Interpreting past trends, however, can be a little like Whig history. It is too tempting to look for the people who were involved in the early days of a trend and give them special status as trend setters. Much of marketing focuses on identifying potentially influential people and attempting to have them wear your shoes, listen to your music, or drink your vodka. In reality, it doesn’t take influential people to start trends.
NPR’s On the Media recently featured an interview of journalist Clive Thompson, author of “Is the Tipping Point Toast?” published in the February 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine. Thompson describes that the science behind some of the early studies of networking is somewhat shaky and doesn’t hold up to current research.
For example, in the famous Stanley Milgram small world experiment conducted in the late 1960s, letters were sent to individuals in the Midwest directing them to forward similar letters through friends so that they end being delivered to a stockbroker in Boston. Milgram discovered that the average path length for social networks in the United States was about 6 individuals (to which the phrase six degrees of separation is attributed). Milgram also discovered that most of the letters that got to the stockbroker were sent via only 3 friends. These people are what is what Gladwell calls connectors — individuals with very large social networks. Marketers believe that influencing this small group of people can lead to successful trends.
Duncan Watts, a network scientist at Columbia University currently on leave with Yahoo! recreated this experiment, only with email and not paper mail, and extended it to thousands of individuals around the world. While he was able to replicate the six-degree path length, he could not replicate Milgram’s notion of connectors. Only 5% of the email messages were sent through these kind of individuals.
The notion that only a small number of highly-influential individuals can start trends is being revised by the notion that we are all capable of starting trends. What matters most is whether society is ready for a trend, and less on the persuasive ability of influential individuals.
If society is ready to embrace a trend, almost anyone can start one–and if it isn’t, then almost no one can.
Using a metaphor to illustrate his point, Watts describes that when conditions are right (hot, dry, and windy) almost any lit match, spark, or lightning bolt can start a forest fire. It makes little sense investigating the properties of the first spark.
As a result, the traditional approach of mass advertising may be just as effective as selective (or viral) advertising when the conditions of the market are right.