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Walker Sands Book Club — The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The million dollar question in PR is how to get your message to appeal to the masses. That’s part of why the Walker Sands Book Club selected Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point this quarter.  In this fascinating “biography of an idea”, Gladwell argues that messages spread the same way that viruses do, and that behavior is a contagious social epidemic that can be sparked by three agents of change: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few

The Law of the Few is the idea that social epidemics are driven by the efforts of a small group of exceptional people. There are three types of idea drivers:

  1. Connectors make six degrees of separation possible. They have a massive network that spans many different “worlds”, and they’re quick to bridge the gap between these groups. We rely on the Connectors in our lives more than we realize.
  2. Mavens are the information brokers, accumulating knowledge and sharing the inside scoop. They aren’t know-it-alls, but simply enjoy helping those that they care about. Solving someone else’s problem also fulfills an emotional need.
  3. Salesmen cannot be resisted. Their energy is contagious and people are naturally drawn to them. They are persuasive from the outside-in, meaning that a Salesman’s emotions or external gestures often shift the mood or internal decisions of those around them.

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with these particular, and rare, set of social gifts.

The Stickiness Factor

The Stickiness Factor is the belief that any message can be tipped simply by tinkering with the presentation of ideas. Even the most trivial adjustment can have a critical impact on a sticky epidemic. Paying careful attention to the structure and format of material can dramatically enhance stickiness.

Gladwell states that direct marketers are the masters of stickiness, with some of the most intriguing conclusions about connecting with customers coming from their work. Overall, the lesson of stickiness is easy: package information in a simple way that can make it irresistible, under the right circumstances. The challenge is finding that set of circumstances.

The Power of Context

Epidemics are extremely sensitive to the conditions and circumstances in which they occur. Gladwell presents the Broken Window and Power of Context theories, which are both based on the idea that an epidemic can be reversed or tipped simply by tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment. These theories argue that solving crime begins with improving more minor aspects of the environment.

Gladwell also made the argument that our character is not a fixed personality, but rather a bundle of habits and tendencies. The elements that make up our character are only loosely bound together and entirely dependent on circumstances and context.

Lastly, Gladwell discusses the power of community. His research shows that small, close-knit groups have the power to bring about fundamental change in beliefs and behaviors, magnifying the epidemic potential of messages and ideas. The Rule of 150 shows that a group of 150 people or fewer make the greatest difference, as peer pressure is extremely powerful in smaller numbers where familiarity exists.

Tipping Point Lessons for Marketing

We are powerfully influenced by our surroundings, our immediate context and the personalities of those around us. So what do the lessons from The Tipping Point teach us about marketing?

  1.  Know your audience. If the virality of content is dependant on a handful of people, then the first step is to identify those individuals. Who are the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen in the audience? What will interest them in the product or idea and make it “sticky” enough to share with others?
  2. Identify minor tweaks that will make the message more practical and personal. Content increases its’ “stickiness” when it’s useful and memorable to the viewer. A small change is a simple way to systematically engineer stickiness into the message. It may seem counterintuitive, but tinkering with the little things will have a greater impact than changing the content entirely.
  3. Do not underestimate the details in the immediate environment. The Power of Context says that behavior is a result of environment and that people are alert to all kinds of cues based on their perception of the world. Consider the consumer’s context as much as the content when developing marketing materials. Just because a message was successful in one environment doesn’t mean it will be well received in another.
  4. Create communities around the brand. Minor movements are the first step in sparking a viral campaign. The close-knit nature of small groups serve to keep members accountable, while also magnifying a message or idea. By creating communities around the brand, marketers slowly build on the group’s movements and a social epidemic takes shape.

What's your biggest marketing takeaway from The Tipping Point? Share it with us @WalkerSands.