Hits are never guaranteed.
However, there are a TON of things you can learn about how hits happen that will drastically improve your odds.
The book Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a must-read for anybody trying to get traction for their work and I highly recommend you check it out.
It’s also a great follow up to my previous post in which I shared 17 ideas to improve your creative work from the book Perennial Seller.
Here are 18 ideas from the book (with quoted excerpts) which I found valuable and hope you will too.
1. Most hits are familiar surprises.
“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. (page 7)
2. Instagram became an instant hit thanks to Twitter.
Before Instagram debuted, its founders gave early versions of the app to tech influencers (including Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey). Many of them started sharing Instagram images on Twitter, which introduced it to their many followers.
As a result, when Instagram debuted in the App Store, it was downloaded 25,000+ times on the first day and shot to the top of the app charts— driving even more downloads. (page 9)
3. People like what they’ve seen before.
“People prefer paintings that they’ve seen before. Audiences like art that gives them the jolt of meaning that often comes from an inkling of recognition.” (page 24)
4. SportsCenter became a hit by narrowing its focus.
“John 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.” (page 64)
5. The key to memorable speeches and hit songs is the same: Repetition.
“[Former Barack Obama speech writer] Jon Favreau, a self-taught pianist who studied classical music in college, delights in the comparison of his work to pop song writing. ‘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.’” (page 91)
6. To create a hit, tweak an existing genre.
A Hollywood producer shared the secret to creating hit movies:
“‘You take 25 things that are in any successful genre, and you reverse one of them,’ he said. ‘Reverse too many, and you get genre confusion. It’s a muddle, and nobody knows how to place it. Invert all the elements, and it’s a parody.’ But one strategic tweak? Now you’ve made something that is perfectly new, like a classic western adventure story, but set in space.” (page 114)
7. Social media is the new teenage fashion.
“Several decades of logo fever came to an abrupt end in the Great Recession. Nearly half of families experienced a job loss, a pay cut, or reduced hours, and youth unemployment soared to almost 19 percent. The richly embroidered logos on Ralph Lauren polo shirts were suddenly unwelcome in a financial downturn, and cheaper ‘fast-fashion’ retailers like H&M, Zara, and Uniqlo grew.
In a new age of cool, the smartphone screen displaced the embroidered logo as the focal point of teen identity. It was once sufficient to look good in a high school hallway, but today Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are all high school hallways, where young people perform and see performances, judge and are judged. Many decades after another mobile device, the car, helped to invent the teenager, the iPhone and its ilk offered new nimble instruments of self-expression, symbols of independence, and better ways to hook up.” (page 159)
8. Nothing goes “viral” — at least not the way you think it does.
“On the Internet, where it seems like everything is going viral, perhaps very little or even nothing is. They concluded that 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.” (page 190)
9. People like what’s popular because it’s popular.
A research study presented the same 48 new songs to listeners and invited them to download whichever ones they liked. Some of the listeners saw the songs ranked by popularity, while others saw them without rankings.
The people who saw the rankings consistently downloaded the “popular” songs more often than the people who listened to the songs without rankings.
As the book explains, “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.” (page 206)
10. Sharing online isn’t sharing.
“When somebody posts an article online, people often say the article is ‘shared.’ Shared is an interesting usage, because in the physical world you tend to share things that are excludable. When you share a blanket, there is less to keep you warm. When you share a dozen cookies, you eat fewer than twelve. But information is different. Information is a nonexcludable resource. When you share something online, you are giving up nothing. In fact, you are gaining something quite valuable: an audience. Sharing, in the context of information, isn’t really sharing. It’s much more like talking.
So when somebody shares information — like an article, a joke, or a button — are they doing something for other people or are they just talking about themselves?” (page 211)
11. Influence isn’t about the influencer, it’s about the audience.
“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?’” (page 223)
12. Our online conversations are more self-centered than our offline ones.
“A 2012 Harvard study found that people use about one third of personal conversations to talk about themselves. Online, that number jumps to 80 percent. A person’s egoism quotient more than doubles when she opens a computer or lock screen. Offline, one on one, I talk to other people. Online, one to one thousand, I talk (and read) about myself.” (page 226)
13. Your predictions are most valuable when nobody believes in them.
“It’s always nice to be on the right side of history. But it is an economic fact that predicting the future is most valuable when everybody thinks you’re wrong.” (page 234)
14. There’s a big difference between business and baseball.
“People often compare business to baseball. In both activities, one can mostly fail 70 percent of the time and still be an all-time great. But the difference between baseball and business is that baseball has what Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos cleverly called ‘a truncated outcome distribution.’ Home runs can only be so big. In a letter to shareholders, he wrote:
‘When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.’” (page 249)
15. What it takes to create hits is similar to what it takes to be a fighter pilot — speed of adaptation.
“Every fighter pilot decision — like every book, article, song, or film — is a hyopthesis, a theory about how the other side, or audience, will respond. When the response comes, it is almost always a surprise. So, what do you do next?
According to Boyd, the key to a successful fighting force wasn’t just a brilliant plan of attack. It was a facility for learning and changing strategy quickly, when the enemy inevitably adapted to counter the initial strategy. ‘The speed of adaptation was the key factor in whether you could win or lose in a dogfight,’ Haile said.” (page 278)
16. Super-awareness is the new cultural capital.
“In his famous 1980 sociological study Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu argued that taste is partly a performance, a show of ‘cultural capital.’ The elite do not just like opera because they have been exposed to it; they are exposed to opera because they think it makes them elite.
But a lot has changed since 1980. Cultural markets have become more transparent, blurring the line between stated and revealed preferences. Billboard has become an honest reflection of music, and Chartbeat a more transparent view of reader interest. In a culture like this, where status is a performance but tastes are transparent, the socially correct posture is not to like any one thing too much, but rather to be exquisitely and unblinkingly aware of it all. There is something more prized than ‘cultural capital’ in an age of media abundance, and that is what you might call ‘cultural cognizance,’ a global awareness of the news and opinions that make up the cultural landscape. So you saw Hamilton? That’s fine. You can cite its rap references, and suggest why its universal praise might be overrated, and contextualize its significance in twenty-first century race relations? Now we’re talking. Super-awareness is the new cultural capital.” (page 279)
17. Big hits come from things created for narrow audiences.
“The paradox of scale is that the biggest hits are often designed for a small, well-defined group of people. Star Wars was for children of a magical age — old enough to appreciate movies and young enough to love medieval histrionics in space without irony or embarrassment. Facebook was initially designed to appeal to the friends of Harvard undergrads, not to connect the whole world. Vince Forrest found that his bestselling buttons have the most amusingly strange and specific messages. Johannes Brahms wrote his world-famous lullaby for one mother. Narrowly tailored hits are more likely to succeed, perhaps both because of their inherent qualities — they are focused works — and because of their network qualities. People are more likely to talk about products and ideas that they feel unusually attached to.” (page 285)
18. Most artists’ best work comes AFTER they’ve had a hit.
“Led Zeppelin’s unnamed fourth album is its mythic masterpiece. Born to Run was Bruce Springsteen’s third studio album. Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ eighth, Thriller was Michael Jackson’s sixth, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was Kanye West’s fifth, and Lemonade was Beyonce’s sixth. I thought of Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Seinfeld’s fourth through seventh seasons, Stanley Kubrick’s eighth feature film, Virginia Woolf’s fourth novel, and Leo Tolstoy’s sixth book.
It is self-evident that a person’s best work might emerge after years of practice, as artists refine their skill. But there is something more at play here: These artists and teams produced their most resonant work after they had already passed a certain threshold of fame and popularity. Perhaps genius thrives in a space shielded ever so slightly from the need to win a popularity contest. Rather, it comes after the game has been won, after the artist can say, essentially, ‘Now that I have your attention…’” (page 287)
This is just a small taste of the amazing stuff in this book — you can get yourself a copy of it here.