How do ideas spread through a population, and become widespread? One case study for this would be the idea contained in a book by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2000: ‘The Tipping Point’.
And the idea that book contains: the way that an idea or product can cross a certain threshold to gain enough momentum to spread widely through a population.
Gladwell calls the (sometimes small) change that triggers this spread, a Tipping Point.
Why Do We See Tipping Points?
The answer to this lies in the domain of ‘critical phenomena’. In physics and chemistry, phase transitions happen at a certain point where conditions exceed a certain threshold. Metals become magnetic, water freezes, and LCD display go from off to on.
Social scientists also observe the same phenomenon. Sociologist Morton Grodzins, described the critical threshold when white people would leave an increasingly black-dominated community in 1950s America. Although his 1957 Scientific American article: ‘Metropolitan Segregation’ does not use the exact phrase (nor does his 1958 book, ‘The Metropolitan Area as a Racial Problem’), it is there that the tipping metaphor first appears in print (as far as I can find).
In 1996, ‘The New Yorker’ journalist, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article that looked at solutions to high New York crime levels. In it, he drew on work from the field of epidemiology. The core concept that was to stick for him is that the way ideas spread and the way germs spread are analogous. This led him to research further case studies and create a truly genre-defining best-seller, ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference‘ (US|UK), in 200o.
I use the phrase ‘genre-defining’ because this book set the standard for intelligent books that take a small, specific idea and expand on it through many case studies. Often written by skilled journalists, they fuse scientific research (often from the social sciences) with well-told case studies, into a simple 3-, 4-, or 5-part format. These drivers become the formula for creating the effect the book describes. Other notable practitioners are James Surowiecki, Chip and Dan Heath, Daniel Goleman, Dan Gardner, and Kerry Patterson and Joseph Greney.
What is the Tipping Point?
Some have argued that we are drowning in a flood of information. So, how is it that some ideas cut through, while most get their 15 minutes of fame, and then return to the bottom of the river?
Tipping point ideas cross some form of threshold and spread virally. And Gladwell identifies three principles that can make your ideas stand out:
- The Law of the Few
- The Stickiness Factor
- The Power of Context
The Law of the Few
An idea can only be successful if people embrace it and spread it to friends and colleagues. But what Gladwell discovers is that some people have a disproportionate impact: the few. This is an example of the 80/20 rule, or the Pareto Principle, and Gladwell cites this.
The three types of people are:
These are people who rejoice in knowledge. They know everything and are keen to help people by sharing their knowledge, because they love what they study.
These are people who are great at promoting ideas. They know how to sell those ideas through social influence. But they can also be persuasive and are often charismatic.
Some people seem to know everyone. They have huge social networks and are great at keeping in touch with lots of people. And, equally, those people enjoy that contact.
Social Network Analysis
Although he doesn’t reference her work, these ideas bear a strong resemblance to the work of Karen Stephenson, on social network analysis, which we looked at a few years ago.
The Stickiness Factor
Another link back to something we have already covered is the idea of Stickiness. Some ideas stick in the mind of the reader, listener, or viewer.
So a communicator’s job is to package their information to make it compelling, persuasive, and powerful.
In the world of communication, smaller changes to how you communicate can produce massive changes in the results to the impact of your message. Marketers know this particularly well. They understand the need to experiment with their copy, layout, imagery, colours, and any of the hundreds of factors that make a message. They use A/B testing to compare versions, and keep making changes until one causes the idea (the product message) to stick,
The Power of Context
The last of Gladwell’s three ideas is potentially the most powerful, but also the most weakly argued in my view. People are sensitive to the environment in which they receive the message. This is where Gladwell’s journey appears to have started, with the ‘broken windows effect’. Giving people the message to stop breaking the law in a run down city creates a conflict – or ‘cognitive dissonance’ as the psychologists call it. But, fix the windows and make the city beautiful, and you restore some civic pride, the proponents of the theory argue. Then, the message to be good will stick.
This was the topic of Gladwell’s original New Yorker article.
In the book, he argues that if you put your idea into in the right environment, it will be more likely to resonate with its audience, to stick, and to spread.
What is Your experience of Tipping Points?
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