Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review - The Tipping Point: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Pop sociology at best, shallow science at worst, Malcolm Gladwell nevertheless had me rapidly flipping the pages of this now 10-year-old book. The phrase Tipping Point "comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass." The book looks at products, societal changes, a certain Revolutionary War event and more through this prism. What made each go viral, become infectious, as it were? What creates a fad? A trend? A phenomenon? Is the importance of word of mouth dependent upon from whose mouth the word proceeds? Can ideas, products and behaviors become infectious?

Gladwell theorizes, "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts." He asserts it requires three types of people: Connectors, highly social with a huge Rolodex of contacts usually crossing several socioeconomic levels; Mavens, who devour Consumer Reports and actually read the product manuals and who relish passing on their knowledge; and, finally, Salesmen, the persuaders who convince the general populace to act on their recommendations. At times, one or more of these 3 personality types may exist in one person, which may explain why Paul Revere is a household name while another midnight rider, William Dawes, is not.

Gladwell presents the story of Paul Revere in light of his Tipping Point thesis. Revere was very integrated in many communities and knew the movers and shakers across socioeconomic lines (Connector). He had a reputation as being in the know (Maven) an, as evidenced by the response his alarm generated, was persuasive (Salesman). Gladwell describes the latter as personified by a person he meets: "He seems to ahve some indefinable trait, something powerful and contagious and irresistible that goes beyond that comes out of his mouth, that makes people who meet him what to agree with him. It's energy. It's enthusiasm. It's charm. It's likability. It's all those things and yet something more."

What causes rapid, dramatic changes in the market or society? According to Gladwell, it's the Context (the situational environment), the Idea and its "stickiness" (has to resonate) and the People involved (Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen). He believes when an idea reaches key people in the appropriate context, dramatic change can occur.

The book reviews the near demise and subsequent rebirth of the Hushpuppies brand of shoes. Prior to 1994, sales were down to 30,000 pairs and the brand was in trouble. Then the sales went to 430,000 and in 1995 they were 4 x that amount! What happened? Gladwell presents the difference between a brand being phased out and explosive growth as individuals in the fashion forward New York neighborhoods of Greenwich Village and Soho began picking up the shoes in consignment shops. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and others were spotted wearing the shoes. Soon the shoes were featured in fashion shows presenting designers' new lines. Suddenly everything old is new again and Hushpuppies became de rigueur for wannabee fashionistas. Gladwell recognizes we have trouble accepting these types of epidemics in terms of geometric progression because the end results seem far out of proportion to the cause.

New York City's drastic decline in crime is given the Tipping Point treatment. This is where a lot of the book's critics takes aim. Some of his assertions may be overly broad, but I did find his Broken Window theory discussion interesting. (In a nutshell - when broken windows aren't repaired in a neighborhood, it gives off a sense of apathy and the criminal element feels free to act believing no one will care enough to do anything about it.)

Some of Gladwell's claims do seem questionable, at times he makes rather large leaps, and his evolutionary perspective made me groin, but he redeems himself somewhat when discussing such drastic changes as the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood going rapidly from a modestly successful book to a blockbuster bestseller or of the success of children's programming such as Sesame Street or Blues Clues.

Flawed but fun, The Tipping Point made me incredibly curious about the genesis of recent trends and bestsellers. If books like Freakonomics fascinate you or you are interested in marketing and haven't yet devoured it, The Tipping Point will be an interesting and quick read.


Jon said...

I loved The Tipping Point! Have you read Outliers or Blink? Some sociologist love Gladwell--he's a fascinating writer and opens the world to the work of sociologists (which he draws on extensively). Others, of course, dislike him, because he oversimplifies things.

Incidentally, my thesis paper in college (extensively) drew on Mark Granovetter's ideas in his paper "The Strength of Weak Ties"--the same paper that Gladwell references in The Tipping Point. Good stuff!

Alisa said...

I haven't ready anything else by Gladwell, but intend to do so. He is a little simplistic at times, but I think he has enough insights to make up for that.