Social Marketing: The 10% Solution

Marc van Gurp, editor of the cause and N4P marketing blog Osocio, shared an interesting study from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (via that describes the science behind the “Tipping Point” theory of social change.

Interestingly enough, while Malcolm Gladwell described it as an “80/20” phenomenon, where 20% of the population are the movers, Rensselaer calculated that number as being as few as 10%.

…when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.

This phenomenon has huge implications for social marketers. After all, how many times have you come up against a campaign brief in which the target audience was “everyone”?

Intuitively, and through experience, those of us in the business of social marketing know that “everyone” is no more of a target market than “ASAP” is a deadline. We deal in realistic objectives and measurable outcomes.

Most social marketing agencies have a model of change that categorizes different groups according to their awareness of, or stand on, an issue.


Uninformed — The issue is not even on the target’s radar, the focus is on informing the audience through basic facts.

Aware — The target audience has heard of the issue, but is uncommitted or unconvinced of its importance. The intent at this stage is to persuade the audience with reasons and consequences for action.

Motivated — The audience is ready to change, but hasn’t. A campaign at this stage will be motivational, overcoming barriers to action.

Active — The audience has made some change, but has not committed full-time. At this stage we provide reinforcement to inspire continuous action.

Champion — The target group is full of true believers who motivate and influence other groups. The focus is on acknowledgment, maintaining interesting and enthusiasm, and providing tools to allow them to influence others.

What the Rensselaer implies is what we have been telling clients for years: Create champions, and the rest will follow, pulled forward by the tide of change.

An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.

This has huge implications for messaging and media strategy. By understanding who your potential 10% are, what they do and what they believe, you can target them more personally and effectively. The timing could not be better, as digital and social media channels allow more precise and efficient customization than ever before.

To reach their conclusion, the scientists developed computer models of various types of social networks. One of the networks had each person connect to every other person in the network. The second model included certain individuals who were connected to a large number of people, making them opinion hubs or leaders. The final model gave every person in the model roughly the same number of connections. The initial state of each of the models was a sea of traditional-view holders. Each of these individuals held a view, but were also, importantly, open minded to other views.

Once the networks were built, the scientists then “sprinkled” in some true believers throughout each of the networks. These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.

Why waste 90% of your budget marketing a cause, action or change in belief to the general public? Real change happens in a networked way, beyond your direct control. Your job is to start that fire by motivating, uniting and arming your minority with strong and sharable messages and tools.

An interesting example is the issue of same-sex marriage in the United States. Despite fierce resistance from reactionaries, equal marriage is now supported by over half of Americans. I like to imagine that this was an effect of the 10% (assumed) of the population who are gay coming out and speaking out as a result of pride movements. Once their friends and family learned to accept this reality, homosexuality was on its way to being normalized in the society as straight people started to speak out for equal rights as well, spurred on by movements like It Gets Better, fckh8 and George Takei’s hilarious social media rants. This created a ripple effect which took public opinion from President Bill Clinton’s restrictive Defense of Marriage Act to President Barack Obama (in a dramatic turnaround) publicly calling for its repeal as more and more states legalize same-sex marriage.

The key lesson here is that minorities matter. Smart social marketers, cause marketers and political marketers will benefit from this knowledge by focusing their efforts on the 10% solution.

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.

“As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further. If the true believers just influenced their neighbors, that wouldn’t change anything within the larger system, as we saw with percentages less than 10.”

The research has broad implications for understanding how opinion spreads. “There are clearly situations in which it helps to know how to efficiently spread some opinion or how to suppress a developing opinion,” said Associate Professor of Physics and co-author of the paper Gyorgy Korniss. “Some examples might be the need to quickly convince a town to move before a hurricane or spread new information on the prevention of disease in a rural village.”

Or to change the world, one in ten at a time.

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