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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book Report: The Tipping Point

If you mix up a little dash of sociology, a pinch of marketing, and a few tablespoons of analytical thinking and you get:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Malcolm Gladwell is a long time staff writer of The New Yorker who became interested in scientifically studying how "word of mouth" works. Gladwell refers to the phenomenon throughout the book as an "epidemic", but defines the term far beyond its more typical medical use. With this book, he created what many consider to be a key reference point in the study of viral marketing, which has become a huge topic in the Internet Age.

Loaded with a with a wide variety of interesting example studies ranging from the sales of Hush Puppies shoes to syphilis and AIDS outbreaks to New York City crime rates and even stylistic changes in children's programming, Gladwell theorizes that three main rules that can cause an an epidemic.

  • The Law of the Few - People with wide social networks (Connectors), extreme expertise in a particular area (Mavens), and charismatic types who can easily influence others (Salesman) play key roles in starting epidemics. Not all are necessarily required to tip a situation to spreading over the greater population, but typically at least one is, which makes finding such people keys when attempting to start positive epidemics (a sales trend) or stopping negative ones (the spread of crime or disease).
  • Stickiness - In order for something to spread, it needs to "stick". In most cases, that means the message itself has to be memorable in some way and the way that message is delivered can help it stick. Gladwell gives the example of Sesame Street making it easy for children to remember character names by making it obvious (the big yellow bird is named Big Bird), stating them over and over again, and being careful about the length of each sub section of each show to account for the typical attention span of a preschooler. In combination, that helps the characters stick with the intended audience.
  • The Power of Context - The context in which someone encounters something has a great effect on how they perceive it. Finding the right context for whatever message it is you are trying to deliver goes a long way in determining its success. Among the more notable observations in this section has to do with the bystander effect.
Collectively, these ideas all study human behavior in a different and fascinating way. For selling products or gaining popularity for ideas, I like to think of the tenants of The Tipping Point as tools to use when trying to move up The Long Tail.

Regardless, the book is at the very least an interesting look at how groups of people react to different things and interact with each other in various situations that is worth just about any body's time.

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