Gareth was straight out of the blocks in alerting me and the rest of our community to this great piece around Duncan Watts work
on how behaviour spreads through a population and how the Tipping Point model looks much less robust than has been suggested
I’ve discussed his stuff here and here before and Gareth himself does a pretty neat summary of the implications but for those of you new to it (or who’ve been asleep at the back) here’s a short approximation of Duncan’s position:
1. Behaviour spreads through populations in a very different way from that which we assume:
NOT as Gladwell’s epimediological and information network through some individuals who are “Influential”
BUT RATHER randomly:
“If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can”
2. The causal influence chain seems to make sense in retrospect (as the Black Swan points out) but the thing we don’t ever consider after the fact is the host of unsuccessful trends – the armies of records that didn’t sell, of fashions that never take off, of the new products that disappear without trace, the churches that never got built, the careers that never were
3. If this POV is right then the expensive and fiddly approach indicated by the suave Gladwell and the charming Ed Keller – with Influentials individuals shaping what “the rest of us” do is a waste of time and money: the revolution can start anywhere…
Now, I must declare an interest here: not only do I think Watts is right but I’ve been working with his British based counterpart to beta test our own version for marketing and communication. And we’re getting pretty close to something pretty robust (more of this later on, I promise)
Why am I so convinced he’s right? Well, beyond the difficulties in making the numbers (or the mechanism itself) work I think there are 3 or 4 broad reasons, most of which fall under this heading: the assumptions about human society and behaviour behind the Influentials kind of model just don’t stack up
1. No-one person or class of person influences all or most of an individual’s behaviour: Stephen and Fion‘s classic study showed how personal influence works in a number of different ways and varies by market and…for **** sake, few of us spend our lives stuck in one small social group away from the other folk in our society (except members of isolated religious communities and remote jungle tribes). In anycase, human social networks are not fixed (like wires on a board) but constantly shifting: each of us plays many different roles in different social contexts all of the time
2. The alternative “copying” model seems to be based in a much firmer grip on human beings and how they learn to do stuff. In particular, it places mimetic learning (learning by copying – one of our most important learning strategies from infancy on) at the heart of its explanation of how behaviour spreads. Recent work on mimesis and mirror neurons seems particularly relevant here: what makes us so “clever” is our ability to learn from each other; the same mechanisms seem central to our ability to live such a sophisticated social life
3. The influencer model reliance on verbal behaviours and what is said (recommendations, word of mouth etc) and the transmission of information seems more than is sensible or even necessary (we’ll all been told on training courses what a low percentage of a presentation is the verbal bit).
No, it’s how folk around your behave (or you perceive them to) that shapes your likely response. As Watzlawick and co articulated long ago, analogic communication (that is behavioural) tends to be a much more powerful lever to generate behavioural response than digital (i.e. information-transmission).
4. In particular, I think the Influentials kind of models appeal to us because they reflect a web of other ideas we have – they fit some of the received ideas we have about humans (rigid heirarchies, active verbally driven influence etc) and some of our longstanding marketing practices (targetting on a priority audience, send them messages etc etc). I also suspect a big part of the appeal is that we’d like to think of ourselves in the Influential boxes one way or another, certainly the agency folk might fall in this trap…maybe? And finally that they give the impression that most marketing behaviour changes as a result of what the brand does to consumers (directly as in the old advertising model or indirectly as in WoM). But just because we feel comfortable with them doesn’t make them true, does it?
I remember being told by someone at the NYC book launch that “he saw what I was on about but just preferred to think about things” the Influentials way. Similarly Jon – an otherwise enlightened fella – comments today
“At the end of the day, it’s probably six of one, and half a dozen of the other”
I beg to differ. They can’t both be right. One – the Influentials one – still sits within the old world view of human behaviour as essentially a mechanical and complicated thing and worries about the levers to pull to ensure a particular thing happens; the other embraces a pile of learning about our species and in particular highlights the complexity of humanity and human behaviour: it quite happily acknowledges the truth we all resist – that it’s really hard to make human beings do a particular thing.
And whether you “prefer” one model or another is not really the point, is it? It’s the facts of how each works (for example, the numbers of folk like Duncan) and the ease and utility of applying these models in the real world that we should be considering, isn’t it? How you’d “like to think about it” isn’t going to get you to the best result now, is it?
Think this might be the year we have to choose…