August 3, 2011
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute claim to have discovered the “tipping point” for spreading ideas. “When just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society,” explains a July 25 press release.
The authors of a paper called “Social Consensus through the Influence of Committed Minorities” envision widespread applications, ranging from political beliefs to public-safety measures, and the press release hints at implications for the “spread of innovations.” And the results hold for networks where opinion leaders have lots of connections, and where everyone is equally well-connected.
But the theoretical findings are based on computer models of social networks, a far cry from our own:
Each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.
This model assumes a set of “true believers” who will never change their minds, and an extremely open-minded majority who abandon their ideas after two discussions.
I’d love to say this research is the key to creating a winning product or a killer social media strategy, but many issues would arise in applying it to technology products and services. For example, the recent finding that Apple accounted for 10.7 percent of US PC shipments in the second quarter of 2011 seems to suggest that their market dominance is inevitable. But while a few Apple lovers might convince their friends that Macs are better, changing their actual PC use means junking their old computers, spending hundreds of dollars on MacBooks, and learning a new operating system, which they might not be inclined to do. In other words, changing actions is more difficult than changing beliefs.
Also, markets rarely offer two mutually exclusive options, as in the study. We often use multiple services, like Facebook and Google+, or choose from a handful of smaller competitors, like smartphone makers.
But this research does have a broader lesson: the value of the evangelist. If you can recruit users who are completely committed to your product, your market share can only increase. Adapting and selling products to core adopters could be wiser than focusing on the number of users who may dabble in your product today but fall into the arms of your competitors tomorrow.
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