Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publisher: Back Bay Books
Year Published: 2002
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In The Tipping Point, journalist Malcolm Gladwell takes a look at how minor changes can have a dramatic effect on who we are and what we do. The result is a fascinating compilation of studies ranging from how shoes like Hush Puppies and Airwalks exploded on the fashion scene to how New York drastically reduced the amount of crime within its boundaries to how Blue’s Clues quickly gained market share on Sesame Street to how Paul Revere’s famous ride succeeded in preparing the colonies for the British attack while William Dawes, who also rode to warn people, had little effect.
While it might seem like these stories have little in common, Gladwell argues that they all have certain characteristics that, when the conditions are met, catch on and spread like an epidemic. These characteristics are:
- The Law of the Few – There are 3 types of people that are necessary for an idea to spread. These people are the Connectors, people that just know a lot of people and have access to a wide range of social circles, the Mavens, people who collect information about a particular market and distribute it freely to help others make educational decisions, and the Salesmen, those who have the skills to persuade people who might be skeptical. It’s not enough to get your idea to a group of people. You have to get it to those people within the group who are capable of influencing lots of people in one of these three ways.
- The Stickiness Factor – The message has to be interesting or valuable enough that people become passionate about it and want to spread it. Now more than ever, Americans are bombarded with advertisements and messages everywhere they look. To cope, Americans filter out what’s important from what’s not, so they won’t remember much of what they read or watch. If the message isn’t worthy of being remembered, it won’t spread.
- The Power of Context – Seemingly small conditions and changes in the environment can have a large effect on how quickly an epidemic spreads. There’s usually a threshold called a Tipping Point. Below the Tipping Point, nothing happens, but once it hits the Tipping Point, it takes off and spreads quickly.
A few years ago, Geoffrey Moore wrote about how ideas spread from one group to another in the high tech market. In the early stages, the people who are most receptive to your message are the Innovators and Early Adopters. These people sit on the bleeding edge. They love to try new things, aren’t worried about what others are doing, and aren’t afraid to take risk.
However, if you only reach these first people, your idea won’t spread. The problem is that there’s a gap between those who love taking risks and the majority of people. Think of it as a bell curve. The Innovators and Early Adopters sit at the bottom of the left side. The Majority sits at the top of the bell curve. The problem is that these groups don’t talk or interact with one another, so there’s a gap – Moore calls it a “chasm” – that your message must cross to jump from the trend setters to the mainstream.
It’s not enough for your idea to be cool to jump this gap. Early Adopters like fun. The Majority, however, is looking for something stable and less risky. They don’t want to waste time and money on things that might be frivolous. They want something predictable.
You can see the difference in mindset. What causes the Early Adopters to buy something is completely different than those of the Majority. The Early Adopters do it to be different. The Majority does it because it’s safe – other people have done it and have gotten good results. Gladwell argues that when an idea reaches that chasm, it is crucial that the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen are on board to translate these ideas from a select few to something the mainstream will understand.
Gladwell also stresses that reaching the Tipping Point is not about making broad sweeping changes. Usually, it only takes a handful of smaller changes to push an epidemic over the Tipping Point and have it spread.
Gladwell’s day job is a writer for The New Yorker, so the book is an easy read filled with anecdotes and case studies across a variety of areas that back up his points. He doesn’t simply focus on marketing but on disease, crime, and other social problems like suicide and teen smoking. Parents of preschoolers will probably find his chapter discussing how children process Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues insightful, and what makes Blue’s Clues so popular.
However, because the book focuses so much on stories rather than hard facts, some of his conclusions can be difficult to swallow. His chapter on teen smoking discusses how teens will continue to experiment no matter what preventative measures we try to take. Instead, we should be focusing on “a safer form of smoking” by finding ways to curb the addiction process (perhaps by making cigarettes with less nicotine) thus making smoking less “sticky.”
Overall, I found the book insightful and recommend it to those who are looking to understand how ideas cross from being popular within a specific subculture to exploding on the mainstream market. Since it was published back in 2000, it has influenced countless business books, so chances are that if you read a lot, you’re already familiar with many of these ideas. I think the most interesting thing about the book is that it does give you a framework for analyzing problems. Big problems don’t seem as overwhelming when you look at them as a series of smaller components that require tweaking. Yet those seemingly insignificant changes can make a drastic difference.