July 21, 2011 / by Heidi Sullivan

Gladwell’s Law of the Few

When I first read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (as I’m sure many of you have), I was obsessed with the idea that the rare qualities in the Connectors, the Mavens and the Salesmen (in Gladwell’s Law of the Few) could truly influence trends, help us to predict the future and, for PR pros and marketers, provide us with a one-stop-shop to get our message out to the masses. I’ve always thought of my brother, Dan “Sully” Sullivan, as one of these trend-predicting influencers: he was terrified of the impending Zombie Invasion a decade before the CDC’s site crashed; he gave me a copy of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black before it was ever released in the US; he had a LiveJournal before I owned my first PC.

Anecdotally, it all makes sense to me. I speak about influencers at industry conferences and events all the time. But, is there truly a magical, special group of set influencers that influence what we think, what we buy and how we behave?

Watts: “Everyone’s An Influencer”

Not necessarily, according to Duncan Watts, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research. Watts has conducted numerous studies (all available via links through his Yahoo! Research page, hyperlinked on his name above) that illustrate that although a small group of people (influencers) generally start and spread trends, it is difficult to determine who those influencers will be. He recently co-authored, “Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter” a study that shows that while users who have previously been influential, have large numbers of followers or participate in particular communities generate the largest “cascades,” that predicting which specific URL or user will start each of these cascades is unreliable at best.

Basically, my brother Sully may predict some trends, but he doesn’t predict them all. A previously-unknown influencer can also spread the seed.

So who is right – Gladwell or Watts?

I don’t think either has to be wrong. The point is, trends still begin with a small few and are spread by those with connections.

So how can we know who will start the next trend? I was recently talking to Lisa Larranaga, Cision’s research development coordinator about Cision’s custom influencer reports that use dozens of social metrics based on keyword analysis to identify the most influential people in a particular space. She told me, “Heidi, the numbers don’t lie. Once I’ve identified a group of influencers based on metrics, I always notice that those influencers talk to each other, link to each other and cite each other’s work.”

Influencers talk to each other within a particular niche community. Immersing yourself in that community will help you spot trends as they emerge. One of my favorite statistics (that I originally read on Rohit Bhargava’s Influential Marketing Blog) is that “an average of about 1% of any population will be active content creators, 9% will be participants and the other 90% will simply ‘consume’ that content online.” If that stat is true, then our influencers are the ones producing content, commenting and sharing.

I think the moral of the story is that influencers are out there and the best way to reach them is by truly knowing and participating in your digital community.

Tags : social media

Most Recent Posts

Cision Blogs Topics

  • Communications Best Practices

    Get the latest updates on PR, communications and marketing best practices.

  • Cision Product News

    Keep up with everything Cision. Check here for the most current product news.

  • Executive Insights

    Thought leadership and communications strategy for the C-suite written by the C-suite.

  • Media Blog

    A blog for and about the media featuring trends, tips, tools, media moves and more.

About Heidi Sullivan

One of PRWeek’s 40 under 40 in 2012, Heidi Sullivan is Senior Vice President of Digital Content for Cision and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. She leads the company’s digital and broadcast content teams, the global research team for Cision’s media database, Cision’s social media community team and the company’s content marketing strategy. You can find her on Twitter @hksully.