In the late 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a study to determine how people are connected. He mailed 160 volunteers who lived in Omaha, Neb., a packet that contained the name of a stockbroker in Boston. He instructed them to put their name on the packet and send it to someone they knew who could get the packet closer to the stockbroker. Much to Milgram's surprise, it took only five or six connections to get the packets to the stockbroker, not the dozens of exchanges he'd anticipated.

Milgram's "small-world" theory is now commonly known as "six degrees of separation." It's also the basis for a popular pastime in which people try to link seemingly unrelated screen actors to movie star Kevin Bacon, connecting them through actors with whom they appeared in a film, all in the fewest number of steps.

Few who play the game know its origins, and fewer still know a more remarkable fact from Milgram's study: Of the 24 packets that reached the stockbroker at his home address, 16 were handed to him by the same person. In fact, fully one half of all of the packets were placed into the stockbroker's hands by just three people.

These surprising results are cited by author Malcolm Gladwell as evidence of what he calls the "Law of the Few" in a remarkable little book titled The Tipping Point (Little, Brown, and Co.). The title comes from the observation that certain kinds of epidemics, both medical and social, occur when a given set of conditions suddenly "tips" and the phenomenon at the center -- whether it's a 24-hour virus, a newly published book, or a marketing campaign -- suddenly takes hold among a geometrically increasing number of people. The virus grows into an epidemic, the book becomes an overnight best seller, and the marketing campaign succeeds by an order of magnitude beyond expectations.

Gladwell's goal is to answer two questions: Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don't? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?

Finding "connectors"

Like the results of Milgram's small-world study, the answers Gladwell proposes are often counterintuitive. Gladwell didn't have the remodeling business in mind when he wrote his book, but the evidence he presents puts a new twist on traditional approaches to marketing and selling remodeling services.

Take word-of-mouth referrals, for example. Conventional wisdom says that achieving the same high level of quality and service for all customers will lead to consistently high number of referrals. But Gladwell's "Law of the Few" suggests that, when it comes to spreading the word, some people matter more than others. One group, like the three men who handed most of Milgram's packets to the stockbroker, are called "connectors," because they have a special knack for bringing people together.

The most famous example of a connector is Paul Revere. His midnight ride from Boston, north and west to Lexington, spread his cry of "The British are coming" like an epidemic through the countryside and led directly to the rout of the invading British the next morning by armed colonists. Not so famous is William Dawes, a tanner in Revere's circle who set out on the exact same mission at the exact same moment. So few people from the villages along his southerly route turned out for the battle the next day that they were at first suspected of being loyalists. They weren't. They just didn't get the word.

Creating epidemics

Paul Revere was a connector; William Dawes was an ordinary man. Gladwell's book is full of these kinds of juxtapositions, and I think he's on to something. His three rules of epidemics -- the "Law of the Few," the "Stickiness Factor," and the "Power of Context" -- suggest that "tipping" our clients from satisfied customers into the "raving fans" remodeling gurus are always talking about depends as much upon the kinds of people our customers are as the quality of the service we provide them.

What will "tip" your clients?

Sal Alfano
Mark Robert Halper Sal Alfano

Sal Alfano, Editor-in-Chief