- 1 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the violent crime rate in New York City crept up slowly until it finally began to subside. But in 1993, the crime shot downward suddenly, and it’s been down ever since.
Paul Revere warned that “The British were coming,” and it spread like wildfire, in part sparking the American Revolution in the 18th century.
What do these significant events have in common? Contagion. They both represent ideas, messages, or public trends that “went viral.” And in the influential book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell dissects virality, and precisely the moment at which a person, thing, or product goes from merely accessible to a “household name.”
Malcolm Gladwell knows a thing or two about influential ideas. His books have ended up on the New York Times Bestseller list many times. He earned a $1-1.5 million advance for this one. So whether you’d like to sell your products or disseminate your ideas more widely, Gladwell is an excellent source. Once you know what makes something go viral, you can take steps to get there yourself.
What is the “tipping point?”
Gladwell defines the “tipping point” as the “threshold,” “boiling point,” or moment of critical mass. Launching a social media following is an excellent example of the “tipping point” phenomenon. Let’s say you have an Instagram account, and you’d like to become an influencer. At first, your growth will likely be sparse and slow as you develop content and make connections. Then, you might steadily grow a following. Perhaps you’ll get 25 new followers a day (or week), then 100, then 1,000.
But the most wildly popular social media mavens, with millions of followers, reach a “tipping point” of exponential growth. After months or even years of steady growth, one post or one news headline finally sends the influencer over the edge. That’s when you see accounts getting thousands of followers overnight and achieving bonafide viral status. Suddenly, it seems that everyone is talking about the person, and “everyone” knows who they are.
Now, let’s dig into what Gladwell says constitutes the cultural phenomenon of “contagion.”
The three characteristics of “contagious” ideas
According to Gladwell, ideas don’t become contagious by pure chance or accident. Here are the characteristics of most thoughts or trends that go viral: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.
The Law of the Few
The Law of the Few, which we’ll get into in more detail in the next section (“Who Tips Ideas?”), suggests that a few key actors or participants are the ones who make all the difference when it comes to your idea or product reaching the tipping point of contagion. In other words, when someone has a million followers on Instagram, it’s not that millionth follower that matters most. It’s probably a more dedicated audience of a few thousand followers, supporters, and influencers who propelled that idea or account into real mainstream popularity.
The Stickiness Factor
To become genuinely viral, Gladwell argues that an idea or product must not only be memorable but “sticky.” “Stickiness,” according to Gladwell, means that 1) onlookers feel so drawn to something that they can’t look away, and 2) content resonates directly with the audience it’s intended to reach, at the right time, in the right way.
To illustrate this idea, Gladwell shares the example of the wildly popular children’s television show Sesame Street. Unlike other shows, Sesame Street created content specifically for children, who tend to have shorter attention spans. The snippets they created were more concise and interspersed with skits and songs, along with including puppets, familiar sayings, bright colors, and recognizable characters. The show became so popular not merely because it was well-written or well-acted, but because its creators made it with their audience in mind. Initial testing suggested that kids felt they couldn’t look away from the show, unlike others, which tended to serve more as temporary distractions from whatever else they were doing.
The moral of the story? Audience engagement is everything. Without a message that speaks directly to your audience, delivered in a format that caters to them, your idea or product won’t “stick.” This is the essential part of reaching the tipping point and often takes the longest to achieve.
The Power of Context
Cultural context is critical when considering what kinds of ideas, trends in human behavior, sociological tendencies, brand messages, and products catch on. In the New York City crime example, the context of a widespread cultural fear of violent and property crime helped increase public support for “zero tolerance” policies around criminal activity.
In Gladwell’s example of fax machines, which sold slowly but steadily at first and were in nearly every household by the late 1980s/early 1990s, people wanted to find new ways to communicate more efficiently. Once the product reached its “tipping point,” everyone felt like they had to have one because everyone else did. The same rule applied to personal computers, email addresses, and the like. These products reached the tipping point not only when the technology was ready, but when the public was ready to receive them with open arms.
Who “Tips” Ideas?
As mentioned in the above Law of the Few, Gladwell argues that the tipping point adheres to the 80/20 principle, or the notion that 20 percent of the participants in a given community do 80 percent of the work. This means that your loyal collaborators, mentors, and followers are deeply important to your ability to reach the tipping point.
Another essential aspect of Gladwell’s message: You can’t “tip” ideas all on your own, no matter how successful or dedicated you are. You need these three essential types of people on your side for your products, ideas, or messages to launch into the stratosphere of popularity.
Connectors are vital to spreading ideas nationally or internationally because they have massive networks of connections from which to draw. Often described as a “people person,” a connector often seems to know everyone and is often in touch with influential people in various industries and sectors of society. Connectors spread “the word” about your idea or product via word of mouth and are often unofficial public relations specialists for anything they get involved in. They are deeply involved in their communities and generate excitement about the things they participate in.
Salesmen may not be literal salespeople, but they often act as unofficial spokespeople because of their enthusiasm for whatever they get involved in. They may or may not leverage the same kinds of networks as connectors; instead, they are focused on sharing what’s positive about what they’re passionate about. They are often charismatic, drawing crowds and frequently making public appearances. They are often the ones who put a “face” to a product or an idea.
Mavens are deeply knowledgeable, often educated people who tend to become advocates for ideologies, products, or practices (or sometimes even for other people). They circulate specialized knowledge about topics they’re fascinated with to interested, engaged populations. Examples may include journalists, public thinkers and academics, political or social advocates/activists, researchers, writers, and therapists. Once they latch on to an idea and believe in it, they often want to share it with the world and publicly share the evidence they’ve found that backs it.
How to Make Your Ideas or Products Reach the Tipping Point
In sum, the tipping point matters because it’s what takes your idea from popular to viral, influential to iconic. If your goal is to make your idea or product reaching the “tipping point” and become a contagious sensation, Gladwell argues that you should adhere to the following rules of virality:
- Get connectors, salespeople, and mavens on your side to help spread your product or idea like wildfire. Or, act in those roles yourself.
- Take note of what’s happening in your cultural context and timing. Is your idea forward-thinking, future-oriented, or “of the moment?” Ideas are more likely to reach the tipping point if they are timed correctly in terms of relevance: the cultural moment and setting.
- You’ve heard before that “content is king,” and that’s true of making ideas stick as well. Take your time at first to create content that matters to people that translates well, and that resonates with a specific niche subgroup, and you’re on your way to reaching the tipping point eventually. Without that initial “stickiness,” you won’t ever get there.