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Is Seth Godin’s Vision of Marketing Wrong?

Over the last few years, Seth Godin and a handful of others have built their careers on a concept first identified in Malcolm Gladwell’s hit book, Outliers.

A few ideas were pitched in the book, but the one marketers really clung to was the notion that a handful of influencers are the ones who convert the masses and turn products and ideas into trends. This concept was the heart of Seth Godin’s book Unleashing the Idea Virus (a great read - free to download at Seth’s site).

Last week, I stumbled on to a Fast Company article from 2008, in which researcher Duncan Watts essentially debunks this concept (sort of).

The gist of the article is that while key influencers do exist, and can help spread ideas farther and faster than non-influencers, there’s no accurate way of predicting who they are. The surprising takeaway: mass marketing works.

Mass Marketing & The Lone Nut

If you can’t predict who the influencers will be, your money is best spent spreading your message to everyone in the hopes that those unindentifiable influencers pick up on it and spread it. The article reminded me of a fantastic TED Talk by Derek Sivers about how ideas spread.

In the video, a “lone nut” introduces his simple, quirky dance at a music festival. After a minute or so, one other person joins in. The second person calls his friends, who don’t immediately join in. But after another minute or so, a third person joins.

And then like that, a swarm (literally, a massive swarm) of people rush in and join.

If you watch the video, none of the three folks were in any obvious way influencers in the Gladwell/Godin sense. They influenced one or two other people, but they didn’t have massive pull. Rather, it was their act of making this dance ok to join that really tipped the scales.

Human’s are by nature followers. A marketers job, then, may not necessarily be to find those key influencers, but to convince the masses that others are in on it.

Of course, all of this is a gross over-simplification. Human behavior is complex, irrational, and often unpredictable.

What do you think?