To turn a song or movie into a popular hit, naturally, it must appeal to a large audience. Creators must also see to the networks in which their products are discussed and perhaps even go viral. But, increasingly, this is not enough. The product appraisal of celebrities and the distribution power of major retailers are needed to create bestsellers. This still holds in a world in which data reveals and drives our tastes. People remain influenced by experts, celebrities and entrusted retailers.

Our observations

  • Today, we may tend to think that a certain artist has become popular because many people like his or her work. Yet, there is much to say for the “museum model”: artists receive a boost in popularity by the simple fact that they are displayed in museums. This also holds in the era of internet. Customers are attracted to products and content that is praised by experts and well-known distributors.
  • In 1960, only 10% of the Dutch had a refrigerator (see: Han Lörzing, Jaren van Verandering). In the United States, these appliances were already common back then, but not in Europe. The supermarket Albert Heijn acquainted Dutch customers with the advantages of refrigerators by selling them in combination with a new product line. Before Albert Heijn started this campaign, the refrigerator was seen as a luxury household appliance, only used in American films.
  • When Instagram was introduced, it entered a competitive market with many photo apps. Derek Thompson argues in Hitmakers that there was only one aspect in which Instagram outperformed competitors. It had introduced its app through a network of celebrities, entrepreneurs and journalists. Instagram was only made public after many “influencers” had used it. That is why Instagram was downloaded 25 thousand times on the day of introduction, October 6th, 2010.
  • The international bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey was initially published as an e-book on a small website. It gained popularity due to positive scores on Goodreads, a book review website. The book went viral in a community of book lovers. Yet, it was only when publisher Random House published the book that it found a much larger audience. Random House attracted the attention of the media for its new writer: there were three television shows that boosted the initial popularity of her book.
  • A common form of popular media is the “bestseller list”, such as the “best movies” according to major newspapers or IMBD, or the best books presented in TV-shows.

Connecting the dots

The common story of our age is that people can decide for themselves what they like and what they do not. The offer of products and services is larger than ever before. People can develop their own preferences and style with the support of free information on the internet. The algorithms of Google, Netflix and Spotify enable users to navigate. But this perspective is only partly true. It is true that there is no single influencer – a president, museum, company or celebrity – that motivates masses of people to buy certain things. However, people continue to follow the inspiration of certain example figures. Even the classic idea of a “hit list” remains very influential: once a movie, book or holiday is on such a list, it sells much better.
Derek Thompson argues that popularity is a waterfall in which you need to reach out for influencers that strengthen the position of a product that is already relatively popular in certain subcultures. The influencer propels this popularity, new networks buy the product, and more media attention follows, ad infinitum. This waterfall effect explains the sudden popularity of apps such as Instagram and books such as Fifty Shades of Grey.

A successful product needs the help of all sorts of influencers. As the case of refrigerators in the 1960s already made clear, a good store was needed to monetize the popularity fridges already had thanks to films and TV. The same holds for today’s film and TV: indeed, a lot can be found online, but many people remain dependent on the companies that distribute content. Real popularity starts in a network of early-adopter users and is powered by good distributors, and different types of influencers. This is the mix that turns interesting products into mass scale hits.
Remarkably, some of today’s well-known trusted companies, such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon, combine these classic functions with data-management. Amazon creates film content, distributes it and owns IMBD, where this content is judged. At the same time, it uses data to help identify customer taste. Spotify distributes music and is an important hit maker – for instance, with the hit list RapCaviar. Spotify creates the illusion of serendipity for its users – the discovery of a new artist in the database “by accident” – whereas it is actually a data-driven music streaming service. Companies such as Spotify, Netflix and Amazon seem well-aware that it is the combination of data and distribution, and the appraisal of celebrities, which creates hits. They no longer focus on a single product, such as a film or show, but hire producers, actors and taste makers as well.

Implications

  • Hit lists remain important in increasing the popularity of products. This goes for both lists based on customer ratings (such as IMBD, Goodreads) as well as expertise lists (such as the book review pages of quality newspapers).
  • There is a new type of influencer on the web, such as vloggers in fashion, and these influencers are becoming more popular among young people. Nonetheless, regular celebrities, such as actors, remain important as well.
  • In the age of digital media abundance (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney’s new streaming channel), curators, hit lists and influencers will become ever more important as consumers have to find their way within the limitless stream of content.