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April 21, 2003

Review: The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell

I have a tendency to get sucked into social business books. More often than not, they're essay-thin ideas plumped out to book-thick packages.

A few recent examples: Digital Darwinism, by Evan Schwartz, The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen, and even The Cluetrain Manifesto by Doc, Christopher "RageBoy" Locke, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine. If you get it, well you get it, and you'll be tempted to skip the last 50 pages explaining what it is exactly that you just got. In many cases, the Fast Company summary is more satisfying.

Not so for The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell weaves together apparently disparate phenomena like public health, fads, subway graffiti, children's television, and Paul Revere's midnight ride, and provides a framework to explain how ideas spread.

Along the way, we're introduced to connectors, salesmen, and mavens, three personality types essential to starting an epidemic.

As a long-time Mac evangelist, it was hard not to read with Apple in mind. Here's a company with a good product, rabid fans, and great buzz with alphageeks, and they continue to slog along at 3-4 percent of the market. The Tipping Point is all about how phenomena go from being down in the noise to suddenly being omnipresent, like the iMac colors a few years ago.

Gladwell has a knack for finding the story in what might otherwise be dry material. Sometimes he does it by taking you behind seemingly familiar material, like Sesame Street or Paul Revere's ride, but often it's by tying the tipping point theory back to current science in cognitive psychology, sociology, or other fields.

Good idea, great read -- Joe Bob says read it!

April 21, 2003 in Books | Permalink


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Ignoring for the moment the oxymoron "childen's television" (it's all children's television), I wonder how this book differs from something like the Connections series with James Burke from about 20 years ago. True, one is social psychology while the other is about the discovery/adoption of technology but I see a thread between them, something to do with the readiness of society for the social meme or technological breakthrough.

The most widely mentioned example is the broken window theory of cultural pride and/or housing values,and that was easy to get the mind around. Perhaps now that the book is no longer a fad, it's time for me to read it.

Posted by: paul at Apr 22, 2003 12:24:26 AM

I could not recommend this book any higher... to someone truly wanting to learn about the very intricate process of how something catches on fire. "Who wouldn't want to know exactly what it takes to get something to be the next "Cabbage Patch Doll" or Southwest Airlines?" Honestly, very few people want to take the time to really learn and apply the idea. This book is definitely not light reading, and Malcom Gladwell has to work hard with some very dry material to keep the reader interested in his excellent observations.

There are several very important concepts in this book. The main idea of the book is to examine and learn from other events how to make something really stand out of the pack and take over it's environment. The exact point where the produce, virus, or phenomenon goes from affecting a few to affecting the majority is the Tipping Point.

The primary nugget of information is that it takes three very special kinds of people to make something tip. The Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. The Connectors are those that are the backbone of a network (social, business, human/health, etc.). Not everyone in a network are equally influential, and the Connectors are like the Routers of the human network system. People come to them with information/requests and they leave the Connectors with the information they need.

The Mavens are the technical gurus of the topic with which the network pertains. These are the go-to people when you have a question about a certain topic. This may be as specific as a particular aircraft, like the Airbus A320, or it may be more general like teenager's style trends. The Mavens help determine what works and what doesn't, and if you can get the Mavens to take to your concept (a car, an electronic device, a website), their approval can make or break the success of something catching on.

The Salesmen are those that bring the providers together with the users. This can be as basic as a definite product like a shoe or a computer, or it can be more abstract, like an attractive and seductive promiscuous person infected with a disease.

Combining all three of these very critical types of people is what makes something catch on. Frequently, there are different people in each of these roles. Occasionally, a Connector may alos be a Maven. In some cases, a single person can be all three. The job of anyone trying to make something tip is to locate all three types of people and influence them to help your cause.

Another concept Gladwell presents is one of my favorite, and that is the idea of making something "sticky". This means that there is a reason for the people to come back for more. Again, this is not new to the marketing world, but how Gladwell presents the idea makes you rethink your ideas of what EXACTLY will make something sticky. It's not always the most obvious features that make something sticky, and the book inspires one to think a little more outside the box.

I couldn't write a review without mentioning the rule of 150. Read the book to get the details, but basically, the human brain has a capacity to work within a network of 150 or less nodes. Greater than that, and it becomes too complex and becomes impersonal. Gladwell uses the example of the Gore Company (maker of Goretex). Read the book.

I don't find books like this entertaining at all, but the value of the ideas can be very rewarding. That's how I felt when I read this book. Gladwell does his best to keep your attention, but it is kept more with the ideas he presents and not the examples he uses or his writing style.

I came across this book (by recommendation) because I was looking to tip a concept. I got more information than I expected, and I definitely think this will help me better focus my networking skills and marketing efforts. If you're looking to make something tip, definitely read this book.

Sean Brown
The National Association of Residential Real Estate Investment Advisors

Posted by: Sean Brown at Dec 21, 2004 11:04:10 AM