The power of influentials – what if Malcom Gladwell got it wrong?

Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point has become the marketing world’s leading book on understanding how trends ripple through society. In short, one of the cornerstones of Gladwell’s thesis is that highly influential individuals disproportionably affect the buying decisions of others in the community. If marketers can focus their efforts on the influentials, they’ll reap the returns.

But what if Gladwell got it wrong? What if his interpretation of Stanley Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation experiment was short sighted, and based on a data set that was too small?

Duncan Watts, a research who now does work for Yahoo Research, was interviewed in Fast Company magazine’s February 2008 issue. In his interview, he was able to effectively have me question whether or not these influentials really had any more power than the average Joe and Jane.

More importantly for us at PICnet, we have for a long time focused our discovery process on building personas for highly connected individuals for our clients. The goal is to determine what those highly influential individuals in an organization’s community want to be communicated with, and to determine the most effective path to doing so in online communications.

If Watts is right, however, the effects of luck and “right place, right time” might be much more influential than our Influentials. For instance, Watts describes the spreading of trends quite differently than Malcom. In The Tipping Point, Malcom describes trend spreading like a virus, with key individuals spreading the disease to many others.

Watts, on the other hand, thinks a better example is to think of trends more like forest fires: every year there are many forest fires, but only a few become large enough to make the headlines. When looking back on those large fires, no one says, “that was a special match that lit that fire,” they look at the confluence of conditions that made it ripe for such destruction.

In the end, Malcom concedes we still know little of the big picture. “I think that all books like The Tipping Point or articles by academics can ever do is uncover a little piece of the bitter picture, and one day – when we put all those pieces together – maybe we’ll have a shot at the truth.”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 13th, 2008 at 8:00 am and is filed under nptech. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “The power of influentials – what if Malcom Gladwell got it wrong?”

  1. I once started reading The Tipping Point, but quickly put it down. Gladwell is a better speaker than a writer.

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