Marketing: The Anti-Gladwell

The sticky-wars have arrived. Yesterday AdAge's Matthew Creamer introduced Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociology professor from down under who's challenging The Tipping Point's Malcolm Gladwell to a battle at the mic. Armed with a mathmatical and computer modeling aresnal instead of anecdotes, Watts debunks Gladwell's "influencer" theory. Writes Creamer: "The crux of Mr. Watts' argument is that even if influentials are several times as influential as a normal person, they have little impact beyond their own immediate neighborhood — not good when you're trying to create a cascade through a large network of people, as most big brands do. In those cases, he argues, it's best to skip the idea of targeting that treasured select group of plugged-in folks and instead think about that group's polar opposite: a large number of easily influenced people. He calls this big-seed marketing. Sounds a lot like mass marketing, doesn't it?"

Oy veh. In the high brow stratosphere of marketing theory, one day it's all about the niche ("long tail"), the next it's all about the mass ("big seed"). Between Gladwell and Watts (who in 2003 penned the book, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, to much less fanfair), and Fast Company's very own Made to Stick columnists, Dan and Chip Heath, it seems an entire academic generation has emerged around the study of: how to get our ideas, products and brands to stick. You could argue it's the obsession of 21st century marketers.

Creamer goes on to interview a couple marketers who have discovered that Gladwell's "tipping point" theory (which, as I wrote about in my January 2005 profile on Gladwell, has become fully operationalized at companies like Pepsi and Coke's VitaminWater), is a hell of a lot more difficult to recreate, than it is to admire from a far. (Please, why is anyone surprised by this? Didn't you learn by second grade that doing is always harder than pontificating?)

But my favorite line from Creamer's piece is this: "An irony of our age is that, though everyone acknowledges consumers are in control, marketers still believe they're running the show, right down to trying to plan for virality as any creative told to "just go make a viral video" will lament. Virality is an outcome, not a channel to be planned." It's similar to a point I made in "Down the Rabbit Hole," a November 2006 story that deconstructs the labrynth campaigns the Blair Witch Project's stunt-men architected for Audi and Sega. Creating a tipping point phenomenon is not just some algorithm on Google or a magic widget you can click—it requires tireless hard work and attention, relentless strategy and creativity, and a deep respect for your audience so you can give them want they want, or better yet, what they don't even know they want.

Where do you stand in the Gladwell vs. Watts smackdown?

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  • John Dunn

    Surely now that influence can be spread online, we no longer need to consider local boundaries?

  • Ed

    I agree with Paul, they don't have to be mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, they can be combined in parallel or in a succesive manner.

  • Paul

    These two strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Who's to say a company cannot combine the strategies to use mass media to target the masses and more nice methods to target influencers.

    Who knows. Maybe if Hush Puppies would have launched a mass media campaign, they would have sold more shoes than they did through hipster word-of-mouth. But did they have the dollars to do that?

    I haven't read Watts's stuff, so I cannot comment on it. Hopefully he's not just trying to cash in on just being the opposite of someone popular (Gladwell). Because that's really lame.

    But, yeah, tipping large numbers of easily influenced consumers toward your product makes a lot of sense if you can do it.

  • Eben Carlson

    Gladwell's examples were a bit suspect for me. They were all very young--the one I remember was kids watching Sesame Street.

    For mature adults, sticky sticky rarely works, which is why I'm so surprised about all this Duct Tape marketing. It may sound good on a book cover, but anyone who's dealt with duct tape (and I used to repair shoes and shirts with it) knows that it's a gnarly mess once it's on.

    True sticky is what's lasted a couple thousand years--love and respect. Honor. The truth. Making the best product. Stuff like that.

    Which is why marketing is having such a mid-life crisis right now.

    Manipulation--or pushing--worked when corporations were in control. Now only being true works. Kinda hard to prove you're real by the end of the quarter.

    Especially if you're selling vitamin water.

    Unless you're going for consumer who can be manipulated, of course.

    And where's that going to get you?

  • Clyde Smith

    Darn it, I spent some time with the article and realized that, though Watts knows his science and Gladwell doesn't, Watts doesn't then apply that science to marketing as well as he could.

    But at least you can do a lot with partially correct concepts if you're evaluating actual outcomes on an ongoing basis.

  • Clyde Smith

    I put down The Tipping Point after two pages because it was obvious Malcolm Gladwell did not understand the science behind the ideas he was attempting to develop.

    Duncan Watts actually knows what he's talking about.

    I've never brought this up till today because there was such a critical mass behind Gladwell and I'm not the best person to break that down so I just let it slide.

    I have no comments on Creamer's interpretation or anything besides Watts vs. Gladwell.

  • Jorge Barrera

    I have to agree with Follymacher, it all depends what you are trying to sell. I advise some people to do informationals because it will move their product and reach a proper demographic but the stigma is too great and spend their energy and startup money on glamorous marketing. Not everybody can be like Apple and relay on influencers.

    At a big company I worked for before, Gladwell was all the rage, he was brought in several times and although he was great speaker and his story is a very good one. It was not the best strategy to adapt. We where simply too big, and seeking to big of a low/middle end piece of the markets, going after influencer would simply not compound fast enough.

  • J. Chow

    So let's give them what they want aka American Idol. We have the technology to let the public self guide the outcomes via majority rules. I would love to see a truly transparent consumer guided product from beginning to end. Let the consumers choose the products en mass - not a handfull of focus groups for lip service. Let the consumer choose the design, influence the price, see the results. Interesting, and you know it can be a loosly influenced or have tight reigns either way the consumer is way more involved and has buy in through out. A challenge to all the corporoate big wigs - I would love to see a big scale consumer launch - good luck and good learning!

  • Charles Follymacher

    Is it not possible to delete the duplications? I got an error message when I tried to post my comment and made the mistake of trying again (and again). Nuke!

  • Charles Follymacher

    alrighty. i got error messages trying to post my comment earlier so, silly me, i compounded the error by trying again (and again). please delete the copies (and this comment, too). how embarrassin.

  • Charles Follymacher

    It's a pretty ancient tactic Watts is using, calling attention to himself via a hokey "blind taste-test" challenge to the acknowledged titan. There is no best theory here, it depends on the kind of product and the demographic you wish to reach. You don't need to be a wizard with a calculator to figure out that there are tons of products that do very well without much public exposure other than late-night infomercial branding ("act now and get a second one, FREE!").

    And I don't need to be a sociology p'fessor to know that other kinds of products (like, say, Sperry Topsiders) need adoption by a critical mass of "influencers" to reach "phenomenon" level sales figures.