Why do some videos online go viral while others don’t? Why do some fashion trends become popular while others don’t? Why are some bars and clubs hip, while others don’t have customers? All these trends share similar attributes, attributes that allow them to spread like an epidemic. Malcom Gladwell gets to the bottom of why and how these kinds of epidemics spread in his book „The Tipping Point“.
Gladwell says that every epidemic in every area follows the same rules. He calls these rules ‚The Law of the Few’, ‚The Stickiness Factor’ and ‚The Power of Context’. Without satisfying all of these three rules, there is no epidemic. If however some trend lives up to all of the three rules, it is likely to reach the tipping point, after which there is no stopping it!
1. The Law of the Few
Any kind of trend in its early state is dependent on people to promote it. It is however not so important that a lot of people promote something (e.g. a new restaurant). It is far more important that THE RIGHT kind of people promote something! Only a few of those special kind of people can make much more difference than a lot of other people. So who are those people and what makes them so special?
Malcom Gladwell calls them connectors, mavens and salesmen.
Connectors are people who know a lot of people. They are great at establishing and maintaining contact with lots and lots of people. Some of these ties might be rather loose, but they exist nonetheless and the connector makes sure that they never disappear completely. What’s more, the connector has ties into very different social groups. He or she loves to bring people together, as different as their background might be.
The maven is someone who accumulates knowledge. It is a person who knows more about a certain field or area of life than any normal person would. Since they are experts in their field, and since a lot of them love to share their knowledge with others, their opinion can be very important in shaping a public opinion. If one maven endorses a certain product or trend, it is likely that a great deal of people will pay close attention to his advice, since the maven is considered an expert in his/her area.
To be an effective salesman is an incedibly powerful skill to have. It means to be able to persuade other people of your opinion and essentially make them do what you believe to be right. Not everyone has that ability, but the ones that do are able to shape the opinions of the people around them.
If you take these three types of people – the connector, the maven, the salesman – it becomes very clear how any of these people can play a major role in promoting something and making it tip. Any of these people will probably play a larger role in any epidemic that tips than a 100 „normal“ people. This is what the law of the few means: a few people can be enough to bring any epidemic to the tipping point, as long as it is the right people.
2. The Stickiness Factor
The Law of the Few talks about what makes something spread. But the content of the message that is to be spread matters, too. In order for any message to reach the tipping point, it needs to be what can be described as „sticky“. Is something memorable? So memorable in fact, that it can make someone take action and share it with others?
This is what almost any company or artist tries to accomplish nowadays. The product not only has to be „good“, it has to be something that sticks with people. Music has to be catchy, television shows have to be challenging, but not so challenging that the viewer gets lost. Books have to be written in a way that not only you like it, but that you also tell your friends about it (and if you are a connector, a maven or a salesman, your book recommendation can lead to another 50 book sales).
Malcom Gladwell describes in detail how for example the producers of Sesame Street spent months just perfecting the stickiness of every single episode. They tested what resonated with the children. They tested what intrigued them. They tested what bored them and when they lost their attention. All the in-depth tests that were made with young children were then used to make the episodes as sticky as possible. The goal was to, if possible, never lose the attention of the child. And this approach ended up making Sesame Street the most successful tv show for children, even though it has an audience which is very demanding and whose attention span is usually very short.
3. The power of context
As described, in order for a social epidemic to tip, it needs to be sticky and it needs to be promoted by the right people. But it also needs be in the right environment. Small details in the environment, or the changes of them, can completely change the context of something and tip an epidemic, or, for that matter, reverse it.
Gladwell describes that phenomenon with the example of the crime epidemic in New York during the 80s. For years, the crime rate had been rising. Police and politicians tried everything to reverse the trend, without success. Then, as last resort, a new approach was tried. Instead of fighting crimes directly, the focus was instead focussed on the environment in which the crimes happend. A lot of effort was put into cleaning up the city. Graffiti were painted over. Broken windows were fixed. Small crimes like not paying for the subway were non longer ignored, but consequently followed up on.
The results were astounding: The crime rates dropped damatically! Less people were murdered. Less drugs were sold. Less people were mugged. And all that without going directly after any of these problems!
What this example demonstates is that our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances. We are massively influenced by the environment we live in, much more than we realize. Therefore for something to spread, it also has to be in the right environment to do so.
Malcom Gladwell is a master of telling complex stories in a fascinating and light-hearted way. The Tipping Point gives a great overview of why some things suddenly spread through the entire society like wildfire, while other things never even become „a thing“. It is also a perfect guideline for anyone who wants to reach alot of people with what he has to offer and doesn’t know how to.