The Three Rules of Epidemics by Malcolm Gladwell

In his book “The Tipping Point – How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” Malcolm Gladwell explains how that idea, trend or social behavior crosses that specific threshold and explodes. That magic point in time is the “Tipping Point”.

Malcolm’s book is full of exciting and interesting examples on different trends in history and is a must read for anybody interested in social networks and how to spread their ideas like wildfire.

1 + 1 + 1 : The Three Rules of Epidemics

The Law of the Few

Any successful social epidemic “is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts“. With regards to any social network; a great idea is not nearly enough – in fact the idea itself is not the only thing that matters when it comes to social epidemics. A great little experiment Malcolm mentions in the book to illustrate this concept is the following:
  • Create a list of 40 people you know that you consider to be your circle of friends – without including family members and co-workers
  • Now go through this list and backwards track any people that were responsible for that connection until you reach an individual that is ultimately responsible for that connection
  • Repeat this process for all 40 on your list. What do you see
It took me some time to work through these steps for each person on my list – but the really interesting thing is after doing 10 or so people you will start to notice a pattern; there are names that are repeatedly showing up. You will then be blown out of your mind when you realize that there your social circle is really a social pyramid and that if you did not meet this one person your circle of friends today would have been completely different. This is the Law of the Few. Any epidemic – specifically a social one – depends on this law and without these special people your great idea will have a hard time reaching its tipping point.
Malcolm talks about three different types of special people; Connectors , Mavens and Salesmen.
The people at the top of your social pyramid are the Connectors you know, you pretty much owe who you know today to these people. What makes someone a Connector? Yes, you are right, they need to know a lot of people. This is not easy to accomplish though, sign up for an account on Twitter and see how much of a Connector you can be. Don’t underestimate the effort it took someone on Twitter to reach 100K, 500K or even more than 1M followers. 
Quantity is not the only important thing about Connectors, who they are connected to is also important? Are they also Connectors? or are they other types of special people?
Who are the Mavens? and why are they important? Mavens collect information – they love to collect it, almost to a level of obsession. These are ones that know how to get the best deals and where to get them – more importantly they want to share this information. Although Mavens will know a lot of information, that is not what is really important for a social network; Mavens are responsible for starting a social epidemic. Consider this: who started the #fixreply trend on Twitter today/yesterday? or who started the #followfriday trend ? 
The last group are the Salesmen. Although Mavens are the data banks in a social network and are the ones that start epidemics, Mavens are not persuaders, but they can start epidemics and Connectors spread them, what do Salesmen do? When you don’t believe what is being said about something, it’s the Salesman that manages to convince you. From a social network point of view, Mavens are the Early Adopters and Innovators – the group of people at the far left of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. The Connectors and Salesmen exist throughout the adoption cycle. Some connectors might adopt the new technology or social network by just hearing about it, others need some persuasion and that is where the Salesmen who have adopted your great idea come into play.

The Stickiness Factor

This is a straightforward rule and it is one of the basics of advertising and marketing. Whatever it is you are promoting, the ad needs to stick. This also applies to social networks. The initial hype of the launch will generate some buzz and traffic and the early adopters will start joining and try out your idea. Your work is not done here, you can’t just leave it to the Tiki Gods. If your idea lacks Stickiness it will fail – and do so miserably. All this hard work down the drain. You need to find how to make your idea stick and be irresistible. The first impressions of the early adopters and Mavens is critical to the idea’s success and allow for that first spark that may ignite the fire.

The Power of Context

Finally, the last rule for a successful social epidemic is context. A great and sticky idea along with the right mix of “special people” are still not enough to ignite this fire every social network entrepreneur dreams about. Context is the first and perhaps the most important rule.  ”Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and place in which they occur” explains Gladwell. The slightest changes in this environment can cause the “tip”, slow down the progress or even capsize it completely. Timing is also important, attempting to start an epidemic at the wrong time may completely fail. That is why the Flu is more common in the winter than the summer and why global pandemics are more common in the summer than in the winter. This is also the nature of the social web. Today information travels incredibly fast on the social web and the right information released at the right point in time can push us to take the action and adopt a new technology. Take me for example, I have been building Google Maps mashups and applications for almost two years now. When the iPhone launched in Canada in 2008, it was exciting news, but I was not overly excited by it. I still monitored iPhone news, but I did not feel any compelling reason to adopt that new technology. Slowly I heard about the App Store and slowly started seeing more and more ads about the App store. I started getting more excited about the iPhone but still not that excited. Note the effects of this change in the perceived environment i.e. the presence of the App store. Finally I hear about the new iPhone 3.0 OS and the new features it introduces such as built in maps support, push notification, and peer-to-peer communication. Less than a month later I have already purchased a mac mini, downloaded the iPhone development kit and started experimenting with it. So what happened here? My perception of the iPhone continuously changed from “Yet another phone” to “Ok a neat phone with impressive UI/UX” to “Wow tons of 3rd party apps” to “Oh man, this is the ultimate location based device” with the announcement of the 3.0 APIs.
So these three rules are very important, and you need all three for your social network idea or application to succeed. Think about it, would Twitter be this successful if it weren’t for the Connectors, Mavens or Salesmen? would Facebook? What does Orkut lack that Facebook doesn’t? Keep in mind the last rule – Context. Orkut is actually very popular in South America, more so than in North America. Or consider why the iPhone has not succeeded in China? or why Yahoo! is more popular than Google in China? Any product or service dependent on a viral marketing campaign needs to be aware of these 3 laws to succeed.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book is a great, great, great read for anybody who is planning on launching the next idea. His style is easy to read, full of real world examples and he can quickly get the point across with his wit. I have also read his other book “Outliers” and already got the 3rd book “Blink” – and yes in a couple of months he has became one of my favorite authors.
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