The Tipping Point is social critic Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful examination into the increasingly important concept of what has come to be known since the book’s publication in 2000 as “going viral.” Gladwell’s own definition of the tipping point uses pre-going-viral terms such as reaching critical mass or—for the really, really old school types—reaching a boiling point. All these definitions ultimately connote the same idea: the metaphorical epidemic required for awareness of a product or idea to spread like a virus. Gladwell’s key insight into this process—which remains just as valid today as it was in those halcyon days when the words “you” and “tube” were never used together—is that it doesn’t take a village to help a product or idea reach the tipping point. It only takes a select few, but those select few must fit within one of three distinct classifications: Connectors, Mavens and Salesman.
Connectors are kind of like the carriers of viruses who fly around the world and infect thousands and thousands of people. Connectors are those people whom you know that seem to know just about everyone else you know. The important thing to keep in mind is that connectors do not necessarily have to enjoy strong ties to all those people with whom they come into contact. In fact, Gladwell’s entire theory of the epidemic effect required for an idea or product to reach the tipping point depends upon the fact that Connectors are especially talented in the art of creating entirely superficial relationships with other people so that the bond which ties them together is only as strong as the particular need that is required at a specific moment in time. A good way to understand what Connectors are is to think of them as that character actor whose face you know but whose name often escapes you that seems to keep popping up regularly in a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
In Gladwell’s world, the Maven is distantly related to Connector, but serves the dissemination of information more from the perspective of what they know than who they know. If the Connector can be viewed as having a great big Rolodex full of people from every walk of life, then view the Mavens as those people on that Rolodex who gets the most calls when the Connector needs to know something fast. A Maven can be a teacher impacting dozens of people a day or the publisher of content-rich website that receives millions of hits a day. Mavens are the go-to source for which Mexican restaurant has the hottest hot sauce in town or where to get that particular shade of green that is needed to make a replica of the jacket Little Joe wore on Bonanza. The vital importance of Mavens to the process is that they pass needed information along to the Connectors who then go about their job of spreading that information like a viral infection.
Gladwell refers to the final category of those who are necessary components in the process of viral marketing an idea or product’s way to reaching the tipping point as salesmen, but he really should have used the other term by which he describes them: persuaders. Not only because it would have been a more gender-neutral description, of course, but also because the real task of the Salesmen is not necessarily making the sale, but persuading the consumer that the idea or product in question is something worth buying. Another key element to remember about the Salesmen is that persuasion is not necessarily geared toward selling a product in which they themselves have a financial interest. The result is, yes, that the sale gets made, but the Salesman is sort of detached from that end result; as long as they are successful in persuading consumers of the worth of the entity, their job is done.
The Stickiness Factor
Even if an idea or product can successfully utilize the few Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen it takes to get close to reaching the tipping point, the enjoyment of the viral sensation will be short-lived unless it also possesses that Gladwell labels the Stickiness Factor. The Stickiness Factor essentially boils down to having those qualities of fascination of usefulness that keeps it firmly in the public consciousness. The stickier the attraction, the longer and more pervasive the viral epidemic becomes.