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Whose Tipping Point is it Anyway? A B2B Perspective…

There’s a great piece in this month’s Fast Company that asks if Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling notion of a ‘Tipping Point’ is fundamentally flawed (see: Is the Tipping Point Toast?)

The Tipping Point in B2B technology marketing

The conclusion is yes, kinda… and it’s no doubt sent Gladwell’s afro into a tight spin, as well as the rest of the globe’s marketing mavens

So, all those billions of marketing dollars that are spent on locating and ‘tipping’ a market’s influencers may be misguided?

If you haven’t read it yet, here’s a quick synopsis:

  • Web/network guru who knows lots about network effects releases research that undermines the value of the ‘maven’ in turning ideas into marketing epidemics
  • He looks deeply into some long-standing common wisdom about networked-ness, such as the six degrees of separation theory, runs new tests and concludes that the results were unrepresentative …that normal people are just as important at spreading stuff as ‘influential’ types
  • Further, he does a number of other interesting studies to suggest that it may be impossible for us to gauge at any one time why a given idea/product/pop band is able to ‘break out’ from the pack and go big time

The guru in question is Duncan Watts, author of ‘Six Degrees: The New Science of Networks‘ and senior researcher at Yahoo (a big network). He knows his onions. What’s interesting about his research is that it takes Gladwell’s ideas and zooms out on them to create a far wider field of enquiry.

For example, Gladwell picks Hush Puppies as the memorable breakout brand of the mid-nineties NYC hipster scene. Watts asks why didn’t other stuff that they were wearing fare equally as well?

We think this is a really neat question to ask.

What’s at stake here? As the Fast Company piece says, the idea of influencers and tipping points lends itself really well to the world of marketing, where data is in short supply but pixie dust isn’t. Bigwig execs at agencies become arbiters of taste, identify a group and persuade brands to spend a bunch of cash dreaming up clever schemes of ‘brand advocacy’ that they hope will spread. Does it work? Well, sure it does in some circles, but in others definitely not.

What if the original idea is a bad one? What if the context is wrong? What about the bigger picture? Those guys in NYC may also have been wearing ski goggles in June, but their inability to ‘tip’ the eyewear – perhaps a failure of ‘brand empathy’ or just their general lack of ‘stick-ability’ – isn’t in question.

Here’s our take on the whole thing:

Influence is critical, but if the basic story is wrong, or if the marketplace isn’t ready then you’re destined to fail if you’re trying to create a buzz. Further, these three elements need to be aligned – cosmic style – for things to ‘tip.’

Taking them in reverse order, finding a receptive marketplace can be a research game or a ‘go with the gut’ game. Either one will do, but one should recognise that out of everything, getting this bit right is the most important thing.

Story is a creative game. It’s all about how you tell them. Good content and great execution really counts.

Influence is an interesting one right now. ‘Tipping’ and ‘brand advocacy’ in the physical world involves spending time, money and tea-leaves on finding the right people to help spread an idea. Online, however, this can be a relatively scientific exercise. Tools like Technorati can help you seek out influential bloggers; social media services like Digg and Stumbleupon can help you understand how people are engaging with and spreading certain stories. These things can also help you attract numerous people – influencial or otherwise – to your stuff.

Watts’ recommendation on the whole thing – through his work with Yahoo – is interesting. His latest research is on a new product offering called ‘Big Seed’ marketing, which at face value seems like a nod to the old days whereby creative campaigns are cast widely into the mass market (eg, via web banner ads) and folks are encouraged to pass them on. This is very different to the tipper’s tactics (go narrow, persuade and cajole): it’s big, bold, brash, and – importantly – very expensive. Tactically this is based on the assumption that ANYONE can be an effective tipper, and that reach and volume rather that type of people is the thing that counts – which is exactly what he concludes in his Gladwell-trumping research.

As a game of one-up-tipping-manship this makes for interesting sport. What we’d advocate is a mix of the two. Certain media, such as ad banners, will themselves screen important people out (SEO guru Aaron Wall points this one out in his excellent post on the theme). It’s far better to use the tools at our disposal to take a read of the market and go seed from there…

In other words ‘influential’ may mean something different to the narrow view that Gladwell prescribes. In the B2B sphere this is likely to be a mix of the maven, the uneducated and the unshaven…. if they’re active in the sense of passing ideas around, then everyone has a role to play. We just need to find them and engage with them in a cost- and attention-effective way.

How? Well, here’s a view on what we do at Velocity, courtesy of our web stats package…

B2B technology marketing agency web stats

The first spike occurred after we blogged about an event we spoke at. The idea had a market, the content had a decent storyline and we passed it around the folks that cared about this kind of thing. The second spike occurred after we wrote about something that we knew was interesting to our industry. Again, a decent story, a marketplace and (after some cursory research) an engaged audience. No rocket science here – we just tagged it on a few social media sites.

The effects? Well, lot’s more interest in Velocity than usual for starters. But the second item also ignited an old flame. The first also generated a rousing debate amongst some really interesting people that were relevant to us, and placed us somewhere near the centre of things. Does this qualify as a ‘tip’? Yes – in our world of B2B the first challenge is to seek out and engage with ideas in a very rational way. Our work may not have taken us to the top of Digg, but then we’d never expect it to. Our audience is a narrower one…. as I’m sure yours is too.

So we think that marketplace, story and influence count. When it comes to ‘tipping’ in B2B then the pursuit of influencers alone (without a well-researched, well storylined context to place them in) won’t necessarily help you.

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2 Responses to “Whose Tipping Point is it Anyway? A B2B Perspective…”

  1. Doug Kessler

    Love this post.

    It seems to me that ‘tipping’ means different things in mass consumer markets than it does in B2B niches. For us in B2B, there really are mega-Influencers — the big bloggers in every market, the analysts, the key media.

    But these people are influencers precisely because they’re NOT easily influenced. The only way to move them is with something new, interesting, fresh, thoughtful…

    Ideas that tap into what’s really happening out there seem to have the most tipping potential. Ideas that address new trends, widening gaps, emerging concepts… these don’t come along every day but when they do, they’re on a fast-track to tipping.

  2. John

    Tipping Point is a great dinner-party anecdote generator (let me bore you with the psychology behind “Blues Clues”) but for me it was a thin thread of logic that offered a possibility rather than a certainty to explain away trends. I think we all agree that its all about content, context and connections but I’m just not convinced that it happens at such a micro-level as Gladwell likes to postulate.

    Of course the advent of social networks has allowed us to combine the micro with the macro. Tools like Linkedin mean not only am I no more than 3, not 6, degrees of separation away from anyone, I can also connect with them directly without going down the chain. The rules are changing – we just need to make sure we keep up with them. Definitely agree its a blending of the micro and mass approaches.

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