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Read time: 14 min

Synopsis

The Tipping Point considers why certain products, diseases, or ideas become viral. Each epidemic shares a few common features that are enough to kickstart a significant rise in sales, diagnoses, or conversations. Malcolm Gladwell considers the importance of context and the finer details in our environments. Plus, he provides an outline of the types of people who are integral to spreading an epidemic. Therefore, Malcolm provides building blocks for business people who want to make their product, service, or idea viral. The key is to find your idea’s tipping point and implement it consistently. 

 

About Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a British-born Canadian author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. He started his writing career working for conservative publications. Then, he became a staff writer at The New Yorker in 1996. Gladwell gained popularity with two particular New Yorker articles that year, ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘The Coolhunt.’ These two articles formed the basis for this book, The Tipping Point. Malcolm has been working at The New Yorker ever since. Malcolm is the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that produces Malcolm’s podcasts Revisionist History and Broken Record. Revisionist History reconsiders overlooked and misunderstood events from the past. Broken Record is a music podcast where Malcolm, Rick Rubin, and Bruce Headlam interview musicians from various genres. Gladwell has been included in the Time 100 Most Influential People list and was appointed to the Order of Canada on 30th June 2011. 

“The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” – Malcolm Gladwell

On Epidemics

Malcolm Gladwell describes a tipping point as a moment when a trend turns into an epidemic. Subsequently, this trend spreads like wildfire. Malcolm provides an example of the flu. The flu generally starts by spreading slowly through a population, then day-by-day, the number of daily transmissions increases. This transmission rate continues to increase until it reaches a tipping point where the epidemic spins out of control. Although written in 2000, this analogy applies perfectly to the Coronavirus pandemic. You can imagine the Coronavirus curve of growth. Initially, there would have been a gradual increase. Then, once the tipping point has been passed, the curve juts up immediately. 

Malcolm also explained how this effect could also be seen with the spread of technological innovations. In 1984, Sharp made the first affordable fax machine. At that point, the machine only sold about 80,000 in the first year. This number slowly rose over the next couple of years until sales skyrocketed in 1987. The tipping point had been met.

Tipping points are a time when a fundamental change takes place. Regarding the fax machine, its tipping point was so many people owning a fax machine that it pushed everybody to get one.

A Few People Are Enough to Ignite an Epidemic

“There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm outlines the importance of the 80-20 Rule. This rule is a sociological phenomenon that suggests that 20 percent of a group tends to influence 80 percent of the outcome. Here are some examples that Malcolm provides in the book:

  • 20 percent of employees carry out 80 percent of the work
  • 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of the crimes
  • 20 percent of drivers cause 80 percent of all accidents
  • 20 percent of beer drinkers drink 80 percent of the beer

In contrast, Malcolm explains that virus epidemics only require a few key people to spark an epidemic. A small percentage of infected people do most of the work in spreading the disease. Malcolm provides an example of an American flight attendant who had sex with more than 2,500 people in North America. This flight attendant had contracted AIDs, so was a superspreader that sparked the AIDs epidemic.

Connectors Instigate the Rapid Spread of Ideas

Malcolm describes Connectors as people with a vast social network. This vast social network allows Connectors to spread ideas to a vast amount of people in a short period. Importantly, Connectors are often well-connected in many different areas. Connectors know how to effectively communicate with lots of different people and enjoy the process of doing so. Connectors have several ‘weak ties’ at their disposal. The weak ties are often acquaintances from different walks of life. Malcolm explains that having several weak ties is far more valuable, in terms of spreading ideas, than a few very close ties with friends. If a virus only spreads within a closed circle, then an epidemic cannot occur. This is the same for social and viral epidemics. 

Malcolm reminds readers of the social experiment from the 1960s. Scientists found out that every person in the world is connected to everyone else through just a few people. Importantly, though, these connections won’t necessarily be distributed equally. Epidemics often rely on small groups of Connectors. Hence, if you are aiming to spread an idea by word of mouth, you should be focusing on connectors. In doing so, you can potentially spark a social epidemic. 

Some People are Natural Salesmen

Some people are born salesmen. These people are optimists who have an abundance of energy and enthusiasm. These qualities help them persuade others of new ideas. However, their greatest strength is their outstanding non-verbal communication. This non-verbal communication creates a rhythm in the conversation that establishes a sense of trust and intimacy. Salesmen know how to synchronize themselves with others.

Malcolm also explains that salesmen express their emotions so clearly that they are contagious. Others are easily able to empathize with salesmen to the extent that they change their behavior. Based on this, salesmen are in a strong position to influence people and spread ideas. 

Mavens Obtain Information and Pass It On

Mavens also have a significant part to play in the spreading of social epidemics. Mavens are knowledgeable about multiple topics. Therefore, they are always gaining new information and making links between this information and their knowledge. However, the most common information these people obtain is related to trends or specific products. 

Mavens combine this ability to obtain information with advanced social skills. These social skills allow Mavens to pass their information on to others efficiently. Although mavens do not have vast social networks, they significantly influence those within that network. Mavens are trusted by those around them as they are individuals with insider knowledge. Therefore, their friends and family follow their recommendations. Generally, Mavens are willing to recommend any product or service they are confident about.

Not All Ideas Will Spread

Ideas have to spark interest before they are spread. Therefore, Malcolm explains that an idea needs to include something special or catchy. Your idea will need to stand out from mundane daily information. Even the smallest detail can make a big difference in how likely it is that the idea will stick.

Malcolm provides an example of a cigarette brand, Winston, who advertised their new filter cigarettes in 1954 with the slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” They deliberately incorporated a grammatical error by using “like” instead of “as.” Subsequently, there was a small sensation surrounding this slogan. The message stuck, and Winston became the most popular cigarette brand in the US.

Another example of small details making all the difference was Sesame Street. Unlike other shows, Sesame Street decided to bring the fictional characters, the Muppets, into the scenes where the real actors were being filmed. Children had become bored with shows that separated the fictional characters from the real actors. This small change made Sesame Street one of the most popular children shows of all time. Sesame Street’s co-founder, Joan Cooney, also used other tools to make the passive medium of television more interactive for children. He looked to Blue’s Clues for inspiration. Blue’s Clues did not have the same creativity or imagination as Sesame Street, but it was far more popular in the 1990s. Sesame Street lacked the repetition and an easy-to-follow story that Blue’s Clues incorporated into all of its episodes. Researchers have suggested that children prefer to watch things that incorporate a narrative and predictability. Subsequently, Joan Cooney encouraged the inclusion of a repeated gold box treasure hunt. On the back of these changes, Sesame Street obtained record-breaking viewing figures. 

External Circumstances Have a Significant Influence on Our Behaviors

“That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Our behavior is dependent on external circumstances, as well as our inner nature. Therefore, small changes in our environment can have a significant impact on our behaviors. 

Malcolm provided an example study where small changes in the participants’ environment impacted on their behaviors. In the study, students had to give a talk in a lecture hall. Half of the students were told that there was no rush to get there, while the others said they must avoid being late. Both groups encountered a collapsed man en route to the lecture hall. In the first group, 63% of students stopped to help, while only 10% stopped when they were warned about being late. 

Another example of the environment impacting on human behavior is the Stanford Prison Experiment. In this experiment, 24 healthy males spent two weeks in a mock prison. Each individual was assigned a specific role to play: guard or prisoner. However, the results were astounding. The guards exploited their power by abusing the prisoners physically and emotionally. As the days passed, the guards became increasingly cruel and aggressive. Many of the prisoners suffered from emotional breakdowns based on torture. The experiment was canceled after six days due to the unethical practices that the psychologists were observing. In this instance, despite the artificial roles, the environment and roles led to participants behaving entirely out of character. The experiment’s lead psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, concluded that intense situations could lead to intense behaviors. 

Context Influences the Chance of an Epidemic

Context often decides whether an epidemic kicks off or not. Malcolm provides an example of New York City in the mid-1990s. Crime had become a public talking point in New York of the 1980s. A white man, Bernhard Goetz, shot four black youths on a New York City subway in 1984. The media described this event as the height of the city’s crime epidemic. After this event, Bernhard was a divisive figure. Some viewed him as a criminal but most praised him for stopping what some believed to be a potential mugging. Either way, crime was increasing at a worrying rate during this time.

The police looked at the bigger picture and aimed to consider the context of the increase in crimes. The police believed that graffiti on subways and people avoiding paying subway fares were the cause. They argued that letting people get away with these crimes led to people becoming more confident that they could get away with serious crimes. The authorities reacted to these thoughts by removing graffiti and making fare evasion a punishable crime. Although this might have seemed a trivial connection, this zero-tolerance approach had a significant impact. The crime rate dropped rapidly in the following years. Malcolm explains that the potential epidemic of crime was reversed due to small interventions that considered the context of the epidemic. A criminal’s environment can determine their mindset and behavior, and these changes altered the environment of criminals for the better. Malcolm describes humans as being “exquisitely sensitive” to changes in circumstances. He also applied this sensitivity to epidemics. 

Another contextual factor that impacts epidemics’ success rate, specifically social epidemics, is a group’s size. Malcolm describes the rule of 150, which suggests you should establish groups no larger than 150 if you want to create a social epidemic. The rule of 150 suggests that an epidemic dynamic can only develop beyond the group if the group is intimate enough. Therefore, Malcolm suggests that clubs, communities, companies, and schools are kept relatively small. 

Airwalk Utilized the Three Fundamentals of Epidemics

One company that has utilized all three fundamentals of epidemics to achieve success is Airwalk. In essence, Airwalk utilized a social epidemic to turn itself from a skateboarding niche product to a wildly popular commercial brand. 

Firstly, Airkwalk based its branding on the principles of epidemic transmission. Specifically, with a new product, adventurous innovators are those that will first adopt a new trend. Following from these innovators, early adopters help spread the trend to a broader population. Innovators guide a trend from the early majority through to the later majority. The early majority is what Malcolm described as translators. They spread innovative ideas and products to a broad audience based on them having specific social circles and being renowned for having reputable information. 

After getting multiple early adopters on-board, companies like Airwalk use rumors or stories to spread the brand into everyday conversations. The sociologist Gordon Allport describes this as being a three-step process of distortion.

  1. The teller of the rumors omits specific details to increase interest and let others fill in the gaps
  2. The rumors are made more interesting when the remaining details are suddenly made more specific
  3. Then, these rumors are adopted into society when the population starts talking about the rumor in their everyday conversations

Airwalk aimed to take advantage of each of these tools. They wanted their ad campaign to reach the innovators within the younger generation. Their target audience was teenage connectors, mavens, and salesmen. These were the innovators who would help spread their brand’s message with enthusiasm and legitimacy. To find these innovators, Airwalk used a branding agency, Lambesis. Lambesis and a research expert, DeeDee Gording, identified and followed young innovators within major cities. Then, this branding agency learned about the subcultures that included trendsetters. Based on this research, Airwalk attempted to target these subcultures with their ad campaigns. Lambesis also utilized their new understanding of cultural concepts to make these subcultures mainstream. Specifically, they used the process of rumors, leveling, sharpening, and assimilating to help their brand fit their target audience. 

Planning For the Future

As well as considering how epidemics are encouraged and ways to solve some epidemics, there are still some unsolved epidemics that Malcolm considers in The Tipping Point. The specific problems that Malcolm chooses to focus on are:

  • The epidemic of teenage smoking
  • The epidemic of male teenage suicides in Micronesia

Suicide is generally contagious. For example, high-profile suicides can be tipping points that encourage an epidemic of suicide. Malcolm explains that the first suicide gives imitators license to copy the high-profile individual’s method of death. In this way, Malcolm describes suicide as “a private language between members of a common subculture.” In the same way, teenage smoking is a shared language. For example, many people associate smoking with sophistication based on a sophisticated smoker they remember from when they were younger. 

Malcolm calls this shared language the Law of the Few. Instead of the act of smoking being considered cool, a teenage culture sees the smokers as cool. Then, these behaviors can become an epidemic as smoking is addictive. Nicotine provides pleasure to smokers, which makes the habit ‘sticky.’ To tackle the teenage smoking epidemic, Malcolm suggests that we must find the Tipping Point in the epidemic. The most effective way of doing so is to address the habit’s contagion and stickiness separately. It is more difficult to tackle the contagious part of teenage smoking, as they are more influenced by their peer group than their home environment. The most effective approach would be to make small changes within teenagers’ environment to reduce their likelihood of smoking. However, Malcolm does not provide a conclusive solution to this problem. Instead, he provides two approaches to solving cigarettes’ stickiness:

  1. Smoking has strong associations with clinical depression. Therefore, if we can find a way to treat depression effectively, this could reduce the stickiness of cigarette smoking
  2. Through research, we can find the nicotine addiction threshold. This threshold would be the right amount of nicotine that an individual can have before developing an addiction. After finding this threshold, governments could enforce a reduction of nicotine levels. Subsequently, this could stop smoking from becoming a habit in the first place

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