Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fun Summer Reading

A while ago two Australian friends suggested I should read some of Malcolm Gladwell's books. Not long thereafter I was in the States, and inexplicably found myself in a bookstore (that's never happened to me before, at least not that day). Two Malcom Galdwell books were lying there, orphaned, so I had to redeem them. They were The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference his first book, and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, his second. (In the meantime a third has come out, Outliers: The Story of Success but I haven't read it).

Both proved much better for airplane trips than the silly films you can hardly see on a tiny screen with poor color and low quality earphones.

The Tipping Point is the more useful of the two (for some of us, hopefully): it describes why some products succeed at viral marketing and others don't. Gladwell's thesis is that marketing epidemics (and other ones, too) succeed when they have three things going for them: That you've got the right people spreading the word, that your product is sticky, and the context is right.

There are three kind of "right people". The ones who know everybody and their cousin, and always tell people about things (he calls these the Connectors). The ones who really know what they're talking about so recommendations from them bear weight (the Mavens). And the Salesmen, meaning the people who convince you you really can't live without whatever it is they're peddling.

Sound easy enough, doesn't it? But that's only the first of three conditions. Whatever it is you're peddling has to be sticky, which means your attention stays with it or returns to it for long enough for you to adopt it (buy it), and also tell all the other folks. Finally, you've got to have the context right – and I don't see how that can be done in most cases, though Gladwell makes it sound easier than it is.

Emanuel Rosen, in his The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited: Real-life lessons in Word-of-Mouth Marketing, follows many of the same ideas, in a book which is more of a manual and less fun to read. Gladwell is for the stimulation, Rosen is for making it happen, I suppose.

Blink is not a practical book at all. It talks at length about how sometimes we're very good at getting something right instantaneously, especially very complex things; then again, sometimes we're not good at it at all. He introduces us to the idea of "thin slicing", which basically means the ability to relate to the very small number of things which truly matter in a situation, while disregarding all the noise. The rest of the book is about knowing when you've thin-sliced correctly or not, and how in some cases it's possible to think matters through and train yourself to go for the essentials and dump all the rest. It's a fun book, but not fully convincing: life, I fear, is more complex, sometimes, to the extent that whatever rules you might wish to deploy so as to reach thin slicing, well, sometimes they'll work, and other-times they won't.


Anonymous said...

this recent article finally weaned me of Gladwell

the way he fiddles with the Gallipoli story to make it fit the opinion he wants to promote really turned me off and made all his often furious critics more trustworthy

- it is always the same. There is somebody who writes stimulating articles for the New Yorker or so, you start liking and trusting him till he writes something about a subject you happen to know something about yourself and plopp the bubble bursts and you realize how much vapid air is part of the presumed expertise.
As I have never read one of his books and only know his long articles I am of course in no position to judge because I have learned that at least German journalists insist on your having read their entire OEUVRE before you may dare to say something critical about one of their "shorter pieces".

Akiva L. said...

If you liked those books, then you must read Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariel, an Israeli who now teaches at MIT. The book centers on his idea that rejects the standard economic theory, and instaed, focuses on behavioral economics; that instead of everyone acting rationally for their own benefit, Ariely has found, through many shrewd experiments, that people often act irrationally, against their best interests. It's a fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

I've heard many a book talk by Ariely he is fascinating as is Daniel Kahnemann
also very interesting Steve Levitt's Freakonomics because he didn't work with clever experiments but tweaked already existing data. (both Ariely and Kahnemann tell they have started from real life experiences also)
I hearby protest vigorously against mixing them in any way with Gladwell who at best knows how to tell a story well