Break­ing new ground might not be the best route to suc­cess, Derek Thomp­son tells Kate Magee

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Is it re­ally true that suc­cess stems not from be­ing orig­i­nal but from em­u­lat­ing oth­ers?

Try­ing to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful new prod­uct or cam­paign? In­stead of fo­cus­ing on mak­ing some­thing orig­i­nal, just tweak what is al­ready pop­u­lar. At least that’s the the­sis of Derek Thomp­son’s new book Hit Mak­ers – as the name sug­gests, an in-depth analysis of what makes some­thing a hit.

Thomp­son, a se­nior ed­i­tor at The At­lantic, has come up with two key prin­ci­ples of suc­cess: that fa­mil­iar­ity beats orig­i­nal­ity; and, per­haps de­press­ingly for cre­atives, that the method of dis­tri­bu­tion can be more im­por­tant than the con­tent.

“Peo­ple’s as­pi­ra­tions for nov­elty are big­ger than their ap­petites,” he ex­plains. “We want to tell our­selves that we love bril­liant new prod­ucts be­cause of their orig­i­nal­ity. Peo­ple claim to love The Bea­tles be­cause they were ‘so orig­i­nal’. But peo­ple spend 90% of their lis­ten­ing time with mu­sic they’ve al­ready heard. The vast ma­jor­ity of best­selling movies are re­boots, adap­ta­tions and se­quels. Peo­ple don’t like things that are so new – they like things that are sneak­ily fa­mil­iar.”

To cre­ate a hit, Thomp­son ad­vises re­search­ing how an au­di­ence in­ter­acts with sim­i­lar prod­ucts, in or­der to “pig­gy­back” on the myths and ide­olo­gies that al­ready ex­ist. For ex­am­ple, within sto­ry­telling (books, movies or a mar­ket­ing cam­paign), peo­ple want hero­ism: “One of the most im­por­tant qual­i­ties of an ex­cel­lent story is the abil­ity to cre­ate he­roes.”

The trick is to not make some­thing that is too ob­vi­ously de­riv­a­tive. To get the right bal­ance, Thomp­son pro­poses peo­ple fol­low fa­ther of in­dus­trial de­sign Raymond Loewy’s MAYA prin­ci­ple – “most ad­vanced yet ac­cept­able”.

“You have to keep push­ing tastes, mak­ing the ac­cept­able a lit­tle more ad­vanced,” he says. “Cul­ture is con­stantly in the process of cre­ative destruc­tion. The new be­comes the old. Ev­ery time cul­ture moves for­ward, that which is one or two years old seems fusty.”

Thomp­son adds: “You sell some­thing through ten­sions with its op­po­sites. To sell some­thing sur­pris­ing, make it fa­mil­iar. To sell some­thing fa­mil­iar, make it sur­pris­ing.”

It’s a concept the tech in­dus­try has em­braced: “Look at how some of the most suc­cess­ful tech prod­ucts have been sold – they help peo­ple con­front a brave new idea by de­sign­ing for fa­mil­iar­ity. Steve Jobs wanted the com­puter screen on early Macs to look like a face and say hello. It was in­cred­i­bly novel but felt like a friend.”

It’s a sim­i­lar story with how we in­ter­act with ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, ad­dress­ing the machines as if they were hu­man – “Hello, Siri” or “Hello, Alexa”.

Dis­tri­bu­tion is the king­dom

Thomp­son’s other con­tention is that dis­tri­bu­tion is of­ten more im­por­tant than con­tent when it comes to mak­ing some­thing pop­u­lar.

“Some­times when an­a­lysts or jour­nal­ists seek to ex­plain the suc­cess of a prod­uct, we look ex­clu­sively at the qual­i­ties of the prod­uct it­self. But we should look at the story of how it reached its au­di­ence,” he says.

“One line in my book is that con­tent may be king, but dis­tri­bu­tion is the king­dom. To un­pack the metaphor: there are lots of kings, but the king­dom de­cides scale.”

The vi­ral myth

That said, Thomp­son does not be­lieve the longed-for vi­ral hit – which he de­fines as a mil­lion one-to-one mo­ments – re­ally ex­ists. In the jour­ney to a pop­u­lar hit, there is usu­ally a “broad­cast mo­ment”, where one per­son with inf lu­ence has a dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact.

For ex­am­ple, some­thing ex­plodes on Twit­ter not usu­ally be­cause ev­ery­one is shar­ing it but be­cause a “broad­caster” shares it with lots of peo­ple at once. For ex­am­ple, Justin Bieber tweets some­thing that goes out to mil­lions, but your friend shares it with you, so you never see the im­pact of Bieber’s tweet. “When­ever we think some­thing is go­ing vi­ral – fig­ure out who the broad­caster was,” Thomp­son says.

The dawn of an era of uni­for­mity?

If Thomp­son’s the­ory about what makes a hit is cor­rect – that mak­ing some­thing pop­u­lar just re­quires a slight mod­i­fi­ca­tion of an ex­ist­ing prod­uct – the con­cern­ing ques­tion is whether machines would be more adept at cre­ation than hu­mans. And if we adopt this ap­proach, are we squeez­ing out orig­i­nal­ity as peo­ple cre­ate things they know will be suc­cess­ful at the ex­pense of truly ground­break­ing think­ing?

Thomp­son says this is a dan­ger. He points to the fact that songs now stay much longer in the charts. Stream­ing ser­vices of­fer a truer re­flec­tion of the pub­lic’s taste in mu­sic, with­out the ar­ti­fi­cial trend cy­cle cre­ated by record la­bels pay­ing ra­dio sta­tions to play songs and in­crease sales.

“Once you re­alise that peo­ple like the same thing over and over again, you are en­cour­aged to make the same thing over and over again,” Thomp­son says. “For ex­am­ple, Hol­ly­wood stu­dios have be­come more strate­gic – they are fo­cus­ing on fran­chises.”

This might sound like we are head­ing into an era of mun­dan­ity, but Thomp­son be­lieves this risk will be tem­pered by the in­creased num­ber of peo­ple who have the tools to cre­ate con­tent.

He says: “Sup­ply has ex­ploded – it’s not just Hol­ly­wood that can make en­ter­tain­ment now. Peo­ple can cre­ate web videos and be Youtube stars. The gate­keep­ers don’t own ac­cess to the mar­ket any more. There’s so much more con­tent that it al­lows peo­ple to be very ex­per­i­men­tal and play­ful. The whole mar­ket­place is get­ting more cre­ative, but the big play­ers are more risk-averse.”

So, as ever, it’s the peo­ple out­side the tra­di­tional power struc­tures who may make a real dif­fer­ence to the fu­ture of cul­ture and creativ­ity, be­cause they have less to lose. A fa­mil­iar face: tech com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple and Ama­zon have helped peo­ple ‘con­front a brave new idea by de­sign­ing for fa­mil­iar­ity’

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