An interesting debate about the nature of social trends has been launched by Duncan Watts, a network theory scientist who challenges much of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertions about social trends in his breakout best-seller, The Tipping Point.
Central to the debate is the relative importance of influencers – those critical dialed-in, friend-laden, early-adopters behind whom the rest of us tag along mimicking their behavior and consumption habits. Gladwell’s Tipping Point expands upon a several decades-old theory that puts extra weight on these anointed influential few who marketers and politicians love to court. Indeed, if we agree that “one in 10 Americans tell the other 9 how to vote, where to eat, and what do buy”, all we have to do is find and persuade that 10% and we’re home free.
Hogwash, says Watts. The emergence of a social trend is governed more by the social environment at the time than anything else, he says. Like a wildfire, if conditions are right, the meme spreads no matter who started it or who carries it.
Having cut my marketing teeth before the Internet was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, this view has appeal. I still recall with wispy reverence the hollowed maxim that “the job of the marketer is to find a gap in the marketplace between what exists and what is needed and fill it.” The implication being that the marketplace is more to be surfed than manipulated.
Marketers of emerging technologies, of course, can’t look around for appetites to satisfy, they have to create them. They champion technologies that no one ever has heard of let alone needs. The benefits of many Internet technologies – especially social media technologies – are a challenge to articulate in the early going because their utility depends upon wide-spread adoption. It’s like always being the first telephone salesman in town (“Tele-what? Who would I call?”). If I were that guy, I too would target the visible, the connected, the influential town elite and hope that telecommunication catches on in Peoria.
But I’ll tell you what else I’d do. I’d target a few people at random as well, because when it comes to pushing memes through a network, what I like most about what Watts has to say is that it’s the random connections that seem to make the most difference. Highly connected network nodes, or network influentials can connect you quickly to all the contacts in their particular cluster – the president of the Rotary or Junior League in our small town example. But it’s the random traveling salesman or church choir member who may not fit into a well-defined social cluster who spreads the growth of a trend to places you may never have imagined.