If you are are interested in organizational and societal change, you are probably also interested in the dynamics of epidemics. And chances are good that you have read Malcolm Gladwell’s widely popular book, The Tipping Point, which postulated three rules that determine the rise of an epidemic.

After publication in 2000, The Tipping Point was its own minor epidemic, quickly becoming an international best seller. As a result, Gladwell’s three rules compelled many marketeers and organizational development practitioners to take new approaches toward influencing people to buy products and to adopt organizational changes. However, over the last few years, there have been some studies that cast doubt on certain elements of Mr. Gladwell’s theory, and I am going to review some of them below.

The Law of the Few

Gladwell’ first rule was “The Law of the Few,” which holds that there are unique individuals in society who are extremely good at linking people to each other and to information. Of these indviduals, there are three types, as follows:

Connectors, who are people that just seem to know everyone and who keep in contact with many people. Connectors enjoy understanding how people are related to each other and in providing value by introducing people who can help each other.

Building on the the six-degrees of separation notion, Gladwell envisioned that a few of us communicate with each other until the communication hits one of these “super nodes” in the network that then broadcast the message to many others.

Mavens are people who accumulate knowledge and know how to share it.

Salesmen are the persuaders. These are charismatic people who most people want to be like and agree with. They presumably have greater influence than the average person, and it is the belief in this type of connector that causes advertisers to seek out celebrities as spokespeople.

Gladwell’s theory suggests that connectors, mavens, and salesman are particular individuals who use their unique skill to trigger the epidemic. Clive Davis in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company says,

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. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books. In addition to The Tipping Point, there was The Influentials, by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to PR firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims “E-Fluentials” can “make or break a brand.”

However, in contrast to the mainstream view, Davis discusses his interview with Duncan Watts, a network theory scientist. According to Watts, epidemics aren’t necessarily started by a handful of highly influential or connected people Rather, Watts’s studies and computer models suggest that epidemics are more likely to be started by a random person than a handful of super nodes.

[Watts] found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

The implications of this are somewhat exasperating for those looking for the new and innovative methods of speeding up product adoption curves. According to Watts, who has tested his ideas with some success, the best way to start an epidemic is still with traditional mass media blasts. Davis says, “The ultimate irony of Watts’s research is that, if you really buy it, the most effective way to pitch your idea is … mass marketing. And that is precisely what the wizards of Madison Avenue, presiding over our zillion-channel microniche market, have rejected as obsolete.”

The Stickiness Factor

Gladwell’s second rule was “The Stickiness Factor.” This rule stated that messages that “stick” tend to get transmitted more quickly and more thoroughly through the network. Examples of sticky messages include popular jingles, catch phrases, trendy clothes, and viral videos. Usually, these messages must be simple, easy to remember, easy to communicate, and interesting.

The Stickiness Factor is similar to work done in memetics , which seeks to understand why certain elements of cultural meaning (memes) tend to be transmitted and others do not. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in The Evolving Self the persistence of memes depends (a) mostly on their simplicity in terms of low psychic energy to remember and replicate, (b) occasionally on their logic or internal consistency, and (c) occasionally on their utility.

The Power of Context

The third rule from The Tipping Point was “The Power of Context.” Gladwell explained, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Citing Kelling and Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, Gladwell recounted the lore around a dramatic drop New York crime that was allegedly precipitated by a vigorous campaign to clean up graffiti on the subway. Based on that example and others, he asserted that “an epidemic can be reversed, can be tripped, by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment.”

Although quite a lot of attention was paid to the “broken windows” theory over the years, much of the attention became critical as it was discovered that crime also fell in  other cities across the United States at the same time, including those that did not practice the broken windows theory. There are several other compelling explanations for the drop in crime rate during that time period. One of the most powerful has been Steven Levitt’s claim, in his book Freakonomics, that the decrease in crime was probably best attributed to legalized abortion.

That is not to say that context doesn’t matter. But its impact may be more of providing a nurturing soil for the change rather than stimulating it. According to Davis,

Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone’s odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can,” Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it’s less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public mood. Sure, there’ll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts’s terminology, an “accidental Influential.”

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