Oct 22, 2013

    Vital role of social epidemics

    The Star/Asia News Network

    USUALLY, when one hears of an "epidemic", catastrophic effects of contagious diseases like Sars or HIV come to mind.

    Then there are the epidemics that people welcome: Fads, trends and pop-culture cults.

    In the world of business, these social epidemics play an integral role in marketing a product or idea successfully.

    So what starts these social epidemics? Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, notes that there are several factors.


    These are essentially the shoppers, the ones with the itchy hands when it comes to the latest tech or trends.

    Mavens are the ones who harp on about a certain product, band or fashion item, and who will know all the details in advance. They will also most definitely be the first person you know to own one.

    Mavens are vital in kickstarting the "hype" that gets people interested.

    Meanwhile, through the sheer persuasiveness of their personalities, "salesmen" are the people who can get people to buy into a product, idea or practice. They are usually seen as cool, and likely a celebrity who is sponsored by the brand.

    Either way, these people with their widespread influence is what leads the masses to purchase the product or buy into the idea.


    Gladwell says that the success of a social epidemic also relates to its "stickiness" - its ability to actually get attention and stick in people's minds.

    Celebrities pull this one off all the time, often by being involved in some scandal or other, when they feel that they've slipped off the popularity grid.

    It goes to show that even bad publicity is good publicity.

    Gladwell says that even "relatively simple changes in the presentation or structuring" can be enough to make something sticky. This is why certain gadgets are "updated" annually.


    So what can be the cause of something failing to become the next big thing? Often this is when the power of context comes into play.

    Gladwell notes that as human beings we are in general much more aware of the details of our surroundings than we would seem to believe.

    For example, something that might have been considered trendy in the not-too-distant past can quickly become outdated in the future.

    Exclusivity is one factor that can contribute to the popularity of something. Once it becomes accessible to everyone, it starts to lose its appeal.

    One fad was Psy's viral hit Gangnam Style, which dominated YouTube charts and became the most watched video.

    Yet after a while, parodies and copycat versions of the hit sensation began springing up all over YouTube. People began to tire of seeing and hearing the track, leading to its sudden loss of popularity.

    This article appeared in The Star/Asia News Network on Saturday.