Flashback: “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.

The forces that trigger epidemics.

Malcom Gladwell, a pop-culture observer and author, hit it big 2 decades ago with his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Primarily aimed at marketers, this best-seller provides a construct for understanding why some products and ideas languish and never gain traction … while others take off and rise quickly to broadscale acceptance.

Much of Gladwell’s thinking is derived from his study of contagions and epidemics … which makes it relevant today as we try to understand the coronavirus pandemic.


Gladwell suggests that there are 3 key elements that need be present for an epidemic to reach a “tipping point” and takeoff: (1) Content – the infectious agent, (2) Carriers – the individuals who transmit the infection, and (3) Context – the environment in which the infectious agent  operates.

Let’s drill down on each of those…


The phrase “Tipping Point” is the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass and accelerates.

Again, there are 3 key elements that need be present for an epidemic to reach a “tipping point” and takeoff:

(1) Content: Obviously, you need an infectious agent that has the potential to spread.  It can be a product, an idea or, yes, a disease. The potency of the virus is at he heart of any epidemic.

According to the experts, the coronavirus scores sky-high for content potency.

(2) Carriers: Gladwell observes that a relatively few people usually “seed” and  ignite a viral spread.  He refers to the “power of the few” … the so-called “super-spreaders”.

In marketing, they are the “bell cows” that the herd readily follows.   They usually have a conspicuous, credible presence that is spread wide (i.e. are part of multiple groups) and deep (many close contacts in each group).

The coronavirus got “seeded” by travelers  coming from hot spots – initially from Wuhan or early-infected European countries. The “foreign” infected people carried the virus to other locales and accelerated the spread within those local communities.

A unique aspect of coronavirus is that many of the carriers  are asymptomatic. They are, in essence, “hidden carriers” — neither they  nor the people they came in contact know that they were capable of spreading the infection.

(3) Context:

Epidemics are strongly influenced by their situation — by the circumstances, conditions and particulars of the environments in which they operate.

For example, it’s becoming apparent that the coronavirus is predominantly an urban-metroplex phenomenon : NYC, New Orleans, Detroit, Boston.

The “context” in those locales: high density (in the metro area, in the neighborhood, in the apartment, in the residence), heavy use of mass transportation, large households (often multi-generational), frequent transit by out-of-towners and foreign national, etc.


Gladwell’s construct is elegantly simple. Classical in that it was derived from prior ‘epidemics’ of all sorts.  And, contemporary in that it works for a high level description of the coronavirus spread.

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