The February issue of FastCompany magazine includes an article provocatively-titled, Is the Tipping Point Toast? about the work Duncan Watts has done researching influence. The article doesn’t exactly torpedo Gladwell‘s hypotheses, as the title suggests, but it does argue that influence is a much more random phenomenon than Gladwell and a string of high-profile marketing gurus – not to mention our own intuition – would have us believe:
[Watts] has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.
Strong words, and not ones that marketing folks want to hear. But let’s back up and look at the two schools of thought at odds in this debate.
The Gladwell school (previously put forward by Ed Keller and Jon Berry in their book, The Influentials) holds that a relatively small number of elite and well-connected tastemakers is responsible for igniting the first small flames of buying or behaving that eventually spread like wildfire to become mainstream trends. Marketers like this model partly because it makes sense intuitively. We can all think of people in our lives who are consistently ahead of the curve with things, or whom we depend on as consistently reliable sources of information. It’s nice to think that if you can, as a marketer, put your message or product in the hands of these elite few, then they will do the rest of the work for you.
Watts, however, isn’t buying it. His research – a variety of computer models as well as social experiments using real people – doesn’t support the existence of this special class of powerful people. As far as he can tell, a trend can start anywhere and with anyone, as long as the marketplace is primed for it. This is borne out in a well-known experiment he conducted by building two identical online music communities where users could rate unknown songs from unknown artists. In one community, the users couldn’t see anyone else’s rankings. In the other, people could see how everyone else rated each song. He wanted to see whether word of mouth would affect the rankings in this second community, and whether any of the participants would emerge as the tastemakers.
In the first community, people rated the songs fairly evenly. But in the second community, as one would expect, favorite songs did emerge, as word of mouth took hold. Even more interestingly, in eight repeats of the experiment, different songs emerged as the favorites each time. For the most part, it wasn’t even close. The #1 song in one community, for example, was ranked #40 out of 48 in another. And there was no evidence to suggest that any participant in any community was significantly more influential than anyone else.
Watts’ experiment confirmed that word of mouth is powerful but, to the chagrin of marketers, it also seemed to show that it’s completely unpredictable.
So is the Tipping Point toast, like the article says? The most likely answer of course is no, and that both arguments are correct. There certainly are people who are influential by virtue of a large audience or expertise with regard to a particular subject. On the other hand, there are certainly many trends that started with seemingly random people.
Watts’ solution is to forget about trying to identify or engage with any supposed influencers and to focus instead on the masses. To this end he has developed a form of advertising with built-in sharing (and tracking) mechanisms designed to facilitate their spread.
Perhaps he’s onto something, but I think that developing a good mechanism for sharing is much less important than developing a good message that people will want to share. The “why” is more important than the “how.”
The currency, so to speak, of influence is the meme. There is a science to what makes a good meme. For content-based memes (as opposed to behavior-based ones like fashion trends), I like the formula offered by Chip and Dan Heath in their recent book, Made to Stick, which states that a good message is:
- Emotional, and
- a Story
If marketers follow this formula, the chances that their messages will go “viral” are much greater, whether influencers are specific and identifiable elites or just random folks on the street.
The last piece of the puzzle is the marketplace, and this is something we’re trying hard to make more predictable too. Or, if not predictable, then transparent. Understanding what makes an effective meme is key to spotting them as they develop, but it’s still very difficult without reliable visibility into the marketplace. We’re aiming to provide this with some of the tools we’re developing, because this is at least as essential to the influence problem as attempting to identify some elusive special people at the top of the chain.