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Has The Tipping Point Tipped?

Ever since its publication, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, has captured the imagination of marketers and PR people all over the world. Basically, the book argues that ideas are spread by different groups of people, and that some have more influence than others in helping an idea to spread.

For marketers and PR people, the book basically argues that there is a formula for success; just feed your client’s idea or product into this ecosystem, and you can come up with a very predictable result. It’s almost like a software engineer’s dream: given a certain input, then a process, there is a predictable outcome. The marketer/PR agency can argue that the amount of money spent forms a direct correlation with the input, and if a project fails to take fire, it’s because the client didn’t spend enough money. As a result, the right connectors could not be influenced, and the project failed.

This is known as Influentials theory and forms the backbone of much marketing practice.

All clear and simple, right?

I have always had my doubts about it. For one thing, the model fails to take into account what is a good idea and what is a bad idea. And it fails to explain how people decide what is a good idea worth transmitting to one’s network, and what is a bad idea which should be immediately dismissed or ignored. If you were a Google engineer, how would you write an algorithm to describe how these very human and subjective individual judgements are made?

It seems to me that it is impossible to write an algorithm to describe them. What an engineer can do though, is plot how ideas are spread in a time when we are bombarded with more and more information, making our attention spans progressively shorter.

Wouldn’t there come a point when influence becomes almost random, when Influentials lose most of their influence? And doesn’t this coincide with the breakdown of the “mass market”, a concept which has collapsed with the rise of the social networking phenomenon and the long tail?

I had long suspected this, but I had never been able to prove the thesis. However, the results of some serious research by Duncan Watts supports this thesis. In this article published in Fast Company, his experiments suggest that the success of many fads has become, for all practical purposes, random. The article is an excellent read.

For one thing, I believe that The Tipping Point was written too long ago, and it described a world vastly different from ours in 2008. When it was published in 2002, the book described a time when people still read paper newspapers and books and before blogs. You may remember a term then called the “mass media”.

Now, ideas spread much faster, and within smaller groups which may appear random. It is also very likely that products/services/ideas will be served to much smaller groups of people.

One example is the gaming industry where the shelf life of titles has become progressively shorter, almost to the point where the marketing industry has trouble keeping up with the shorter time cycles. Hollywood movies have to prove their box-office success in their opening weekend in the US. These two industries have yet to adapt to lower production expense models which fit in with the lower shelf-life of their titles.

Basically, they need to downsize their costs.

If you boil it down to essentials, it means that you will have to market your ideas/products/services yourself, since you know your own audience best and understand how to pitch it to them. If they like what you have to say/sell, then they will become your connectors, and push it beyond your immediate circle, creating a breakout phenomenon.

In the end, the Internet empowers smart generalists who understand technology and keep the human touch in their marketing. Dumb messages may have short-time entertainment appeal, but they are unlikely to be profitable unless there is something behind them.

And marketing cannot buy credibility.