A friend of mine recently commented on the apparent stupidity of having a Milk Helpline listed on your regular bottle of semi-skimmed. To his surprise I told him this was a Maven Trap.
The obvious next question is “What is a Maven Trap?” To answer this properly I decided to buy him a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book The Tipping Point which is where I first came across the term.
To my surprise the chapter which talks about Maven Traps has been deleted from the current paperback edition of The Tipping Point so I contacted Malcolm Gladwell to find out why. He wasn’t aware the chapter had been removed either but was kind enough to give me permission to re-publish it on my blog so here it is:
Finding the Mavens
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
Whenever I look at an unopened bar of Ivory bath soap, I flip it over and burst out laughing. In the midst of all the production information, there is a line that says: “Questions? Comments? Call 1-800-395-9960.” Who on earth could ever have a question about Ivory soap? In fact, who on earth would ever have a question about Ivory soap so important that they felt compelled to call the company right away? The answer, of course, is that while most of us would never dial that number, a very small percentage of profoundly weird people may well feel compelled from time to time to call in with a question. These are people who feel passionate about soap. They are the soap Mavens, and if you are in the soap business you had better treat those soap Mavens well because they are the ones whom all their friends turn to for advice about soap.
The Ivory soap 800 number is what I call a Maven trap – a way of efficiently figuring out who the Mavens are in a particular world – and how to set Maven traps is one of the central problems facing the modern market-place. For the better part of a century, we defined influence in this country in the form of status. The most important influence in making up our minds, we were told, was the people who made the most money and who had the moist education and who lived in the choicest neighbourhoods. The virtual of this notion was that these kinds of people were easy to find: in face, and entire industry in the marketing world was created around the convenient delivery of long lists of people who had graduate degrees, made lots of money, and lived in nice neighbourhoods. But Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen are a little different. They are distinguished not by worldly status and achievement, but by the particular standing they have among their friends. People look up to them not out of envy, but out of love, which is why these kinds of personalities have the power to break though the rising tide of isolation and immunity. But love is a very difficult thing to track. How on earth do you find these kinds of people?
This is a question that I’ve been asked again and again over the last year, and there is no easy answer. Connectors, I think, are the sorts of people who don’t need to be found. They make it their business to find you. But Mavens are a little harder, which is whey it is so important, I think, to come up with strategies for finding Mavens – Maven traps.
Consider the experiences of Lexus. In 1990, just after Lexus frst introduced its line of luxury cars in the United States, the company realized that it had two minor problems with its LS400 line that required a recall. This situation was, by any measure, an awkward one. Lexus had decide, from the beginning, to build its reputation around quality workmanship and reliability. And now, within little more than a year of the brand’s launch, the company was being forced to admit to problems with its flagship. So Lexus decided to make a special effort. Most recalls are handled by making an announcement to the press and mailing a notification letter to owners. Lexus, instead, call each owner individually on the telephone the day the recall was announced. When the owners picked up their cars at the dealership after the work was completed, each car had been washed and the tank filled with gas. If an owner lived more than a hundred miles from a dealership, the dealer sent a mechanic to his or her home. In one instance, a technician flew from Los Angeles to Anchorage to make the necessary repairs.
Was it necessary to go to such lengths? You could argue that Lexus overreacted. The problems with the car were relatively minor. And the number of cars involved in the recall – so soon after Lexus had entered the marketplace- was small. Lexus would seem to have had many opportunities to correct the damage. The key fact, though, was not the number of people affected by the recall but the kind of people affected by the recall. Who, after all, are the people willing to take a chance and buy a brand-new luxury model? Car Mavens. There may have been only a few thousand Lexus owners at that point, but they were car experts, people whose friends ask them for advice about cars. Lexus realized that it had a captive audience of Mavens and that if they went the extra mile they could kick-start a word-of-mouth epidemic about the quality of their customer service – and that’s just what happened. The company emerged form what could have been a disaster with a reputation for customer service that continues to this day. One automotive publication later called it “the perfect recall.”
This is the perfect Maven trap – using the recognition that sometimes a specific time or place or situation happens to bring together a perfect Maven audience.
I would also strongly recommend Malcolm’s new book Blink.