Proof that Popularity Breeds Popularity

Popularity leads to more popularity, as this fascinating experiment shows.

Researchers created an artificial "music market" of 14,341 participants drawn from a teen-interest Web site. Upon entering the study's Internet market, the participants were randomly, and unknowingly, assigned to either an "independent" group or a "social influence" group.

Participants could then browse through a collection of unknown songs by unknown bands.

In the independent condition, participants chose which songs to listen to based solely on the names of the bands and their songs. While listening to the song, they were asked to rate it from one star ("I hate it") to five stars ("I love it"). They were also given the option of downloading the song for keeps.

"This condition measured the quality of the songs and allowed us to see what outcome would result in the absence of social influence," said study co-author Matthew Salganik, a sociologist at Columbia University.

In the social influence group, participants were provided with the same song list, but could also see how many times each song had been downloaded.

So what happened? Surely you can guess.

Researchers found that popular songs were popular and unpopular songs were unpopular, regardless of their quality established by the other group. They also found that as a particular songs' popularity increased, participants selected it more often.

The upshot for markerters: social influence affects decision-making in a market.

This is why everyone thinks "Good to Great" is a good book, even if it has serious problems. This is why I don't like Digg and Reddit, because items with high votes get read more often and thus get more chances to be voted higher. It is why I prefer to look at del.icio.us/recent to find new stuff, and why we chose Scoop over the Digg software for Jotzel. Sometimes I want to see what is popular, but other times I would rather see what is good without this perpetual popularity effect.

Why do we like popular things? There is a good reason.

"People are faced with too many options, in this case 48 songs. Since you can't listen to all of them, a natural shortcut is to listen to what other people are listening to," Salganik said. "I think that's what happens in the real world where there's a tremendous overload of songs."

Alternatively, Salganik said, a desire for compatibility with others could drive the choice, since much of the pleasure from listening to music and reading books stems from discussing them with friends.

"If everybody is talking about 'Harry Potter,' you want to read it too," Salganik said.

So how does something get popular in the firstplace? Read The Tipping Point for that answer. If one person with lots of influence recommends something, and lots of other people read it and like it, the popularity spiral has begun. This is why you can always find diamonds in the rough (for business books Management by Baseball and Starting Something come to mind) because they just never get traction to take advantage of the popularity effect.