Why Marketers Love Malcolm Gladwell … and Why They Shouldn’t

Marketers love Malcolm Gladwell. They love his pithy, reductionist approach to popular science – his tendency to sacrifice verity for the sake of a good “Just-so” story. And in doing this, what is Malcolm Gladwell but a marketer at heart? No wonder our industry is ga-ga over him. We love anyone who can oversimplify complexity down to the point where it can be appropriated as yet another marketing “angle”.

Take the entire influencer advertising business, for instance. Earlier this year, I saw an article saying more and more brands are expanding their influencer marketing programs. We are desperately searching for that holy nexus where social media and those super-connected “mavens” meet. While the idea of influencer marketing has been around for a while, it really gained steam with the release of Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” And that head of steam seems to have been building since the release of the book in 2000.

As others have pointed out, Gladwell has made a habit of taking one narrow perspective that promises to “play well” with the masses, supporting it with just enough science to make it seem plausible and then enshrining it as a “Law.”

Take “The Law of the Few”, for instance, from The Tipping Point: “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” You could literally hear the millions of ears attached to marketing heads “perk up” when they heard this. “All we have to do,” the reasoning went, “is reach these people, plant a favorable opinion of our product and give them the tools to spread the word. Then we just sit back and wait for the inevitable epidemic to sweep us to new heights of profitability.”

Certainly commercial viral cascades do happen. They happen all the time. And, in hindsight, if you look long and hard enough, you’ll probably find what appears to be a “maven” near ground-zero. From this perspective, Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” seems to hold water. But that’s exactly the type of seductive reasoning that makes “Just So” stories so misleading. You mistakenly believe that because it happened once, you can predict when it’s going to happen again. Gladwell’s indiscriminate use of the term “Law” contributes to this common deceit. A law is something that is universally applicable and constant. When a law governs something, it plays out the same way, every time. And this is certainly not the case in social epidemics.

duncan-watts

Duncan Watts

If Malcolm Gladwell’s books have become marketing and pop-culture bibles, the same, sadly, cannot be said for Duncan Watts’ books. I’m guessing almost everyone reading this column has heard of Malcolm Gladwell. I further guess that almost none of you have heard of Duncan Watts. And that’s a shame. But it’s completely understandable.

Duncan Watts describes his work as determining the “role that network structure plays in determining or constraining system behavior, focusing on a few broad problem areas in social science such as information contagion, financial risk management, and organizational design.”

You started nodding off halfway through that sentence, didn’t you?

As Watts shows in his books, “Firms spent great effort trying to find “connectors” and “mavens” and to buy the influence of the biggest influencers, even though there was never causal evidence that this would work.” But the work required to get to this point is not trivial. While he certainly aims at a broad audience, Watts does not read like Gladwell. His answers are not self-evident. There is no pithy “bon mot” that causes our neural tumblers to satisfyingly click into place. Watts’ explanations are complex, counter-intuitive, occasionally ambiguous and often non-conclusive – just like the world around us. As he explains his book “Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer”, it’s easy to look backwards to find causality. But it’s not always right.

Marketers love simplicity. We love laws. We love predictability. That’s why we love Gladwell. But in following this path of least resistance, we’re straying further and further from the real world.

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