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Rethinking gladwell’s model of influence

February 12, 2007

Work by Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds of Columbia University is turning one of marketing’s unwritten laws and one of Malcolm Gladwell’s pet theories on its head.

Their thinking has made HBR’s list of Breakthrough Ideas for 2007.

For years, marketers have tried to identify and influence leading edge consumers who they believe have the power to influence others.

It’s the thought that ideas are spread by trickling down from the top of the pyramid; from niches to the mainstream.

Dodds and Page believe ideas spread in a different manner.

“Understanding that trends in public opinion are driven not by a few influentials influencing everyone else but by many easily influenced people influencing one another should change how companies incorporate social influence into their marketing campaigns. Because the ultimate impact of any individual highly influential or not depends on decisions made by people one, two, or more steps away from her or him, word-of-mouth marketing strategies shouldn’t focus on finding supposed influentials. Rather, marketing dollars might better be directed toward helping large numbers of ordinary people possibly with Web-based social networking tools to reach and influence others just like them.”

Obviously, it’s the web and new social networks that change everything, they compress the gestation of an idea and often shortens its life.

Dodds and Page’s “easily influenced people, influencing each other”, refers to the millions of people across the Long Tail.

These people will determine the ultimate success of an idea, but it’s important to recognize that they don’t work entirely alone, but often in concert with specific influencers.

This is the thinking put forward by David Armano of Digitas, that makes a great deal of sense.

The challenge for marketers is to understand the complexity implicit in this new model. It involves a thorough understanding of the online and offline landscape that you are launching your new idea into.

Marketers need to look closely at the landscape to check if there are influencers and determine who they are and ensure the right tools are available to encourage everyone to help spread the idea.

Gladwell’s idea shouldn’t be written off just yet, but it needs to be re-considered and blended with the latest thinking by Armano, Watts and Dodds.

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