“Hit Makers” Quotes

I recently read Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson. Here are the quotes I found most interesting:

“The most basic human needs – to belong, to escape, to aspire, to understand, to be understood – are eternal.” (6)

“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.” (7)

“The deeper question for people with a new product or idea is: How can I make something that people will share on their own – with the audience of my audience?” (8)

“Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.” (8)

“The story of a product’s distribution is as important as a description of its features. It is rarely sufficient to design the perfect product without designing an equally thoughtful plan to get it to the right people.” (9)

“The most famous moviemaking corporations in the world, like the Walt Disney Company and Time Warner, have for years made more profit from cable channels like ESPn and TBS than from their entire movie divisions.” (11)

“In the big picture, the world’s attention is shifting from content that is infrequent, big, and broadcast (i.e. millions of people going to the movies once a week) to content that is frequent, small and social (i.e. billions of people looking at social media feeds on their own glass-and-pixel displays every few minutes).” (12)

“There are simply too many “good-enough” songs for every worthy hook to become a bona fide hit. Quality, it seems, is a necessary but insufficient attribute for success.” (37)

“One third of the White House staff works in some aspect of public relations to promote the president and his policies.” (38)

“The average presidential soundbite on the news shrank from forty seconds in 1968 to less than seven seconds in the 1990s.” (38)

“When people see an artwork that reminds them of something they’ve been taught is famous, they feel the thrill of recognition and attribute the thrill to the painting itself.” (43)

“This is the “less is more” or “less is better” effect. It means that less thinking leads to more liking. A cheeky UK experiment found that British students’ opinion of former prime minister Tony Blair sank as they listed more of his good qualities. Spouses offer higher appraisals of their partners when asked to name fewer charming characteristics. When something becomes hard to think about, people transfer the discomfort of the thought to the object of their thinking.” (44)

“Fashion, as we know it, was not written into human DNA. It is a recent invention of mass production and modern marketing. People had to be taught to constantly crave so many new things.” (49)

“One the one hand, humans seek familiarity, because it makes them feel safe. On the other hand, people are charged by the thrill of a challenge, powered by a pioneer lust.” (49)

“Creative people often bristle at the suggestion that they have to stoop to market their ideas or dress them in familiar garb. It’s pleasant to think that an idea’s brilliance is self-evident and doesn’t require the theater of marketing. But whether you’re an academic, screenwriter, or entrepreneur, the difference between a brilliant new idea with bad marketing and a mediocre idea with excellent marketing can be the difference between bankruptcy and success. The trick is learning to frame your new ideas as tweaks of old ideas, to mix a little fluency with a little disfluency – to make your audience see the familiarity behind the surprise.” (62)

“To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar.” (70)

“The central insight of MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable) is that people actually prefer complexity – up to the point that they stop understanding something.” (71)

“People sometimes don’t know what they want until they already love it.” (71)

“Repetition is powerful, not only for music, but for all communication.” (86)

“Most people love original storytelling, provided that the narrative arc traces the stories we know and the stories that we want to tell ourselves.” (111)

“Every great story is more than its plot. It is a self-enclosed universe of life, or as Tolstoy wrote, a vehicle for the delivery of all feelings from sorrow to ecstasy.” (116)

“Distribution is a strategy to make a good product popular, but it’s not a reliable way to make a bad product seem good.” (142)

“Plato proposed that laughter was an expression of “superiority” over a person or character in a story.” (146)

“Even the biggest hits often need the light touch of fortune’s tailwind.” (163)

“In this way, all hits can ironically sow the seeds of their own demise, as over-imitation ultimately renders the trend obsolete.” (179)

“If this makes the business of hits seem hopeless, then good. Making complex products for people who don’t know what they want – and who aggressively cluster around bizarrely popular products if a couple of their friends do the same – is unbelievably difficult work.” (180)

“The franchise strategy might be a prudent way to mitigate the uncertainty of the moviemaking process. But it carries specific negative consequences, both creative and financial. Writers who observe Hollywood’s abandoning of smart, complex dramas for superhero franchises have moved on to television. It’s not a coincidence that the “golden age of TV” coincided with the “franchise age of movies.”” (182)

“The blockbuster strategy guarantees that the flops will be spectacular – and, for film executives, devastating. All but three of the thirty biggest box office bombs in Hollywood history were released since 2005.” (182)

“The business of creativity is a game of chance – a complex, adaptive, semi-chaotic game with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics and Pareto’s power law characteristics with dual-sided uncertainty. You, the creator, are making something that doesn’t exist for an audience that cannot say if they will like it beforehand.” (183)

“Dealing with this sort of uncertainty requires more than good ideas, brilliant execution, and powerful marketing (although it often requires those things, too). It also begs for a gospel of perseverance through inevitable failure.” (183)

“There is no antidote to the chaos of creative markets, only the brute doggedness to endure it.” (183)

“The most successful storytellers are often collage artists, bringing together never-before-assembled allusions to create a story that is both surprising and familiar.” (186)

“Viral disease tend to spread slowly, steadily, across many generations of infection. But information cascades are the opposite: They tend to spread in short bursts and die quickly. The gospel of virality has convinced some marketers that the only way that things become popular these days is by buzz and viral spread. But these marketers vastly overestimate the reliable power of word of mouth.” (193)

“It became a hit not because of fifteen thousand one-to-one shares, but in large part because three celebrities had the power to share the video with a million people at once.” (195)

“A “viral” idea can spread between broadcasts. For most so-called viral ideas or products to become massive hits, they almost always depend on several moments where they repad to many, many people from one source.” (203)

“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.” (206)

“For many cultural achievements, the art itself is not the only thing worth consuming; the experience of having seen, read, or heard the art for the purpose of being able to talk about it is its own reward. Such consumers are not just buying a product; what they’re really buying is entry into a popular conversation. Popularity is the product.” (207)

“Vincent Forrest told me, “The nature of the in-joke is that it creates an opportunity for people to get to know each other. If a button says, ‘I like reading,’ there’s no conversation there. Plenty of people like reading. But a specific Jane Eyre joke is only going to go noticed by a smaller number of people who love Jane Eyre and can genuinely connect over something.” The smaller, densely connected audience beats the larger, diffuse group.” (210)

“People purchase and share all sorts of things because they want people to see that they have them. Vincent Forrest sells buttons to be worn in public. He sells 1.25-inch baubles of identity.” (211)

“An inside joke is a private network of understanding. It crystallizes an in-group, a kind of soft cult, where unique individuals feel like they belong. Vincent Forrest’s physical products are buttons and magnets. But what he’s really selling is something else: a sentiment that feels so personal that you simply have to talk about it.” (215)

“The average white American has ninety-one white friends for every black, Asian or Hispanic friend. The average black American has ten black friends for each white friend.” (216)

“Introverts, like all people, love sharing within their clique evidence that they are distinct from the mainstream.” (218)

“Wolfe said, “I’m a firm believer that a person can only be advertised so many times in the same format before they become cynical.”” (223)

“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.”” (223)

“Successful creations grow most predictably when they tap into a small network of people who do not see themselves as mainstream, but rather bound by an idea or commonality that they consider special. People have all day to talk about what makes them ordinary. It turns out that they want to share what makes them weird.” (223)

“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.” (226)

“Nine of the ten most popular stories have the words “you” or “your” which to each reader, mean “me” and “mine.” (226)

“Facebook is tapping into the natural narcissism of all broadcasts. One to many, we sculpt, smooth, and sand our life stories; mammal to mmall, we’re more likely to relate.” (228)

“Publicly, they want to be interesting. Privately, they want to be understood.” (229)

“If 40 percent of respondents say they are aware of a new show, and 40 percent of that 40 percent say they want to watch it, and 20 percent of that 16 percent say they are passionate about the new show, NBC can confidently predict that the program will be a hit. This is the 40-40-20 test, and it works.” (239)

“The value of a hit television show is greater than its ratings or its ad rates alone, because those don’t account for an even more important feature: their ability to support other shows.” (240)

“Even in the early 2000s, more than 90 percent of original series on broadcast and cable were renewed the following season. In 2015, however, the number of original shows has exploded, and now only 40 percent of them survive to see another year.” (242)

“In 2000, there were 125 original scripted series and fewer than three hundred unscripted cable series, or “reality shows.” By 2015, there were four hundred original scripted series and nearly one thousand original reality series – an across the board tripling.” (243)

“In 1979, twenty-six shows surpassed that lofty threshold (of a 20 Nielsen rating). In 199, only two shows hit the mark: ER and Friends. In 2015, none did. As television watching options expanded, the threshold for hits lowered.” (243)

“Imitation is not a sign that people know the secret of popularity. It is a sign that there is no secret, and the only thing people know is the last thing that succeeded.” (250)

“People are good at telling you their feelings. But they’re less dependable at reporting their habits or projecting their future wants and needs.” (261)

“Given time to reflect, people prefer to talk about the person they want to be, not the person they are.” (261)

“The greatest threat to newspapers wasn’t better newspapers. It was bad television.” (264)

“Merely considering something that’s “good for you” satisfies a goal and grants license to indulge. People say they want hard news in their social media feeds, but mostly click on funny photos. People say they want to eat greens, but mostly order greasy sandwiches at salad-serving restaurants. People aren’t lying – they do want to be the sort of person who reads news! They do want to see salad options! – but mere proximity to good behavior satisfies their interest in behaving well.” (271)

“There is a Japanese word “Tsundoku” which means the piling up of unread books.” (272)

“Facebook “will be probably all video” in five years, said head of Facebook operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”” (273)

“Culture isn’t just what people do. It’s also what people say they do.” (279)

“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.” (279)

“The best writers also knew to just do the work and forget, for a moment, that anyone would ever read their reverie.” (281)

“The paradox of scale is that the biggest hits are often designed for a small, well-defined group of people.” (285)

“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.” (286)

“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…” (287)

“People’s basic needs are complex, but old. They want to feel unique and also to belong; to bathe in familiarity and to be provoked a little; to have their expectations met, and broken, and met again.” (290)

“Hollywood thought that toys were advertisements for movies. Hollywood was wrong; the opposite was true. The films were proofs of concept. The future of the movie business was everything outside the movie theater.” (294)

“In 1920, there were no Sears department stores in the United States. By 1929, there were three hundred.” (294)

“In the two months after its 1938 premier, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the movie made $2 million from the sale of toys – more than the actual film made in the United States that entire year.” (296)

“Often, the difference between success and failure, he decided, was the quality of the people surrounding the artist.” (305)

“Ryan Leslie says, “If you want to be a popstar, you need a pop star’s top five. If you want to be a politician, you need a politician’s top five. Your network needs to match the quality of Obama’s inner circle, or Clinton’s, or a Bush. If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, the five tennis people in your life have to be better than the five people around Serena Williams.”” (305)

“Most hits bear the indelible imprint of not only their maker, but also some forgotten enabler along the way.” (306)

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