From the Archives: Malcolm Gladwell, Ambassadors and the Power of Small Groups


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By David Hahn, Managing Director


Like many people I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell.  The Tipping Point is such a great book, not only for marketers but also helps you identify where you are on the maven vs. networker spectrum.

Gladwell also wrote an article for The New Yorker in 2005 about Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life that every book marketer should read. It illustrates the wisdom of sharing content for free (or at a relatively low price, in this case) in order to develop a “following.” These disciples can then act as ambassadors for a new book. In Warren’s case he posted sermons on a Web site that could be bought for $4.00, and encouraged pastors to use them in their Sunday services. By doing so he built up a huge following in advance of his book’s publication:


“’I remember the first time I met Rick,’ says Scott Bolinder, the head of Zondervan, the Christian publishing division of HarperCollins and the publisher of The Purpose-Driven Life. ‘He was telling me about This is during the height of the dot-com boom. I was thinking, What’s your angle? He had no angle. He said, ‘I love pastors. I know what they go through.’ I said, ‘What do you put on there?’ He said, ‘I put my sermons with a little disclaimer on there: ‘You are welcome to preach it any way you can. I only ask one thing—I ask that you do it better than I did.’ So then fast-forward seven years: he’s got hundreds of thousands of pastors who come to this Web site. And he goes, ‘By the way, my church and I are getting ready to do forty days of purpose. If you want to join us, I’m going to preach through this and put my sermons up. And I’ve arranged with my publisher that if you do join us with this campaign they will sell the book to you for a low price.’ That became the tipping point—being able to launch that book with eleven hundred churches, right from the get-go. They became the evangelists for the book.”


Sounds simple enough. Of course the trick is finding those 1,100 churches for your subject matter.

It’s certainly easier than it used to be. One other central theme to Gladwell’s article is the power of the small group. When we participate in a small group effort there is a greater connection to the group and a return impact on our life. Today you can find local groups connected to your subject matter easily through the internet. By nurturing relationships with these local groups, whether they be groups meeting in living rooms, local chapters meeting in restaurants, or some special interest group meeting in a church basement, these groups should not be dismissed as too small, but instead should be embraced in great numbers and with great enthusiasm. Is it a meeting of new mothers? Is it a meeting of divorced fathers? Is it a local chapter meeting of women executives? Is it a group of local high school coaches? Is it a yoga class meeting at a Y? Or more specialized: Is it a group of English Bulldog Owners? A group of Arsenal soccer fans? A group of Phillipino small business owners? You get the idea!

The key is offering something of real value that is practical and eminently usable by these groups. Warren hit upon the perfect gift knowing full well how useful his sermons could be to these pastors. And if you can find a group of people that are involved in your subject matter and have a bully pulpit, then you can scale your marketing quickly. Think of yoga teachers talking about a fitness topic; school psychologists talking about bullying; or a think tank guru talking about your views on a global economy on a national TV show. Today this is simply known as “influencer marketing.”

So the lesson for us in book publishing is that while we should always seek out the big splash media hit, the pre-work that can be done by an author or marketer in building up a following is just as important, if not more important! 

These small cells of followers and influencers are the best word of mouth advocates an author can develop and there is absolutely no better marketing vehicle than word of mouth.


If you would like to see the Gladwell article in its entirety, you can find it here.



Related: Meet Our MC Team: David Hahn


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