How it Works: The Tipping Point

The tipping point is an expression first used in epidemiology that was taken by Malcolm Gladwell, a New York Times writer, and applied to other areas of life - including business - in his 2000 book “The Tipping Point”. The subtitle, “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”, explains more clearly what the whole thing is about.

In epidemiology the tipping point is that moment when a small change tips the balance of a system and brings about a large change; for example, when the normal spread of influenza throughout a population suddenly turns into an epidemic. In recent years the language of epidemiology has spread (like a virus?) within business. Managers talk about viral marketing, the infectious enthusiasm of their teams, and “outbreaks” of corporate greed - and even, as was reported once about JetBlue, an American low-cost airline, an “outbreak of passenger abuse”. A lot of this language owes its spread to the influence of the internet, where viruses are common and where dormant information can sometimes erupt suddenly and infect us all.

Ideas and behaviour and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics. “The Tipping Point” is an examination of the social epidemics that surround us.

He says he first came across the idea when, as a reporter on the Washington Post, he was covering the AIDS outbreak which, as he put it, “tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic”.

A similar phenomenon occurs with films (”The Blair Witch Project” is a classic example, but it has worked also for both low- and big-budget movies) and books (think of “The Kite Runner” or “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”). And it happens with products and brands—the Hermes headscarf and the Prada handbag, for instance—but more particularly with techy ones such as the Apple Mac computer, the iPod or the BlackBerry.

Every marketing manager dreams that it will happen to his or her next product launch. Success in reaching a tipping point depends partly on the people who are spreading the epidemic (are they good spreaders? do they sneeze a lot when they have flu?); the nature of the epidemic itself (how easy is it to catch? can you breathe it in, or is it only transmitted through unprotected sex?); and finally the context in which it is spread (among people who are in frequent close contact with others, or in the backwoods of Saskatchewan?)

Although a huge bestseller, Gladwell’s book was described by Publishers Weekly as a “facile piece of pop sociology”, and there is little in it of real value to managers, except perhaps for the message “don’t be surprised”. We always expect everyday change to happen slowly and steadily, says Gladwell. But, he adds:

When crime drops dramatically in New York for no apparent reason, or when a movie made on a shoestring budget ends up making hundreds of millions of dollars, we’re surprised. I’m saying, don’t be surprised. This is the way social epidemics work.