Note: This post is a bit late coming. It has been sitting a draft since the second day of February waiting for a couple final thoughts. Sorry about that. I'm sure you've already read quite a bit on the article that spurred it, but rather than delete it due to it's untimeliness, I'm posting it anyway. Here we go then...
An article titled, Is the Tipping Point Toast? by Clive Thompson, from February's Fast Company has created quite a stir. The article is based on the research of Duncan Watts and basically says that it's not the who that makes a trend take of so much as it is the what, when and where.
I highly suggest you read the article before continuing on, but here are a couple key paragraphs:
"If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one--and if it isn't, then almost no one can," Watts concludes. To succeed with a new product, it's less a matter of finding the perfect hipster to infect and more a matter of gauging the public's mood. Sure, there'll always be a first mover in a trend. But since she generally stumbles into that role by chance, she is, in Watts's terminology, an "accidental Influential."
Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That's because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."
Some who are writing about the article are agreeing with Duncan Watts, saying that it's not the super group of "Influentials" who matter most. What's more important are the conditions of the market in being ready to accept a trend and seeing everyday people around us embracing it, not just a small set of "Influentials." Some are passionately defending the beliefs evangelized by The Tipping Point and The Influentials - that the 10% of uber-connecteds are the cornerstone to converting the masses. If you get them to tout your product or service, you win. Some are staying firmly planted in the middle.
I was actually able to see Duncan present some of his research and thinking at a creative summit this fall in Minneapolis. I thought a lot of what he had to say then was very true and I still do. One of the best explanations as to why the influencer model doesn't work comes from Mark Earls. His post talks to it being a combination of our complex, intertwined social networks that are not easily explained, our varying roles within those networks and our primary innate learning process of mirroring the behaviors of those around us.
To expand, individually, we have defined roles within the various networks that we are a part of. In each of those networks, we look to different people for their opinions on specific subjects. There is no single person we look to for information on everything. Secondly, it is how those around us behave that drives our actions, not what they say. It is in our nature to want to fit in with the herd, not go against it. Actions really do speak louder than words - we change our actions by copying the behaviors of those around us so that we feel more comfortable in our surroundings, we most often do not change them by listening to people talk about it.
The best personal example I have in semi-support of this comes from a national brand adoption study that was conducted a few years back for one of the clients I was working on at the time. They set out to uncover how a brand in their category becomes the primary brand of choice among consumers in a given market and then with that understanding, what could be done to change it in their favor if they weren't the leader.
I'm not able to go into detail about what the research uncovered, but essentially, it supports what Duncan and Mark are saying. If you want to change behavior, you have to go do things that are directly tied to behavior. You can't just talk. The study also wasn't able to identify one group of "influencers" that could make the desired changes happen. The clients were hoping to find one as they knew this would help lower costs when it came to implementing solutions, but what they found was that there were multiple groups of people they would have to do things for in different ways to influence the desired behavior changes as each of these groups played a different role in the overall desired change.
Ultimately, I agree with what's coming out of Duncan Watts' research - if you're thinking you can change the behavior of many by talking to an elite few, you're highly unlikely to succeed. Changing attitudes and behaviors is far more complex than how the "influentials" theory works and it's not as much how influential the person is delivering the message as it is how ready and willing people are to change their behaviors.
This isn't saying you shouldn't look to do special things for key customer segments. By all means, it's important in some cases to craft communications and programs that are designed for a specific subset of the people you want to win over. It's just saying that you shouldn't expect to win over the masses by sending out messaging to the so-called "influentials."
For more interesting views and thoughts on the article and subject be sure to read these posts: