Saturday, April 5, 2008

Trends: neither heads nor tails

Fascinating post titled, "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" at Fast Company. In it, author Clive Thompson focuses on work done by Duncan Watts (a Columbia U. network-theory scientist on sabbatical to do work for Yahoo!) that shows how trends move through society. Contrary to the work of Malcom Gladwell, who wrote "The Tipping Point," and who posits the importance of "Influentials" in establishing trends, Thompson's research suggests that anybody can be the "spark" that ignites a conflagration of popularity. In fact, one of his research projects points to the almost random nature of hits:
Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Yikes. The reaction of older music industry executives, in Watt's words, was, "They were all like, 'I think it's bullshit. I'm still going to go with my gut,'" he recalls. "And I'm like, Okay, good luck to you. You're going to need it."

This reminds me, a bit, of the reaction of old-school baseball scouts in Michael Lewis', "Moneyball: the art of winning an unfair game." From the New Yorker editorial review:
The Oakland Athletics have reached the post-season playoffs three years in a row, even though they spend just one dollar for every three that the New York Yankees spend. Their secret, as Lewis's lively account demonstrates, is not on the field but in the front office, in the shape of the general manager, Billy Beane. Unable to afford the star hires of his big-spending rivals, Beane disdains the received wisdom about what makes a player valuable, and has a passion for neglected statistics that reveal how runs are really scored.

Lewis wrote about how old-school scouts woud go out and pick players based on some basic, observed phenomenon -- batting skills, running ability, etc. -- and then go with, essentially, a hunch based on which ones looked "the best." This is, to my mind, akin to looking for these Influencers that Gladwell and others insist are important to the hit making (ha ha) process. What Billy Beane found, though, was that all kinds of other stats were a better indicator of how well a player would perform as part of a team and contribute to scoring and, thus, wins.

I'm in a funny place, here. Because, on the one hand, I believe in the power of powerful ideas, influences and influencers. We've seen how trends can catch on based on support from a powerful patron like Oprah. But...

I'm also an old-school ad man. When I read about WoMM and how important it is to generate buzz... I can agree that, yes... it *seems* sensible. Let's try to get people who have influence to be excited about your product. But I also know, from having managed hundreds of marketing campaigns, that when you do the same, smart, old, right stuff... it just works. All other things being equal, for example, I've found that frequency beats size in print advertising. If you have the choice of placing 20 half-page ads vs. 10 full-page ads... take the 20 smaller ones. Why? The stopping power of an ad isn't important if nobody sees it, and people have to see your ad multiple times in order to even register the dang thing. Breakthrough creative is great... but you can't budget for it. Make your ad solid, get the basics right, and flog it like mad.

There's another post in here somewhere too... something about how the Wisdom of Crowds is more like the Random Influence of Crowds.

My title for this post reflects the possibility that while the Long Tail is great for finding interesting, niche stuff... the head of that curve is governed less by quality and influence than by... chance. If that's the case, then chance favors the prepared, I believe. And being prepared seems to have more to do, if Watt's is right, with playing to the bleachers as opposed to the box seats.

God, I love mixing metaphors.

Books and articles by Duncan Watts:

Watts, Duncan J. "A Twenty-First Century Science." Nature. 445. 7127 (2007): 489.

Watts, Duncan J. Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness. Princeton studies in complexity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Adamic, L. "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, Duncan J Watts." NATURE -LONDON-. 6929 (2003): 265.

Watts, Duncan J. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. New York: Norton, 2003.

Watts, Duncan J. "Networks, Dynamics, and the Small-World Phenomenon." The American Journal of Sociology. 105. 2 (1999): 493.

Kossinets, Gueorgi, and Duncan J Watts. "Empirical Analysis of an Evolving Social Network." Science. 311. 5757 (2006): 88.

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