Online Extra: Q&A with Malcolm Gladwell

The author of The Tipping Point, says he's no consulting guru, but his viral marketing analysis is proving contagious

New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell created a stir in the marketing world with his best-seller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown & Co., 2000). The deceptively modest book used

an epidemiological model to explore how trends get disseminated, and its release coincided with marketers' increasing frustration with traditional media and their fascination with consumer phenomena that had enjoyed a "viral," or word-of-mouth, build in attaining broad popularity.

Before long, marketers even at blue-chip companies were using the book as a manual for their "buzz marketing" efforts. In an interview with BusinessWeek Associate Editor Gerry Khermouch, Gladwell described his ambitions in writing the book and his surprise at the reception it received from the marketing profession. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What led you to the subject? I know this originated as a New Yorker piece on crime, but what even got you thinking in that direction?

A: Well, I was fairly impressed with insights that epidemiologists had about how contagious things spread. Epidemiology goes back 300 years, and they had this incredibly sophisticated understanding of how something contagious moves through a community. And suddenly, a lot of other people beyond epidemiologists are interested in the answer to that question. So it seemed natural to take some of those principles from epidemiology and apply them to the social world, which is really what the book's about.

Q: At the time you started doing this, were some of your contacts in the crime-fighting community speaking in these terms themselves?

A: The crime people were really the first to pick up on the principles of applying epidemiology. People at CDC [Centers for Disease Control] who cut their teeth on diseases over the last 10 years have started to think of crime as another disease, and using some of these same concepts. It was something that was in the air in that world, but it was time to bust it out and apply it to any number of different social epidemics.

Q: Were you surprised at the reaction to the book by the marketing community? People can recite in amazing detail things they've taken away as prescriptions as to what they should be doing to reach consumers. Did that come at all as a surprise?

A: Total surprise! I remember when we had discussions about where we wanted the book to be in the bookstore, we weren't even thinking [about] the business section. We were thinking psychology or science. I didn't see that coming at all, and I've been so pleasantly surprised by it.

Q: What kinds of direct reaction did get from marketing types while out on the hustings discussing the book?

A: Bottom line is, there is a growing sense of disaffection in the marketing world with the standard set of ideas and solutions that people are being presented with. I think actually the marketing community is approaching a crisis: There are just too many messages competing for too little attention. That is the fundamental problem now.

We are approaching levels -- if we're not beyond levels -- of threshold for the number of messages that consumers can take in in a given day. There is a kind of hunger for some kind of new approach to getting the word out about something.

On a more prosaic level, the standard way of getting your message out for a mass-market brand on television over the past couple of years has gotten unbelievably expensive, and that is causing people to say, "Wait a minute, I need a new strategy here, I can't do this any more: It's not as effective as it used to be, and it has gotten prohibitively expensive."

Q: Are you being solicited to do consulting work on this?

A: I have said no, because I'm not a consultant, I'm a writer, and because I would be faking it if I actually tried to tell people how to run their businesses. I'm someone who can provide an intellectual framework, but I can't tell people who are trying to sell Product X how to do that because I don't know, and I would be faking it if I attempted to step into that role.

Q: Some really large organizations, including the likes of Procter & Gamble, seem to be embracing this as the solution to some of the problems you've mentioned. From your perspective as an observer, where do you think things are going in marketing?

A: This kind of thinking about marketing is very clearly in vogue right now. Anyone who knows the marketing world knows that ideas come and go, and people latch onto things and think of them as a kind of solution....

We're in a period where people are very taken by this notion.... It may be the case that there are cases where "tipping" is less appropriate than others. I wonder whether people are being a bit too prescriptive. The reason I am so excited by the epidemiological model is that it reintroduces the notion of serendipity into success. What to me distinguishes a lot of these things that organically bubble up from the surface is that there is an element of unpredictability about it: You couldn't have called it.

You can do a thousand things to maybe help your product tip, but it isn't something that can be engineered precisely, as a mass-marketed television or magazine advertisement or billboard campaign. What I was trying to do is to reintroduce mystery and complexity into our understanding of why certain things take off. I thought we were getting overly reductive and simplistic. So that's my caution to people.

There are, I think, in the book some important lessons for people who are trying to play this game and create fads and create products that will tip, but this isn't an equation. It's important to have a healthy dose of humility about your ability to manipulate consumers, because ultimately, they are mysterious and weird, and they do things for reasons that don't necessarily make sense and that cannot always be predicted. That was part of what attracted me to the idea in the first place.

Q: One of your conclusions is that there is a certain element of modesty in what seems to work, in what you bring to bear. Is there something there that is irreconcilable with a major, multinational marketing company trying to orchestrate a buzz-marketing campaign?

A: I don't know whether there's something incompatible. The limiting factor is not the size of the company trying to play this game, it's the degree to which they're savvy and sophisticated about how to set about doing it, and also the kind of product they're trying to talk about. There are some products which lend themselves to this kind of activity.

I'm most interested in using this model for products that are "hard" in some way, that is to say, sophisticated, technologically cutting-edge. When you talk about the critical role mavens play in getting the word out about something, mavens are drawn to something that requires their attention and role, that is hard enough that a maven is important to serve as intermediary between the product and the public. It's easier to see this playing a role in a new kind of software or computer than it is for a new kind of soap.

These kinds of organic, socially networked changes are critical when something is being introduced that requires a new perspective or a new understanding. The companies that are trying to use this for products that don't have that profile are, I think, going to have a harder time of it.

Q: How would you classify yourself among the categories you defined: Are you a maven, a connector, a salesman? Where do you come out in your nomenclature?

A: I think I'm probably none of the above. I'm a somewhat reclusive observer. I don't recognize myself in any of these categories, actually. I think of these as fairly unusual and unique categories, and I'm a fairly normal kind of guy.

Q: You spend quite a bit of time in the book talking about how these insights might really help with a very pressing social need, the whole smoking issue. I'm curious as to whether anyone has taken you up on that.

A: To be honest, no. When I was writing the book, that was my favorite chapter, one of the more original parts of the book. I thought I'd made a contribution. But I haven't really gotten a lot of feedback or response from that part of the book. I don't know why that is.

Maybe it's sufficiently at odds with the kinds of strategies people have been following to address this issue. Perhaps I should have been a bit more diplomatic in my assessment of this issue. It has been a disappointment, actually.

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