Saturday, September 24, 2005

Tipping Points Tipping Points

I just finished "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" by Malcolm Gladwell. It looks at a lot of phenomena from an epidemiological point of view, and draws a parallel between how trends take off and/or die and how epidemics do the same.

It seems fairly dry. It isn't. He starts by looking at an epidemic of syphilis that hit Baltimore in the 1990s. In one year, the number of children born with it increased 500%. A number of experts had their own theories. The CDC blamed it on crack cocaine. An expert on STDs at Johns Hopkins University suggested that it was due to a breakdown in medical services in the city's poorest neighborhoods, most notably a reduction in the budget and staffing of its STD clinics. John Potteral, a leading epidemiologist, points at physical changes in the area resulting from the dynamiting of old 1960s vintage public housing. What is interesting is that none of the explanations are all that dramatic - small changes over time, all of a sudden resulting in the epidemic. Secondly, all three explanations described very different ways of tipping the an epidemic.

His second example consisted of Hush Puppy shoes coming back from near death and turning into a fad from a handful of East Village kids who found them at thrift stores.

The book then introduces three rules of Tipping Points: the Law of the Few; the Stickiness Factor; and the Power of Context. In the Law of the Few, he identifies three critical groups of people. First, there are the Connectors who know everyone, or, at a minimum, a lot more relevant people than the rest of us do. The Mavens are the experts, invariably early adapters, who either like or dislike something new. They are not selling the good new things for money, but out of passion. They have a need to know this sort of thing, and do. And, thus, they are trusted. Finally, you have the Salesmen, those guys who can sell refrigerators to Eskimos. For trends to take off, it takes all three, doing their part. They take the ideas that the Mavens find, and push the rest of us into them too.

In particular, Mavens can be absolutely critical. Lexus, when just introduced, had a minor recall. Instead of the usual letter in the mail, they called everyone personally, and if the owner was out of town, would send a mechanic there to make the fix. Why? Because they knew that many of the Lexis owners at this time were Mavens, and if they could be convinced of the car's quality, word of mouth would do much of the rest. And, needless to say, it worked. I know a number of people who have moved to the car from their Mercedes and Cadillacs because of the perceived quality of the Lexus - and this perception was a direct result of the company coddling its Mavens during this recall.


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