Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Why I read it: Gladwell was a hot author at the time, and figured I'd give him a read.

Summary: Marketing for the 21st century will be mostly word-of-mouth, as we've reached the saturation point with telemarketing, e-mailed ads, TV commercials and magazine spreads. We need to identify how rumors spread and insert ourseves into the chain.

My Thoughts: In 1996, I was working for Champs, a sporting goods and gear store. We had the whole gamut, from Nike to Reebok to Adidas, baseball bats to hockey sticks to soccer balls. Like many a red-blooded young American male, I had my major sports down pat; I had to learn the rules and equipment for lacrosse, which swim goggles worked best, etc. But even they were traditional American athletic pursuits.

But there was another, foreign world intruding on our baseball-football-basketball turf. It was the infancy of the X-Games, the rise of the skateboarding culture. Somehow it made its way onto our store shelves. But it never seemed to be in the right place.

I don't think I ever sold a pair of Airwalks among the hundreds of pairs of shoes I fitted onto the feet of our customers. I don't think I ever fielded a question about them, despite the fact I knew the product inside and out. And it had nothing to do with the fact that the Air Jordan craze was at its height. There just was no market for Airwalks at our store. They sat on the shelves, a lonely specimen or two surrounded by the rubber shoe versions of Deion Sanders, Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson. Airwalk's marketing reached our part of the country, but at least in this case fell on deaf ears.

Gladwell brings up the Airwalk rise and fall as a study in word-of-mouth marketing success. A small company focusing on California skateboarder lifestyle pushed its way east and around the world, became ridiculously successful for two years, then was gone. He gives reasons for its collapse, lessons learned by the company, but he misses one point that only a salesman would know. Although they were advertised everywhere, shipped everywhere, they didn't sell everywhere. Perhaps suburban Massachusetts was just too far away from the culture of California, physically and spiritually. Perhaps they sold in other stores in the region; they were just too much of a stretch at Champs, as far as I could see. They didn't belong to that store's identity.

The lesson of The Tipping Point is recognizing where one falls in the world of innovators, news dissenminators and consumers and figuring out how to find and utilize the rest of the network to spread the word about the good we do or offer. Let's face it - we're all in business of one kind or another, and we can all use another dollar, another engaged mind to further our cause, be it for profit or not-for-profit. We have to find out how to reach that Tipping Point where an idea takes off, and, conversely, how to avoid the next one, where our idea fails through oversaturation, overextension, etc.

Taking the lessons of this book means stepping out of the bounds of the way we normally, traditionally think. That's hard for some people, too easy for others, but somewhere in the midde lies success. I work for a nature conservancy. Where should I go to find my audience? Schools? Birdwatchers' clubs? Sure, but they will only take me so far. Or will I find that our conservation message must flow through a supermarket to reach that next group of people who haven't yet discovered they have a passion for the environment that can be satisfied through naure walks and other outings with our leaders?

I have my ideas. Do you have yours?

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