The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
I enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the way he weaves real-life stories into his concepts makes them engaging and easy to understand. Malcolm Gladwell, in the afterward, says that the mystery of word-of-mouth is one of the things that motivated him to write The Tipping Point.
This is the first time I’ve been exposed to the concept of connectors, mavens, and salesmen in this way. It was a fascinating read and has given me another useful mental-model.
My Favorite Quotes
- The first lesson of the tipping point: starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas.
- The power of context says that what really matters is little things.
- The power of context says that tipping points can be as simple and trivial as everyday signs of disorder like graffiti and fair beating.
- Most men feel strongly about few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time.
- Why do some ideas, behaviors, or products start epidemics and others don’t?
- What can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?
- Why do some ideas, trends, and messages tip, and others don’t?
- Why did Paul Revere succeed where William Dawes failed?
- What makes someone a connector?
- What makes someone or something persuasive?
- Is there a simple rule of thumb that distinguishes a group with real social authority from a group with little power at all?
- Is there a way of finding the mavens in every market?
Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: The Three Rules of Epidemics
- Chapter 2: The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen
- Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor: Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and the Educational Virus
- Chapter 4: The Power of Context (Part One): Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime
- Chapter 5: The Power of Context (Part Two): The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty
- Chapter 6: Case Study: Rumors, Sneakers, and the Power of Translation
- Chapter 7: Case Study
- Conclusion: Focus, Test, and Believe
- Afterword: Tipping Point Lessons from the Real World
The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea. The best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, the transformation of unknown books into best sellers, or the phenomenon of word of mouth, is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas, products, messages, and behaviors spread just like viruses do.
Hush Puppies shoes and the fall of New York’s Crime rate are textbook examples of epidemics in action. They share a basic underlying pattern.
Three Traits of Epidemics
- Little causes can have big effects
- Change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment
The third trait, the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment, is the most important. It is the principle that makes sense of the first two.
The name given to the one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is “the tipping point.”
If there can be epidemics of crime or fashion, there must be all kinds of things just as contagious as viruses. For instance, yawning is an example of something contagious.
Contagiousness is an unexpected property of all kinds of things, we have to remember that if we are to recognize and diagnose epidemic change.
The possibility of sudden change is at the center of the idea of the tipping point.
The point of this book is to answer two questions that lie at the heart of what we would all like to accomplish as educators, parents, marketers, businesspeople, and policymakers.
- Why do some ideas, behaviors, or products start epidemics and others don’t?
- What can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?
Chapter 1: The Three Rules of Epidemics
Epidemics are a function of:
- The people who transmit infectious agents.
- The infectious agent itself.
- The environment in which the infectious agent is operating.
When an epidemic tips, when it is jolted out of equilibrium, it tips because something has happened. Some change has occurred in one or more of these areas.
The author calls these three agents of change “The Three Rules of the Tipping Point” which are:
- The Law of the Few
- The Stickiness Factor
- The Power of Context
Social epidemics are driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people.
What sets them apart:
- How sociable they are.
- How energetic they are.
- How knowledgeable they are.
- How influential they are among their peers.
Epidemics also sometimes tip when something happens to transform the epidemic agent itself.
Stickiness means that a message makes an impact, you can’t get it out of your head, it sticks in your memory.
Unless you remember what I tell you, why would you ever change your behavior or buy my product?
The stickiness factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable. Simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes
When people are in a group, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will take action.
The three rules of the tipping point are a way of making sense of epidemics. They provide us with direction for how to reach a tipping point. The rest of this book will take these ideas and apply them to other puzzling situations and epidemics in the world around us. For example. how do these three rules help us understand the phenomenon of word of mouth?
Chapter 2: The Law of the Few: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen
Word of mouth remains mysterious. Why do some ideas, trends, and messages tip, and others don’t?
Why did Paul Revere succeed where William Dawes failed? The answer is that the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts. Revere’s news tipped and Dawes’ didn’t because of the difference between the two men. This is the Law of the Few.
This chapter is about the people critical to social epidemics and what makes someone like Paul Revere different from William Dawes. These kinds of people are all around us, the author calls them connectors, mavens, and salesmen.
What friends usually share are similar activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with as much as we are with people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends, we associate with the people who occupy the same small physical spaces that we do.
Six Degrees of Separation means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few. He references a study done by Stanley Milgram on this topic.
To explore this idea, make a list of the 40 people you would call your circle of friends, not including family and co-workers. Trace backward until you can identify the person who is ultimately responsible for setting in motion the series of connections that led to that friendship.
The people who link us to the world are connectors, people with a special gift of bringing the world together.
What makes someone a connector?
The first and most obvious criterion is that connectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people that know everyone. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking of the importance of these kinds of people.
Sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack for making friends and acquaintances. They are connectors.
Connectors have mastered what sociologists call the “weak tie,” a friendly yet casual social connection.
Connectors are important because of the number of people they know, but also because of the kinds of people they know.
Connectors’ ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.
Connectors see things differently, they do not see the same world that everyone else sees, they see possibility.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter published a paper The Strength of Weak Ties. He determined that acquaintances represent a source of social power. The more acquaintances you have, the more powerful you are.
Paul Revere was a connector. He was gregarious and intensely social.
Word-of-mouth epidemics are the work of connectors. However, connectors are not the only people who matter in a social epidemic.
Mavens are the second of the three kinds of people who control word-of-mouth epidemics.
Just as there are people we rely on to connect us to other people, there are also people we rely on to connect us with new information. There are people specialists and there are information specialists. Paul Revere was a connector, but he was also a maven.
The word maven comes from the Yiddish and means “one who accumulates knowledge.”
Price vigilantes or “market mavens” keep the marketplace honest.
Mavens aren’t just passive collectors of information. They aren’t just obsessed with how to get the information (best prices, products, etc). What sets them apart is they also want to tell you about it. A maven is a person who has information on a lot of different products, prices, or places. This person likes to initiate discussions with consumers and respond to requests.
Mavens are more than just experts, they are also socially motivated.
The author spends a lot of time discussing Mark Alpert as an example of a market maven and suggests looking him up.
What makes people like Mark Alpert so important in starting social epidemics?
They know things that the rest of us don’t. Mark Alpert is a connoisseur of electronic equipment.
Mavens have the knowledge and the social skills to start word-of-mouth social epidemics. What sets mavens apart is not so much what they know, but how they pass it along. The fact that mavens want to help for no other reason than because they like to help, is an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention.
A connector might tell ten friends where to stay in Los Angeles, and five of them might take his advice. A maven might tell five friends where to stay in Los Angeles, but make the case so emphatically that all of them would take his advice.
These are two different personalities at work, acting for different reasons, but they both have the power to spark word-of-mouth epidemics.
The one thing a maven is not is a persuader. They want to educate and help, a maven doesn’t want to twist your arm.
To be a maven is to be a teacher, but is also more emphatically to be a student. Mavens are information brokers sharing and trading what they know.
- Mavens are databanks, they provide the message.
- Connectors are social glue, they spread the message.
- Salesmen persuade us of the message when we are unconvinced.
What makes someone or something persuasive?
We know it when we see it, but it’s not always obvious.
Little things can make as much of a difference as big things.
Non-verbal cues are as, or more important, than verbal cues.
The subtle circumstances surrounding how we say things may matter more than what we say.
Emotion can work from outside to inside. If I can make you smile, I can make you happy.
Some people have an enormous influence over others.
People who are very good at expressing emotions and feelings are far more emotionally contagious than others. Psychologists call these people “senders.”
Senders have special personalities and are physiologically different.
Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor: Sesame Street, Blue’s Clues, and the Educational Virus
Sesame Street succeeded because it learned how to make the television message sticky.
The content of the message matters as much as the messenger.
The specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of stickiness. Is the message, food, movie, or product memorable? Is it so memorable that it can create change and spur someone to action?
In the advertising world, direct marketers are the real students of stickiness.
This chapter references Lester Wunderman, a member of the Advertising Hall of Fame, and the “Gold Box” direct marketing campaign he created.
If you look closely at epidemic ideas or messages, as often as not, the elements that make them sticky are small and seemingly trivial.
Once advice becomes practical and personal, it becomes memorable.
We have become overwhelmed by people clamoring for our attention.
Advertisers call this surfeit of information “the clutter problem.” Clutter has made it harder and harder to get any single message to stick.
The information age has created a stickiness problem.
There may be simple ways to enhance stickiness and systematically engineer stickiness into a message.
Sesame Street was built upon a single breakthrough insight: If you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.
Kids don’t watch when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored; they watch when they understand and look away when they are confused.
This was the lesson from Sesame Street. If you pay careful attention to the structure and format of your material, you can dramatically enhance stickiness.
Is it possible to make a show even stickier than Sesame Street?
Blue’s Clues may be one of the stickiest television shows ever made. How is it that such an unprepossessing show is even stickier than Sesame Street?
Sesame Street has a number of subtle limitations. For example, insistence on being clever.
Preschoolers are surrounded by things they don’t understand, things that are novel. So the driving force is not a search for novelty like it is for older kids. The driving force for a preschooler is a search for understanding and predictability. For younger kids repetition is valuable.
The Law of the Few says that there are exceptional people who are capable of starting epidemics, all you have to do is find them.
The Lesson of Stickiness says there is a simple way of packaging information that can make it irresistible under the right circumstances. All you have to do is find it.
Ideas have to be memorable and move us to action.
Chapter 4: The Power of Context (Part One): Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime
The law of the few looked at the kinds of people who are critical in spreading information.
The lesson of stickiness suggests that ideas have to be memorable and move us to action.
The subject of this chapter is the power of context. Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.
Something clearly played a role in reversing New York City’s crime epidemic. The most intriguing candidate is the Broken Windows Theory.
The tipping point in some epidemics can be something physical like, in the case of crime, graffiti, or broken windows.
The first step in improving New York City’s crime was covering graffiti and attacking fair beating.
Broken Windows Theory and The Power of Context are one and the same. They are both based on the premise that an epidemic can be reversed (or tipped) by tinkering with the smallest details.
Broken windows and the power of context suggest that people are acutely sensitive to their environment. The power of context suggests that behavior is a function of social context.
The power of context says that what really matters is little things. The power of context says that you don’t have to solve the big problems to solve crime, you can prevent crimes just by scrubbing off graffiti and arresting fair beaters.
What we think of as inner states such as preferences and emotions, are powerfully and imperceptibly influenced by seemingly inconsequential personal influences.
The essence of the power of context is that, in ways that we don’t always notice, our inner states are the result of our outer circumstances. There are many studies that show this, for example, the Stanford Prison Experiment.
There are specific situations that are so powerful they can overwhelm our inherent predispositions. There are instances where you can powerfully affect people’s behavior by changing the immediate details of their situation.
The fundamental attribution error: when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably overestimate the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimate the importance of the situation and context. We often look for a dispositional explanation for events as opposed to a contextual explanation.
There is something instinctive in all of us that makes us explain the world around us in terms of people’s essential attributes. “He is a better basketball player” or “that person is smarter than I am” for example.
The birth order myth is an example of the fundamental attribution error.
Character isn’t what we think it is or what want it to be. Character is not a stable easily identifiable set of closely related traits.
The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is because most of us are really good at controlling our environment.
The convictions of your heart, and the content of your thoughts, are less important in guiding your actions than the immediate context of your behavior.
When we are trying to make an idea, attitude, or product tip, we are trying to change our audience in some small yet critical respect. That can be done through people (the law of the few), through the content of the communication (the stickiness factor), or through small changes in context (the power of context).
The power of context says that tipping points can be as simple and trivial as everyday signs of disorder like graffiti and fair beating.
Chapter 5: The Power of Context (Part Two): The Magic Number One Hundred and Fifty
Why did Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood turn into an epidemic? The content is sticky, the author is a classic salesman, and the power of context because of the critical role that groups play in epidemics.
The lesson of Ya Ya and John Wesley is that small close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea.
If we are interested in starting a social epidemic and reaching a tipping point, what are the most important kinds of groups?
Is there a simple rule of thumb that distinguishes a group with real social authority from a group with little power at all? There is, it’s called “The Rule of 150.”
Cognitive psychology has a concept called “channel capacity” which refers to the amount of space in our brain for certain kinds of information.
In music, most people can divide tones into six different categories.
According to the essay The Magical Number Seven by George Miller. There is some limitation built into us that keeps our channel capacity in the general range of seven, this is the reason that telephone numbers have seven digits.
We can only handle so much information at once. After we pass a certain boundary, we become overwhelmed. This is an intellectual capacity. We also have a channel capacity for feelings.
Caring about someone deeply is exhausting. At somewhere between caring deeply for 10-15 people, we begin to overload.
Most men feel strongly about few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time.
Perhaps the most interesting natural limit is our social channel capacity. The limit to human social channel capacity is about 150 people. An individual can forge a genuine relationship with no more than 150 others at once. This case for a social capacity has been made most persuasively by Robin Dunbar.
150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have genuine social relationships.
People who are willing to go along with a group can become divided and alienated when a group becomes larger than 150.
If we want groups to serve as incubators for contagious messages, we have to keep them smaller than 150 people.
Crossing the 150-person mark is a small change that can make a big difference.
An example of an organization that has successfully navigated this problem is Gore Associates. Gore is the company that makes Gore-tex fabric. Employees at Gore have no titles, they are all associates. Employees have “sponsors” instead of bosses.
Gore limits all plants to 150 employees or less.
The company is the basic unit of military organization. Because in a group of less than 150 people, orders can be implemented and unruly behavior controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts.
When people know each other well, they create an implicit joint-memory system. It is based on an understanding of who is best suited to remember what kinds of things.
This process of memory sharing is even more pronounced in families.
Chapter 6: Case Study: Rumors, Sneakers, and the Power of Translation
There is a substantial difference between the people who originate trends and ideas, and the people in the majority who eventually take them up.
Innovators and early adopters are visionaries, they want revolutionary change. These are the people who buy brand-new technology before it has been perfected or before the prices come down. They are like small companies and are willing to take enormous risks.
The majority, by contrast, are like big companies. They have to worry about any change fitting into their complex arrangement of suppliers and distributors.
If the goal of visionaries is to make a quantum leap forward, the goal of pragmatists is to make a percentage improvement. They want to make incremental, measurable, predictable progress.
The attitude of the early adopters and the attitude of the early majority are fundamentally incompatible. Innovations don’t slide effortlessly from one group to the next.
How do all the weird idiosyncratic things that really cool kids do end up in the mainstream? This is where connectors, mavens, and salesmen play their most important role. They make it possible for innovations to cross the chasm from early adopters to the early majority, they are translators. They take ideas and information from a highly specialized world and translate them into a language the rest of us can understand.
What mavens, connectors, and salesmen do to an idea to make it contagious is to alter the idea in a way that extraneous details are dropped and others are exaggerated. This gives the message itself a different meaning.
You have to find a way to translate the message of the innovators into something the rest of the world can understand.
Chapter 7: Case Study
This chapter discusses some sensitive topics that I didn’t want to take notes about. Here are few key quotes from the chapter and case studies.
It is important to keep the two concepts of contagiousness and stickiness separate. They follow different patterns and require different strategies.
Contagiousness is, in larger part, a function of the messenger.
Stickiness is primarily a property of the message.
Instead of fighting experimentation, we should try to make experimentation safer so that it doesn’t have serious consequences.
Conclusion: Focus, Test, and Believe
The first lesson of the tipping point: starting epidemics requires concentrating resources on a few key areas.
If you are interested in starting a word-of-mouth epidemic, your resources should be solely concentrated on connectors, mavens, and salesmen. Nobody else matters.
The way we function, communicate, and process information is messy and opaque. It is not straightforward and transparent.
Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues succeed because of things they do that are not obvious.
Who could have predicted that going from 100 workers in a plant to 150 is not a problem, but going from 150 to 200 is a huge problem?
The second lesson of the tipping point: the world does not accord with our intuition. Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right, they deliberately test their intuitions.
To make sense of social epidemics, we must understand that human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules.
Merely by manipulating the size of a group, we can dramatically improve its receptivity to new ideas.
By tinkering with the presentation of information, we can significantly improve its stickiness.
Simply by finding and reaching those few special people who hold so much social power, we can shape the course of social epidemics.
Afterword: Tipping Point Lessons from the Real World
On playing fields and battlegrounds, challenges that would be daunting and impossible if faced alone, are suddenly possible when tackled in a close-knit group.
The mystery of word-of-mouth is one of the things that motivated Malcolm Gladwell to write The Tipping Point.
Relying on the connectors, mavens, and salesmen in our lives is the way we deal with the complexity of the modern world.
This is a function of many different factors and changes in our society.
Three of these changes include:
- The rise of isolation
- The rise of immunity in communication
- The particularly critical role of the maven in the modern economy
The explosion in telemarking calls has given us immunity to that form of communication and dramatically reduced the effectiveness of telemarketing. The same thing has happened with email.
Finding the Mavens
The back side of Ivory Bath Soap packaging has a line that says “Questions, comments? Call 1-800-395-9960.” Who would ever have a question about Ivory soap that they felt compelled to call that phone number? The soap mavens would. This 800 number is a maven trap.
A maven trap is an efficient way of figuring out who the mavens are in a particular world.
How to set maven traps is one of the central problems facing the modern marketplace.
How do you find these kinds of people (mavens)? There is no easy answer. They are harder to find, which is why it’s so important to come up with strategies for finding them.
Connectors don’t need to be found, they make it their business to find you.
Sometimes a specific time, place, or situation happens to bring together a perfect maven audience. He uses the example of Lexus’s first launch and how they handled the initial recall by personally calling every single person who had bought one.
Is there a way of finding the mavens in every market?