Friday, January 16, 2009

Tip of the Day

Every quarter, the Resolution Media management team reads a book as a framework for discussion and goal-setting at an all-day offsite. This time around, the pick was Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, a book I'd been wanting to read for some time.

When I first got my copy of the book and saw the subheadline, "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," I knew it was right up my alley -- mind you, this was after I had written the post "Little Things That Make a Big Difference."

Not surprisingly, many of my RM colleagues had difficulty connecting Tipping Point to their day-to-day business lives. After all, it wasn't a straight-forward business book like some others we had read -- Good to Great, The Breakthrough Company, The Ultimate Question, etc. I saw a number of direct applications though.

Sticky is as Sticky Does

In one of his many “case studies, ”Gladwell shows the great lengths the producers of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues went to when researching their target audience and manipulating different variables in their shows to make them more engaging. Sesame Street did A/B testing around where on the screen the letters should appear (and found that the key was to put them close to the characters as that's where kids' attention was). Blue's Clues ran focus groups to see what level of repetition would help ingrain the lessons in children (and found that running the same program five days in a row was the answer).

Not much different than the way we should be approaching digital marketing programs. Test everything as you never know what little difference will drive that connection with the consumer. With today's technology tools, A/B and multivariate testing on landing pages has never been easier. Ditto for creative testing.

Technology, Social Media and Epidemics

Speaking of technology, it's amazing how far we've come in the 9 years since Gladwell first published this book. Back then there was no such thing as Google trends, so the fact that researchers were able to draw parallels between the spread of syphilis in Baltimore and the change of the seasons was quite remarkable (while also being quite the undertaking). Nowadays, Google has products that can help predict flu outbreaks 10 days earlier than the CDC.

As RM's resident Mobile and SEO maven, Bryson Meunier, pointed out yesterday, another key takeaway from the book is the specific factors that can lead to an "epidemic." Gladwell plots out the required conditions for an idea or message to spread rapidly -- and isn't that really the goal of most marketing campaigns? It's all about tapping the "power of the few" -- the mavens, connectors, and salesmen that are critical to achieving viral success -- with a sticky message in the right context.

Now, Gladwell wrote this book long before YouTube, MySpace and Facebook were household names and it was much more difficult to generate viral success via word-of-mouth marketing. Once again, technology -- in this case, social networks -- has changed the game. Today, you can literally map out everyone's 6 degrees of separation and spread the word about big news or a new product faster than it took Paul Revere to saddle up his horse.

But Gladwell's concepts of the power of the few, stickiness, and context are no less relevant. Just ask any marketer that's created a MySpace of Facebook page languishing with a few hundred "friends" or "fans." You still have to identify the folks that are going to most receptive to your message and have the passion, network, and interpersonal communications skills to spread it.

Examples of this are consumer electronics manufactures that send their new products to influential tech bloggers like Malik Om or Michael Arrington in the hopes that they'll like them and blog about them. Or P&G sending samples of new leak-proof Pampers to the mommy blogging briggade. Or companies like BzzAgent that have a network of "early-adopters" to whom they send promo kits and give specific guidance around ways to help spread the gospel. And think about all the mavens (aka "price-vigilantes") that prowl sites like Yelp or Viewpoints, sharing their opinions on people, products, and places.

Links in a Chain

As someone with well over 1,000 connections on LinkedIn and 500+ on Facebook, I really identified with Gladwell's description of Connectors -- "people with a special gift for bringing the world together." He tells the story of Roger Horchow, a Dallas businessman who finds genuine "value and pleasure in a casual meeting."

I can definitely empathize with that sentiment. I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason and every person you encounter has a purpose in shaping your life. One of the most formative books I read back in college was The Celestine Prophecy and it speaks to the impact small turns and casual meetings can have and how you should take nothing for granted.

I also believe that the power of one’s network lies in its size. Gladwell calls attention to the “fax effect” -- “Because fax machines are linked into a network, each additional fax machine that is shipped increases the value of all the fax machines operating before it.” In many ways, this is the power of LinkedIn. Each additional connection that I make or my connections make adds to the value of the entire network.

Bullseye Targeting

Gladwell also offers some keen insights into audience segmentation. He notes that "we're friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble." He points to research showing that "proximity overpowered similarity" when it comes to how we choose our friends.

Think about this in a marketing context. When you're trying to profile your target audience -- the folks that will be most interested in your product/service -- perhaps, it's more wise to focus on a group of "friends" that share similar interests rather than a demographic or geographic segment.

This, of course, is the theory behind behavioral targeting. But Gladwell's insight goes behind the mere BT practices that categorize people who visit luxury travel sites as "upscale travelers." After all, I consider myself an upscale traveler but I've never visited a luxury travel site. This is about targeting me with your message because I'm friends with Jim and he just recently booked a luxury cruise.

There are companies out that offer this type of targeting. One I know well is Media6Degrees. They give marketers the ability to pixel people that convert on your website and then target ads to those people's "friends" based on who they're connected to on MySpace, Facebook, etc. But they go one step further. If you're like me, you have a wide-range of people you're connected with on social networks. Rather than target my entire friend list, they'll pick the 10 friends I'm closest to (my "strong ties”) based on my interactions within the application -- eg, how many times I message them, write on their walls, poke them, etc.

It's the Little Things

The final parallel I drew from the book was the overriding theme of how important the little things are when it comes to reaching a tipping point. When it comes to closing a new piece of business or satisfying a current client/partner/boss, etc. you never know what's going to make it tip.

Looking back at the list I created of “Little Things That Make a Big Difference,” any one of these could be the factor that got you that job, made the sale, impressed your client, etc.

As RM’s new VP of Strategic Partnerships, Tom Kuthy, mentioned at the offsite, the great salesmen that Gladwell covers in the book understand that “non-verbal cues are as or more important than verbal cues.” It’s all about getting face time with colleagues, clients, and partners. One of the little things I recommend is doing away with instant messenger. How can you really get in sync with the other person when you’re both barely paying attention to each other?

Or take another Gladwell observation -- “We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But… instead they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of the ideas.”

This is what I’m getting at in my post when I talk about naming conventions for files or using headlines as slide titles in presentations. Too often we labor over the content of the deck when the things that can make the biggest difference are the mere packaging of it.

The bottom line is you never know what the difference-maker’s going to be so your best bet is to do them all. There you have it folks -- now go tip off.


Anonymous said...

I just finished Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers." I still find Tipping Point to be his best and most interesting, with "Blink" riding a close second.

If you consider yourself a luxury traveler, I'm curious as to why you would not visit a luxury travel site? Wouldn't that be similar to saying "I like sports but I've never visited a sports site."

Aaron Goldman said...

Thx for chiming in Randy. I liked Blink too but, as with Tipping Point, thought both could've been done justice with 10 page position papers rather than full-blown texts. We get your point, Malcolm. Haven't read Outliers yet but have it on the list.

As for my luxury travel habit -- I tend to use "common people" sites like Orbitz and Virtual Tourist and just look for upscale properties to review and book. In that way, it'd be like saying I'm a Cubs fan but get my updates from ESPN rather than (which is also true).

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