Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson
November 8, 2018
Derek Thompson uncovers the hidden psychology of why we like what we like. Shattering the sentimental myths of hit-making that dominate pop culture and business, Thompson shows quality is insufficient for success, nobody has "good taste," and some of the most popular products in history were one bad break away from utter failure. It may be a new world, but there are some enduring truths to what audiences and consumers want. People love a familiar surprise: a product that is bold, yet sneakily recognizable, that is the formula for a hit in the making.
This book is very well written and woven with a lot of great examples throughout. I highly recommend reading the whole book, for check out a taste of the highlights below.
But before getting to the cliffnotes, check out this popular puppy that took over the internet a while ago.
Myth of Novelty:
Modern culture is outwardly neotheistic; it worships the new, if only in theory. There is immense social pressure to be aware of the hottest trends, the latest gossip, the recent hits. The entire free market economy is oriented around making people aware of, and ultimately desperate for, the new. But both psychologists and media makers understand that most people are reliably drawn to new ideas that remind them of old ideas. They prefer surreptitiously familiar songs, storylines, clothing styles, and interior decorating. Familiar ideas are processed faster, and the sensation of quick and easy thinking—also known as fluency—is strong yet sneaky, so that people attribute the pleasure of the thought to the quality of the idea. People crave fresh voices telling them familiar stories, because they enjoy the thrill of discovery but ultimately gravitate to the comfort of fluency. More than anything, they love the recognition of a familiar pattern in a fresh setting, that special moment when the fuzzy anxiety of newness resolves into the crystalline clarity of understanding.
The history of cultural sensations shows that sneakily familiar ideas have far more immediate appeal than novel ones and that the battle for cultural power is principally a battle over distribution and discovery, precisely because there is no formula for virality or easy popularity. This is the first thesis of the book. Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic—curious to discover new things—and deeply neophobic—afraid of anything that’s too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises.
The fundamental variables of hits include familiarity, surprise, emotional resonance, and distribution strategy. These are not fixed variables. The property of familiarity, for example, changes every year. Designing for humans means abandoning the childish dream of a universal formula and embracing a more chaotic dance between novelty and wonder, belonging and uniqueness, familiarity and surprise.
The Power of Exposure: One of the most powerful forces in popularity is the power of exposure. Exposure breeds familiarity, familiarity breeds fluency, and fluency often breeds liking.
People preference was for familiarity is known as the “mere exposure effect,” The evolutionary explanation for the exposure effect is simple: If you recognize an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet.
Some people disdain distribution and marketing as pointless, boring, tawdry, or all three. But they are the subterranean roots that push beautiful things to the surface, where audiences can see them. It is not enough to study products themselves to understand their inherent appeal, because quite often the most popular things are hardly what anybody would consider the “best.” They are the most popular everywhere because they are, simply, everywhere. Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.
It is rarely sufficient to design the perfect product without designing an equally thoughtful plan to get it to the right people. Quality, it seems, is a necessary but insufficient attribute for success.
Quality might be a tricky thing to define, but people seem to know bad when they hear it. Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.
Case Study: Lessons from Billboard Hits: the most popular songs now stay on the charts for months, the relative value of a hit has exploded. The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn about 80 percent of all recorded music revenue. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the ten bestselling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. As Billboard’s Pietroluongo summed it up: “It turns out that we just want to listen to the same songs over and over again.” It’s part of the fractal force of repetition: People want to hear the same rhythms repeated within hooks repeated within choruses repeated within songs—and, left to our own devices, we put those songs on repeat. But nobody wants to hear the exact same thing over and over forever. Too much repetition causes monotony.
Repetition is powerful, not only for music, but for all communication. [From Obama’s speech writer] I think a lot about empathy as a speechwriter. I always try to imagine the audience: Where are they coming from? What base of knowledge are they starting from? How do we both connect to where they are and lift them up a little bit?” “A good line in a speech is like a good piece of music,” he said. “If you take a small thing and repeat it throughout the speech, like a chorus in a song, it becomes memorable. People don’t remember songs for the verses. They remember songs for the chorus. If you want to make something memorable, you have to repeat it.” “What’s the ‘spine’ of this speech?” The spine was the hook, the theme, or the rhetorical chorus that held a speech together.
Just as repetition of words can create the illusion of singing, musical language can create the illusion of rationality. Studies show that people consider rhyming quips—like “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” or “Woes unite foes”—more accurate than their nonrhyming versions—like “What sobriety conceals, beer unmasks.” Repetition and rhythm are like flavor enhancers for language: They can make bad ideas seem extraordinarily clever, because listeners don’t think too hard when they hear pretty words. They often just assume the words are true.
Familiar vs. New: The push and pull
Fluency’s attraction is obvious. But there is a quieter truth: People need a bit of its opposite. They want to be challenged, shocked, scandalized, forced to think—just a bit. They enjoy what Kant called free play—not just a monologue of fluency, but a dialogue between “I get it” and “I don’t” and “I want to know more.” People are complicated: curious and conservative, hungry for new things and biased toward the familiar. Familiarity is not the end. It’s just the beginning. This might be the most important question for every creator and maker in the world: How do you make something new, if most people just like what they know? Is it possible to surprise with familiarity?
On the one hand, humans seek familiarity, because it makes them feel safe. On the other hand, people are charged by the thrill of a challenge, powered by a pioneer lust.
Creative people often bristle at the suggestion that they have to stoop to market their ideas or dress them in familiar garb. It’s pleasant to think that an idea’s brilliance is self-evident and doesn’t require the theater of marketing. But whether you’re an academic, screenwriter, or entrepreneur, the difference between a brilliant new idea with bad marketing and a mediocre idea with excellent marketing can be the difference between bankruptcy and success. The trick is learning to frame your new ideas as tweaks of old ideas, to mix a little fluency with a little disfluency—to make your audience see the familiarity behind the surprise.
People enjoy repeating cultural experiences, not only because they want to remember the art, but also because they want to remember themselves, and there is joy in the act of remembering. “The dynamic linkages between one’s past, present, and future experiences through the reconsumption of an object allow existential understanding,” Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J. Levy wrote in their study of nostalgia and culture. “Reengaging with the same object, even just once, allows a reworking of experiences as consumers consider their own particular enjoyments and understandings of choices they have made.”
Design & Creativity
Loewy a Father of Industrial Design: His personal motto was that success is “25 percent inspiration and 75 percent transportation.” He believed in ethnography as an entry point for design: First, understand how people behave; second, build products that match their habits. Loewy was an excellent teacher of consumer preferences in part because he was an obsessive student of consumer habits. He piggybacked off people’s behavior rather to influence design.
Loewry created the MAYA Principle: Design for the Future, but Balance it with Your Users’ Preset. What can he teach today’s artists about how to make a hit? MAYA offers three clear lessons.
First: Audiences don’t know everything, but they know more than creators do. If familiarity is the key to liking, then people’s familiarities—the ideas, stories, behaviors, and habits with which they are fluent—are the keys to their heart.
Second: To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar. Even the most brilliant scientific breakthroughs face initial skepticism when they are too far from mainstream thought. Great art and products meet audiences where they are. But the fact that people gravitate to fluency in art and design is no excuse for dumb simplicity. The central insight of MAYA is that people actually prefer complexity—up to the point that they stop understanding something. Many of today’s museumgoers don’t just stare at the water lilies. They enjoy strange and abstract art that gives them a feeling or a jolt of meaning. TV viewers don’t just watch reruns. They like complex mysteries with narrative puzzles that come to completion.
Third: People sometimes don’t know what they want until they already love it. When a song gets stuck in your head, it can drive you crazy. But since the affliction is universal, timeless, and self-inflicted, it must say something about our internal circuitry. An earworm is a cognitive quarrel. The automatic mind craves repetition that the aware brain finds annoying. Perhaps the unconscious self wants more repetition—wants more of the old, wants more of the familiar—than the conscious self thinks is “good.”
The business of creativity is a game of chance—a complex, adaptive, semi-chaotic game. You, the creator, are making something that doesn’t exist for an audience that cannot say if they will like it beforehand. People are mysterious and markets are chaos. Is it any surprise that most creativity is failure?
When it comes to predicting the future, ignorance is a club and everybody is a member. Picking a few hits requires a tolerance for many bad ideas, mediocre ideas, and even good ideas cursed with bad timing. Above all, it requires a business model that supports the inevitability that most new things fail; the most promising ideas often attract a chorus of skeptics; and one big hit can pay for a thousand flops.
Storytelling: A Story Old as Time
Most people love original storytelling, provided that the narrative arc traces the stories we know and the stories that we want to tell ourselves. Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is perhaps the closest any theorist has come to a universal formula for storytelling. Campbell reached back thousands of years to show that, since before human beings could write, we have been telling the same heroic story over and over, changing mostly the names and settings. In this universal myth, the seemingly ordinary man goes on a journey, crossing over from the known world to the unknown. With help, he survives several key trials, only to face down an ultimate challenge. With this final victory, he returns to the known world as the hero, the prophet, the One, the Son. It is the story of Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker, Moses and Muhammad, Neo in The Matrix and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and, of course, Jesus Christ. The specific beats of Campbell’s arc aren’t as important as its three primary ingredients: inspiration, relatability, and suspense.
First, a hero must inspire, which means the story must begin with a flawed character whose journey leads to both victory (Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee succeed in seeing the One Ring destroyed . . .) and salvation (. . . Frodo finds his courage, and Sam’s loyalty repeatedly saves their lives).
Second, it must be relatable, since audiences want to imagine themselves as heroes. That means the heroes cannot be invincible or obnoxiously eager to achieve invincibility. They have to struggle with their destiny (one does not simply walk into Mordor, after all) before accepting its charge.
Third, Campbell’s formula comes with prepackaged suspense. The road to glory is pockmarked with small defeats that keep audiences anxious and alert. Ultimately, what the hero’s journey provides is the threat of chaotic suspense grounded in empathy. A familiar character who faces no obstacles is boring, and an incomprehensible character is confusing no matter what the challenges are. But a character plucked from the natural world to go on a supernatural adventure that leads through struggles to transcendence opens a door just big enough for the audience to step inside and feel the hero’s glory as their own.
The brilliant Hermione and the sensitive Ron balance out Harry Potter. Luke Skywalker combines Han’s bravery and Leia’s conscience. In all stories, the hero is the average of his friends, and the hero’s journey is a challenge to unite these ingredients in victory—Might and Right.
Teens Ae The Most Open to New:
The most significant neophilic group in the consumer economy is probably teenagers. Young people are “far more receptive to advanced designs,” Loewy wrote, because they have the smallest stake in the status quo. Teenagers are the group most likely to accept a new musical sound, a new clothing fashion, or a new technology trend. For adults, especially those with power and money, the rules are what keep you safe. When you’re young, every rule is illegitimate until proven otherwise. It is precisely because they have so little to lose from the way things are that young people will continue to be the inexhaustibly neophilic motor of culture.
One of the lessons of teenage culture is that people don’t decide what they like all by themselves. They determine coolness based on their perception of what is mainstream and what is not; what is radical and what is appropriate; what their community is doing versus what other cliques consider cool. In this way, we are all teenagers. Consumers are constantly learning, changing, and responding to the decisions of the people around them.
The most important element in a global cascade isn’t magically viral elements or mystical influencers. Rather it is about finding a group of people who are easily influenced. It turns the influencer question on its head. Don’t ask, “Who is powerful?” Instead ask, “Who is vulnerable”.
There Are No “Viral” Hits:
The Myth of Virality: When an idea becomes popular quite suddenly, people often say it goes “viral,” like a disease. It is an irresistible metaphor. How lovely it is for creators to tell themselves that if they make something inherently awesome, it won’t require any complicated or time-consuming distribution strategy! But data scientists who have spent years studying the spread of information online have shown that most popular ideas don’t typically spread like viruses, passing exclusively from ordinary individual to ordinary individual. Instead, they depend on diffuse broadcasts, where one source infects many, many people at once. Therefore, to understand how a new idea has entered the cultural mainstream, we shouldn’t fall back on the lazy assumption that it just “went viral.” We should seek out the “dark broadcast” points where one website, one TV show, or one celebrity distributed the content to many people at once. Popularity on the Internet is “driven by the size of the largest broadcast.” Digital blockbusters are not about a million one-to-one moments as much as they are about a few one-to-one-million moments.
An individual broadcast is more powerful in an age with fewer channels of exposure. When there were only three television channels, for example, it was easier to get high ratings. But the future looks to be an age of abundance, with hundreds of channels, national media sites, podcasts, newsletters, Twitter profiles, Facebook pages, and media apps. Each of these media sources can reach thousands or millions of people a day. These publishers are broadcasters. Their work isn’t viral at all. To say that an idea “went viral” after it appeared on the New York Times front page is nearly as silly as saying a commercial “went viral” after appearing in the Super Bowl, or saying E. coli “goes viral” when many people get sick eating at the same restaurant. Words have meanings, and even the most elastic definition of virality has nothing to do with such one-to-one-thousand (or one-to-one-hundred-million) events. The spread of a viral video is not mostly viral, but neither is it all broadcast. Rather, the studies of social networks suggest that the majority of viral hits involves one or several mass contamination events that look like this . . . . . . where one Facebook post, one favorable spot on the Drudge Report, or one well-watched segment on Fox News reaches thousands and thousands of people instantaneously, and then a small fraction of that infected group passes it along again. Almost nothing really goes viral, but some ideas and products really are more infectious than others. They are shared and discussed at higher-than-average rates. But to go big, they need that broadcast—the Walmart book stand, the Kardashian tweet, the proverbial water pump—to push them into the mainstream, where people will find them and share them.
Ideas Spread Best Through Niche Groups:
A simplistic definition of “popular” is the quality of being well-liked by most people. But the trouble with this definition is that there are few things that most people like. A book that sells one million copies in a year in the United States is a runaway bestseller—that 99 percent of the country didn’t buy. If ten million U.S. households watch a new show, it’s a smash hit—that 90 percent of households never saw. If fifty million people buy a ticket to see a film, it’s the year’s biggest blockbuster—which more than 80 percent of Americans over age thirteen ignored. Even the biggest hits in the world are typically missed by a majority of their universe.
Ideas spread most reliably when they piggyback off an existing network of closely connected and interested people. In other words, if you’re trying to attract groups, find common points of origin.
Global cascades happen when a trigger hits a densely connected audience clustered around a commonality, a soft cult. Successful creations grow most predictably when they tap into a small network of people who do not see themselves as mainstream, but rather bound by an idea or commonality that they consider special. People have all day to talk about what makes them ordinary. It turns out that they want to share what makes them weird.
Culture is cults, all the way down. Trump was a cult hit—adored by a minority but broadly unpopular. But perhaps every hit is a cult hit. You could easily say that from a majoritarian standpoint, nothing is popular. The mainstream does not exist.
Popularity Begets Popularity
Simply believing, even wrongly, that a song was popular made many participants more likely to download it. Rankings created superstars, even when they lied. Some consumers buy products not because they are “ better” in any way, but simply because they are popular. What they’re buying is not just a product, but also a piece of popularity itself. Today’s cultural marketplace is a pop-culture Panopticon, where everybody can see what the world is watching, playing, and reading. In such a world, historically large audiences will inevitably cluster around a handful of mega-blockbusters, such as Fifty Shades, or, more recently, the augmented-reality game Pokémon GO. That is the lesson of Salganik, Dodds, and Watts: Cultural products will spread faster and wider when everybody can see what everybody else is doing. It suggests that the future of many hit-making markets will be fully open, radically transparent, and very, very unequal.
For many cultural achievements, the art itself is not the only thing worth consuming; the experience of having seen, read, or heard the art for the purpose of being able to talk about it is its own reward. Such consumers are not just buying a product; what they’re really buying is entry into a popular conversation. Popularity is the product.
Case Studies: ESPN, CNN & Spotify have discovered what Top 40 radio has known for several decades: Most people tune in to a broadcast to hear more of something they already know.
ESPN had lost a sense of its core, Skipper told the company’s leaders at one of the first executive meetings. Rather than being great at serving one perfect product, like a steakhouse, it had become a network that served lots of mediocre fare, like a cheap diner. Skipper started the turnaround by focusing on SportsCenter, ESPN’s unavoidable collage of the day’s news. Rather than serve many audiences across the sports spectrum, from college squash to Indian cricket, he said SportsCenter should spend more hours covering mostly the most popular story lines. Why? To maximize the odds that whenever a fan tuned in, he could expect to see a team, player, or controversy that he recognized—like the New England Patriots, LeBron James, or Olympic doping scandals. SportsCenter would become, he decided, an entertainment steakhouse, serving up new takes on the same core sports, stars, and scandals—over and over and over. After that, Bulgrin said, things “started to change rather dramatically.” SportsCenter had become the thing every sports fan quietly craves: a news machine for delivering new takes on familiar stories. Ratings soared
CNN has taken the same approach, devoting more time to fewer stories, like terrorist attacks and disappearing airplanes. This makes for pretty repetitive TV, if you watch all day long. But who would want to watch CNN all day long? The typical television news viewer watches about five minutes of cable TV news per day. CNN is doing something smart—maximizing viewers’ expectations that they will see a story they recognize no matter when they tune in. Throughout the 2016 election, the CNN spotlight trained its white-hot focus on Donald Trump, who reportedly referred to network president Jeff Zucker as his “personal booker.” Media critics sighed over CNN’s singular obsession, but the strategy paid off, at least in the most literal sense. In 2015, CNN saw its highest viewership in seven years and enjoyed the strongest rate of advertising growth of any cable news network. Journalists mocked the network’s Trumpist worship, often with good reason, but television economics is not a morality play. Trump and Zucker’s relationship proved to be fantastically profitable.
Spotify’s Discover Weekly, a personalized list of thirty songs delivered every Monday to tens of million of users. For about a decade, Ogle had worked for several music companies to design the perfect music recommendation engine. His philosophy of music was that most people enjoy new songs, but they don’t enjoy the effort that it takes to find them. They want effortless, frictionless musical revelations, a series of achievable challenges. In the design of Discover Weekly, “every decision we made was shaped by the notion that this should feel like a friend giving you a mix tape,” he said. So the playlist was weekly and included only thirty songs. Here’s how it works. Each week, Spotify bots hunt through several billion playlists from users around the world to see what songs are typically grouped together. Imagine that Song A, Song B, and Song C often appear together in the same playlist. If I often listen to Songs A and C, Spotify guesses that I’ll probably like Song B—even if I’ve never heard of its band. This way of predicting tastes by aggregating millions of people’s preferences is known as “collaborative filtering”—collaborative because it takes many users’ inputs, and filtering because it uses the data to narrow down the next thing you want to hear. “It turns out having a bit of familiarity bred trust, especially for first-time users. If we make a new playlist for you and there’s not a single thing for you to hook onto or recognize, to go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a good call!’ it’s completely intimidating and people don’t engage.”