Comparative Review of the ideas of Rogers and Gladwell

Comparative Review of the ideas of Rogers and Gladwell

         Some social changes result from the innovations that are adopted in a society - Comparative Review of the ideas of Rogers and Gladwell introduction. These can include technological inventions, new scientific knowledge, new beliefs, or a new fashion in the sphere of leisure. Diffusion is not automatic but selective; an innovation is adopted only by people who are motivated to do so.

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         These people who adopt certain innovations and spread them into what Gladwell calls a “social epidemic” (Gladwell 7) may well be the key (or one of the keys, at the very least) to the elusive trickle-down theory of opinion leadership, a concept that is as appealing philosophically as it is difficult to implement. Everett M. Rogers articulated this phenomenon with his “Diffusion of Innovation” theory more than 40 years ago, and other icons of communication and social research have been seeking to unravel the true nature of persuasion and media since the 1920s. Malcolm Gladwell, drawing heavily on concepts developed by researchers and theorists in the fields of Chaos, Complexity, and Memetics, repackaged and popularized some of these ideas in his book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell takes Rogers’ ideas a bit farther, adding some nomenclature of his own and drawing on additional findings in individual and social psychology.

            The “tipping point” is the point at which a trend catches fire – spreading exponentially through the population.  The idea suggests that, for good or bad, change can be promoted rather easily in a social system through a domino effect.  The tipping point idea finds its origins in diffusion theory, which is a set of generalizations regarding the typical spread of innovations within a social system.

         This paper looks into the similarities and differences between Rogers’ “Diffusion of Innovations” and Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, based on their take of how changes occur in a society. It explores the processes that these changes go through and examines the key people involved in making these changes happen. It presents the key points of the authors as they agree or disagree on these ideas. But more importantly, the paper evaluates these ideas of change as the authors seek out methods on how the processes of change can be manipulated in order to effect some positive social transformation.

The Diffusion of Innovation

The study of the diffusion of innovation is the study of how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures.

            According to Wikipedia, the original diffusion research was done as early as 1903 by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde who plotted the original S-shaped diffusion curve. Tarde’s 1903 S-shaped curve is of current importance because “most innovations have an S-shaped rate of adoption” (Rogers 24). The variance lies in the slope of the “S”. Some new innovations diffuse rapidly creating a steep S-curve; other innovations have a slower rate of adoption, creating a more gradual slope of the S-curve.

            This variation in the way change occurs was what caught the interest of the two authors described above. While Rogers described social change in his study as “diffusion of innovations”, Gladwell calls this as “social epidemics”, applying the concept of epidemic, as we know it in medical terms, to social phenomena such as fashion or crime. Albeit the two may have looked at social change in different angles thereby having dissimilar focus, both studies are inarguably related. For example, Rogers asked the following questions: “Why do certain innovations spread more quickly than others? Why do others fail altogether?” Gladwell takes these questions only further by asking the following: “Why is it that some ideas or products or behaviors start out as epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?” (Gladwell 14).

Rogers on Social Change
Rogers’ model looks at the way innovations are taken up in a population. An innovation is an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by its audience.

            Diffusion researchers as described by Rogers, found that, for any given behavior, an audience could be broken down into 5 segments, based on their propensity to accept the new idea or behavior. Adoption begins with visionary, imaginative innovators, attracts experimental early adopters, and eventually sweeps in majority audiences (early and late majority), with laggards or skeptics holding out to the bitter end (Rogers 262). Each adopter’s willingness and ability to adopt an innovation would depend on their awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, and adoption.

            Rogers showed these innovations would spread through society in an S curve, as the early adopters select the technology first, followed by the majority, until a technology or innovation is common. This is the fabled tipping point, where the rate of adoption rapidly increases.  The domino effect continues, as, even for those who are cautious or have particular qualms with the innovation, adoption becomes a necessity as the implementation of the innovation-decisions of earlier adopters result in social and/or economic benefit.  Those who have not adopted lose status or economic viability, and this contextual pressure motivates adoption (Rogers 265).

Rogers’ model suggests that social change is a process, which begins with the most imaginative and committed people, and then diffuses through society. But what makes, then, of a successful innovation?

            According to Rogers and his followers, the rate of adoption of an innovation depends on the following qualities (as perceived by its audience): relative advantage, compatibility with existing values and practices, simplicity and ease of use, trialability, and the demonstration of observable results (Rogers 208).

Gladwell on Social Change
Malcolm Gladwell maintains that ideas can spread like infectious diseases. He is convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic, so too can a few fare-beaters and graffiti artists fuel a subway crime wave. Gladwell’s thesis is that “these are social epidemics.” The moment they take off, when they reach their critical mass, is the tipping point, “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once.” (Gladwell 9).

            Using the science of social epidemics, “The Tipping Point” explains the three simple principles that underpin the rapid spread of ideas, products and behaviours through a population, namely, The Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.  By applying these principles, the book outlines how marketers can help produce a ‘tipping point’ for a new product or service, the moment when a domino effect is triggered and an epidemic of demand sweeps through a population like a highly contagious mind virus.

Gladwell identifies three categories of people instrumental to the spreading process. There are the Connectors—the people who know a great many others and who work at maintaining their contacts. Gladwell uses Paul Revere’s ride as an outstanding example of a connector at work (Gladwell 30-34, 56-60, 87-88). Just as there are people who like to connect with others, there are people who strive to connect with facts and findings so as to become regarded as experts. Eager to share their knowledge, these people are termed Mavens (Gladwell 60). In order for ideas and practices to be easily spread by the Connectors and the Mavens, there has to be stickiness in their message—it must have obviously memorable elements. But it is the Salesmen who remove the doubts harbored by potential adopters (Gladwell 70).

            In other words, the Connectors, Mavens, and Salesman are the counterparts to Rogers’ Early Adopters. They set the tone for the rest to follow. Late Adopters are not so much role models as an endorsing context for the Laggards, to continue with Rogers’ terminology.

“Diffusion of Innovations” and “The Tipping Point”: Manipulating Change
Roger’s “Diffusion of Innovations” and Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” are now widely recognized by marketing people as definitive studies. For instance, companies such as 3M, Microsoft and Pfizer have used The Tipping Point Model to launch their products (Ruppel 16).

            Given The Tipping Point’s success, and the solid science and evidence that underpins it, it is not surprising that a number of new Tipping Point marketing initiatives are now underway.  Perhaps the boldest of these is Procter and Gamble’s new connector panel in the US of 200,000 infectious teen connectors, used seed new products.  Although only set up in 2002, controlled studies have already shown that that the panel can produce an increase in sales volume of 14% (Klepacki 24).  Procter and Gamble are using Tipping Point marketing intelligently here; instead of marketing at teens who no longer want to listen, they are listening to them, putting new products in their hands and onto conversational agendas in the spirit and name of research.  They are walking the marketing talk, putting the consumer not the marketer at the centre of marketing.  Not only do such partnerships capture valuable feedback from the ‘Few’, they generate the goodwill, involvement and positive word of mouth that can ignite consumer networks and kick-start an epidemic of demand.

            These are exciting times to be in marketing; there is a huge opportunity to harness the Tipping Point formula and turn business dreams into profitable realities through scientifically informed marketing.  However, there are also intriguing ethical issues that need to be resolved, including how to ensure that seeding is conducted in the spirit, not just the name of research so that it forms the basis of genuine, lasting and transparent partnerships with consumers.  Likewise, the implications – business and ethical – of the ‘The Stickiness Factor’ and ‘The Power of Context’ have yet to be unravelled and exploited.

“Diffusion of Innovations” and “The Tipping Point”: Challenges

            While Rogers’ and Gladwell’s studies may prove to be beneficial in the field of business and marketing, both have not really been employed substantially, to effect some positive social transformation. The problem with both Rogers and Gladwell is that their theories are descriptive rather than prescriptive, especially in addressing social problems. For instance, Gladwell forgot to tell us how to go about identifying the “mavens,” “connectors,” and “sales people,” and how precisely to get them talking about a product, idea, or service remained a mystery to be solved by the reader and practitioner.

            Rogers’ ideas also tell us that the progress for “the diffusion of innovations” and for “the tipping point” are not inevitable. A new idea or product must bridge some challenges before a tipping point is reached.  One is the challenge of supporting early adopters. Early adopters will often seek out new ideas, so contacting them can be easy. But the challenge is to provide the adequate one-on-one support that early adopters expect and the recognition they crave.

            There is also a challenge for the program managers to see this as a development phase, in which ideology must to give way to flexible, practical solutions. It must be remembered that people adopt things for their own reasons, not others’.

            Another challenge is on winning mainstream credibility. This is one where most new ideas fail, in making the leap from experimental to mainstream.

            These challenges create a new ground for future diffusion scholars to work on. As Rogers would put it:

            “The book suggests that students of diffusion have been working where the ground was soft… The challenge for future research is to expand the area of digging and to search for different objectives than those of the past. Perhaps there is a need to dig deeper, in directions that theory suggests” (Rogers 95).

Works Cited:

“Diffusion of innovations.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Apr 2006, 22:49 UTC. 27 Apr 2006, 05:53 <>.

Rogers, Everett M. Difffusion of Innovations. 4th edition. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little Brown, 2000.

Ruppel, Andrew. “From the Bookshelf”. Decision Line, 2000. Retrieved 25 Apr 2006, from <>.

Klepacki, L. “P&G locates consumers With Tremor”. Women’s Wear Daily.  2003.


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