*I recently read the book, “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. Following are excerpts and ideas taken from his pages. Here is a summary from the section about the word-of-mouth spreading of ideas and trends, aka epidemics.
Word-of-mouth epidemics are controlled by three groups of people: The first group is called Connectors. These people are responsible for spreading a trend or piece of news through a population. The phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ originated in a psychological study which determined that any one person in America is only six people -or steps of communication, away from any other person in America. This is not because everybody knows a lot of people; rather because there are a few people who know many people. These are the Connectors, and everyone is within a communication step or two of a Connector. For instance, my social circle when analyzed, leads back to one person who is responsible for bringing the majority of these people together. As such, this is not really my social circle, but his. Connectors are people with a special gift for bringing the world together.
The second group of people responsible for word-of-mouth epidemics is Mavens. The word ‘Maven’ comes from the Yiddish, and it means one who accumulates knowledge. Mavens discover products and trends and tell a Connector, who gives it wings. For example, if a store marks an item as a promotion or ‘On Sale’, it will bring in more sales regardless of whether or not it is actually priced lower. The majority of people do not know item pricing well enough to spot a good deal, so they will buy an item simply because it is marked ‘On Sale’. Every retailer knows that a very small number of people watch prices and know if an item is actually lower priced. If a store pulls these stunts too often, these ‘price vigilantes’ -or Mavens, will tell a Connector, who will spread the news to avoid the store. These are the people who keep the marketplace honest.
The critical thing about Mavens, though, is that they aren’t passive collectors of information. It isn’t just that they are obsessed with how to get the best deal on everything. What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell others about it too. These people are more than experts. Experts typically have knowledge of a specialized field, i.e. cars. Market Mavens have information on a lot of different products or prices or places. This is the person who connects people to the marketplace and has the inside scoop on it. They know where the bathroom is located in every store. They don’t talk about this information because they love marketplaces, but rather because they love you and want to help you with your decision.
Following is a fine example of a Maven, in the author’s words, speaking of an interview he gave: “We met at a restaurant on the lakefront in Austin. I got there first and chose a table. [Alpert] got there second and persuaded me to move to another table, which he said was better. It was. I asked him about how he buys whatever he buys, and he began to talk. He explained why he has cable TV, as opposed to a dish. He gave me the inside scoop on Leonard Maltin’s new movie guide. He gave me the name of a contact at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan who is very helpful in getting a great deal. (Malcolm, the hotel is ninety-eight dollars. And the rack rate is a hundred and eighty-nine dollars!”) He explained what a rack rate is. (The initial, but soft, retail asking price for a hotel room.) He pointed at my tape recorder. “I think your tape is finished,” he said. It was. He explained why I should not buy an Audi. (“They’re Germans, so it’s a pain dealing with them. For a while they would give you an under-the-counter warranty, but they won’t anymore. The dealer network is small, so it’s hard to get service. I love driving them. I don’t like owning them.” What I should drive, he told me, is a Mercury Mystique because they drive like a much more expensive European sedan. “They aren’t selling well, so you can get a good deal. You go to a fleet buyer. You go in on the twenty-fifth of the month. You know this…”) Then he launched into an impossibly long, sometimes hilarious, description of the several months he took to buy a new TV. If you or I had gone through the same experience-which involved sending televisions back, and laborious comparisons of the tiniest electronic details and warranty fine print-I suspect we would have found it hellish. Alpert, apparently, found it exhilarating. Mavens are the kinds of people who are avid readers of Consumer Reports. Alpert is the kind of Maven who writes to Consumer Reports to correct them. “*Consumer Reports *put the Audi 5000 on their list of thou shalt not buy because of this sudden acceleration problem. But I read up the problem in the literature and came to believe it was bogus….So I wrote them and I said, you really ought to look into this. I gave them some information to consider. But I didn’t hear back from them. It annoyed the hell out of me. They are supposed to be beyond that.” He shook his head in disgust. He had out-Mavened the Maven bible.”
Economists study Mavens very closely and try to isolate and satisfy these people by setting ‘Maven Traps’. The Comment hotline on a bar of Ivory soap is one example of this. A Maven is the only type of person who would ever call an 800 number on a soap wrapper to comment. This gives the company a direct link with those who are passionate about soap, and if they are in the soap business, they had better keep these people happy.
Mavens read more newspapers and magazines then the rest of us. Mavens are information brokers, sharing and trading what they know. If something new comes out, and you were a friend of his, you can bet you would hear all about it quickly. What sets Mavens apart, though, is not so much what they know, but how they pass it along. The fact that Mavens want to help, for no other reason than because they like to help, turns out to be an awfully effective way of getting someone’s attention. A Connector might tell ten friends where to stay in Los Angeles, and half of them would take his advice. A Maven might tell five people where to stay in Los Angeles but make the case for the hotel so emphatically that all of them would take his advice. These are different personalities at work, but they both have the power to spark word-of-mouth epidemics.
The third group is Salesmen. Salesmen have the skills to persuade people who are unconvinced of what they are hearing to change their minds. To be effective, a Salesman needs to have answers to objections raised by potential clients. They need to be masters of facial expressions. One example states that when listeners begin to nod in agreement, the sales pitch becomes very effective. Studies have shown that head movements -side-to-side or up-and-down, have a large effect on our perception of something as negative or positive. For this reason advertisements that encourage vertical eye movement –versus horizontal movement, are more effective. For Salesmen, many of these tactics come naturally. Salesmen are great mimes. They are masters of conversation and emotional contagion. These people can change others’ attitudes and opinions by using a physiological ability of which we are barely aware. It’s a kind of super-reflex, and like all specialized human traits, some people have more mastery over this reflex than others.
All three of these groups of people are equally important in the launching and spread of a trend or product. These are the people who will determine whether a new product crashes or soars. They set trends and establish standards for everyone. The rest of the book gives examples of this in action, such as AIDS, crime in New York City, Hush Puppies shoe sales, suicide in Micronesia, teen smoking, school shootings, Sesame Street, and many others. All things considered, it’s a fascinating book I intend to read again.