Duncan Watts (a research scientist at Columbia and, for the moment, Yahoo) argues that "influencers" are less influential than Gladwell’s Tipping Point model would have us believe. He argues that news travels as readily through ordinary people as influential ones. This means that our world is not "hub and spoke," with some individuals acting like O’Hare and the rest of us like Cleveland or, pause, Dayton. No, as Thompson put it, networks are democratic. We are just as likely to "get the news" from a friend as we are from an networking paragon.
The argument seems to me compelling. And these two, Watts and Thompson, make superlative pitchmen on its behalf, the first as a cautious but quietly charismatic academic, and the second acting on the evening as a kind of "key light," stepping in occasionally to make certain points "pop." But it also seems to me that the Watts criticism should not be given rights of free passage anymore than Gladwell’s argument. (The latter is now used so freely that it threatens to become the marketer’s all purpose conceptual tool.) We must resist the temptation to generalize. (Occasionally.)
Watts’ arguments seems to me to apply to the network as "transmission device," i.e., when it serve as a way of moving something from one place to place in the network. In this case, one link is pretty much as good as another. But clearly networks sometimes serve as a "thinking machine"…as when ideas ricochet from blog to blog, and the wisdom of crowds assembles itself to identify the problems we care about and the answers we think plausible. In this case, surely, links are not all created equal. In this case, Clay Shirky’s opinion matters much more than mine. (The bastard). And so it should. (The bastard.)
Never mind. Even in this narrow form, the Watts-Thompson argument has revolutionary implications for the world of marketing. If their argument is true, it feels like we are looking at a turning point, not a tipping one. Many marketers thought that Gladwell’s model gave them a way to "game" the diffusion effect. All we had to do was influence the influencers and entire markets will fall before our approach.
There is always a substantial part of the marketing community looking for that open sesame, the magic formula, the hidden panel, the hot button, the wand and incantation that will allow them to trick the consumer. These marketers are in effect looking for a cheat. In the place of an intimate knowledge of the consumer and the market, in the place of a superlative productive or service, they look for a shortcut. Let’s call these people "mechanistic" marketers. They want to "operate" the consumer automaton by divining the secret levers within.
How grim. If marketing learned anything in the 20th century, it is that consumers are smarter than this, that there are no tricks in any case, that the world is not about process, it is stubbornly about content. If the marketer wants influence, the solution remains what it has always been. The answer is to build great products, brands and messages. It is these, and not "memes" or "viruses," that capture attention and prompt choice.
It turns out, hey presto, that consumers like things because they like them, not because someone told them to like them. Consumers like things because these things are a lot like consumers themselves: smart, creative, interesting, lively, topical, winning or otherwise engaging. And if the consumer doesn’t like a product or a service, it doesn’t matter how hip, authoritative, or viral we make them or our agents. They don’t like them. End of story.
Mechanistic marketing threatens to be cheap trick marketing. Worse than that, it threats to be lazy and insulting marketing. It’s diminishing, not just to the consumer but also to the marketer. There is no substitute for getting to know the consumer, building products and brands they care about, making and managing meanings well.
Well, forgive my bad temper and the eagerness with which I embrace this point. Clearly it is self serving of me. If Watts is right, it’s good news for anthropology. Now the first objective of the marketing game must be to get to know consumers and the culture from which they come. Why is this a lesson we have to keep learning? When do we learn to resist the siren call of the cheap trick and simply apply ourselves to thoughtful, passionate, engaged discovery?
Thompson, Clive. 2008. Is the Tipping Point Toast. Fast Company. Issue 122. February. here.