The more watts examined the theory of Influentials, the less sense it made to him. The problem, he explains over lunch in a midtown restaurant, is that its incredibly vague. None of its proponents ever clearly explain how an Influential actually influences. It sort of sounds cool, watts says, tucking into his salad. But its wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you dont think about. The Influentials, keller and Berry argue that trendsetters draw their social power from being active in their communities. Their peers naturally turn to them for advice.
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So he decided to test it in the portfolio thesis real world by remounting the milgram experiment on a massive scale. In 2001, watts used a web site to recruit about 61,000 people, then asked them to ferry messages to 18 targets worldwide. Sure enough, he found that Milgram was right: The average length of the chain was roughly six links. But when he examined these pathways, he found that hubshighly connected peoplewerent crucial. But only 5 of the email messages passed through one of these superconnectors. The rest of the messages moved through society in much more democratic paths, zipping from one weakly connected individual to another, until they arrived at the target. Why did Milgram get it wrong? Watts thinks its simply because his sample was so smallonly a few dozen letters reached their mark. The dominance of the three friends could have been a statistical accident. And since milgrams finding sort of made sense, nobody even bothered to redo the experiment, watts shrugs. But when you perform the experiment with hundreds of successfully completed letters, a different picture emerges: Influentials dont govern person-to-person communication.
He described other influential types: mavens, who love to collect information and dessay help others make decisions, and suave salesmen of ideas. In order to spread, an idea or product had to be sticky, and appear in a fertile social context. The tipping point climbed the charts, marketers fixated on Gladwells Law of the few, his suggestion that rare, highly connected people shape the world. For anyone involved in pitchmanship, it was an electrifying notion, one that took a highly complex phenomenonthe spread of memes through societyand made it simple. Reach the gatekeepers, and you reach the world. Marketers seized on Malcolm Gladwells Law of the few, his suggestion That rare, highly connected people shape the world. But Watts, for one, didnt think the gatekeeper model was true. It certainly didnt match what hed found studying networks.
To help illustrate the cultural sway of his hypernetworked protagonists, he tapped the renowned 1967 Six Degrees of Separation study by sociologist Stanley milgram. In that experiment, milgram had given letters to 160 people in Nebraska, with instructions to ferry them to a particular stockbroker in Boston by passing the letters along to a colleague socially closer to the target. It famously took roughly six links to deliver each letter. But in a finding that particularly excited Gladwell, it was the same three friends of the stockbroker who provided the final link for half the letters that arrived successfully. They were the connectors, as Gladwell dubbed them, who govern the flow of social information. If you wanted to get to that stockbroker, you couldnt approach just anyone. You had to go through those three friends. Possessed of huge rolodexes, these folks are the gatekeepers, Gladwell wrote, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few. Gladwells book laid out many other factors that can tip a trend.
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So he began programming the first computer models of how influence spreads. Like a kid experimenting with. The sims, watts created a virtual community of individuals, then infected one with a virusa virtual disease, or man contagious ideato see how far it would spread. He fiddled with his models, varying the degree and frequency of exposure needed to pass along the virus. He noticed that the success of an epidemic varied dramatically with seemingly tiny changes in his virtual society. Yet even as Watts was conducting his research, marketers were becoming increasingly convinced that trends were the product not of murky social forces, but of charismatic, connected social alphas.
In truth, it was an oldeven hoarymarketing concept, dating back to 1955, when the pioneering sociologists Elihu katz and paul lazarsfeld wrote. They had argued that advertising affected society through a two-step process: Companies broadcast messages, which were then seized upon by opinion leaders who proselytized their peers. They werent talking about celebrities like oprah or even Paris Hilton, but about the rare everyday people who catalyze trends. Reach those opinion leaders, katz and lazarsfeld argued, and youd quickly convert the masses. Gladwell reanimated this concept in, the tipping point.
Not everyone appreciates the mind bomb Watts has tossed into their midst. He says one music executive pronounced his work bullshit on the spot. But a growing group of marketers believes Watts is radically altering the way companies attempt to produce trends. He is changing the way people think about the way we communicate, raves Robert Barocci, president of the Advertising Research foundation. Hes one of the best thinkers in the industry today.
But is Watts right? Watts, ironically enough, is precisely the type of person youd peg as an Influential: tall, gruff, and handsome; a jut-jawed navy man who left the service to study engineering. A former rock-climbing addict, he solved his first big intellectual challenge after hanging from a cliff at Joshua tree. He has written about his work. Harvard Business review and, the new York times, as well as in his new book. His Australian accent is disarming, even when hes assuring you that everything you believe is probably crap. Wattss journey into trend research began, improbably, with the snowy tree cricket. As a grad student in the mid-1990s, he was exploring the mystery of how crickets synchronize their chirping. Clearly, information about when to chirp spreads like a contagion through the cricket network; Watts began to wonder how information flowed through human networks.
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He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just dom as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure. It just doesnt work, watts says, when I meet him at his gray cubicle at Yahoo research in midtown Manhattan, which is unadorned except for a whiteboard crammed with equations. A rare bunch of cool people just dont have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. Theres no there there. And this is not, he argues, mere academic whimsy. He has developed a new technique for propagating ads virally, which can double or even quadruple the reach of an ordinary online campaign by harnessing the pass-around power of everyday peopleand ignoring Influentials altogether.
The tipping point, there was, the Influentials, by marketing gurus Ed Keller and Jon Berry, as well as the gospel according to pr firms such as Burson-Marsteller, which claims e-fluentials can make or break a brand. Marketingvox, an rights online marketing news journal, more than 1 billion is spent a year on word-of-mouth campaigns targeting Influentials, an amount growing at 36 a year, faster than any other part of marketing and advertising. Thats on top of billions more in pr and ads leveled at the cognoscenti. Yet, if you believe watts, all that money and effort is being wasted. Because according to him, Influentials have no such effect. Indeed, they have no special role in trends at all. In the past few years, wattsa network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia university and is now working for Yahoo has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs.
and so on, until, voilà! Within two years, sales of Hush Puppies had exploded by a stunning 5,000, without a penny spent on advertising. All because, as Gladwell puts it, a tiny number of superinfluential types (Twenty? One hundredat the most?) began wearing the shoes. These tastemakers, Gladwell concluded, are the spark behind any successful trend. What we are really saying, he writes, is that in a given process or system, some people matter more than others. In modern marketing, this ideathat a tiny cadre of connected people triggers trendsis enormously seductive. It is the very premise of viral and word-of-mouth campaigns: reach those rare, all-powerful folks, and youll reach everyone else through them, basically for free. Loosely, this is referred to as the Influentials theory, and while it has been a marketing touchstone for 50 years, it has recently reentered the mainstream imagination via thousands of marketing studies and a host of best-selling books.
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