Good Art (or Tech) is popular because it’s good right?!?

February 27, 2014

When folks go to Paris, one of the things that they do is visit the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. After all, it’s an amazing piece of art work right? It’s popular and considered worthy of visits by millions annually and for being on the Louvre because it’s amazing, right? Or is it?

Popular = Good?

Popular = Good?

Princeton Professor of Sociology Matthew Salganik began thinking about this a few years ago. No, not about art, but more about “success”. What makes a thing successful? Specifically, he thought about how much of success is attributable the “inherent qualities” of the successful thing itself, and how much was just random chance or luck?

To test this idea, he set up multiple virtual worlds to which he invited teenagers at random to and they had the ability to stream 48 separate tracks of music. All of the music were from unknown bands so none of the teenagers would have necessarily have recognize them as already popular music and all the words had the same music. From there, the teens were allowed to download the tracks that were their favorites. The idea was that in these separate universes, if a track of music was inherently successful, wouldn’t they be popular across all these multiple universes of teenagers online?

Turns out, this is not true. Each of the worlds had the top tracks and where one music track is the most popular in one virtual world, it was 40th out of 48 in another. What Professor Salganik’s research shows is that chance/luck/happenstance early in the world, influences the success of the track and from there, peer influence takes over to lift that track of music to success.

I am tracking down this research to read in full because I think it perfectly mimics what I understand about marketing and technology product success. In my many years in the valley as a marketeer, I hear plenty, and have participated in plenty of companies where I was told the technology was superior, therefore, the company’s “win” was assured. That there was “inherent success” for the product. That is after all, what VC’s invest in in Silicon Valley in many ways, they invest in “good” technology. I think that is true because it’s important that there needs to be (as mentioned in Professor Salganik’s research) a minimum threshhold of quality. You cannot make a poor quality item popular out of thin air.

But what the investment and the teams fail to recognize is that success of a company’s product is sometimes a question timing, serendipity and I would say some marketing skills to lift a product into awareness and nudge the peer influencing that is required to make a product a success. Marketing is often under appreciated in its role to create a success out of technology. We chalk it up in the Valley that a product was successful because it’s good.

Really? I believe that Professor Salganik’s research goes far into giving credit to success to some level of serendipity and I think the power of the peer influence (that does not come out of no where, it comes from PR and marketing!) to make a good product a success.

Is there inherent beauty in the Mona Lisa? There are qualities of artistry and beautify there. But me, I’m never one to follow the crowds, I like to make the crowds. So I like spending time in the new artist wing of the museums and art galleries!


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