Marketing reimagined: revolutionary implications of the Watts-Thompson reply to Gladwell

Fast_company_masthead Last night I went to the Fast Company office in New York City to hear Clive Thompson interview Duncan Watts.

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

7 thoughts on “Marketing reimagined: revolutionary implications of the Watts-Thompson reply to Gladwell

  1. peter

    Grant, you touch on something here which I think is very profound. The network model, like most of the prevailing paradigm of an “information society”, is centred on information and knowledge and beliefs. But the real power of the internet and social networking is not in joint knowing, but in joint doing — in addition to allowing information to be shared, a network enables the co-ordination of the actions of different actors, wittingly or unwittingly.

    You have often talked about customer construction of marketing meaning, and it is this activity — jointly undertaken by all the stakeholders in the marketplace, achieving their results incrementally and thus only ever provisionally — that marketers need to understand and influence in a social networking context. Most of us marketers are nowhere near understanding it, or even recognizing that we should. We are still focused on spreading awareness of static knowledge, instead of exploring how we might enable joint execution of dynamic action.

  2. nikoherzeg

    Mr McCracken,

    a couple of things come to my mind (as I take a break from the Wire and read your blog). firsty your judgement of mechanics. they do exist, mechanisms, and they can and perhaps should be used by marketeers. no bad thing in that. Kahneman and Cialdini and Mark Earls have shown us (or me) that machanics are a powerfull tool. humans do tend to be social, listen to others and act as others.

    the implication of watts means nothing . it is merely a reminder of what Bernbach has said many years ago: “I warn you against believing that advertising is a science.” good news told well about a good thing will always travel well.

    I have no trouble being told/going along with a beautifull lie, meme, hype (or brandmessage), in fact they can be a source of entertainment, I do have a problem with being told sloppy, boring lies.

    Barnum told lies, looked at and exploited shortcuts, as did Victor Lustig (he sold the Eiffel tower!!!). I doubt anybody felt duped after they found out he uses tricks to do what he did…I bet they laughed their heads off.

    I seem to be drifting of topic abit, so let me say this…I kinda feel sad to read yet another reminder of knowlegde that has been available to the marketing community for a lot of years…. but I guess the hardheaded got to feel it to believe it(mosdef)

    and with that I am off to West Baltimore again…..(it’s election time)

  3. O.S

    I, too, follow the debate and enjoy it. One thing only Peter; the internet being about joint doing and not joint knowing – the 90/9/1 rule (and I have, for obvious reasons not validated it myself) states that only 1% of the internet population creates. 9% participates and creates a bit, while 90% just hang around.

    These 90%, (and this is me talking off the top of my head) probably see and experience it as network of knowing. Hell, I’m so friggin’ busy writing for clients that I seldom have time to contribute much. I’m one of them, and I really see it as a joint knowing (most of the time). I love consuming the brilliant ideas that blogs like this pump out but I happen to be a pen and paper guy still, and short on time. To me it’s an amazing joint knowing (thanks to the small number of joint doing:ers…). My point is that I agree with you that the power of the medium is joint doing but as marketers we have to realize that it is that for a small number of total.

  4. John Grant

    by far the most interesting, though provoking post I have read in some time (years)

    clay shirky was an interesting ‘random’ pick of example

    the mechanistic model of marketing has in my experience very little to offer in my experience of planning in/for (apologies for lack of a better term) web 2.0

    the question of how to support self organising movements (along with several other themes such as new social currencies/barter, the ‘gaming’ forms of interaction, and how people learn to adopt new habits) is far more prescient, it just comes up again, and again, and again

    and you are absolutely right that anthropology is absolutely key to all of that

    i actually cant remember the last time (outside climate change science where ‘tipping elements’ are the current hot topic) when someone quoted tipping points to me, or where that way of thinking felt relevant

    which is something of a relief
    (i never read that book because – like freakonomics – i mistrusted it in all sorts of levels, plus yes probably professional jealousy)

    if you look at the academic movement which he appropriated (mimetics) it does seem to a have proved a dead end too, failing to generate any new knowledge beyond a clever perspective or way of re-explaining

    the difficult thing for marketers today is to learn systems thinking, the tipping point was the latest attempt to re-assert a newtonian, classical sender-receiver-message (or perhaps more accurately budget – idea – rationale -sales) model, where with enough money and the right agency you could sell snow to eskimos (mind you, on current rates of north pole ice melting…?)

    anyway, it’s a great debate, i’m sure there’s lots more where this came from


  5. Casper Willer

    Interesting debate.

    On the subject of the “90/9/1 rule ” a friend of mine has an interesting theory which he calls “Behavior Generated Content”, which he has developed through his work for Joost.

    “Its content generated by people’s actions not by them actively creating anything. Content generated by activity. A good example is Facebook who create 100 of hours of storytelling by allowing friends of friends to read what they have “done”. (newsfeed)”

    See more:

  6. Sergio

    Dear Dr. McCracken,

    I recently finished reading your book “flock and flow”. On it you seem to agree with the idea that there are some people that are more important in the diffusion (Influencers?).
    If the theory of Duncan Watts prove to be true or at least partially true, how it affects what you propose on the book

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