PPC & Media

3 Digital Marketing Insights Gleaned from Malcom Gladwell

Malcom Gladwell Portrait by Alex Beck

Last week, I found a great TED talk by one of my favorite non-fiction authors Malcolm Gladwell which really got my digital marketer mind moving. I have enjoyed Malcom Gladwell’s works ever since I read Blink for the first time 6 years ago. While I feel he does gloss over some of the more scientific reasons behind his thoughts, I believe he does a great job illustrating interesting concepts about human psychology and its dramatic effects on our environment. This in my opinion, is what we marketers are trying to do every day. As digital marketers our main goal is to understand our customer’s digital needs and desires in an effort to influence them to purchase or consume our said service, product or content. We spend our days filling the world with fantastic campaigns loaded with wonderfully crafted headlines and magical visuals meant to influence our audiences, but are we being as effective as we could be? Below I will be going over concepts from Gladwell’s books Blink and Tipping Point and his TED talk, pointing out 3 cool insights I feel you can walk away with to increase your success rate as a digital marketer.

While most of you I’m sure have read these books, I will warn you right now, this post contains SPOILERS. If you wish not read these spoilers, I would recommend checking them out at your local library or making the purchase from your favorite book outlet.


1) What can spaghetti sauce and pickles tells us about our audiences?


Here is the video of Malcom Gladwell’s TED talk I mentioned above. If you have some time, I highly recommend watching this whole presentation before reading further.


The first thing I took away form this video is how often I hear the question, “What is the BEST PRACTICE here?” When my client is talking about a specific web page or marketing tactic, and the term “best practices” comes up, I feel it is used in the same way that the Pepsi and Vlasic folks were asking for the “perfect” product for their customers. In my observations marketers and clients are always looking for the “perfect” marketing solution that covers the bases for all of their target audiences. Which in my opinion always leads to muddled concepts and half-assed attempts at speaking to everybody and really never getting through to anybody. Gladwell illustrates in his examples about how there is not a “perfect pickle or spaghetti sauce” that works for everyone, but rather “perfect pickleS and perfect spaghetti sauceS” that work for certain clusters of people. In marketing we already cluster through our target audiences, but often we forget that within in those audiences we have rather different groups of customers.


I have run into this exact phenomenon while I worked at my previous digital design agency and we were debating a fix for the supposed horrendous side navigation. My designer and I who we’re “experts” and understood design best practices felt that the current side navigation design made the page look to cluttered and since there was so much copy that side navigation we felt was almost unusable due to the fact that it was really hard to identify any text at all. As we spent the next hour explaining to the client the virtues of cleaning up the nav, she told us, that in fact they had tried to do this the year before and we’re promptly bombarded with support calls and emails form angry customers who now could not find what they were looking for and how dare the company change the navigation which worked so perfectly before. Like most cocky agency folks, my designer and I were not having it, and we wasted 30 minutes of our client’s precious time trying to persuade her that in fact, the way they tried was not properly executed. Luckily she did not budge, she knew the type of “pickle” some of her customers liked and no design best practice was going to tell her otherwise. Looking back on this as a more experienced marketer, I would have actually recommended that we run a test where we cookied all previous customers, so that they would always be shown the old side nav and then I would run an A/B test on all the non-cookied visitors testing site interaction and overall conversions for the site to see if a more “best practice” nav performed better if we took out the old customer who likes things the way they are bias out. The takeaways for all of you marketers out there would be; next time you are looking for those best practices that have helped others in the past, take a step back and think about your different audiences and how they are segmented, then ask yourself, am I using the right “pickles”?


2) Getting the “buy-in” that matters

In the book Blink, Gladwell looks at how some very trained professionals can make some extraordinarily big, seemingly calculated decisions in seconds and be almost 100% accurate. My take away from it, was that people who have been doing things long enough just develop a rhythm with their craft through hours and hours of practice and exposure and literally just “go with their gut.” I think most of us have at least some experience in this, but what about in the marketing world? Sometimes decisions are HUGE and if they end up being wrong and you’re answering to your CEO with your reasoning that “it just felt right”, you probably will be clearing out your desk that afternoon. Usually we are presenting our work unseen by most of the company outside of high level folks who we need “buy in” from. As we prepare our final presentation to the “big-wigs” before final sign-off, have we taken the time to get the real “buy-in”? For most of the companies I have worked with, there are people have been talking and working with the real customers for decades, and while they may not know how to use Mail Chimp or Sales Force, they can tell you know from their gut whether a marketing message or visual is going to resonate with the customers. Personally one of my favorite clients always gave us a creative brief full of insights from her trusted folks in customer service and the folks who actually manufactured the product we were marketing before any concepts had been created. No matter what, we saw great results every time we focused on those specific insights from the brief. By speaking with people who fight the good fight everyday, we can get great feedback in a minimal amount of time. Understandably, we need to respect other people’s time, but I would bet there are a lot of successful marketers who are making time for a quick 5 minute conversation with people at the front lines, like their customer service or engineering folks. I would also bet that an ounce of their insight is worth a pound of their execs. So next time you have that big email campaign to send out, or if you’re going through a site redesign, go talk to those great folks who fight in the trenches day in and day out and see what they have to say.


3) What SEO/SEM tactics can The Tipping Point teach us?


The Tipping Point, the book that brought the buzzwords “stickiness”, “influencer” and “context” into the lexicon of every modern marketer. I’m not sure if this was the first book to explore how trends and epidemics seem to start in small isolated environments and then almost with out warning, go “viral” and spread exponentially throughout a population, but I’m pretty sure this was the first book that modern business folks read in masses. The most obvious insights we can glean from The Tipping Point are around Social Media practices. Now there have been numerous posts and presentations about this topic, so I will not write one more word about it. For those of you interested, here is a great presentation on that very topic- Increasing Social Media ROI using Gladwell Tipping Point Framework by Colleen Carrington.

The key-takeaway I got from the book is for those who dabble in the SEO and SEM space. One concept we can take away as digital marketers from The Tipping Point is the idea of predicting trends by watching the trendsetters. For our clients industries there are key people, blogs and publications that represent these trendsetters. Right now, they are using the new “buzz words” that are going to influence how the general population will start to search for terms in your industry in the next few months or years. By identifying these sources and keeping tabs on this content through through RSS feeds or just your weekly readings, you can start identifying these new keywords. Now what are we going to do with these new keywords? Since we are predicting what will be happening in the future buying these keywords and changing copy on our pages right now would not be the wisest move. What we can do though is use Google Insights to track the popularity of these keywords, so when you begin to see an upward trend this is when to start revising content along with getting the jump on some cheap clicks early in the game. Also, if you use the iGoogle dashboard you can create a gadget for these trended charts to check them out on a daily basis with minimal effort on your part. This simple and straight forward practice can help you start seeing huge gains and make you look like the rock star in your next reporting meeting.

Beyond just Malcolm Gladwell’s works, I’m sure that there is a wealth of knowledge out there as well that we digital marketers would love to apply or own little spin to. I would love to hear from any of you digital marketers, are there are any great not-strictly-marketing focused books or presentations out there that any one would recommend or if you have some other great digital marketing insights you have taken from Gladwell’s works, please let me know in the comments.

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