The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell

book, tipping pointThis book is about contagion, how an idea, a product, a book, song, movie, or a phone can suddenly become the item to have. What causes one product to succeed while another fails? The point where an item becomes an overnight success is the “tipping point”. Once you reach the tipping point there is no stopping the flood.

It is like the flu virus, up till a certain point, the flu can be contained. Some people are getting over it, as others are coming down with it. That’s the balance point. But if there is a small increase in the number catching the flu, the tipping point is reached, and there is no stopping the contagion until it has burnt itself out.

The Tipping Point is a non-fiction book about how that tipping point is achieved. What are the factors that cause one item to reach the tipping point, while a similar item will fail?

For something to reach a tipping point it requires some special people: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Connectors are people with a special gift for bringing people together — connecting them. Connectors know lots of people, but it is important that they are not all within the same circle. If for example they are all football players, then this is not a connector no matter how many football players they know. A connector knows different groups of people, business people, sports people, actors, newspaper people, farmers, students, doctors; without the wider spread the connection will fail.

Mavens are the second type of essential people in creating word-of-mouth epidemics. A maven is a person who collects data, and then tells people about it. They are obsessive about their particular knowledge, but more than that, they want to help everyone by sharing what they know. It might be how to save 20 cents on a can of dog food, or which toothpaste actually whitens your teeth. They delve into the details, they keep records, notes, and prices. They know how to get cheap seats on airlines, or which cars use the least fuel, and then they tell everyone about what they have discovered. Mavens want to help, because they like to feel involved, they want to share what they have discovered. Mavens provide the message.

The third type of person necessary for the word-of-mouth epidemics is the salesman. It is the salesmen that persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are listening to. It is the salesman that can find a spin that will convince the sceptic. These particular salesmen are empathetic, friendly, helpful, and above all persuasive. It is the salesmen who build the peer pressure, so that everyone falls into line.

Gladwell discusses the different factors that lead to the tipping point. He analyses them in detail with many examples, particularly the night ride of Paul Revere which reached a successful tipping point, whereas another night rider (Dawes) failed to arouse the local population and has since disappeared from history. Why did Paul Revere succeed? He was a connector: he was a fisherman, a hunter, a card player, a theatre lover, a successful businessman, and a Masonic member, along with other social clubs. He knew people.

Gladwell uses examples of crime statistics that decreased suddenly, syphilis cases that shot up alarmingly, and the overnight success of Hush Puppy shoes, when they were on the brink of extinction. He analyses the success of Sesame Street, the lowering of crime on the New York subway, and smoking; they all reached a “tipping point”.

“The world – much as we want it to – does not accord with our intuition. This is the second lesson of the Tipping Point. Those who are successful at creating social epidemics do not just do what they think is right. They deliberately test their intuitions. … To make sense of social epidemics, we must first understand that human communication has its own set of very unusual and counter-intuitive rules.”

All in all it makes for interesting reading with lots of examples and figures. It’s not a dull book, on the contrary, it’s easy reading with useful information, especially if you are trying to promote something or other.
And that could well be all of us.

Have you ever come to a tipping point that changed everything?
Marcus Clark

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