Is the Tipping Point Toast?

In the last couple of years, there's been a lot of interest in social networks – and (somewhat belatedly) communications professionals are starting to look at greater use of informal networks and word-of-mouth.  There's still, however, the temptation to look at the model Malcolm Gladwell sets up in The Tipping Point as one where certain people (Gladwell calls them Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen) have a strong effect on the rest of the world.

For communicators, it's very seductive – if we can just discover who these people are, we can focus our efforts on them and allow the network to take care of the rest…

Earlier this year, however, Duncan Watts studied the problem more rigorously and discovered that it doesn't actually work that way.  He created a model of a social network – a virtual environment where he could adjust how strong the connections were between people, how much more influence some had than others, etc.  Fast Company reported on the article in Is the Tipping Point Toast? 

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion.

Why didn't the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn't they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend–not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. And in fact, when Watts tweaked his model to increase everyone's odds of being infected, the number of trends skyrocketed.

For communications/engagement/PR this has really important implications.  As, I think, it does for leaders.  The individual (no matter how much influence they have) has less effect than the readiness of everyone else to hear the message.

"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."

Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That's because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."

So, communicators can (and do) spend lots of time crafting the right message.  Or training the leader to communicate better.  Or identifying the right vehicle or channel for communication.  All of which are roughly equivalent to getting a really neat spark together.

Instead, if you really want to ignite change, prepare the ground.  Raise awareness of the problems, shift the environment, stimulate the conversations.  And through these, stimulate the social network, don't analyse it.  Because, in traditional complex vs complicated terms, you'll spot the influential in retrospect and expect them to take that role next time.

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they've broken out. "They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they've identified the people who did it first, and then they go, 'Okay, these are the Influentials!'" But who's to say those aren't just Watts's accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn't their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?

So for communicators, or culture change agents, it's better to invest in two other areas altogether – preparing the ground and trying lots of sparks.  Some will die out, but then some will catch in ways that you can't predict.  And that unpredictability is, I suspect, why few comms teams are so far willing to go this route.