How to make a hit: Originality is overrated

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

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."  

"You sell something through tensions with its opposites. To sell something surprising, make it familiar. To sell something familiar, make it surprising."

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 influence 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.

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