There Are No Influentials – Calling BS on the Tipping Point

Fast Company has an article about Duncan Watts, a researcher who says the "Influentials," the ones marketers spend tons of money to target, are a waste of money.

In the past few years, Watts-a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) -has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

"It just doesn't work," Watts says, when I meet him at his gray cubicle at Yahoo Research in midtown Manhattan, which is unadorned except for a whiteboard crammed with equations. "A rare bunch of cool people just don't have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There's no there there."

And this is not, he argues, mere academic whimsy. He has developed a new technique for propagating ads virally, which can double or even quadruple the reach of an ordinary online campaign by harnessing the pass-around power of everyday people-and ignoring Influentials altogether.

There are certain ideas that, even if they are true, and still heresies. I think this is one of those ideas, and I doubt marketers will rush to embrace something that is so unsexy. Watts argues that part of the reason people embrace the idea is that it seems to make sense… if you don't really think about it.

"It sort of sounds cool," Watts says, tucking into his salad. "But it's wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you don't think about it." For example, in The Influentials, Keller and Berry argue that trendsetters draw their social power from being active in their communities. Their peers naturally turn to them for advice. Need to buy a new car or navigate city hall? Everyone knows whom to trust. Gladwell, for his part, argues that trends spread like diseases; Influentials are the vectors who amplify and propagate the infection.

I always enjoy seeing conventional wisdom kicked in the face. It will be interesting to watch and see if Watts' ideas catch on. I think if a few marketers can use them successfully, then ultimately, results will beat fantasies every time. It just takes a while.

  • mike lambley

    I read “The Tipping Point” recently and am so glad I’m not the only one who didn’t agree. I assumed if Gladwell’s treatise worked, he’d be able to go out and tip a product or service and show us how it was done rather than reverse engineering. Same goes for a lot of Tom Peter’s stories.

  • It has been awhile since I read Tipping Point so I don’t really recall the details. But I read Rob’s comments and Seth’s comments on the same article. To me it all depends on the definition of an “influential.” In my personal experience I am influenced in somethings by well placed, well thought of highly visible people. Is that an ‘influential’? Could be. But I am also influenced by friends and collegues, most of which no one reading this will have ever heard of.
    Are they ‘influentials’? For me. And who might I influence in turn. So I think reality may be somewhere in between Tipping Point and Anti-tipping point. Just my point of view, so I doubt I will sway anyone in their point of view. LOL