The Tipping Point

By: Malcolm Gladwell



The Tipping Point is a book of significance to any business person who wants to make their product or service viral. It discussed how fashion trends emerge, how specific actions transform markets, how action can have a bigger impact than expected. It’s about how little things have big effects. Join us for the next ten minutes or so and share in Malcolm Gladwell’s insights in how we can engineer a Tipping Point and become viral.

Firstly, before we get into the content of The Tipping Point which is considered by many to be one of the seminal books of the 21st Century, we need to acknowledge that the book is full of significantly detailed anecdotes to demonstrate the theory behind the action. It’s not possible to reference to each of these examples. If you’re interested then you need to buy and read the book in full – so let’s focus on the necessary component parts which together create the tipping point.

Lesson1: The Law of the Few.

Let’s start with the Law of the Few. For any product or service to become viral, to reach the tipping point where it takes on a life of its own, we don’t need a team of hundreds behind the initiative. Sorry to all marketeers but a tipping point can be created by a few: by individuals whom Gladwell calls Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen.

We are friends with people we do things with, as much as the people we resemble. We associate with people who share the same small physical space as us. Think of your workplace – you will have one set of colleagues there. Now think of your favourite hobby. You’ve another set there. And so it goes.

Each of us is in the intersection of each set of friends. It’s a Venn diagram of our life. Connectors are exactly the same, but they operate in highly significant sets. Their sets contain people of influence, of power or of authority – they contain the people who can influence the tipping point of your product. Connectors are expert in getting close to those we need to get close to. They offer less than six degrees of separation. Connectors know lots of people.

But Connectors are important for more that the number of people they know. Their importance is a function of the type of people they know. By having a foot in many different worlds they have the knack of bringing these worlds together. The more your product or service comes to a Connector the more power and opportunity it gains.

So seek out Connectors. Get them onboard with your product or service and use a low degree of separation quotient to connect with their worlds.

Who do you turn to when you want advice? Most of us have a few trusted, knowledgeable mentors: our own Mr. Miyagi. These individuals are the second group of the Tipping point — whom Gladwell calls Mavens — a Yiddish word meaning ‘one who accumulates knowledge’.

Mavens aren’t just highly knowledgeable people, and they don’t just collect knowledge for personal gratification. They collect knowledge to share with anyone who might benefit from its acquisition. A Maven solves his or her own personal needs by helping others solve theirs.

What sets Mavens apart from other knowledgeable people is not so much what they know but how they pass it on. The fact that Mavens want to help is an effective way of getting the attention of others. In a social epidemic, Mavens are the data banks – they provide the message and Connectors are the social glue – they spread it. But there is another key group: The Salesmen. Salesmen are the motivators, they make people “buy-in” to your product or service.

They are the persuasive influencers that complete the circle. There are many books written on how to be a good salesman but from the perspective of the tipping point it’s all about exploiting the knowledge of the Mavens within the communities of the Connectors in a way that fits in the context of their world.

Lesson 2: The Stickiness Factor.

We’ve covered the concept of stickiness in other summaries: in Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath for example. But let’s look at stickiness from the tipping point perspective. In social epidemics, the messenger matters: messengers make the message spread. But is the quality of the message right? Does it say the right things in the right way at the right time? Is it sticky?

Gladwell suggests that if we look at the elements behind social epidemics it is often the little things that have made the difference. Little changes from the norm, little additional features that address the key weaknesses of competitive products or services. Little benefits that bring big benefits. To make our products or services stand out and appeal we need to understand what our target market needs.

Who can help? Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen. Mavens need to share the little benefits our products hold and the nitty gritty of how they work. These facts are their bread and butter – what they live for to pass on. Connectors, working with Mavens, spread the message, feeding back the iterative changes necessary to meet the needs of the particular works. And salesmen?

They are there to give interested prospects that little confidence boost to step over the line and commit to engaging with the product, and become early adopters and influencers.

Lesson 3: The Power of Context.

Social epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places they occur. There are two key contextual factors worth consideration: environment and group dynamic.

Visualise the following situation. We are in a deprived area of town. Many of the stores are boarded up. Youths hang around street corners and there is an underlying sense of threat in the atmosphere. Is this an ideal place to instigate a positive community spirit? Probably not. The context of the situation is negative and initiates negative activity.

However, this ‘Broken Windows’ influence can actually help us recognise a tipping point. Handling crime epidemics by putting an extra lock on the door may be an obvious solution, but it does not eliminate the negative context. But what if we installed pride in the community? Environmental tipping points are things we can instigate. We can remove graffiti, fix broken windows and change the signals that invite crime in the first place. Positive context. Positive outcome. Tipping point reached. Context is influential. The second context is group based. Once we’re part of a group we’re susceptible to peer pressure and social norms and any other form of influence that can play a critical role in creating a social epidemic. Small, close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic impact of an idea. Gladwell calls this the rule of 150, based on Dunbar’s Number.

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that part of brain evolution and growth in size occurs as we need to manage ever larger social groups.

If you operate in a group of five you have to keep track of ten separate relationships Your own four with other members, and six paired relationships of theirs. Based on his studies, Dunbar calculated that the average human brain has a neocortex large enough to support no more than 150 relationships. Any more and we can’t effectively deal with each in the same way.

The rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group has contextual influence and when exceeded can create a tipping point and have negative effects. Group communication becomes harder and maintaining a continuous ethos is challenged. One company who proves that less than 150 is effective is WL Gore — the makers of Gore-tex.

They have built their success on small, dynamic sub divisions. They create no more than 150 car parking spaces in their plants, and when people park on the grass it’s time to divide. What Gore has created is an organised mechanism that makes if easier for new ideas and information mobbing around the organisation to tip, to go from one person or one part of the group to the entire group all at once.

That’s the paradox of the tipping point. To make a product tip we need to keep those in the know at a small number. Build up commitment within this small group until adoption becomes second nature and then with the aid of the Mavens and Connectors, the Salesmen can build on the exclusivity of the product or service, making it attractive to the wider audience.

So there you have it, a primer on how to create The Tipping Point with your product, service or business.