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hitmakers

Why do some ideas become wildly popular while others languish in obscurity?

Derek Thompson’s riveting, and impeccably researched, book; “Hit Makers,” postulates that there is a formula to making ideas popular. It argues that knowing how manipulate ideas to create successful products has major implications, but that it is also just as important is to understand when successful products are the result of manipulation.

At its core, Hit Makers asked two questions:

  1. What is the secret to making products that people like, whether they are music, movies, TV shows, or Apps in the vast cultural landscape of today?
  2. Why do some products fail, while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Mr. Thompson tells us that people are both neophiliac, a love of the new, while also being neophobic, a fear of the new. People who are hit makers marry old and new ideas. They create familiar surprises. People tend to gravitate to the familiar – the most popular movies in recent times have all be sequels or reimagining of existing properties. People want new things, but they want those new things to seem familiar.

The most popular theory of modern content creation is that if you make great content, it will be recognized, shared, and go viral. However, Mr. Thompson states; “Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.” Catchy tunes that do not get air play on the radio will remain unknown. New tunes get on the radio by being new, but being familiar enough to listeners that they do not turn off.

Repetition, repeated exposure which creates familiarity, can actually be used to engineer popularity in groups of people. Politicians have known this for years. Consider this speech by Barack Obama:

“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”

Or this speech by Winston Churchill;

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Mr. Thompson makes a convincing case, although not guaranteed, that popularity can, and has been for centuries, been manufactured and manipulated, but that it can also occur spontaneously by specific sets of circumstances.

Hit Makers is a starting point for understanding how and why things become popular and how we can get our ideas to find their audience, and what we can do to create that audience in the first place. It postulates that we misunderstand terms such as “viral” and “influencer” therefore ideas are not spread in the ways that we hope.

Hit Makers is a phenomenal book for anyone who sees to understand ideas and popularity. It draws from history and the present day. It should, for better or worse, change the way you share ideas and see how ideas change the world.

Another great book from the brothers Heath.

It is interesting to note that in retrospect the lessons of “Stick” have had such an impression on the authors that their follow up “Switch” (which I reviewed here) is all the better for it.

The concept of “stickiness” is lifted wholesale from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, but its practical applications go further, from my understanding that Galdwell’s popular work.The basic premises is that stories, personal connections, are what make ideas stick not great raw facts. This has huge implications for marketers and managers. The book delves very deep into why this concept works and does give some great real world examples as you would expect from a book with such a central theory.

Where the book really succeeds, is in it’s ability to predict where ideas will work or not. There is a great example about a journalism class and being able distill ideas, or stories, down to their most basic essence. Another frequently used example is Southwest Airlines who’s most basic mission statement “The Low Cost Airline” informs everything they do. This mission statement becomes a simple idea, that can answer complex questions and can direct behavior.

An intriguing part of the book, and also an excellent framing device, is the use of urban legends and why they succeed where other news items, education, and presentations don’t. If we could make our ideas like urban legends our work as managers, marketers and educators is 90% done.

Switch is the better read, but stick is the more intellectual and deeper work and also have the potential to be significantly more important.

(Clicking on the cover above will take you to the book’s Amazon page and contribute to my book buying habit / problem.)

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