Confessing a dirty little secret

In January’s Fast Company was an article by Clive Thompson, Is The Tipping Point Toast? I read it with interest and made a mental note to at least add it to our feed. But over the last two months it has just been gnawing away at the back of my head and I find myself compelled to think about it in a bit more detail.

In the article, Clive discusses the work of Yahoo!’s principal research scientist, Duncan Watts, who is challenging the idea that a small number of highly influential people are the ones who start new trends. The concept is central to books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and is repeated over and over again in all sorts of contexts. In fact, it is so embedded in the way that we view how ideas are transferred and propagated between people that it feels almost like heresy to question it.

But Duncan Watts has questioned it, and his research seems to show that new trends can start anywhere, and that not only do you not have to be influential to start a trend, being influential doesn’t guarantee that you are also a trendsetter.

In the past few years, Watts–a network-theory scientist who recently took a sabbatical from Columbia University and is now working for Yahoo –has performed a series of controversial, barn-burning experiments challenging the whole Influentials thesis. He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not, in fact, crucial social hubs. He has written computer models of rumor spreading and found that your average slob is just as likely as a well-connected person to start a huge new trend. And last year, Watts demonstrated that even the breakout success of a hot new pop band might be nearly random. Any attempt to engineer success through Influentials, he argues, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

“It just doesn’t work,” Watts says, when I meet him at his gray cubicle at Yahoo Research in midtown Manhattan, which is unadorned except for a whiteboard crammed with equations. “A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.”

This is a conclusion that’s going to get up the nose of many a marketeer, but how does it affect social media consultants?

My work is focused mainly on how to persuade people in business to change their behaviour: how to replace bad working habits with good ones, and how to change unhealthy business cultures into positive, constructive ones. How do I help people wean themselves off their dependence on email, and learn how to collaborate and communicate in healthier, more effective ways?

The opportunities that social tools present to business are frequently missed because no one thought hard enough about how to introduce them to people. Most businesses fail to to understand why these tools are useful and why the old tools are so seductive. My job is to counter that, and is much more about psychology than technology (although the tech clearly does play a part).

Piloting social tools in business is relatively easy. You’re working with a small group who have probably been picked because someone within that group is already enthusiastic. I can sit down and work face-to-face with these people, finding out how they work and then explaining how the new tools will help them. We can figure out specific tasks to shift onto the new tools, I can advise on how that shift should happen and I can support them through the change.

But rolling social media out to the rest of a large company takes a different way of working. I can probably work directly with tens, or maybe even over a hundred people – if the project has the time and budget – but no one person can sit down with thousands or tens of thousands of people in one company to make sure that they understand how the new tools could improve their working life. It would be a Sisyphean task.

Instead, we have to treat tool adoption as a meme, and rely on people propagating it through the company, person to person. In this sense, we are doing what marketeers are doing: Trying to create a self-sustaining trend. We want the social tool to go viral.

As anyone with real world experience of viral marketing will tell you, that’s far easier said than done. The concept of an influential elite, a minority who have the majority of the power to influence, is a deeply attractive prospect. If it were true, it would mean that I could sit down with the 50 most influential people in any one company and bring them up to speed, and they would go on to do my work for me. I could change the culture of a business from closed to open, from distrustful to trusting, from competitive to collaborative, in merely a few weeks.

That is a seductive idea. And I must confess to you all now, I have been seduced by it. I have talked with clients about the concept of networks and nodes and bridges, and I have propagated the tipping point meme. I’ve never read Gladwell’s book. I haven’t had to – I’ve absorbed the concepts over time without really questioning them, without examining them in the cold light of day.

But deep down, I never really believed the idea of an elite group of influencers, and that disbelief has grown over the last couple of years as I’ve had more and more hands-on experience in business, introducing new tools to a suspicious workforce. I have asked businesses if they know who their influencers are, and they all claimed that they did, but I didn’t really see any evidence either that I was actually talking to influencers, or that the people they thought were influencers made any real difference to the widespread adoption of a tool.

That is my dirty little secret. I propagated a meme that I hadn’t critically examined and didn’t believe in. For that, I apologise.

Yet, for me at least, the idea that ‘influencers’ aren’t as influential as we’ve been lead to believe is good news. And for my clients too. I’ve always been worried that trying to tap into a network of influential staff was a pointless waste of time, because it’s very hard to know who actually has influence and who’s just got a big mouth. Identifying the influencers is a task inextricably bound up in status and position in the org chart, yet these three things do not correlate simply. A bad manager who’s high up in the food chain may believe himself to have status, but is actually widely ignored by his subordinates because they can recognise a bad manager when they see one.

If you’ve read my social software adoption strategy, you’ll see there’s nothing in it about ‘reaching the influencers’. I’m way too pragmatic, and the problem of influencer identification has always put me off recommending it as a tactic. Instead, I focus on how you identify ‘low hanging fruit’ – people who are already chomping at the bit to work differently, or people who are doing tasks that are just perfect for a transition onto a social platform. Those are doable tasks. They don’t require any special magic, they just require the ability to ask the right questions and listen to the answers.

I also talk about converting users into trainers by giving them the materials and confidence to introduce their own colleagues to new tools. Centralised training can only fail when you’re trying to introduce optional software to a huge workforce. The only way to reach large numbers of people is for a ripple effect to take over: users become trainers and train their colleagues who become users and then trainers who spread the virus throughout the company.

This doesn’t require influence, it requires utility. If the tool is useful, it can succeed, given the right support. It’s not, “Oh, look at this! It’s so cool!”; it’s, “Oh, look at this! It’s going to make my life so much easier!”

I’m far happier with the idea that anyone can start a trend, and that the concept of influencers is at least less important than previously stated, or possibly even a complete red herring. It leaves the door open for much more sensible, reliable and workable strategies. Admittedly, they may take more time and effort, but at least the outcome will be more predictable. Focusing on what people need, instead of their status, can only be a good thing.

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