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February 08, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell Under Fire: Marketers Miffed

Mgladwell_small_photo Witnessing the firestorm that erupted as a result of a Fast Company article, I've concluded that the quickest way to earn the ire of marketers is to trash Malcolm Gladwell and his breakthrough hit book about influence, The Tipping Point. The article has gotten so much attention that Fast Company's servers have been unable to handle the traffic.* Download an image of the error message.

I've already been participating in this conversation through the comments of other's blogs (and you'll probably have more luck accessing them than the Fast Company website), but since so many people are talking about it, I'm having difficulty keeping up, and if the topic is interesting to you, I'll bet you are, too.

To help us all, I'm posting links to some of the most interesting articles I've read on the subject:

I loved The Tipping Point and thought it was well written.

However, I recognized even while reading it that there was no possible way to conclude without any doubt whether Gladwell was right or wrong, based on the data that was being given.

Gladwell was convincing (as he usually is), and his conclusions "felt right," but he is susceptible to a particular type of non sequitur fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is Latin for "After this, therefore because of this."

This is what it means:
In a given sequence of events, it cannot be concluded that the first thing caused the second (or some number thereafter).

So, in Gladwell's case, just because crime decreased after New York fixed the broken windows, it cannot be concluded that fixing the broken windows caused the decrease in crime. But it is an interesting theory.

At the same time, I'm not very impressed with Watt's computer models that led him to his conclusions, either. Computer models rely on someone to program certain uniform, finite rules to draw a conclusion about a reality where the rules of influence are more diverse and infinite.

To his credit, Watts completely realizes this limitation. From the Fast Company article:

"'My models might be totally wrong,' he says cheerfully. 'But at least I'm clear about what I'm saying. You can look at them, and tell me if you disagree. But none of these other thinkers are actually clear about what they're saying. You can't tell if they're wrong.'"

So what are we to think?
The conclusions each person draws lend themselves to tactical solutions, but perhaps the entire approach is wrong. Rather than deciding between mass marketing and targeting selected "influencers," just do what you love, and find other people who love (or can be convinced to love) the same things you do.

That way you don't have to worry about all of this, and Fast Company will get their servers back online. - Cam Beck

*I cannot conclude that the article in question caused Fast Company's server crash.


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I really feel we all are so limited in our perspectives. And even when you get a handful of people together, their perspectives are limited to them. Analysis can reveal trends. But how often do trends change? I think marketing will always be a moving target. And the way to reach a specific segment will always be a moving target.

But your last point is probably the best part - doing what we love. How can we convince anyone else of the value if we don't love it ourselves. We are either salesmen or we are testimonials. The one adds up his commissions. The other adds up his relationships.

It seems to me the matter can be resolved with enough experimentation. Gladwell submitted a theory. Watts is attempting to poke holes in it. The rest of us are thinking more critically about what Gladwell said. Perhaps his theory will be revised, or better understood. If it is proven false it will be discounted entirely.

I actually like the ideas in "The Tipping Point," and expect only a revision or better understanding to take place. Of his works, I think "Blink" is far more problematic. The basic premise of it can be stated far more simply, and he makes some leaps, especially toward the end, that seem to me to be unsubstantiated.

Ha, Fast Company is known to make sensational headlines and provocative stories. Seeing folks eat this up is funny. It's like US Weekly or People mag for business folk sometimes.

And it is important that people have given this subject the attention it has been given. Word of Mouth is what we are all ultimately looking for, of course.

Because we are talking about or trying to analyse human behaviour, we are constantly trying to rationalise or systematise these inherently chaotic responses. That's not to say that there aren't patterns in the chaos ... and this is what, I think, both Watts and Gladwell are trying to do.

Just when we get one model that we think works, along will come another that more accurately describes the state of our perception. I am already looking for what's next ;)

Tony - GREAT point about the difference between sales and testimonials.

Gannon - Experimentation is tough, because they rely on controlled environments. As Gavin pointed out, reality is inherently chaotic. We make guesses, but the journey of discovery is going to be more like moving through water than jumping off a cliff. Though what we know will occasionally be sprinkled with moments of epiphany, the rest of the time we're trying to figure out the implications.

Mario - Do you think the report has any validity?

Eamon - Agreed. The discussion has been very stimulating.

Gavin - I love it when you use your fancy British/Australian spelling with me. ;)

In the end, they're all just theories. We can choose to use them or not -- or perhaps alter them or use them in concert with other methods of reaching people.

Experimentation is tough, I agree. That is still the only way to test the validity of any theory. In business it won't always be in a controlled environment to be sure, but you can still experiment nonetheless and glean something from it. Interpreting the data is difficult, but that's what makes this interesting. What, I wouldn't do, is reject or accept Galdwell's theory or Watt's response to Gladwell's theory without first-hand knowledge myself.

David - Exactly right.

Gannon - I misunderstood what you were saying. You're right. We're on the same page.

Reality changes, too. What worked yesterday worked because of the context it found. After all, we do talk about the perfect storm. In life, it's often about "and" "and". You may find my post about the article linked in the name.

Valeria - Dang it! I was sure you wrote something about it, but when I couldn't find it, I assumed I was wrong.

I'm updating this post to include yours in the list, because it is a good one. :)

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