Tipping Point

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, Re-read Week 4 – Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor

Chapter Three of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is a reminder of why this book continues to be important and useful. The density of ideas in this chapter is amazing. Stop borrowing your best friends copy and buy a copy of the book for yourself!  

Chapter Two, The Law of the Few, describes the role of people in passing messages along.  Chapter Three tackles stickiness. Stickiness is the attribute that determines whether a message is heard and internalized. Messages that are heard and internalized stand a chance to be acted upon. In this chapter, Gladwell uses Sesame Street and Blues Clues as the vehicle to discuss how messages can be packaged to make them sticky.  

In order for a message to be remembered and acted upon, the message needs first to be heard.  Tools such as gamification improve the potential for a message to be heard. Gamification is a technique that leverages a listener or player’s innate competitive attributes to channel their behavior using game mechanics. Gamification helps the consumer both hear the message and then to fit that message into their life — it is part of the game. Messages that don’t fit into a person’s life are less likely to be heard.

A common technique to attract attention is flash. Advertisers use flash as a technique to attract attention to a message. However, as shown in the Sesame Street example used in the book, if people don’t understand what they are looking at, flash causes confusion rather than engagement. I remember the funky baby monkey from Super Bowl commercials a few years ago, however, I have no clue what was being advertised. Great flash but, at least for me, there was no stickiness for the important part of the message — the product.

One of the more striking concepts presented by Gladwell, in this chapter, is the idea of mutual exclusivity. When children learn words they work under the premise that words have only one meaning. A dog is a four-legged animal not a derogatory name for a person of low regard.  Gladwell uses an example of the confusion caused when Big Bird wanted to be called something else to illustrate that children tuned out when words caused confusion. The lack of mutual exclusivity was confusing to the intended audience. This idea translates to the workplace, in a recent user story class, I used the term “grooming” to talk about cleaning up and improving user stories for presentation. Others in the class interpreted the word differently causing the larger message about user stories not to stick. Honing a message to help ensure that the words have the attribute of mutually exclusivity or that the words connected with an idea fit into the listener’s life will make a message more sticky.

Another of the fountain of ideas in this chapter is the idea that the use of a story makes messages more sticky. Gladwell comments that commercials aren’t as sticky because they don’t usually tell stories, perhaps as a reflection of his work, commercials in 2019 often tell stories. While I would be hard pressed to find a reason to drink a Bud Light, I certainly am amused and REMEMBER both the story and product in the “Dilly Dilly” commercials. The story makes the message more sticky.

Harkening back to the idea of gamification, messages are more sticky when they envoke both physical and emotional involvement. Consider, cell phone gaming, Pokemon Go, while not the craze it once was, still commands a huge following at least partially because it involves competition and physical involvement from the player. Sesame Street used (I am using past tense given that I have not seen the show in a while — what do they do now?) long pauses to generate involvement from the children watching which increased stickiness of segments within the show. Other children’s shows borrowed the idea and regularly challenge their audience to cross the boundary between the actors and watchers. Two of my favorites, Mr. Rogers (reruns) and Daniel Tiger (I have grandchildren) regularly talk to the audience and act as if they are integrating the response into the show (another feedback mechanism to generate involvement). Generating involvement with the content/message involves more senses making the message more rememberable.  

Gladwell also highlights how repetition can be useful. He uses the example of Blues Clues (another children’s show) which found that a cycle of repetition, withdrawal and then nostalgia, all done in a weekly cycle, is a powerful tool to generate stickiness. When considering agile transformations or process improvement, the idea of repetition is useful to generate stickiness.  Repetition gets old after awhile. Practitioners need to keep an eye on when the audience becomes saturated from hearing the message and then stop the repetition. The message can be brought back later to reinforce and generate nostalgic attraction. Note, in agile transformations bringing the message back is often that part of the cycle that leaders fail to execute until the transformation begins to fail. The more complex the message, the more there is to unpack about the message, the more repetition will be effective and the longer it will take for the audience to become bored.  

Gladwell ends the chapter with the message that there is a way to package information that makes it irresistible. There is no single formula for creating a sticky message (or a viral message for that matter). Finding how to make a message sticky takes planning and experimentation.  

Previous Entries!

Week 3 – The Law of the Few – https://bit.ly/2Buau46

Week 2 – The Three Rules of Epidemics – https://bit.ly/2DQnRNV

Week 1 – Plans and Introduction –https://bit.ly/2S8PPwc