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Malcolm Gladwell Was Wrong — A Better Theory of Social Networks

Posted on February 13, 2007 by Glenn Gow

In the latest Harvard Business Review, Duncan Watts, professor of sociology at Columbia University, argues that Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of “social epidemics”, discussed in The Tipping Point sounds intuitively correct, but is wrong.

Gladwell states that social influence stems from a two-step flow of communication; from the media to influentials (a tiny minority of well-connected, persuasive people), and from them to everyone else. If correct, this theory means that marketers should search out and influence the influentials.

Oh, it sounds so good because we (as marketers) can target those people. However, Gladwell can only offer anecdotal evidence to support his theory. What Watts has found, however, is that with the exception of celebrities (like Oprah Winfrey), even key influentials don’t interact with enough people to have the impact Gladwell states that they have.

Watts has run computer simulations of the dynamics of social contagion. What he has discovered is that – because of the number of people who need to be”touched” – in nearly all circumstances, these influentials don’t have the significant impact we “hoped” they would to make our marketing job easier.

The key finding in their research (supported by other research as well), is that the key way to create social contagion is to reach “easily influenced” individuals and get them to influence others just like them. These findings mean that, for us marketers, we should not focus on a few influentials, but rather on leveraging Web-based social networking tools to reach large numbers of ordinary people.

Glenn Gow

Glenn Gow is an expert in marketing performance, Coach, Board Advisor, Author, Speaker, Podcast Host and Founder & Advisor of Crimson Marketing. Follow me on TwitterLinkedInGoogle+. To get a free copy of Crimson’s One-Page Marketing Metrics Funnel, visit here.


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