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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