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first follower theory

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

First follower theory is the concept that attracting an adherent to some kind of view or initiative is the first step toward beginning a movement that might seem unusual or out-of-step with the surrounding culture to the general population.

The first follower is considered to be as important to the development of a movement as the initiator because they make the leader’s viewpoint seem more credible. Derek Sivers introduced first follower theory at the 2010 TED (technology, entertainment, design) conference. According Sivers, the first follower is what transforms an individual with a unique idea into a leader. 

The first follower risks ridicule in the same way that the initiator does. Once a single person follows the initiative, however, it becomes less risky for others to join. Eventually, as enough people join, it becomes riskier to stay on the sidelines than to become part of the movement. 

Sivers illustrated his theory with a brief video from an outdoor concert in which a single man begins to dance while others around him ignore his dancing and remain seated. The dancing man looks foolish until another man joins him. The two dancers changed the dynamic from foolish to interesting. Soon, a third man joined the first follower and the initiator. This second follower changed the dynamics again, because now two individuals became a small group. From there, it was only a matter of seconds until people were running across the field to join the dancing and the small group became a large crowd.

Sivers used the video to point out the importance of the first person joining in. Once the first follower started to dance, the initiator became a leader. In his TED talk, Silvers pointed out that it is risky to be the first follower. Like the initiator, the first follower faces a social risk, in this case -- being ignored or even ridiculed. The fact that the first follower took the risk, however, lowered the social risk for the third person and everyone else who followed. As more people joined, a tipping point occurred and the group dynamics changed from dancing being an anomaly to dancing becoming the social norm. Those few people who simply sat and simply watched the dancers now faced social risk by remaining seated.

Sivers proposed important lessons to take from the video: 

  1. There is no movement without the first follower.
  2. We're told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective.
  3. The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.
  4. When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.

The first follower theory is of interest to social marketers who want to harness the power of the Internet to build an audience. In this context, the first man dancing represents original content that is quirky and easily imitated. The first follower is represented by the first audience members who imitate the original content, putting their own spin on it, and the dancing crowd is represented by the hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet who not only imitate the other followers, but also "like" or "share" the content that is being created.

Marketers who understand the importance of the first follower often use these three approaches to build an audience:
1. They hire first followers, an approach also known as sock puppet marketing.
2. They become the first follower, imitating and adapting an initiator's work.
3. They wait until a tipping point has occurred and promote the new social norm.

Derek Sivers’ TED talk, How to start a movement:

See also: disruptive innovation, disruptive technology, digital disruption, entrepreneur, social entrepreneur, early adopter

This was last updated in September 2014

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