The Tipping Point was published in 2000, and it was well-received; more than 1.5 million copies were sold by 2006, six years after publication. Now, I’m 19 years late to the party as I’ve only read this book just last month but nevertheless, after reading this book, I felt that the key ideas and concepts outlined by Gladwell are still worth knowing and perhaps somewhat applicable today. In our current era where information can be spread at astronomical rates, as creators and consumers of information, Gladwell’s book certainly provides interesting food for thought.
The premise of the book is essentially this: why do some ideas spread quickly among people while others do not? What are the factors that influence the spread? Gladwell structured the book neatly into 3 major chapters (the rest of the chapters are just introduction, case studies, and conclusion), each chapter representing what Gladwell called the three major rules of the tipping point. Here, he defined the “Tipping Point” as the “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”.
So what are the three rules?
Rule #1: The law of the few
The first rule addresses the messenger. The “few” here refers to three types of people who possess a special quality that enables them to spread an idea like wildfire. They are the connectors, the mavens and the salesmen.
- Connectors are people with a large network of acquaintances and friends. Characterized by Gladwell as “people with a special gift for bringing the world together”. These are the people who understand the strength of “weak ties” (read more about this concept in this paper) and thrives from making social connections with various people.
- Mavens are “information brokers, sharing and trading what they know”. These are the people that most of us will rely on to get new information. Maven accumulates (rather intensively) specialized market knowledge and, unlike normal experts, they will eagerly share their wisdom with others.
- Salesmen are the charming and persuasive negotiator. These are the people whom Gladwell characterized as “very good at expressing emotions and feelings” and therefore “far more emotionally contagious than the rest of us”. Gladwell also cites several studies to further explain the characteristic of salesmen, one of them is by Howard Friedman, a psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, who has developed what he calls the Affective Communication Test to measure the ability to be emotionally contagious.
So, the role of each type can be described as such: The mavens provide the message, the connectors spread it, and the salesmen persuade those unconvinced by the message.
The Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen are responsible for starting word-of-mouth epidemics, which means that if you are interested in starting a word-of-mouth epidemic, your resources ought to be solely concentrated on those three groups. No one else matters.
Rule #2: The stickiness factor
The second rule addresses the message itself. To create a word-of-mouth epidemic, the message has to be ‘sticky’; it has to be memorable and spur people into action. How do you make it sticky? One way to do it is to know your target audience and find out what will make your message memorable for them. Gladwell gives an example in Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues case study about creating educational children programme. Some of the insights gained from those case studies show that unlike adults, children look away from the TV when they’re confused and continue to watch when they understand what’s going on. Repetition is likely to turn away the adults, but children love it as it helps to enforce what they’re learning. Clearly, the two target audience need to be approached differently.
There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.
Rule #3: The power of context
The third rule addresses the environment and context surrounding the message and the messengers. Gladwell explained that people are highly sensitive to changes in context, however tiny. Small physical changes in the environment can tip an epidemic, just like graffiti and broken windows can tip the crime epidemic as outlined in the 80’s NYC high crime rate case study. Gladwell then cites the Stanford Prison experiment to further demonstrate how the changes in the environment affect human behavior. He also uses several theories such as the broken windows theory, peer pressure, and diffusion of innovation theory to provide more insight on this third rule. The key point that can be gathered from this rule is this: to tip an epidemic, sometimes all you need to do is make that one small change.
Human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.
The part that makes this book rather compelling to me is Gladwell’s use of many examples to explain his argument. In fact, he dedicated two chapters for case studies alone. All in all, I would shelve this book as a fun, easy, and leisurely read that provides adequate food for thought. There are about 304 pages on this book, and that’s counting the pages for acknowledgments, references, etc. It should take you about 3-5 hours to finish the book, depending on your reading speed.
What must underlie successful epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus.