Monday, October 1, 2007

The tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Roberts' book "Lovemarks" does not, in my opinion, provide enough believable examples of products that people actually love. Malcolm Gladwell's "the Tipping Point" does. Roberts talks about the inherent qualities of your service and your product, what I would call the Foundation for love. Gladwell explains why some products become loved but more specifically, how a product goes from being loved by a few to being liked by many.

Gladwell's starting point is "word of mouth". What is it and why is it effective. That investigation led him to social epidemics and he looks into what the makes something go from a phenomenon among an elite to a widespread fashion. What tips an idea over the edge from obscurity to common understanding. Why is Youtube so popular and not one of the many other video sites that came up at the same time. How did Google go from relative obscurity to being the defacto standard for search and why did the non-skateboarding youth adopt AirWalk so sales climbed from 4 millions to 64 millions. What is it that pushes something over the tipping point.

Here is a summary of Gladwell's book. This time without page numbers as I listened to the audio book rather than read it.

Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen

Gladwell finds that it takes three kinds of people to tip an idea:

  • Mavens (one who accumulates knowledge)
  • Connectors
  • And Salesmen

Mavens are the MVPs of the world. Enthusiasts and specialists. Is there a person whom you would ask about car purchases, wine, or maybe even soap? Someone who knows a lot about the subject matter and who is also, and this is essential, genuinely interested in helping you and sharing his or her knowledge. Those are the Mavens of the world.

Connectors are people who collect people. They have many interests and know people from many different backgrounds. And they want to connect them, make them meet and see what happens.

Salesmen are translators. They translate between innovators, either a company or some sub culture, and the crowd. Salesmen are the ones who take a a trend among hipsters and twists and turns it ever so slightly to make it fit in with the larger masses, hence making it acceptable and digestible for them.

Gladwell describe a series of epidemics, both sickness and social, where each of the roles played a key part. There is the story about AirWalk that hired a fashion Maven and an advertising company (salesman) to boost sales significantly. There is AIDS and Syphilis spreading through connectors, and there is Lexus who succeeded because they understood that in the beginning, they were selling primarily to mavens, and by treating them very well, they would spread the word.

The three laws of epidemics

Through these examples, Gladwell gets to the three laws of epidemics:

  • The law of the few
  • The stickiness factor
  • and the Power of Context

The law of the few basically states that only few people matter when an epidemic spreads. It was a few very sexually active people that spread the Syphilis epidemic in Baltimore, and a few people who started the Hushpuppy (shoes) epidemic.

An ideas with low stickiness factor will not, well…, stick. What makes something sticky depends on the subject matter, but a common thread is that if people have to do something to comprehend the message, they are more vested in it and it sticks better. The examples given are from Sesame street and Blue's Clues, both children television, that are sticky because the children have to work to understand them.

The chapters on the Power of Context uses the stark drop in crime in New York based on a zero tolerance politics as its main argument. By focusing on the details, you set the context for what is and isn't acceptable and change the overall behavior. The other chapter on the Power of Context is about how many people we as human beings can deal with, turns out to be 150, and explains why introducing something to us in a smaller context makes it possible to understand.

Is there a Cure ?

An epidemic is (can be) a disease. And diseases have cures. People become immune. Immunity is what makes fashion trends die, and renders marketing schemes useless. Immunity is the reason telemarketing and spam works less and less. Gladwell, does not cover immunity further except in the chapter on AirWalk and how they stayed fresh.

How can we use this book?

If we look back on Roberts' book on "Lovemarks" the reason to get an emotional connection is essentially, in Gladwell's terms to build context and make the product sticky.

When we look at our MVP engagements in terms of Mavens and learn from Lexus, we can see that we do right in focusing on the few, and in treating them exceptionally well.

We can also use this book to understand why some small technology companies grow big and why some do not. And we can think about how we stay fresh and do not make people immune to our message.

From a strategy perspective, this book is a good help in thinking about how we roll out new IT management paradigms, both in how we drive adoption internally, and in how we sell it externally. The book can also be used to help us think about how we change the engineering culture of Microsoft. And somewhere in the back of my head the little Toyota-Apple bird keeps chattering about zero tolerance and continuous improvement… Both initiatives that, taken out of context, and without the right set of Maven, Connectors, and Salesmen are sure to be doomed. But maybe, just maybe if we had….

Final thoughts

I like listening to Malcolm Gladwell's audio books. He has a wordy style with lots of good stories mixed in that makes his books good substitutes for non-fiction. Good for entertainment during the commute. I also like his books because he gets a lot out of a narrow topic. "Blink", his other book shares the same qualities and if you want to know why we need salesmen to translate from the elite to the crowd, I think blink is a good starting point.

Both of Gladwell's books have made it into what I consider the canon of new business literature along with Freakonomics, The Long Tail, and The Paradox of Choice among others.