It's funny. Just yesterday, I got notified by two separate people - one of whom is my colleague Greg Verdino - about an article that criticizes the theory behind Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. One directed me to the Wall Street Journal's The Informed Reader post called "The Cast Against Marketing to 'Influencers'" while the other referred to the recent Fast Company article Is The Tipping Point Toast?
Gladwell's theory (echoed by Ed Kelly and Jon Berry in The Influentials) held that trends are influenced by a select few; word of mouth marketing efforts typically focus on those. But the articles mention that social networks are too complex to function like that, and that the influencer theory is kaput.
The reason it caught my attention is because both articles cite the research of Columbia University research scientist Duncan Watts. This is the same research I actually wrote about 8 months ago, in post called The Accidental Influentials. The concept was that ideas or trends can spread like a forest fire, and that it doesn't matter who applies the match - it's the conditions of the forest that make a difference.
There are two points I'll raise in connection with this.
In Social Media, Timing Is Everything
The first thing that struck me is that I hit upon this back in May of 2007. But the mainstream media is only getting to it now. Why? The topic is clearly in a field I'm interested in, so that might be one factor as to why I covered it early. The other is that I had initially heard about the study on a podcast. Given that new media is still struggling for recognition as a legitimate and viable channel, I'm not surprised it didn't make headlines then.
Watts is Wrong
As someone who works in the field of conversational/word-of-mouth/social media marketing, it should come as no surprise that I think Watts isn't quite correct when he claims that influentials aren't necessarily influential. I think that his research was flawed in that it only focused on email and a virtual setting, whereas now we have a variety of communications methodologies that account for the rapid spread of ideas: IM, video chat, and social networks of all kinds, to name a few. I won't go so far as to say he's 100% wrong - but then again, I don't think that Gladwell was 100% right either.
At crayon, we consult and advise on a variety of conversational marketing strategies that incorporate an element of influencer outreach (or "blogger outreach," as many call it). With the proper amount of time and attention dedicated to research, and using tools like Technorati and Alexa, it's fairly easy to determine who the major influencers are in any given segment. Where it gets difficult is figuring out how to interact with them. You need to know how each one communicates, in which social networks they participate, and on and on.
My Alternate Theory - The Boy Scout Analogy
I propose that a hybrid theory - Watts' and Gladwell's theories combined - makes more sense. We can agree that there will always be influencers, whether you call them A-listers, celebrities, or whatever. People will always look to these leaders and high profile individuals for cues.
At the same time, I think Watts is onto something when he uses the forest fire analogy. Yes, the conditions have to be right for an idea to spread. But he claims "any old match will do" to get it started. I don't think so. Someone might have wet matches or might not know how to strike one properly. It's the combination of finding the right conditions (social networks, communities, etc.) and applying the match (friends, members, followers, commenters, in those socnets & communities).
Once you've got the proper combination of communities and influencers and you understand the intricacies and nuances of how they work together, then you'll have the recipe for success.
As part of their training, the Boy Scouts have to learn how to make fires how to adhere to fire safety. Their official motto is "be prepared." I think the same should be said for marketers consider conversational marketing.