Homer Simpson’s Secret Handshake

Unless you are Homer’s friend I doubt that you will start to use his secret handshake.  Now your mother may have warned you that you will start acting as stupid as the TV shows you are watching, but even though she is your mother, she is not always right.

Many of us have heard of the Tipping Point, or read the book by Malcolm Gladwell.   .  Marketing people picked up on Gladwell’s ideas and claimed that if you had certain people blog about your product or write about you on Facebook, or endorse your product it was almost certain that you would reach the tipping point and the masses would follow.

Well, it ends up that your mother, and Malcolm Gladwell were wrong.  Watching Homer Simpson won’t make you start doing his handshake.

Duncan Watts, a sociologist and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research has studied this idea that there are certain people who have extraordinary influence on other people.   Watts has performed a series of controversial experiments challenging the” influential thesis”  (the idea that certain people influence us in our behavior) .  He has analyzed email patterns and found that highly connected people are not critical social hubs.  He has written computer models of how rumors spread and found that your average slob (not Homer but maybe your neighbor) is actually just as likely to start a new trend as a well-connected person.

Watts points out that any attempt to engineer success through Influentials is almost certainly doomed.  “It just doesn’t work”, Watts says.  “A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power.  And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart.”  Products don’t go viral because of certain influential people.

It seems that this idea of things going viral, or having a tipping point because of certain influential people, goes back to  1955 when Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld wrote Personal Influence.  They believed that there was a two-step process in how people were influenced.  First advertiser affected society by broadcasting messages that were then picked up by “opinion leaders” who changed the behavior of their followers.  If you reached those opinion leaders you could quickly convert the masses.

Well, it turns out that the masses aren’t asses.  Len Fisher’s The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life explores some of the surprising mathematics of decision-making.  Fischer point out that we as humans follow the basic principles of how animals swarm.

For years scientist studied the swarming patterns of birds and tried to figure out why a flock of birds would suddenly turn to the right or left, up or down.  Were there certain leaders that influenced the rest of the flock?  Did a certain percentage of the flock decide and the rest followed?  Scientists have now found that each member of the flock makes decisions on their own and it is not decided for them by a leaders.  It has turned the idea of swarming on its head.  Birds, bees and all flocking animals (including humans) are more influenced by their neighbor than some trend setter.

You may try to do Homer’s handshake with your neighbor, but if he looks at you like you are an idiot you probably will stop trying to do it.  If you go to work and try it there you may notice people avoiding you.  It ends up that people who are socially adjusted pick up their cues of trends and social behavior from the reactions of those closest to them.

Fisher goes on to  point out that if you want to solve a problem you are better off to  ask 30 people and not just ask the “expert”.   This is where Wikipedia has amazed the “experts”.  They predicted that if the masses were in charge it would never become a source for real information.

With all the scientific and practical evidence it is surprising how many marketing books and marketers are still pumping out the idea that things catch on from the top down.  Yes a few things do catch on this way.  I am sure that when this Simpson episode ran that there were a few people who went to their school, or work and tried the Homer handshake.  And yes, you can probably point out the 1 in a million example of something that took off because of some top down influence.  But, remember that if it is 1 in a million it will happen over 350 times in the United States alone.

So what is the takeaway from these studies.  There is no magical “tipping point” or “person” who can magically make your product go viral.  It comes down to a marketing plan.  Giving the people around your business the information they need to make their decision.  The six-degrees of separation is not a magical cure, but a reminder to develop a marketing plan and keep getting the message out.  If your idea is going to take off or  if people are going to swarm to your business it will be because they have been influenced by the person next to them who was influenced by somebody else etc. etc.

If you don’t have a marketing plan try using the Homer Simpson handshake.


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