The Tipping Point: Book Review; V3 Issue 4

Title: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Publication details: 2001, Abacus
Number of pages: 259 pages

In this very interesting book, Malcolm Gladwell analyses and explains the ‘tipping point’, “that magic moment when ideas, trends and social behaviours cross a threshold, tip and spread like wildfire.” He looks for clues among spread of disease viruses, on how social epidemics like fads, crime waves and revolutions get started. And he identifies three key factors that play a role in ‘tipping’ a particular trend into wide-scale popularity.

The ‘Law of the Few’ factor states that certain people with exceptional social skills and social contacts can cause change. These people are Connectors (people who know a lot of people and are in a position to influence a lot of people or spread an idea and make it visible to a lot of people), Mavens (people with a focused interest in particular areas, like where to get the best prices, and a willingness and interest to share that information with others) and Salesmen (people with a talent for persuasion, and for changing our minds and making us see or act differently). The likelihood of a new idea tipping into exponential success is much higher if these three groups endorse and advocate the idea. The book cites the example of a nurse who wanted her community women, who would not ordinarily do so, to get tested for diabetes and breast cancer. When holding seminars at local churches failed, she switched venues to beauty salons and trained some stylists in the information that needed to be transmitted and it worked!

Gladwell defines the ‘Stickiness’ factor as the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. The message has to be so memorable that it can incite change. Stickiness can be deliberately cultivated and refined to maximise the impact and 'spread' of content or behaviour. For instance Lester Wunderman created a ‘gold box’ treasure hunt in the TV commercials for its Columbia Record club account that made viewers part of an interactive advertising. This created stickiness for these ads. In the case of a successful children’s TV show ‘Blues Clues’, it was the repetition and the format of asking questions and leaving preschooler sized pauses before the off-stage audience answered them that created stickiness.

‘Power of Context’ factor asserts that epidemics are sensitive to the environment in which they occur and that small changes in environment can make a big difference to outcomes. For example, some sociologists believe that New York City turned around a high crime rate problem by cleaning up graffiti, repairing broken windows and being intolerant of cheating on subway fares. Taking care of ‘little things’ ensured the ‘big things’ took care of themselves and New York became a much safer city. The magic number 150 is an interesting example. Once a workgroup exceeds 150, relationships break down. Traditionally, tribes used to split off when they grew beyond 150. Modern organizations like Gore Associates have also found by housing only 150 employees or less in a building, the R & D people know the sales people, the production people etc and hence work together more effectively.

So what if Gladwell’s ideas are not original, they bring together ideas in such a compelling and clever manner that it has become a very popular book. Gladwell has a way with words that engages the reader. Consider this “Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.”

Gladwell not only explains the factors for ‘Tipping point’, but also gives incisive examples of how to understand, measure, and take advantage of all the factors. By studying ‘The Tipping Point’ you can get insights into human behaviour. And a deep understanding of human behavior can help you create a more effective marketing message, promote political change and solve social ills. Hence, I feel, this is one of those books that anyone with a desire to create a wide spread change, can benefit from reading.