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bloggertalk-small.gifHave you read “The Tipping Point“? Many of us have. The growth of sales of the book itself is an example of the idea it attempts to illustrate: ideas can spread like wildfire when they capture a zeitgeist or purport to solve a common problem. It’s a book that contains many great ideas, and provides a pretty interesting layman’s summary of the concept of memetics. Memetics is a concept I spent way too much time studying in University, and which has moved from circles of furry-browed academics and into popular culture since the book’s publication because many people want to “get rich quick”, and almost as many have experienced failure when attempting to put the lessons of Tipping Point into practise.

A friend forwarded me a link to Guy Kawasaki’s analysis of a Fast Company article called “Is the Tipping Point Toast?” where writer Clive Thompson appears to be questioning Tipping Point’s core validity, having spent some time talking to and learning from Columbia researcher Duncan Watts. Watts seems to have contributed some sensible analysis to the debate about marketing and memetics. I dug through the links to get to some of Watts’ research and it’s not nearly as mind-bending as Kawasaki seems to be saying.

Guy’s interpretation is that we all no longer need to be Scobleized or Slashdotted to achieve instant marketing success, and that getting panned by Arrington can’t kill a product or service on its own. This is true. I think what Guy more specifically shines a light on is the failure of companies that promote exclusively at events like Web 2.0 hoping to get picked up by bloggers en route to the mass market. This is a well-beaten path, and the Evangelists/bloggers/journalists/mavens themselves have already become calloused to the process.

So he’s saying that if your marketing plan exclusively rests on sucking up to bloggers pursuing free advertising via their blogs, which we politely refer to as “Earned Media”, you’re probably in trouble. At first glance he appears to be encouraging us all to rush out and buy ads, and it would be all-too-easy to simply cancel that lunch with Marc Canter and buy a bunch of TV commercials. Witness the impending rush of Silicon Valley marketers to the welcoming doors of the ad firms once more..

As we get closer to a collective understanding of how to take the reins of consumer marketing, the pendulum tends to swing pretty wildly in opposite directions. The real answer, however, lies somewhere in the balance. Earned Media is not the opposite of Mass Marketing: it’s a nuance of it.

If the hole in Gladwell’s theory is that targeting so-called “influentials” is hard, which is what Watt seems to be saying, then… duh. Usually, the influentials choose the product or the idea, not the other way round. Companies that know roughly who their mavens are or who can afford to be prolific have been quite successful promoting themselves and stimulating sales virally using the Tipping Point model, but authenticity is still important. This is the gap that many have failed to bridge when they’re unsuccessful in applying Gladwell’s model.

Whatever your product is, it must have resonance within the community it’s designed to support — another concept expressed by Watt. In Tipping Point’s hallowed example of the explosive rebirth of Hush Puppy shoes, those loafers would not likely have been so emergent were they popular among, say, software engineers. On the other hand, development frameworks like Ruby On Rails would likely not be successfully endorsed by SoHo fashionistas.

As I’ve pointed out (in hushed circles) in the past, building products and buzz within the blogosphere is not necessarily a launchpad to the mass market, and it’s a candle that tends to burn itself out quickly. Moreover, these conversations can become an endless exercise in navel-gazing and hollow debate.

Some folks can make this work — if you can make your money within that group, then fine. But if you can’t, and you need to grow into the mass market, you need a much more interlaced and sophisticated strategy, and the utility of your product’s design needs to be able to resonate with both the Scobles of the world as well as The Rest of Us. Either that, or you need to beat the writers over the head with the value that will be immediately recognized by their readers.

Honestly, I don’t think Gladwell would disagree with much of this work. Watts’ research is not discrediting of Gladwell’s work or memetics theory in general — but it’s almost certainly a course correction for most folks’ simplified interpretations of books like Tipping Point and The Long Tail. As a marketer, jumping from basket to basket with all your eggs (and faith) placed in the latest marketing-theory-du-jour has always been a bad idea.

As a final thought to reinforce the fabled Hush Puppies story, consider the example of Crocs, the detested shoe that all of us own. The manufacturers thought they had created a shoe for boaters and therefore marketed them boat fairs, marine supply stores, etc. Meanwhile, far from the nautical world, many of us found utility in the shoes simply because of their comfort and ease of care, and Crocs became a massively viral trend. There was no plan to use Boaters as mavens to get to the mass market. The Rest Of Us simply derived our own uses for these shoes.

The lesson? Many massive success stories are as often as not quite simply accidents. The best way to approach product development is to solve your own problem, and find lots of people that are like you. If you can’t, then perhaps you’re just too far up Guy’s A-List.