladwell goes on to say that “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”. However since 2000 we have seen dramatic changes in how people interact. Information has become available anytime and anywhere, and the explosion of social networks and mobile allows people to stay connected at all times. Today these roles have become democratized.
- Everyone is more of a connector, whether you like it or not
- Super-Mavens (key influencers) are hard to connect with, but local mavens in smaller social groups are emerging everywhere (note: successful startups like Influitive are riding this new trend of localized, higher-scale advocacy)
- Sales people cannot use persuasion alone to be successful, in fact they have been forced to become both connectors and mavens themselves
The truth is for epidemics to occur today, you are better off focusing on less “powerful” but more accessible versions of all of these roles across many small social groups. And due to the widespread adoption of social networks, the small groups can interact rapidly creating an epidemic. This idea is discussed at length in Grouped by Paul Adams.
Takeaway: epidemics today have a higher chance for success by focusing on less “powerful” versions of these roles at higher scale.
STICKINESS ISN’T JUST ABOUT CONTENT, IT IS ALSO ABOUT CONTEXT
In Chapter 3 Gladwell breaks down the science of “sticky” content, and focuses on how two TV shows: Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, took a deliberate and scientific approach to understanding how specific content improved their show’s stickiness.
In today’s world, content has many more mediums than it did in the 1980s and 90s. You still have radio, TV and print – but now you also can see the same content anytime, and anywhere – in many more different formats.
Probably one of the biggest changes is the concept of “the feed”, which is prevalent in many social networks. One of the changes that comes with the feed-view of content, is that there is implied context, based on the social group that surrounds the feed.
To demonstrate this context, let’s look at the difference between seeing a piece of shared content on Facebook vs. Linkedin.
In the screenshot below, this post by The Bachelor on Facebook is getting a ton of engagement, and shares within many social groups. And you could argue that this content is very “sticky”.
However, imagine this same post on Linkedin – do you think 383 business professionals would share it with their connections? I think not. Stickiness today relies on both content and context.
Takeaway: as content has become ubiquitous due to social networks and mobile devices, you need to ensure the combination of the content and the context in which it is seen is “sticky”.
THE MAGIC NUMBER OF 150 IS NOW 500
In Chapter 5 Gladwell reviews how the magic number of 150 comes from Dunbar’s theory that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people you can maintain stable relationships with. However in a recent interview, after studying social networks like Facebook, he indicated that while he still finds that the 150 number still represents the limit of true friends you can maintain relationships with, you have two other new numbers to consider:
- 500 – which represents acquaintances
- 1,500 – which represents faces you recognize
As technology advances, and provides us more and more tools to “help us maintain” relationships, I believe you will see more people managing real relationships well over 150, much closer to the 500 number.
A good question is whether these two other numbers have an impact on how epidemics occur. I believe they absolutely do. Think of the recent epidemic of “The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” The viral nature and impact of this challenge is unprecedented. Over $115 million was raised in just 5 months in 2014 for this cause. And it was done leveraging the power of 500 – the power of your acquaintances on Facebook.
Takeaway: although in the past only the super-networker, could manage more than 150 relationships, today with social networking tools (like Nudge) more business professionals can maintain hundreds of real relationships.
CASE STUDY COMPARISON: AIRWALK VS. BEATS
Gladwell walked through a case study of the skater shoe brand Airwalk, which after a business shift, “tipped” into an epidemic growing from $16 million in revenues to $175 million in 4 years. An incredible growth story to say the least. He doesn’t mention however that as they expanded their line to continue sales growth, sales fell off for Airwalk in 1997, and their President Lee Smith is quoted on saying this:
“In the world of cool, it all works on word of mouth. Cool brands treat people well, we didn’t. We should have paid attention to the details and listened to our innovators who began telling us, you guys are sellouts, you guys went mainstream, you guys s**k.”
I would postulate, based on Lee’s statement, that as Airwalk expanded their product lines, some of the original key “mavens” didn’t like what they were doing – and became very vocal about it, which ultimately lead to their downfall.
Beats Grew Faster, Bigger and Better.
Let’s in comparison look at the growth of another consumer brand Beats by Dre. This stylish line of headphones and other electronics was founded in 2006 and after the same 4 years, they already had $200 million in revenue.
Now Beats wasn’t the best product, in fact it was recently rated 17 out of 18 high-end head phones in terms of sound quality. But the rocket ship growth continued hitting $1.4 billion in revenue by 2013, and eventually were acquired by Apple for $3.2 billion in March of 2014.
So what is the difference between these two stories? I believe that the three rules of epidemics have changed. Airwalk existed in an age where word of mouth was still the way social groups drove trends, and they relied on a handful of key mavens to continue to drive loyalty for their products. Conversely Beats existed in the new social network era, with over 7.8 million Facebook fans, they relied on many more “localized” mavens to continue to drive influence in small social groups. With so many more mavens, they could rely on them to help support the continue growth of the business – even with a sub par product line.
Yes Tipping Point is a great book. A book with many great ideas and stories, but it may be time to update some key points – because the way epidemics occur have changed.