What’s the secret to something going viral? What causes “the latest thing” to go from early adopters into the mainstream? Why is it that back in 2008 almost no one had a smartphone, and today everyone has one? Malcolm Gladwell lets you in on the secret in “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”
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Although this book was published back in the early 2000’s, it’s just as relevant today as it was back them. Gladwell studies what causes social epidemics to flourish-or fall-seemingly at random but really due to factors you can predict and control. He goes through the roles of different kinds of key people that cause information to spread like wildfire, and what makes an idea “sticky”, or have staying power. As you read it, you’ll find yourself nodding or thinking to yourself “oh, that makes sense.” And if you’re like me, you just might find yourself thinking about how you might be able to use these concepts to make the world a better place.
The Law of the Few
What is it that makes someone persuasive? How is it that some people can have an idea, buy a product, or use a service and cause it to go viral-but for others the idea just stays put and never goes anywhere? Gladwell discusses the roles of three key types of people in spreading ideas-the Connectors, the Mavens, and the Salesmen (or saleswomen).
- Connectors – These are the people with lots of connections between different groups of people. When I read the description, I immediately thought of my grandmother. She was always bumping into someone she knew wherever she went-no shopping trip could go by without her seeing someone from church, work, an old friend, the parent of one of her kids, or someone else. She, like most Connectors, was very social and loved talking to people and learning about them. Heck, she even kept in touch with old friends from elementary school well into her 80’s. Since they have so many connections among different groups of people, connectors can help ideas to spread and networks to grow.
- Mavens – The real experts in a field, interested in digging down into the nitty-gritty details most people aren’t interested in. Mavens can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the details of a specific car model, refrigerator, or financial product. My grandfather was a Maven. Although he wasn’t as social and gregarious as my grandmother-preferring to spend his time reading, studying up on his latest interest, or in his workshop building something – you could always count on him to provide an in-depth analysis of any topic he was interested in. Mavens not only have deep expertise, but also want to share it with you in order to help you. This, when paired with a connector, can be powerful in spreading new ideas, concepts, products, and services to the masses
- Salesmen – These are the persuaders we run into in life. They’re not salesmen in the “cheesy car salesman” kind of way, but in the way that makes you want to buy whatever it is they’re selling-without feeling like you’ve been sold anything. A true salesman can sell ice in Alaska, hot cocoa in Florida, and shark repellent spray to Batman. Salesmen have a quality about them that’s hard to put your finger on, but they’re incredible at influencing others.
If you pair a Salesman with a Connector and a Maven, they’re a force to be reckoned with. Mavens will vet an idea extensively, putting all their expertise to work, and ensure it’s a quality one. The Salesman will persuade others that the idea has merit, and the Connector will make sure it spreads far and wide. This is most powerful when you have two or three of these traits in the same person-they can cause an idea to go from a tiny acorn into a huge oak tree almost overnight.
Stickiness – Why Some Ideas Have Staying Power
Have you ever had a jingle you just can’t get out of your head? Maybe “This is The Song That Doesn’t End” from Lamb Chop? (If you’re around my age it just got stuck in your head-sorry. If you’re not my age and you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch this and then, I’m also sorry, it’s probably stuck in your head now).
Gladwell uses two classic children’s television shows – Sesame Street and Blues Clues – to show in detail just how the show producers got educational concepts to stick in children’s minds. Shows had to be entertaining, not confusing, straightforward, and ideally get participation from the audience. I’ve seen this at work with my older kids when they were small, and with my one year old. Their favorite shows are slow, simple, and repeated ad nauseam. If you have a child, and you’ve been forced to watch the same video over and over and over, you know what I’m talking about.
You’ll see this repeated in successful adult movies, books, advertisements – almost everywhere you look, once you learn about it. Concepts that are simple and easy to digest are memorable-complex ones are frequently forgotten. That’s why people gravitate toward “rules of thumb” like saving 10% of their income, or saving $100 per month for college. Complex ideas like calculating your exact expenses, extrapolating out 10, 20, or 30 years, predicting investment returns and inflation, determining your personal future 4% withdrawal rate-all are too complex. To be “sticky”, you need to package an idea in a simple way that makes it irresistible.
The Power of Context – Your Environment Matters More Than Your Morals
Have you ever wondered what causes some areas of town to be “bad”, and others to be “good”? Why is one street full of litter and graffiti and the next one not? Believe it or not, it may relate very little to the type of people who live there and it may be more about the context in which they live.
I’ve seen this concept play out in my house and car, with the kids making messes. One kid leaves his books in the car. The next sees the mess and figures that a little more mess won’t hurt anything, putting their water bottle on the floor. And so on, until I need to yell at someone for making my car a disaster area. The good news about this concept is that it works in reverse too – as people see things cleaned up, better behavior, less litter, etc., they’re more likely to act the same way and be neater, better behaved, and stop littering. This idea is what led to the dramatic decline in crime in NYC from the 80’s to the 2000’s. Those in charge began focusing on cleaning up in small ways, and it led to big changes in crime rates.
How Can These Concepts Help With Financial Literacy?
We all know the abysmal state of Americans finances. Forty six percent of Americans can’t cover a $400 financial emergency. Seventy-two percent don’t know what a 529 plan is. The average savings amount for college, which includes the wealthy and is probably skewed high, isn’t enough to pay for one year of in-state college, room, and board. Half of Americans have nothing saved for retirement. There’s been a lot of hand wringing as to why. People blame the media, the lack of financial education in schools, peer pressure to keep up with the Joneses, and many other factors for the lack of financial aptitude.
Is there a way we can use these concepts in The Tipping Point to help spread financial literacy like a virus? What if we could make talking about your 401k or your 529 plan as cool as chatting about the new car you just purchased? If everyone knew about financial products and could explain them simply and clearly?
Many of us personal finance bloggers write because we want to help others. We’re usually Mavens on money – we enjoy diving deep into topics like what are our 401k fees or analyzing the cost of pizza take-out, pizza kits, and making your own. Our ideas are usually a hit within our own communities online, where everyone is interested in money and usually has a higher than normal knowledge of financial information. But how can we spread our ideas out beyond our community-and into the mainstream?
Help spread the word about money. Come up with simple, sticky ideas that people can easily understand and remember. Use stories to persuade people why an idea is a good one, or how saving money can be just as fun and even more rewarding than spending it.
What ideas do you have on how we can reach the financial tipping point and send America down a better path? Do you know any Salesmen or Connectors that can help spread the word? How can we use context to help people see saving as “just something you do” rather than a sacrifice? Let me know in the comments!
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