How do you create a trend, or a social movement, or a product that people can’t get enough of? What you are trying to ignite is a social epidemic, when an idea, message, or product spreads through the public masses like wildfire and creates a craze.
Take a cue from medical epidemics: When a virus spreads, it starts with one person — Patient Zero — who gets sick and infects a handful of others. Then each infected person passes the germs to more people, and with exponential speed and reach the virus spreads until it reaches epidemic proportions. Ideas, messages, behaviors, and products can spread through a population in a social epidemic in the same way that viruses spread.
Epidemics have a few common characteristics.
This book focuses on how to push ideas or products to a tipping point in order to create a social epidemic. There are three factors that can be adjusted to tip an idea to a social epidemic: the messenger, the message itself, or the context of the message. You can turn your ordinary idea into an epidemic by altering one or more of these aspects.
When you’re trying to spread a message, idea, or product to epidemic proportions, you need people to help preach your message and spread the word to the masses. The Law of the Few proposes that there are certain, special types of people who are much more effective at broadcasting your idea and getting people to listen and follow suit. These special people are exceptional either in their social connections, knowledge, or persuasiveness and fall into three personality types: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. (In the full summary, we’ll look at how these critical personality traits contributed to the success of Paul Revere’s midnight ride.)
Connectors are people who seem to know everyone. You can find Connectors in every walk of life; they are sociable, gregarious, and are naturally skilled at making — and keeping in contact with — friends and acquaintances.
Connectors tend to be connected to many communities — whether through interests and hobbies, jobs that cause them to work with people in other fields, or other experiences. Their strength is in occupying many different worlds, and bringing them together.
However, Connectors are not close with all their connections. In fact, Connectors’ power is in having lots of acquaintances, or “weak ties.” Your acquaintances typically have different social circles and communities — exposing them to different people and information — than you, whereas your friends’ knowledge and social ties tend to largely overlap with your own. Thus, your friends can help spread a message in the same communities you occupy, but weak ties can help spread that message beyond your reach because they belong to different worlds than you do.
For this reason, weak ties are more valuable than close friends in creating a wider reach for spreading epidemics, and Connectors are the hubs at the center of all those worlds.
While Connectors are people specialists who know many people and can spread information widely, Mavens are information specialists; they are endlessly curious and adept at gathering and retaining information on a wide variety of (sometimes obscure) topics.
A Maven’s influence is in the power of her recommendation. People know that Mavens are knowledgeable and trustworthy sources of information, so a Maven’s word carries a lot of weight. If a Maven suggests you check out a budding epidemic, you’re inclined to listen.
Mavens also love to share their knowledge with other people, and are socially motivated to help people with the information they’ve gathered: A Maven is the kind of person who not only clips coupons and knows when a store is having a sale, but also shares coupons with her friends.
Mavens’ genuine helpfulness inspires more trust and credibility — people know Mavens have no agenda or ulterior motive — so when they give recommendations people tend to take them more seriously. In a social epidemic, they serve as data banks — they carry the message, with authoritativeness.
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You see the phenomenon every flu season: Someone in your office catches a bug, and within a week it seems half her department is infected. In two weeks, there are people showing those same flu symptoms in every department, and by the end of the month half the office has caught the bug.
Each person who catches the virus can infect a whole new set of people, and each of them does the same, in an ongoing ripple effect. The virus continues spreading this way, ultimately creating an epidemic. This is how epidemics grow through geometric progression: When a virus spreads, it doubles, and doubles again, and doubles again, and through that process it grows exponentially.
Ideas, messages, behaviors, and products can spread through a population in a social epidemic in the same way that viruses spread. Epidemics have a few common characteristics.
There are three factors that can be adjusted to turn an idea into a social epidemic: the messenger, the message itself, or the context of the message.
Employing one, two, or all three of these principles can tip an epidemic. We’ll cover each at a high level, then explore each in greater detail in chapters 2-5.
When you’re trying to spread a message, idea, or product to epidemic proportions, you can’t do it all yourself; you need people to help preach your message and spread the word to the masses. But not just anyone will do. The Law of the Few proposes that **there are certain, special types of people who are much more effective at broadcasting your idea and getting...
The Law of the Few is about the people who spread messages, ideas, or viruses and cause epidemics to tip. These are specific types of people who have the contacts, knowledge, and social skills to effectively spread an idea far and wide.
Connectors are people who seem to know everyone. You can find Connectors in every walk of life. Connectors are sociable, gregarious, and are naturally skilled at making — and keeping in contact with — friends and acquaintances.
In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the “small-world experiment” to research how closely people are connected. He sent letters to 160 people in Nebraska, giving them the name and address of a stockbroker in Boston and instructing them to write their name on the letter and then send it to a friend or acquaintance who might get the letter one step closer to that stockbroker. Each person who received the chain letter would do the same, until a friend or acquaintance of the stockbroker finally received it and would send it directly to him.
At the end of the experiment, Milgram found that most of the letters...
To turn your product, message, or idea into an epidemic, you may need to enlist the help of skilled messengers (Connectors, Mavens, or Salesmen) to help you get the word out. Use this exercise to help you identify these people and determine how they can help tip your epidemic.
Describe a product or idea you are trying to tip into an epidemic. (This can be the product your company is selling, the culture change you’re trying to create at your workplace, even an effort at home to get everyone to wash dishes as soon as they’re dirtied.)
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The Law of the Few declares that the right messengers can tip and spread an epidemic. However, your messengers can only succeed when the message is one that will catch on — in other words, it must be “sticky.” To be sticky, a message must be memorable enough to inspire action or change.
Stickiness is particularly difficult in the Information Age because modern media exposes consumers to so much information that it is harder for an individual message to stick. In the advertising industry, this conundrum is called the clutter problem.
An idea is not inherently sticky or un-sticky; to make an idea sticky, you have to tweak the way it is presented. A message doesn’t need to be loud or in your face to be sticky. In fact, small, subtle changes are often the key to stickiness.
In a 1960s experiment, social psychologist Howard Levanthal tried to influence a group of seniors at Yale to get tetanus shots. He distributed pamphlets with information about the dangers of tetanus, the importance of getting vaccinated, and details about the campus health center offering free tetanus shots to students. These pamphlets came in three versions:
Whereas the first two principles of epidemics address the people who help spread the message far and wide (The Law of the Few) and how effectively an idea or message can take hold (The Stickiness Factor), the third principle has to do with the conditions that lend themselves to an epidemic catching on. According to the Power of Context, people are so sensitive to conditions and changes in our environment that context can determine whether or not an epidemic tips.
In the case of Paul Revere, the fact that he made his ride in the middle of the night was pivotal in helping the word-of-mouth epidemic catch on. First, it was easier to reach people knowing they were all at home in bed — rather than scattered around at work or running errands. Second, people understood that if Revere’s message was urgent enough that he had to wake them in the middle of the night, it must be important.
Subtle, seemingly insignificant changes in our immediate environments can make us more likely to change our behavior; when done on a broad enough scale, this can ignite an epidemic. These changes may be in our physical environment or social context (think of the murder of Kitty Genovese where...
To create an epidemic, you have to be deliberate about how you present your idea and how people receive it. Use this exercise to help identify how you can make your idea sticky and create a context that makes people more open to it.
Think of a product or idea you are trying to tip into an epidemic. Who is your targeted audience, or whose ideas and behaviors are you trying to influence?
The principle of the Power of Context applies to not only our physical environment and the circumstances of a situation, but also who’s around us. Specifically, people behave differently when they’re in a group than when they’re alone. When we’re alone we’re more likely to act independently, but around other people our behavior is affected by peer pressure, social norms, and other influences; those influences can be enough to tip an epidemic.
Small groups, in particular, have a strong power to amplify a message or idea and help create an epidemic for a few reasons.
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Now that we’ve examined the three principles of pushing potential epidemics to their tipping points, in this chapter we’ll take a further look at how these principles play out in practice. Each epidemic is different and requires a unique approach to get the masses to adopt that particular product or idea, so we’ll discuss how you can use the Law of the Few to adjust your messaging and make your idea appeal to trendsetters and regular Joes alike.
The diffusion model is a term in sociology for the way a contagious idea or product spreads among people who adopt it at different phases.
The kind of contagiousness that tips social epidemics is often not based on rational or conscious decisions; in fact, we’ve discussed how subtle, even subconscious cues (like nonverbal signs and environmental factors) can completely alter how we react to a situation. Sometimes, this effect spurs epidemics of people knowingly harming themselves in some way.
You can use the three rules of epidemics to ignite a social epidemic. But you can also use the same insight to extinguish an epidemic. Here, we’ll use the same principles to combat the teen smoking epidemic by disrupting the messengers, the stickiness, or the context.
(Shortform note: This book was published in 2000, shortly after teen smoking rates in the late-1990s reached the highest levels since the late-1970s. From 2000 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Youth Tobacco Survey revealed a 73 percent decline in high school smoking.)
No one born in the past several decades is ignorant of the dangers of smoking. Yet the number of teen smokers in this country rose 73 percent from the late 1980s to the late...
Tipping Points are all about small ways to make significant change. So-called Band-Aid solutions — despite the term’s negative connotations — can actually be the most effective strategies by taking focused, targeted action with the least amount of time, effort, and cost. Using a heavy amount of effort to tackle all aspects of a problem is not always possible or the best use of energy.
As we’ve discussed with the three rules of epidemics, you just need to pinpoint the right tweak (or tweaks) to tip an epidemic — whether it’s finding the right messenger, changing your presentation, or altering the context.
A nurse named Georgia Sadler launched a grassroots campaign to raise awareness about diabetes and breast cancer. She started by hosting seminars in black churches, but she found that the few...
In the book’s afterword, Gladwell has the hindsight to see how the Information Age is leading us to rely more heavily on word of mouth and primitive forms of social connections. The surfeit of media and information we are exposed to is overwhelming and essentially leads us back to basics.
While technology allows for more connectivity in the virtual world, it can also lead us to be more socially isolated. You text with friends and family instead of calling or visiting, you order goods and services online instead of going out in public to shop in a store, and you can work from the privacy and comfort of your own home instead of commuting to an office.
Adolescents have grown up in this culture, and in recent years they have experienced more isolation than past generations of adolescents as a result of several factors.