Trend setters may only be visible in rear view mirror

Photo by Flickr user victoriapeckham. Click for sourceI’ve just found this excellent Fast Company article from last year challenging the idea that there is a ‘tipping point’ in fashions or trends driven by small numbers of highly connected people who have a disproportionate influence over which new products or ideas become popular.

The piece is based on work by Duncan Watts, a physicist and sociologist, who created numerous computer simulations of how trends move through society in a similar way to how medical scientists model how diseases spread.

One study has suggested that the role of key highly influential people in starting fashions or trends is likely to have been vastly overstated. This conclusion has rattled the cages of many in the marketing world who have been focussed on identifying and targeting ‘trend setters’ for many years.

Watts set the test in motion by randomly picking one person as a trendsetter, then sat back to see if the trend would spread. He did so thousands of times in a row.

The results were deeply counterintuitive. The experiment did produce several hundred societywide infections. But in the large majority of cases, the cascade began with an average Joe (although in cases where an Influential touched off the trend, it spread much further). To stack the deck in favor of Influentials, Watts changed the simulation, making them 10 times more connected. Now they could infect 40 times more people than the average citizen (and again, when they kicked off a cascade, it was substantially larger). But the rank-and-file citizen was still far more likely to start a contagion…

Mind you, Watts does agree that some people are more instrumental than others. He simply doesn’t think it’s possible to will a trend into existence by recruiting highly social people. The network effects in society, he argues, are too complex–too weird and unpredictable–to work that way. If it were just a matter of tipping the crucial first adopters, why can’t most companies do it reliably?

As Watts points out, viral thinkers analyze trends after they’ve broken out. “They start with an existing trend, like Hush Puppies, and they go backward until they’ve identified the people who did it first, and then they go, ‘Okay, these are the Influentials!'” But who’s to say those aren’t just Watts’s accidental Influentials, random smokers who walked, unwittingly, into a dry forest? East Village hipsters were wearing lots of cool things in the fall of 1994. But, as Watts wondered, why did only Hush Puppies take off? Why didn’t their other clothing choices reach a tipping point too?

However, Watts’ work is largely based on computer simulations. These have the advantage of having to be based on very explicit well-defined descriptions of the phenomenon, which many of the more popular accounts are not, but have the disadvantage or having to include various assumptions and simplifications about what actually happens when people pass on ideas.

The Fast Company article is interesting as it looks at how some core marketing ideas are being tested by Watts, and how the public relations world is reacting to having some of their assumptions questioned.

Link to Fast Company article ‘Is the Tipping Point Toast?’

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