We are used to thinking that what customers like mostly depends on what other customers like. In other words, popular products are supposedly “better” than less successful ones, no matter the quality. However, the reality might be a bit more emboldening.

Gappy Interpretation

In 2004, a group of researchers from Columbia University launched an experiment that had greatly contributed to peer reviews comprehension. The scientists created nine versions of a website for music downloads and displayed the same list of unknown songs in different order. One of the sites was a control, while all the rest showed information about the tracks’ popularity measured by the number of downloads. The variation of “top” songs on different websites had turned out to be unpredictable. It made the researchers conclude that the decision to download a track had a relationship to other people’s recommendations. Otherwise stated, “what the market ‘wants’ at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history.”

Math Rules

The conclusions covered by The New York Times were highly accepted among marketers. Until scholars from the MIT Media Laboratory's Human Dynamics Lab revisited the original data. Manuel Cebrian, Alex “Sandy” Pentland and a duet of his graduate students – Galen Pickard and Coco Krumme – used mathematical analysis to explain the experimental results. The team divided the downloading process into two stages: sampling and loading. It allowed them to find that the number of people who would download a track after playing its sample was consistent across all versions, which might be indicated as a clear quantitative factor of quality. The difference in totals was only due to the decision to sample a song or not.

The Perks of Being Lazy

The thing is that decision had a lot to do with the way in which the sites presented the tracks. Though their ordering was determined by popularity, users might have gone by something other than social influence. People tend to pick songs on the top, because they are lazy. Here is what Alex Pentland, the Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Science, says, “There’s all this hype about new-age marketing and social-media marketing. Actually, it comes down to just the stuff that they did in 1904 in a country store: they put certain things up front so you’d see them.” Nonetheless, only highest-quality tracks would actually be downloaded. Moreover, eventually they crept up the rankings ahead of the low-quality ones. Of course, it did not happen in the blink of an eye, but it did happen.

Let’s Wrap Up

In plain English, the results of MIT’s study suggest that a high-grade product will find its way to the customer whatever marketing strategy your brand uses in social media. But this process may take a really long time, which depends on the peculiarities of the market. It means you can either wait (probably for ages) or do something to boost sales as soon as possible. Do you favor the second option? Contact us – The Loupe would be glad to help.