I found a great post over on Marketing Profs. today by Stephen Denny.
In it, he talks about finding some common ground between the recent Duncan Watts research on influencers and Gladwell's Tipping Point theory. His key point is:
Reflecting on the social psychology of influence and Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion, this comes down to the applications of “authority” and “consensus,” both of which come into play under conditions of uncertainty. When we don’t have personal experience to guide us in a complex decision, we look to a recognized “authority” when the decision is objective, or fact-based. Which medical procedure should I get? What are my options? Sure, talk to your neighbor, but your doctor is the one who will sway you more effectively. In matters of taste, we look to “consensus,” typically many, similar others who have demonstrated their preference for a particular choice. What music do my friends like?I think Denny makes a good point regarding 'types' of influence that is generally lost in both the Watts and Gladwell arguments. Of course we seek different sources of information/insight depending on the nature of the issue we are grappling with! That just makes sense.
However, it doesn't really solve the core issue raised by the Watts research. This being that when you actually model influence, the propagation of an idea does not solely rely on the 'influencer' mechanism.
This means that on matters of 'taste', you can be persuaded by the general consensus, but this consensus didn't have to start with the 'cool kids'. It could have started anywhere.
What Denny's post does provide is a new lens in which marketers can look at influence - are people making an 'authority' or 'consensus' based decision? 'Authority' decisions have huge implications for brands, as brands can be authorities (if they want). 'Consensus' decisions likewise - and for brands to promote a 'consensus' you need to act in a different way.
Is buying a car an authority decision or a consensus decision? Interesting question. And who gets to decide?