Influence isn’t all-or-nothing

There’s lots of commentary today about my friend Clive Thompson’s piece in Fast Company magazine on researcher Duncan Watts, who argues that much of author Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point just isn’t true — that is, the idea that there are “influencers” who can make products or services succeed or fail simply by adopting or recommending them. But I think that many of those who are writing about this are missing the point.

Guy Kawasaki, for example, says that Watts’ argument means the “A-list” is dead, and that companies don’t have to pitch certain bloggers or journalists or experts any more, or go to trade shows or whatever. But Watts isn’t saying that media — blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc. — don’t matter any more. He’s saying that there aren’t specific individuals who can recommend products and have a disproportionate impact on the prospective market. There’s a big difference.

It doesn’t mean that bloggers and media aren’t important. In fact, they might just be more important, because if Watts is right then companies have to get the word out about their products to as many people as possible, simply because there’s no way of telling who the person is that might become the accidental Patient Zero of a viral marketing bonanza. If you believe Gladwell, then you only have to target certain people in certain markets, but Watts is saying it could be anyone.

I actually don’t think there’s as much of a clash between what Gladwell is arguing and what Watts says is the case. Anyone might be able to play the role of an influencer if the market happens to be ready for whatever the product or service or new development is (which is the whole meaning of the term “tipping point”) but there are likely to be certain people who are more connected to those kinds of things than others, which increases the likelihood that they will be the ones to start the trend.

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