Responding to Rubel: Word of Mouth and the Tipping Point

The past five years have been marked with “social” and “viral” buzzwords about how to best do marketing and advertising. We’ve been hearing everything from “Tipping Point” and”Mavens” to lots of mentions of “influencer” and “A-List Bloggers”. Yet, the increasingly popularity of these terms also breeds confusion. That’s how I feel about Steve Rubel’s latest posting called “Trust in Peers Trumps the ‘A-List,” Study Finds’“.

In it Steve Rubel writes:

There’s an ongoing debate online and in marketing circles as well over who “matters”: the super node influencers or basically anyone that a particular peer group looks to for information, entertainment, inspiration and more.

This meme got kicked around in the ‘sphere a few weeks back when Duncan Watts released some research that contradicts Malcolm Gladwell’s theory outlined in The Tipping Point. Today, however, there’s new data that to me may just reveal that Watts is right. The key factor, once again, all comes down to trust. (Emphasis is mine.)

His specific evidence?

Mediapost reports that a new study from Pollara found that people who engage in social networks and communities put far more trust in friends and family who are online than in popular bloggers, or strangers with 10,000 MySpace “friends.”

Unfortunately, Steve Rubel is conflating several separate issues on what is Word of Mouth, an influencer and an “A-Lister”.

What Do We Mean by Word of Mouth, A Listers and Influencers

Let us set-up our definitions (at least according to me):

  • Word of Mouth is the Strength of Personal Trust
    Word of Mouth works because you generally trust someone you know more than a stranger. So yes, you’d probably trust your friend more than a blogger off the Internet.
  • A-Listers *does not equal* Word-of-Mouth
    A popular media publisher (be it a blogger or CNN) does not correlate to a high-trust factor. Just because Mike Arrington is a popular blogger doesn’t mean I trust everything he says. Yes, he has immense influence in terms of audience reach, but just not necessarily trust.
  • Influencer does not mean A-Lister: Remembering 150
    Malcom Gladwell talked about Connectors, Mavens and Salespersons – not “A-Listers” or “Popular Bloggers”.

    Indeed, Gladwell dedicated a chapter to “150”: the ceiling level of how many social relationships a person can have. A person with “10,000 MySpace Friends” does not count. You trust your actual personal friend, not the guy who is “friends” with 10,000 people on MySpace. The “10,000 People on MySpace” guy is able to pass information quickly, but not necessarily influence decisions directly.

In short, you probably need the mass audience of an A-Lister to connect with the influencer (connectors, mavens, salespersons), who tell their friends what to buy, etc. The A-Lister is the medium.

So rest assured, Malcom Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” is not wrong. Nor is the study that the MediaPost article cites forcing us to choose between the “Tipping Point” and Word-of-Mouth’s emphasis on the trust of friends and family.

And what about Steve Rubel mention that people said “Duncan Watts released some research that contradicts Malcolm Gladwell’s theory”?

Duncan Watt: Does he really say “No” to the Tipping Point?

Firestorm from SLWorking

Duncan Watt’s criticism of the “Tipping Point” has been overblown in proportion. Watt never said that there is no such thing as influencer. What Watt is reminding us that an endorsement by an influencer is no guarantee that a large trend will start:

Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That’s because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. “And nobody,” Watts says wryly, “will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire.”

Following the analogy above, Watt is not saying that you shouldnt worry about dry wood and sparse rain. He’s just saying that that only a few fires become large forrest fires each time.

If anything, all of this just affirms the 80/20 rule. Even with similar conditions, there’ll be lots of small fires but only a few major, raging firestorms. And not everything a trendy person will say will become trendy, but enough will for people to pay attention.




6 responses to “Responding to Rubel: Word of Mouth and the Tipping Point”

  1. Ryan Moede Avatar

    Great post. It seems that too many are taking this as an either/or approach, instead of understanding that the influentials can be anyone, anywhere – simply to varying degrees.

  2. Barce Avatar

    I worked on the breed personality quiz at Dogster and we kept viral metrics on it. The virality never hit over 1, which means the quiz isn’t viral, but thousands of people come to the quiz everyday. We started using word of mouth, and that soon died out, and then now, thanks to Google, we get a steady stream of people who search on “dog personality quiz”.

    This makes me totally agree with the forest fire metaphor as being more accurate. In the petrie dish that is Facebook virality is great, but forest fires works more accurately in describing the Internet and its vast number of connections.

    Also, I like how you define A listers and Word of Mouth. The problem is that the technology we have, like twitter, allows folks to prima facie conflate the two. For example, a total nobody can create the appearance that his word of mouth network is Michael Arrington, Om Malik, Dave McClure, Jeremiah Owyang because these folks aren’t always careful about who they friend.

  3. Daniel R Avatar
    Daniel R

    Thanks for sharing your Dogster experience.

    There are definitely examples of “viral” content that maybe never really goes viral, but still delivers steady and dependable traffic. I’ve also seen examples of articles getting “Digged” 1 year after it was originally written.


    I think this quick fix is from management mantras of “long hanging fruit” and the need for “immediate return” – some that does not necessarily happen when it comes to building a genuine word-of-mouth viral campaign.

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