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 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.

  • Rob,

    This is one of your best posts this year. Great job.

  • Rob

    Thanks. I should have added to the post than this is part of the reason this site gets more traffic that many other better written biz blogs. I had a first mover advantage.

  • This is a good start on popularity Rob but there’s more to it, isn’t there?

    For example take “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” as a very popular book. It’s not just that it is popular, nor that it is mentioned by influential people but it has certain characteristics that allow it to get the benefit of both of those “popularity accelerators.” Good to Great, Tipping Point, Blink etc. have those characteristics as well.

    Go back to music and think about pop music. I think the characteristics of real pop music are evident in what’s popular in management theories.

    Do you disagree?

  • Laurence…seems to me that affinity for popular management theories should be correlated with how measurable one’s job is. For example, a sales manager with a quota to meet needs to care about whether the theory actually works, not just whether it sounds good. Ditto for a manufacturing manager. The HR manager, on the other hand, is less measurable, and will have more of an affinity for the trendy.

  • Rob

    It definitely helps if you say something people want to hear. Here in Louisville we have one of the largest churches in the country. Many people from the other churches criticize them, saying they are only the most popular because they present a weak and easy message.

    That is true but I think there is a flip side to that coin. Sometimes people think something is working when it really isn’t. They have success because of x, but attribute the success to y.

    Subjective measures are internal and non-measurable. I would say popularity is an objective criteria. Your reason for using popularity could be subjective, but the measure itself isn’t. Now that I have said that, I am thoroughly confused and don’t know how to answer your question. Let me get some sleep and try again in the morning ;-)

  • It doesn’t say that the # of downloads shown to the “social” group were randomly assigned. If they were not, i.e. if they were an actual count, this study is moot – and merely indicates that we’ve learned to use popularity to maximize our search effort. I think the more interesting angle here is how do “one-hit-wonders” make it against such odds.

  • Rob

    Not really because the group that couldn’t see the download #s still had the same list of songs to listen to, but chose different favorites. The implication is that the ones that that “view downloads” group picked wouldn’t have been their favorites if they hadn’t been able to see the downloads. Of course, one could argue (as I often do) that perception is reality and if they believe they like those best, who cares that they might have thought differently under different scenarios.

    The point of this though, and the question I come back to from this study, is this – given a limited amount of resources, should you skimp on product quality and spend on promotion? For some goods like music and other forms of content, that may be the case. Popularity = quality for these items. I don’t think that holds true to the same extent for something like… appliances.

  • “Popularity = quality for these items. I don’t think that holds true to the same extent for something like… appliances.”

    Dude, you clearly don’t watch HGTV. :-)

    Same with power tools on those decorating and home improvement shows. I showed my wife that Craftsman power tools spec out better than most, if not all of the leading brands, but she wanted “all DeWalt” because that’s what Debbie Travis uses (among others). The power of tee-vee.

  • Does being “famous” trump being “really good?” Yes!

    But simply emptying the bank for promotions won’t make you famous. There’s more to it. So watch your wallet.