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Tipping Point

Tipping Point

Tipping Point

Use this framework to influence beliefs and behaviours

The Canadian writer and thinker, Malcolm Gladwell, is famous for a number of books that help us understand human behaviour. In the year 2000 he published a book called The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. The point of the book is neatly expressed in the title.

The concept of a tipping point has long been used by sociologists. They are of the view that there is a point in time when large numbers of a population suddenly adopt what was once a minority view. For example, scientists in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private university in New York, found out that when 10% of a population holds an unshaken belief, this new belief will be widely adopted by most people if the last couple of people they met endorsed it.


Malcolm Gladwell followed up this theory by arguing that there are three requirements to move an idea from being in a minority to taking a majority position.


1. The right people

People influence people. You need to understand your audience. This means that we need the right kind of influencers to pick up the ideas and spread them. There needs to be connectors; people who, as the term suggests, are connected with many others. They are therefore the means by which the idea can spread. There must be Mavens. Mavens are people who we turn to for new information because they are particularly good at accumulating and distilling new knowledge. And there needs to be Salesmen because they are able to persuade people that the new ideas are worth adopting.


2. The idea needs to be sticky

By this, Gladwell means that the message or the idea must be memorable.  Various devices can be used to make an idea memorable – repetition helps a lot, so do memory cues (things that remind you about the idea and these could be graphics, colours, sounds – things that evoke the senses).


3. The idea must have context

The idea must be right for the moment in time. For example, when vandalism became a serious issue in New York, the concept of zero tolerance for minor crimes was able to take hold as a means of slowing down major crimes. Gladwell has a point here. It is difficult to persuade someone to eat a Chinese meal when they have just had dinner. The time must be right for the idea to be adopted.

In 2019 Rita McGrath, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, wrote a book called Seeing Around Corners. She called these tipping points, inflection points. These are events that begin to make changes in a market. As an example she references the Wright Bros who in 1905 demonstrated the world's first aeroplane capable of sustained and manoeuvrable flight. The significance of this event was completely passed over as a tipping point that would cause change. There was no mention of it in the press after it happened – in fact it was five years before it was noticed. McGrath's point is that it is difficult to spot these triggers until they have momentum and it is then we look back and say "we saw it all along".

Another example is AI. AI has been around for a number of years. Sam Altman founded OpenAI in 2015. It took seven years before it was launched into the public domain and only then did it become obvious that this could be a tipping point that changes the world. It is when we look back on an invention that we create the story about how it was obvious it was a tippoing point that would have a massive impact.

Like a good stew, a tipping point needs to have been on the back burner and bubbling away for a long time.

This raises the subject of how we can identify these tipping points. They are more evident around the edge of a subject rather than at its core. In a company, the market facing team of sales people and customer service are likely to be the first to spot changes of note. The outliers in any group are likely to be doing something quite different to those at the core and it will be these outliers who first spot and embrace a disruptive trigger. So, the evidence is around the edges. Ask the youngest people in a team what they think. The future is already here and it is recognised first by those who haven't yet got stuck in the mud.

In business we can use the tipping point to make marketing messages more effective. The starting point is to work out what message you want to communicate. It is helpful if the message is one with emotional appeal – such as "a product that includes 10% more material so that it lasts 10 times longer". The message must then be targeted at the right people – the connectors, mavens and salespeople. Devices should be built into the message so that it is memorable. And finally the message must make complete sense to people – "are you fed up of having to replace the products you are currently using every six months?".


Below is a diagram of how the tipping point could work when developing and sending out a marketing message. The model appears to start at number 1 and move sequentially through action number 2, finally to reach action 3, which is targeting the message.

We would suggest that the starting point is at number 3. This explores who is going to be targeted with the message. Who are these people? What do they want and need? How do they connect with various influencers such as mavens and salespeople? Who do they trust?

Once the target audience is fully understood it will be possible to determine a message that will resonate with them. The message will have to be interesting, believable, and noteworthy. Crucially, the message must state what it will do for the customer and be communicated in a way that is easily and fully understood.

With all this in place, there is an opportunity to reach a tipping point – to get a significant number of people to take action. For example, a company selling products on a website can be expected to convert to customers only 3% to 5% of visitors. We must expect that tipping points will always be a small proportion of the addressable market.

Gladwell’s “tipping point” is as much a philosophy as a framework. There are no hard and fast measures to say at what point the penetration of a product within a market will take off and go viral. Tipping points have been studied for many years. Thomas Schelling, an American economist and a Nobel prize winner, published articles in the early 1970s in which he showed that if neighbours have a preference to live with people of the same colour it could lead to total segregation. He had introduced a "general theory of tipping". In 1978 this was explored in his book Micromotives And Macrobehaviour.

Following on from Schelling, in 1978 Mark Granovetter, an American sociologist and professor at Stanford University proposed a model that assumes individuals’ behaviour depends on the number of other individuals also acting in a similar way. This was termed a behavioural threshold. It isn't easy to predict as the threshold will be dependent on predilections of the population, including their social economic status, education, age, and personality. It was against this background that Gladwell developed his tipping theory.


Some things to think about:

  • Who is your target audience? What defines them? What are their needs and wants?

  • What is there about your products that is distinctive and different? With whom does this distinctive/difference resonate? Which segments of the market really like or want your product?

  • What could you do to encourage sales of your products amongst your key target audience? What scope is there for celebrity endorsement?

  • How can you make the message about your product more contagious and have greater lasting impact?

  • Who are the connectors, mavens, influencers and salespeople that can take your product forward?

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