Igniting a Trend -- It's About Chance Not Choice?

"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one. And if it isn't, then almost no one can."

So says network theory scientist, Duncan Watts, a firm believer that a trend cannot be willed into existence simply by harnessing the influence of certain "highly influential" people. Instead, explains Watts -- who was featured in the February issue of Fast Company and is shown in the video below speaking at a Fast Company event -- it's the prevailing context that really matters.

Marketing professionals and advertisers who bank on the premise that "infecting" a select group of cool, charismatic, social people can spark a massive trend have it all wrong. And if, in retrospect, a trend does happen to be traced back to a particular person or group of people, well these are "accidental influentials" – people who just happen to have stumbled upon a potentially explosive idea by chance.

Watts, currently a researcher for Yahoo, whose disarming Australian accent goes a long way in lending him some credibility (even if his theory is fiercely disputed by many), holds that for marketers, it should really be about gauging the public's mood. Just like only certain forest fires spiral to become massively out of control due to particular conditions like a dry landscape or a badly equipped forest department, trends too are entirely contingent on how susceptible a society is to them. In other words – it boils down to how influenceable people are, and not to how influential their persuaders are.

If Watts is to be believed, we live in an anarchic world in which trends occur at random – the success levels of the Madonnas of today mushroomed arbitrarily, not purely on merit. If you rewound the world back to when a trend first began, there's no guarantee that things would happen the same way again.

At Fast Company's recent Is the Tipping Point Toast event, held at the magazine's Manhattan headquarters, Watts discussed – and was called upon to defend - his subversive theory to a 75 person strong audience. Armed with confirmatory data pulled from multiple experiments, he rebutted audience questions about the influence of names like Tiger Woods, and claims about the far-reaching cultural impact of certain people.

His advice to marketing professionals and those wanting to spread the word about a product or idea? Think about influenceability, rather than focusing on influence. Instead of focusing on individuals, focus on larger scale structures. And come to grips with the fact that things are random – some things take off, while others just don't.

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