Review: Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Book Reviews — By on March 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

The Tipping Point is a studied explanation of “how little things can make a big difference.” Gladwell combines whimsy with scholarship and story with study to create a powerful page-turner that will leave the reader full, but wanting more. Perhaps the most compelling feature of this book is its ability to draw readers in and naturally connect with the ideas and arguments contained in its all too brief 280 pages.

Gladwell opens his book with a brief case study of Hush Puppies, the beloved shoe company that ruled the American scene for several years in the mid 90’s. He introduces his readers to what he deems “the tipping point,” the point where a culmination of factors ignites the sudden and rapid spread of ideas or trends. In addition to helping his readers understand tipping points, Gladwell also examines the rapid growth process that follows tipping points.

So why do tipping points and growth processes matter? Gladwell hooks his readers with this pithy summary of his project: “The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves… or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”

Gladwell challenges readers to understand that the epidemic growth of products, trends, or ideas is the result of three key factors: The Law of the Few, 2) The Stickiness Factor, and 3) the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few states that three kinds of people are critical to generating social epidemics: “salespeople,” individuals who woo people into buying ideas, trends, etc; “connectors,” individuals with vast social networks able to make valuable connections across networks; and “mavens,” individuals who enjoy research and have deep knowledge about their areas of study.

The Stickiness Factor states that messages must be memorable; in fact they must be so memorable that they must inspire people to action. The point may sound obvious, but Gladwell believes that typical marketing solutions for stickiness, are not practical for people with small budgets. A small company, for example, may not be equipped to follow the maxim that messages must be repeated six or more times. He helps these organizations by offering case studies which present creative ideas for making messages sticky.

Finally, the Power of Context states that “epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.” Like the Stickiness Factor, the Power of Context may seem obvious; after all, big business has been doing market research for years and any successful communicator can give you a demographic profile of their target market. However, Gladwell’s point extends beyond “know thy customer”; Gladwell desires his readers to understand that people are “exquisitely sensitive” to changes in context and that the “kinds of contextual changes that are capable of tipping an epidemic are very different than we might ordinarily suspect.”

Critics of Tipping Point believe that Gladwell goes too far in comparing social epidemics to the spread of viruses and they accuse him of dressing up common sense with science. Alan Wolfe wrote, “Gladwell’s rules of epidemic behavior are common sense dressed up as science. We do not need to know about how a virus spreads to know that networking is important, that good salesmen move products or that most ad campaigns fail.” Writing for The Nation in her missive against Gladwell, Maureen Tkacik believes that, “What made The Tipping Point remarkable was not the diagrams or axioms or anything it includes but rather what it left out: that is, any discussion of the real risks of business at a moment when its sexiest sector, technology, was increasingly uncertain about how it was going to survive once it had burned through its remaining seed money.” Tkacik believes Gladwell to be little more than a clever speaker whose obvious ideas sell themselves similarly to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Readers who read Gladwell and think that he is saying nothing new have missed insight for marketing in the internet age. Most striking about Gladwell’s Tipping Point is the idea that social epidemics are collaborative efforts that occur largely outside the control of the people or companies originating the idea or product. A friend who manages digital media for a major broadcasting company shared that his team’s work has very little to do with causing social epidemics. Instead, he and his team try to fuel social epidemics with content as they are exploding; they are operating collaboratively with the market. For any individual or organization operating under an “old media” mentality where marketing philosophies revolve around the premise that brands and messages can be managed, this new way of doing marketing is deadly.

Tipping Point is worth reading because it makes sense of the seemingly irrational. Explosive social epidemics occur for a reason; simultaneously, to ignite a social epidemic requires a faith in human nature that is not often shared by designers of large, bureaucratic systems. Consider, for example, current efforts to motivate “green” living and prevent climate change. Global Warming believers should desire nothing less than a global, social epidemic of green living. Instead of listening to Gladwell and understanding that such change is possible if it makes sense to specific people in a specific context when framed in a specific way that Gladwell identifies, global warming believers attempt to force people into compliance through legislation and highly controversial treaties.

But we the people are rational; each of us knows what it takes to get us to subscribe to an idea or product. Each of us knows a maven, a connector, and a salesperson and we know how they influence us to subscribe to ideas or products. Each of us knows how acutely aware of our own “context” we are and how our context often sets both our understanding of the world and our personal priorities. Finally, each of us knows what makes a thing “stick,” and often times it is not the sort of method taught in marketing textbooks.

That’s the power of Gladwell’s Tipping Point; it provides real clarity for those with eyes to see. ‘


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