How word-of-mouth works

The article Is the Tipping Point Toast? changes the way we think rumors (ideas) spread in social networks.

It works if one reaches the tipping point
“In a given process or system, some people (a tiny number of superinfluential types) matter more than others.” In modern marketing, this idea is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: Reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and you’ll reach everyone else through them, basically for free.

How to reach the tipping point (old way)
In the past few years, Watts (Columbia University & Yahoo) has challenged the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

How to reach the tipping point (new way)
“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.”

Cascades require word-of-mouth effects, so you need to build a six-degrees effect into an ad campaign; but since you can never know which person is going to spark the fire, you should aim the ad at as broad a market as possible–and not waste money chasing “important” people.

3 Responses to “How word-of-mouth works”

  1. mike says:

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting Watts’s argument, but he seems to be saying that highly connected people are no more likely than others to start trends, whereas Gladwell is arguing that highly connected people help trends to spread, not that they necessarily start trends themselves. Both could be right…

  2. As far as I know, the tipping point thesis (popularized by Gladwell) is that specific people help trends to START. So marketing guys have tried to identify who those individuals are likely to be.
    By contrast, Watts is saying that such individuals do not exist – and a trend will start only if it has popular appeal. Ironically, if marketing guys buy that, then they should take a step back – from contemporary targeted viral marketing back to traditional mass marketing (which helps to create popular appeal).

  3. [...] researchers’ answer has been a qualified “yes” – changing only recently to be a qualified “no”. Influential individuals who start trends in society do NOT exist. On that, the relationship [...]