The idea of influencers - i.e. trendsetting social connectors - was one of the stickiest ideas in a book full of them, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point. But writer Clive Thompson says the idea is based on shaky science, and that when it comes to trendsetting - all power to the people.
BOB GARFIELD: The idea of influencers, trendsetting social connectors who have relationships with a vast array of people, was one of the stickiest ideas in a book full of them, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point.
The argument went that there are a tiny number of influential people who make the difference between small fads and full-blown sensations. The world of brands saw in these influencers the perfect opportunity for targeted, highly efficient marketing and have spent big bucks currying their favor.
But not so fast, says Clive Thompson. He writes in February’s Fast Company Magazine that Gladwell’s idea of influencers is built on shaky ground, an old and imperfect study. CLIVE THOMPSON: He starts off with a Stanley Milgram six degrees of separation experiment. You might remember that one. Milgram took a bunch of letters and gave them to people across the country and said, I want you to get them to this stockbroker in Boston. You know, without knowing who this person is, you pass it to a friend who you think is closer. They'll pass it to someone who’s closer. And basically he proved that about six degrees of separation is what connected people from this complete stranger.
But the really interesting thing was that when it came to the last chain, getting to the stockbroker, most of the letters went through just three friends. So essentially what Gladwell found interesting is the idea that there were these gatekeepers. He decided that they were Connectors, as he called them. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, so I happen to be writing a book on approximately this subject, and as part of my research I've accumulated – I'm looking at now a vast bookshelf full of other volumes that deal with the idea of influencers. And the one thing that all [LAUGHS] of these books have in common, while talking about the key to finding the influencers, none of them actually gives you the key.
Is there a way to locate these hyper-connected individuals who unlock vast marketplaces? CLIVE THOMPSON: One of the problems that a lot of the ways people identify trendsetters or tipping-point people or Connectors is that they do it, you know, in reverse. They take a successful story, like Malcolm Gladwell did with the success of Hush Puppies, that went from being this completely neglected brand to being like a national craze within two years with no advertising, all word of mouth – so he sort traced it backwards to find the first people who were wearing them. And he says, well, these were the incredibly important people that started the trend, the cool kids.
The problem is it’s not a very scientific way of doing it. Vision’s always 20/20 in hindsight. You know, anyone can figure something out in reverse. The trick is, can you predict?
It turns out that almost no one can do that. And people are saying, well, if this can't be systematized in any way, if you can't use it for predictive power, what good is it? Isn't it just a bunch of just-so stories? BOB GARFIELD: You know, you’re not just pulling this out of your hat. You've spoken to the people who understand this really on a granular level. I’m thinking of Duncan Watts, whom you spend a lot of time with. Tell me about Duncan Watts and what he has to say on this subject. CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, Duncan Watts is a network scientist at Columbia University. He’s actually on leave. He’s at Yahoo right now. When Watts actually tried to replicate the Stanley Milgram experiment he gave thousands of people email and said, well, get it to this stranger. You know, send it to a friend, to a friend to a friend till it gets to the stranger.
And sure enough, six degrees was the number of links to get to the stranger. But there were no all-important Connector hubs. Only five percent of the messages went through highly connected people. The rest of them just went, oh, sort of democratically through people that were weakly connected together. The data seem to show that those Connectors really are not out there in the way that they're supposed to be.
What Watts seems to have found and what he argues is that it’s not how influential each person is. It’s how influenceable everyone else is. So to put it another way, if society is sort of ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start it. BOB GARFIELD: Well, does he offer any insights into how fads or crazes do catch on? Is there any secret that he’s been able to ascertain as to why one video goes all over the world in days and another one languishes unviewed on YouTube? CLIVE THOMPSON: No. And this is actually the particularly distressing answer for people [LAUGHING] that are in marketing, because they want to know what the secret is. And his answer is that it’s actually pretty random. He'll run these simulation models over and over again and trends will emerge in his virtual societies, but where it will emerge is almost completely random.
So his argument is that what you need to do if you want to start a trend is just try and do good old-fashioned mass marketing. Hit as many people as you can because you don't know who of them is going to be the match that starts the blaze.
The other interesting thing about this is that when people talk about influentials, all this theory is all about people in the real world away from their computers, just talking to each other. It’s very open. If I talk to you about my great new iPod, you know, what do you take away from that? Do you take away my enthusiasm for it? Do you think about the product? Do you just think about music you like? It’s very hard to figure out exactly what I'm transmitting to you.
Now, online you've got links, and those are very concrete, specific things. They're not fuzzy at all. And it immediately teleports the viewer to that place, and you can count them via Google and find them.
So I think that the way that influence works online with blogs and links may be closer to this old theory of influentials. It may be more real online than it is in the real world. BOB GARFIELD: Now, Watts at the moment is consulting for Yahoo, and I'm curious in what ways he’s supplying his research to this Internet company. CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, one of the things that Watts has come up with is the idea that, okay, if trends cannot reliably be started by influential people and if it’s true that almost any average slob can start a big trend, well, then, what’s the best way to start one?
He has this thing called Big Seed marketing where essentially what you do is you take classic mass marketing and you just blast your message out to the public at large. But you also, in an online forum, allow them some interesting tools to spread and share the message around.
He uses this piece of software called FowardTrack. You'll see the ad he’s put online, and it'll say, you know, click here to send it to a friend. Okay, well, most people ignore that. But what FowardTrack does is that it allows you to send it to your friends and then you can see who they send it to. And people got sort of addicted to it and they became very interested in seeing how big they could make their network.
He literally turned, you know, ad forwarding and message spreading into sort of a Facebook-like entertainment. And, sure enough, he did this with several different campaigns and, essentially for free, they as much as doubled the number of people that saw the ads. BOB GARFIELD: Wow. Well, Clive, as always, thank you so much. CLIVE THOMPSON: No problem. Take care. BOB GARFIELD: Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for Wire, The New York Times Magazine and Fast Company. His article, “Is the Tipping Point Toast?” is in the February issue of Fast Company Magazine.