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Published March 9th 2017

How Does Content Become Popular? What We Learnt From ‘Hit Makers’

Do you ever wonder why certain content and ideas become very popular while others fail to gain traction? Derek Thompson’s new book ‘Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular‘ takes an in-depth look at what makes a viral or popular product. The book doesn’t provide a secret formula for virality, however, Thompson provides a lot of detailed research on the key factors that cause content and products to become popular.

You can find out how to go viral here, based on my own learnings from BuzzSumo's success.

But here is my take on the content marketing lessons from Thompson's book.

Popular Products are MAYA — Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable

Thompson argues that the products that become popular are a balance of familiarity and newness. He quotes Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer, whose approach was summed up in his acronym MAYA — the “most advanced, yet acceptable” idea.

The theory goes that people are simultaneously Neophobic (afraid of the new) and Neophilic (attracted to the new). Thus new ideas, content or products need to manage this balance and tension. It is not the most innovative or advanced products that become popular but those that blend acceptability and innovation.

Thompson uses many examples where companies use familiarity including movies. Most of the top revenue grossing movies of the last ten years have been sequels or have been based on popular novels. There is safety and familiarity in such movies. It has also been argued that popular stories follow a familiar, if not a classic narrative arc such as good versus evil or a hero overcoming a challenge.

In much the same way vehicle manufacturers blend familiarity with newness by changing a car’s style every few years. Washing powders or cleaners have always had new and improved formulas for familiar products.

Familiarity makes you feel safe but Thompson argues there is also a need for newness. As there is a danger that too much familiarity, or too much of the same content, leads to a sharp fall in popularity. There needs to be a balance with newness and innovation.

Thompson argues that the MAYA concept also applies to ideas, as most people prefer ideas they already agree with or stories that they can relate to. Thompson believes that familiar ideas, or content that is simpler to process with less thinking, leads to more liking of the content. He quotes an interesting study where people were asked to either name two things they liked about their partner or ten things they liked. The study found that people liked their partner more if they were just asked to name two things they liked. When asked to name ten things it became harder and they rated their partners lower after the exercise. The same pattern was observed in discussions about politicians.

Takeaway for Content marketers

Content ideas should also build on familiar concepts but add new perspectives. There is a case for doubling down on successful familiar content formats but also updating this content and doing new versions.

Content Doesn’t Go Viral, Not In The True Sense

Thompson argues one of the myths about the internet and marketing is that the traditional broadcast model is being replaced by content that goes viral through social networks. The myth goes that you no longer need mainstream TV or an article in the New York Times, to reach a large audience.

Thompson argues that in fact very little content goes viral in the strict sense of the word. It is rare that one person shares content with two others and each of those shares with two other people and so forth, creating an exponential viral pattern.

Thompson says “Marketers vastly overestimate the reliable power of word of mouth.” This is not to underplay the role of say Twitter or Instagram influencers but rather they are in effect another broadcaster. There is little evidence that what influencers share then gets shared virally eg each person reshares and their followers reshare in turn. This is consistent with our analysis of retweets of tweets by influencers. Even someone with say 500,000 followers may have a retweet rate of only say 20. Thus they broadcast to their 500,000 followers but few of their followers actually reshare and fewer again reshare these reshares.

Thompson quotes Yahoo research that shows “the vast majority of the news that people see on Twitter, around 95 percent, comes directly from its original source or from one degree of separation.” This suggests the way content becomes popular these days is through broadcast diffusion. This is a combination of sharing by multiple broadcasters as well as by individuals. Thompson refers to ‘dark broadcasters’ whereby the content is distributed to many viewers at once by different broadcasters but where this is not immediately visible to people and attributed to word of mouth.

Many people argue that 50 Shades of Grey, which sold an astonishing 150m copies, was a word of mouth viral success. However, Thompson argues the author had already built a community audience and that the vast majority of the book’s publicity and success only came after the publishing deal with Random House. The New York Times ran a page one story on the deal within a week, the book was also on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and the author was interviewed on ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today show. Just those four broadcast nodes have the potential to reach over 16m people.

Thompson argues the historic level of success of 50 Shades was down not to word of mouth but to broadcast diffusion, with multiple broadcasts that reached millions of people. The book then became even more popular just because it was popular, which we discuss next.

Takeaway for content marketers

Look at adopting a diffuse broadcast approach to build popularity and awareness quickly. This can involve articles on major publications with large audiences and the use of high-reach influencers as multiple broadcasters.

Popularity Can Become The Product

Simply being popular can increase popularity, it is a tautology but it has implications for marketers. How many times have you seen the phrase ‘bestseller’ used to promote a book or author? Simply being a bestseller implies you will like the product as so many other people do. It provides social proof.

After reaching a tipping point Thompson argues that consumers do not just buy a product; what they really buy is entry into a popular conversation. No one wants to be the last to read or watch, so they buy to participate in the conversation. 50 Shades of Grey is a case in point.

Popularity is also used by algorithms from Facebook’s news feed to Netflix to recommend content, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy The process of collaborative filtering takes what others have liked and recommends these to you. Thus if ten of your friends have shared an article or bought a movie it may be recommended to you.

Thus in this context it makes sense for companies to invest to get on a popular list or to heavily promote a product so that it becomes the topic of conversation. This is where paid amplification works for larger brands.

Takeaway for content marketers

You want to gain social proof quickly. As a content producer it can be worth trying paid advertising to gain initial traction and social proof. It is definitely worth the effort to get your content shared simultaneously by multiple influencers and to encourage upvotes or shares.

Popular Phrases and Virality

Thompson includes a useful section on the power of creating popular phrases. In broad terms this is all about the power of repetition. Johnson sets out different forms of repetition used by great speechwriters but the core common element is repetition. The examples include:

  • Epistrophe. The repetition of words at the end of a sentence.

A great example is Obama’s ‘Yes we can.’ This was taken from his 2008 speech at Nashua High School South, here is just a brief extract:

“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes, we can.”

It is a simple phrase but became powerful through repetition. There many other forms of repetitive devices which include:


  • A rhetorical device where you repeat a phrase at the beginning of a sentence.

The classics include Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields.”


  • Repetition in short form triplicate.

An example is Abraham Lincoln “Government of the people, by the people and for the people”.


  • Repetition of clause structures to juxtapose contrasting ideas.

Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”


  • Rhetorical inversion.

“It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” John F Kennedy


  • This is simply, despite the complex name, the same word repeated over and over.

Tony Blair in the UK said his priorities were “education, education, education.”

Takeaway for content marketers

Creating a repeated phrase that you own and which is associated with your brand can be very powerful. There are many examples from great copywriters such as L’Oreal’s repeated phrase “Because you’re worth it” and Mastercard’s rhetorical phrase “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

Quality Matters But So Does Distribution and Promotion

Creating quality content such as a great song or a great article is not enough for it to become popular. There are simply too many good songs and articles around. Quality is a necessary but not a sufficient attribute to become popular. Nobody will beat a path to your door. You need distribution and amplification.

If you can advertise heavily to make your product familiar then this will help increase your product’s popularity. Thompson argues this understanding has led to unprecedented promotional expenses for movies. In 1980 the major studios spent less than 20 cents on advertising for every $1 of revenue earned. Now Thompson argues they spend 60 cents for every $1.

However, no amount of advertising or exposure can make bad content become popular. Distribution is a winning strategy to make a good product popular but it is not reliable way to make a bad product popular. Thus popularity requires a minimum level of quality.

Takeaway for content marketers

If you have high quality content then advertising and promotion makes sense to build familiarity with your target audience. I think there is also an argument for more regular content production to build your own audience, which also taps into the familiarity point above.

Community Distribution

Distribution is not all about advertising or traditional broadcasts to large audiences. The Internet and its social networks do provide forces of amplification, extending messages to larger audiences. Whilst it is rare there are examples of viral community distribution.

Thompson argues that a smaller, densely connected audience beats a larger, diffuse group. He uses Tindr as an example, arguing that it piggybacked on tight networks that already existed, such as popular fraternities and popular sororities that had relatively well connected and trusted networks. These dense and trusted networks are the closest to true viral networks where people will reshare. By getting existing connected networks to adopt your product you can gain from community distribution.

In much the same way the best opportunity you have for viral distribution is your own network. Your own trusted audience is more likely to reshare your content. In simple terms your network is your power.

Takeaway for content marketers

Look to make meaningful connections with dense, well connected networks, where you can add value. Also continuously build your own network and trusted audience as they are most likely to share your content.

The Reader as a Popular Product

Thompson says he has learnt from experience that most readers favourite subject is the reader themselves. We have seen at BuzzSumo how titles with ‘you’ in the title can resonate with audiences. Quizzes that tell the reader something about themselves are also very popular – as someone said, they’re like trying to pass a mirror without looking in it. In this way content about psychology, self-improvement and personal productivity have become very popular.

In some ways the very process of sharing can be actually about the person sharing. It is part of the process of defining who they are, the causes they care about and the tribes they belong to. In sharing them, they double down on familiarity and popularity.

Takeaway for content marketers

Can you create more content focused on the consumer themselves. Get personal. If you reach one person and they connect with it, they’re more likely to share it with their tribe.

Content Discovery

Thompson argues that in 1920s America the volume of book publishing created a discovery problem and new organisations emerged to solve this. These organisations curated and recommended content such as the best new books.

We have a similar problem now with the volume of content being published. The power of discovery has been shifting more recently from major news brands to discovery platforms such as search engines and social networks. Thompson argues that Facebook has become the most important source of news and information in the world.

Takeaway for content marketers

For many years marketers have focused on search engine optimisation and this remains an important content discovery platform. However, social platforms are growing in importance and are overtaking traditional platforms as the way most people consume content. So in the absence of content going viral you need multiple influencers to share your content. Traditional broadcast platforms from large magazines to TV also remain important in getting consumers to discover your content. You need a multi-pronged approach in the same way films are promoted in multiple ways through advertising, TV interviews, reviews, etc.

There is also increasingly a gap for trusted curators of content.


There are few mysteries anymore about what content is popular, which articles are resonating with people and which ones are being shared. You can find examples with the most basic BuzzSumo search, for example, the most shared articles about Donald Trump this week. The question is how you are using this knowledge to improve the popularity of your own content.

It is useful to reflect on many of the issues set out in Thompson’s book such as the MAYA principle, familiarity, and diffuse broadcast to improve your content marketing. Make it personal, connect with the right multiple influencers and tribes, invest in promotion and it might just go viral – at least in the content marketing sense.

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