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What Best Sellers and Box Office Hits Tell Us about Success | Derek Thompson

Decoding Popularity

Senior Editor of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, boils down the science of popularity. He suggests that the best way to reach as many people as possible is to appeal to their inherent outsider nature. Since the cultural mainstream is so fractured, you have to understand that – at best – you’re going to reach perhaps 3% to 5% of people. Because out of 240 million Americans, just 4% of that is 9.6 million people. Derek posits that perhaps creators shouldn’t appeal to the masses. Instead, he suggests, they should appeal to the niche.

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I think that we have a terrible misconception about popularity. I think that often we define popularity in a majoritarian way.

We say that in order for something to be popular most people have to like it, a majority of the population has to like it.

But think about this: if a book sells one million copies in a year, it is a “runaway bestseller” that by definition 99.5 percent of Americans did not buy.

The biggest movie of 2016, Rogue One, the Star Wars film, made enough money for about 35 to 40 percent of American adults to have bought a ticket and seen it. That means the vast majority of Americans did not see the most popular movie. You could say the same for television. You could say the same for music: that lots of things that we consider popular are not “majoritarily” popular at all—they aren’t mainstream by this old-fashioned definition—instead they are cults, that culture itself is cults from top to bottom. It is increasingly in this moment now where the mainstream has been completely shattered and has been totally niche-ified that culture is cults all the way down.

And I think that in thinking about this from a marketing standpoint and you’re thinking about your total addressable market, your total addressable market is not America, it’s not the world, it’s not any enormous group of people, your total addressable market is probably really, really small. And rather than go big with the general message that you hope is going to embrace everybody, rather embrace the idea that the mainstream is dead, that it’s all cults and that you have to find your cult and hit them very, very clearly with the message that is cultish that says “you are special because the mainstream is wrong.” Remember, that is the definition of what cultish thinking is—it’s a positive rebellion against an illegitimate mainstream.

Successor Trustee
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