Hit Makers

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 14 Sep 2017

Member Reviews

The most valuable currency of the 21st century is people's attention. So, how do you get it? Why do some songs and TV shows become hits while others are forgotten the second they're released? Why do some people become celebrities while others try to gain a following and fail? Why do some products get iconic status and sell out every time while others don't even make a dent in the market?

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson uses storytelling and physiology to try and figure the mystery out. In each chapter, he looks at something that became a hit, be it a book, a song or a movie, and tries to find the correlations, the things these pieces have in common. A few insights? Popular works are more familiar than original. And distribution is key. It's not about reinventing the wheel. It's about remixing the familiar and market it in a way that reaches as many people as possible.

If you're working on a project you'd like to see become a hit or you simply wonder how something you don't like may be loved by all your friends, pick up this book. It's a fascinating read.
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One thing that caught my attention about this book is how thoroughly researched it seemed. Derek investigates why certain works stay relevant while others flop. What is the secret sauce?

One key takeaway for me was that for something to become a hit, the popularity plays a huge role.

Derek systematically shows you how sometimes ideas need to be fought for to gain visibility in the marketplace; while other times is seems as if the popularity is instant

In summary, things don’t just happen. There is a lot of psychology and resilience that pay a huge role in the lasting success of a brand
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A video goes viral—or does it? Why did a handful of girls’ first names remain popular across generations and then “cycle in and out of popularity faster than summer dress styles”? Why was the phenomenal success of “Rock Around the Clock” (by some counts second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”) such a fluke?

Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, tackles these and a host of other intriguing questions in Hit Makers: Why Things Become Popular (Penguin Press, 2017). His book has two core themes: the secret to making products that people like and the reasons that some products fail while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits. Addressing these themes, he tells refreshingly new stories. And he offers explanations, occasionally in the form of models but, especially in the case of the greatest hits, often closer to “magic sprinkle dust.” 

I’m about to do a great disservice to Thompson’s book by focusing on two models. The first comes from a professor of marketing who describes the entertainment business as “a complex, adaptive, semi-chaotic industry with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics and Pareto power law characteristics with dual-sided uncertainty.” Sounds pretty similar to the financial markets, doesn’t it?

For those not familiar with Bose-Einstein distribution dynamics, it essentially says that “gas molecules in sealed containers would aggressively cluster at a time and place that was impossible to predict with certainty.” As a metaphor for pop culture, it says that “at some point in time, [consumers] will cluster around an unforeseeable cultural product by buying the same book or attending the same movie.” As for dual-sided uncertainty, in this case applied to films, “Hollywood is in the business of predicting what audiences want many years in the future, even though most people couldn’t say for sure [what they want], even if you asked them.”

The second model is one Thompson sets out to destroy as myth: ideas going viral. In epidemiology a viral disease “has the potential to spread exponentially. One person infects two. Two infect four. Four infect eight. And before long, it’s a pandemic.” Ideas, by contrast, do not go viral. Ideas achieve massive popularity primarily through broadcast diffusion—“many people getting information from one source.” Essentially, “one Facebook post, one favorable spot on the Drudge Report, or one well-watched segment on Fox News reaches thousands and thousands of people instantaneously, and then a small fraction of that … group passes it along again.” The better model looks something like this:

I must admit that after I requested a digital copy of this book on NetGalley I had second thoughts. Did I really care what made a best seller or a #1 song? Thompson convinced me that, yes, I did. So, even though this blog doesn’t exactly have the impact of a major media outlet, I can perhaps play a role in broadcasting that Hit Makers is a great book.
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Reviewed online in conjunction with several other titles; here is relevant section:

THE HIT MAKERS by Derek Thompson (2/7, Penguin) is already on our shelves. This work is a fun read for pop culture enthusiasts especially since, as the publisher says, "it leaves no Pet Rock unturned to tell the fascinating story of how culture happens and why things become popular."  Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, writes in an extremely entertaining and informative fashion.  Each of his chapters includes plenty of facts and anecdotes, often centering around a trio of related examples such as chapter one, The Power of Exposure, which deals with Monet, Adele and Trump. Thompson explains fluency (thinking that feels easy) and disfluency (difficult to process), noting that "most people generally prefer ideas that they already agree with, images that are easy to discern, stories that are easy to relate to...." Often, then "less thinking leads to more liking." Similarly, USA Today recently noted that Trump's repetitive rhetoric is a trick used in advertising. THE HIT MAKERS's chapter eleven, What People Want II: A History of Pixels, and Ink, uses tabloids, television and news feed to introduce tales about George Gallup and applied anthropology.  As he continues, Thompson mentions Steven Levy's "dozen doughnuts" problem, noting that if people think the [Facebook] News Feed is just a sugar bomb without any deeper meaning, readers might shutter their accounts." Did that realization lead to last Thursday's Building Global Community manifesto?  Clearly, THE HIT MAKERS is a highly recommended and worthwhile read, filled with timely examples; it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Links in live post: 
AND https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/building-global-community/10154544292806634
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Excellent book! Genius and to the point. How nothing really goes viral There is a reason why and how something becomes popular.
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Ever wondered what makes a song a hit?  Why do we like some songs and not others?  Why is it that some movies flop and others succeed?  Then you'll definitely want to read this book, Hit Makers, by Derek Thompson.  The author delves into the psychology of hits and all of the qualities that make things popular with us humans.  I'd recomend this for libraries where Malcolm Gladwell's books are well-circulated.  Great for curious readers who are interested in learning what makes a hit.
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I always try different genres, but this was one of those instances where the writing style and subject-matter didn't work for me.
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Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson is a very highly recommended examination of popularity of things and how and why they gained their status. This is an engrossing look at popularity. Thompson has a comfortable writing style that is full of anecdotes and examples. He creatively ties widely divergent topics together in a fascinating, entertaining format.

Nothing really "goes viral." There is a reason why a song, movie, book, app, etc. became popular. Thompson explores "the psychology of why people like what they like, the social networks through which ideas spread, and the economics of cultural markets." As he succinctly points out, people are both "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." So, Hit Makers asks two questions: 1. What is the secret to making products that people like - in music, movies, television, books, games, apps, and more across the vast landscape of culture? 2. Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Thompson covers a wide variety of pop cultural blockbusters ranging from and including Brahms lullaby, the impressionist canon (yeah, the Impressionists, as in painters), ESPN, Cheers and Seinfeld, Star Wars, Rock Around the Clock, Fifty Shades of Grey, Game of Thrones,  Etsy, Facebook, the laugh track, Vampires, Disney Princesses, and much more. Even more interesting is how he ties so many different hits together to explain what they became hits. One principle that governs almost all hits is MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Achievable. "MAYA offers three clear lessons. First: Audiences don’t know everything, but they know more than creators do. Second: To sell something familiar, make it surprising. To sell something surprising, make it familiar. Third: People sometimes don’t know what they want until they already love it."

The incident that created the impressionist canon took me by surprise, and yet it makes perfect sense. Thompson shows how "the impressionist canon focuses on a tight cluster of seven core painters: Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley - the Caillebotte Seven. When painter and collector Gustave Caillebotte donated his art collection upon his untimely death, his donation helped to create the impressionist canon. The power of repeated exposure, whether it is paintings that are exhibited or other things is a powerful tool in determining what is a hit.

What makes a song succeed? "Even at the dawn of the American music business, to make a song a hit, a memorable melody was secondary to an ingenious marketing campaign." Interesting, but clearly true.

I wanted to pump my fist and yell "Yes, this!" when Thompson points out, and rightly so, that "there is such a thing as too much familiarity. It’s everywhere, in fact. It’s hearing a catchy song for the tenth time in a row, watching a movie that is oh so predictably uncreative, or hearing a talented speaker use overfamiliar buzzword after buzzword. In fluency studies, the power of familiarity is discounted when people realize that the moderator is trying to browbeat them with the same stimulus again and again. This is one reason why so much advertising doesn’t work: People have a built-in resistance to marketing that feels like it’s trying to seduce them." I have experienced this many times over the years (mindset or grit, anyone?) Recently when the video for a women's conference kept repeated the name of the event throughout the video as a buzz word, all it did was annoy me and strengthen my determination to not attend.

This is specifically for readers. Many of you will understand: "When people read, they hear voices and see images in their head. This production is total synesthesia and something close to madness. A great book is a hallucinated IMAX film for one. The author had a feeling, which he turned into words, and the reader gets a feeling from those words - maybe it’s the same feeling; maybe it’s not. As Peter Mendelsund wrote in What We See When We Read, a book is a coproduction. A reader both performs the book and attends the performance. She is conductor, orchestra, and audience. A book, whether nonfiction or fiction, is an 'invitation to daydream.'"

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

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“Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson uncovers the hidden psychology of why we like what we like and reveals the economics of cultural markets that invisibly shape our lives.”

Thompson walks us through what makes people like things – whether those things are songs or movies or pet rocks, or even so-called politicians. A central thesis is that hit makers nail that tension between familiarity and surprise – at providing their audiences with what he calls an “aesthetic aha!” He explores the idea of “fluency” – that our minds like things that feel familiar and that feeling reinforces for us that such things are “right” or “true.” And apropos of these times, he finds that “less thinking leads to more liking” and that “when something becomes hard to think about, people transfer the discomfort of the thought to the object of their thinking.”

As you may deduce from my quotes above, I found real value in this book, and highlighted sections for later review. I’ve shared concepts from this book with others, and have even gotten into discussions with strangers on airplanes about the ideas in this book.

Really interesting & thought provoking. Highly recommend.

I received a free ARC from Netgalley in exchange for a fair & honest review.
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The synopsis for Derek Thompson's book instantly caught my attention -- not only does it point towards a phenomenon that I find extremely interesting (how certain books, movies, songs, etc. become popular while other just as good pieces of entertainment do not), it also is a book that deals with issues related closely to my studies. 

If you are like me, and find the idea of reading about how popularity is generated in contemporary society, and perhaps how it has been generated in the years part, Thompson's book is must-read!

"The thesis of this book is that even though many number one songs, television shows, blockbuster films, Internet memes, and ubiquitous apps seem to come out of nowhere, this cultural chaos is governed by certain rules: the psychology of why people like what they like, the social networks through which ideas spread, and the economies of cultural markets. There is a way for people to engineer hits and, equally important, a way for other people to know when popularity is being engineered" (quote from the review copy)

The thesis of Thomson's research and the way he goes through what he mentions as the influencers of popularity, such as the psychology of why people like what they like and the process of engineering hits are done in an interesting, well-researched manner.

Thompson makes use of stories, of famous events from the history, as well as some little less famous anecdotes, to highlight the critical arguments he is making. He never delves extremely deep into different media theories (which is something I would have liked to see once in a while) and this makes the book highly readable also for those who have no media studies/popular culture studies/etc. background. 

Importantly, Thompson spends quite a lot of time making arguments about consumer behavior and how certain behavioral patterns/practices have shaped the way in which producers of cultural products have acted. According to Thompson,

"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." (quote from the review copy)

The marriage of old and new, of familiar and unfamiliar, can be seen for example in the way previously loved movies and movie franchises are being adapted to a new generation of viewers. For example, the upcoming Beauty and the Beast adaptation will include elements of the old and loved movie (the songs, the story), but will also include something new, such as the live action element and a more independent, feminist Belle. Earlier in 2016, Ghostbusters was adapted to a new set of audiences but arguably failed to some degree (at least in the eyes of male viewers) by being too unfamiliar as a result of straining too far away from the original movie.

According to Thompson, the story of how a product is distributed is just as important as a description of its features. Due to social media, the distribution of songs, images, written word, and so on, has become increasingly easier -- everyone with a computer/phone/tablet and an internet connection has a chance to start a blog and publish their thoughts online, but not everyone gains the kind of audiences that would turn those blogs popular. In fact, it is quite rare for an individual to actually become "popular".

Videos of people singing covers of famous songs are in multitude on Youtube, but once in a while, megastars like Justin Bieber are plucked out of that multitude and turned into global phenomenons. While people often tend to have quite strong, either positive or negative, feelings towards Justin Bieber, I cannot help but to find the story of how he became popular fascinating, and how Youtube and other social media platforms really helped him in getting his name out there.

I am writing my master's degree about television comedy narratives and their relationship with the evolution of television from broadcast to narrowcast and from broadcast to VOD. While Thompson does not discuss this topic extensively, it was nice to see it mentioned. The phenomenon of how television has evolved from a screen in the corner of a living room into something that people can carry with them in their pocket is extremely interesting, and one that will most likely be the topic of several books to be written in the future.

Those interested in politics might want to check out Thompson's arguments about the relationship between Donald Trump and the press. While the rise of Trump will probably be analyzed by thousands of writers and academics in the months and years to come, I thought Thompson's decision to include a brief section of the topic to this book is very timely and will probably make a lot of readers think about the relationship between politics and media. Thompson writes about Trump and media in the following manner

"The GOP candidate with the least elite support, Donald Trump, spent less than $20 million on advertising. But he still won the primary in a landslide, because his outrageous statements and improbable candidacy were such irresistible fodder for networks and publishers desperate for audiences. Through the summer of 2016, Trump had earned $3 billion in "free media", which was more than the rest of his rivals combined."

There is honestly so much in this book I could pick up and talk about in this review, but at the same time, I feel like I don't want to give too much away. Sure, this is a nonfiction book, so there are really no spoilers there, but at the same time, I would like potential readers to have the kind of interesting and exciting reading experience I had with this one. 

Due to my academic background, there was a lot here that I knew already, but I feel like that didn't really take anything away from the reading experience. After all, one of the best things about reading about something you already know is seeing how someone else presents their arguments and how some theories and so on can be understood in different ways.
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Excellent book on what makes things popular both socially and psychologically; recommended for popular reading section of academic libraries.
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In his grandparent's home in Metro Detroit, Derek Thompson's mother sang him a lullaby in German. He later realized the song was not unique, but the universally popular Brahms lullaby, "Lullaby, and good night," published in 1868. 

Thompson asks, how did this tune spread world-wide? There were no radio broadcasts, recordings, or cable television to disseminate the song. 

It was brought to America in the late 19th c by immigrant Germans.

Thompson then turns his attention to art, presenting the history of famous impressionist paintings, collected by wealthy artist Caillebotte, and donated to France. These paintings by artists like Manet and Monet were the ones that did not sell; now these artists and paintings are now considered the core group of artists we call Impressionists. 

How did the paintings no one wanted to buy become recognized as great examples of art?

Can popularity be predicted, manufactured, or marketed? How do ideas and fads spread? Why do some things catch on while others fail? How has the information age changed how popularity spreads? 

In The Hit Makers Atlantic editor Derek Thompson presents interesting historical and contemporary examples of successful 'hits' that illustrate how success works.

I was captivated and fascinated by this book. The implications of Thompson's analysis has universal applications, including psychology, sociology, entertainment, and business.

Thompson explains that people feel comfortable with what they know--but familiarity gets stale. People reject something that is too outside their comfort level. Creators and Makers have to tweak the familiar to make it new, but not too new. 

Means to becoming a hit includes the repetition of catch words that make speeches or advertising memorable; building on an existing fan base to guarantees users; and popular individuals influencing millions through social media.

I will be mulling this over for a long time as I watch for emerging 'hits' and think about how they came to be.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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