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Akimbo by Seth Godin. Episode 5

Listen to this episode and read show notes on Akimbo

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Welcome to Hitsville.

We live in a culture where seems as though everyone wants to find a hit, buy a hit, share a hit and, most of all, make a hit.

But what exactly is a hit?

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Long time ago, a guy named George Zipf decided to count all the words in a bunch of books, add all them up, and see which ones showed up the most often. No surprise the word THE shows up the most, followed by OF and then AND. Probably you could guess that. 

What’s really interesting though is that the most common word shows up twice as many times as the second most common word, and three times more than the third most common word, four times more than the fourth most common word.

That in fact the one hundred and thirty-five words that show up the most frequently in a typical book account for half of all the words that are used.

This is called a Power Law Curve and I can’t because I’m using audio to describe it to you, it’s in the show notes at Akimbo.link, but it looks almost exactly as you would have spect. Like a steep ski hill with a really long run off at the bottom. That the ones at the top, the tip top, the hits, those are really high up.

And then it’s levels and levels and levels and levels out until all the way at the end you got words as ‘zoometry’ and ‘zoetrope’. They don’t even have to start with Z, they’re just words that don’t show up very much.

Well it turns out that this Power Law Curve is sort of universal. 

If we take a look at bestselling books of which there are a million tries a year with people publishing a book, we see almost precisely the same curve. And with movies and with TV shows and with items on the menu at a restaurant, and work your way down the list.

We know what hit looks like.

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A hit is something that shows up a lot more than anything else. Two times, three times, four times more. 

It turns out that when your book is a number one bestseller you hear it from a whole lot more people than if it’s number ten on the bestseller list. Because the number one book, according to Zipf’s Law, will sell ten times as many copies as the number ten book. That’s a huge distinction. 

So to start to understand this, let’s compare the Super Bowl with Thanksgiving and beer.

The Super Bowl is the most watched TV show in the country and has been for a long time. Why is that? Well, it could be for one of three reasons.

Either, people who don’t watch a lot of TV, all come together to watch the Super Bowl at the same time. I think that’s true. 

Or people who watch lots of different kinds of TV, add the Super Bowl to their list of things to watch. That’s definitely true.

Or three: people watch a lot a lot a lot of the Super Bowl. Well, that makes no sense cuz you only watch the Super Bowl once.

So it’s the first two. And it’s a hit because they got the people who don’t watch a lot of TV and they also got the people who do.

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Thanksgiving. What about Thanksgiving? Well if we ask about turkey… Turkey sales in the United States, they don’t sell that much turkey in July, and they sell a lot of turkey in November. 

Why is that? Well, it’s pretty simple. Because people who don’t eat turkey, eat turkey in November. It’s probably not true that heavy turkey eaters eat even more turkey in November. That’s unlikely. It’s a little like the Super Bowl. 

But what about beer? Well, it turns out that the popularity of beer brands exactly follows Zipf’s Law.

Let’s think about the best selling light beers in America. The number one brand of beer is Bud Light, followed by Coors Light which has half the sales of Bud Light, followed by Miller Lite which -yes, you’ve guessed it- has one-third the sales of Bud Light.

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What’s the secret? How do you make a hit beer? Well, yes, it’s helpful that if you go to a party, popular beer is served, because the host of the party wants to make sure that the popular beer, meaning the one that a lot of people like, is available. 

But in this case the third thing kicks in. And the third rule is: People who drink a lot of beer, drink Bud Light.

That’s essential. These people are called: WHALES.

Whales. Because, as you know, whales eat a lot of plankton. Millions and millions of pounds of plankton for one whale.

That, when you make a product or service that can be used a bunch, appealing to people who use a product or service a lot is essential.

Simple example: 44% of the people who use Twitter have never tweeted. Not once. So where does Twitter’s usage come from? It comes from the whales, from people who use it all the time.

Consider Glenn Reinhart. Glenn has an interesting hobby. His hobby, according to the New Yorker, is that he likes to return City bikes from busy station to empty ones. And what he does is he looks at the map of stations that are full, goes there, grabs a bike and rides it to a station that’s empty. 

He doesn’t get paid particularly to do this. It’s his hobby. Last year he did it eight thousand times. That’s a lot. He did it eight thousand times. I know you’re not going to have trouble guessing this, but yes, he did it twice as many times as the next person who’s busy returning bikes. 

So what we see is if we want to create a hit, we have to think about these three groups in equal measure.

So if you’re an author and you want your book to be a hit, let’s say it’s The Davinci Code, the key of that book, or a book like Eat Pray Love, is that the people who bought it at its peak, that’s the only book they bought that year. 

That the average American only buys a book a year. And if you can be the book that the average American buys, you have hit.

So that’s what we see often, particular in the book business, that we’re getting the rarest user but the reason that they’re buying it is that everyone else is buying it. That is a peel. They are buying it because everyone else is. It’s popular because it’s popular.

The second group, the group that reads a bunch of books, they’re going to read it, also, because it’s popular. Because of word of mouth, the circle of people around them has reinforced that this is the book that everyone is reading.

But as we saw earlier, in the Super Bowl example, it’s unlikely that your book is gonna sell more copies because people who buys a lot of books are gonna buy more than one copy of your book. That doesn’t make any sense. Books are read once and then gone.

But if we think about hit radio that’s not how it works. Hit radio is driven by people who listen to the radio all the time.

Now here’s an interesting surprise. Often we think that we’re selling something to people that are going to engage once. We’re selling to the people who rarely show up. But we’re surprised.

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Let’s take a look at the Broadway Theater. Broadway plays and musicals cost millions of dollars to put on. And millions more to promote and to get people to come to the theater. 

A full page ad in the New York Times can cost more than eighty thousand dollars. That’s just for one ad. It might be worth asking the question then: Who’s coming? Who should we be reaching out to, to get them to come to our show? 

And if you take a look at how the Broadway producer spend money, what they tend to do is try to reach tourists, people who are in town just for a little while. They run ads on the side of buses. They reach out to hotels and to tour groups.

The thinking is if you can make your play the one play someone’s gonna see the one time they go to Broadway, you’ll have a hit. Because if you do the math, it looks like there’s hundreds of millions of people to choose from. And you don’t need very many of them to make your play work.

But when the producers did a deeper look, they discovered something that was surprising, at least at some of them. It turns out that if you go to a theater, maybe half the people in that theater, it’s the only play they’re going to see. But a big percentage of the people in the theater has seen three plays this year or three musicals this year. 

But it gets even more dramatic because a significant percentage of people, 5 or 10% have seen ten or twenty plays this year. So when you do the math these whales, these wales are the key. Without them the theater industry disappears. Without them a play can’t make it.

Add to that, there’s a second kind of whale. Not just the whale who’s going to see five or ten or twenty plays this year, but who’s going to see this play over and over again. So a play like Wicked, witch is been playing on Broadway for years, is largely sustained by people who have seen it a dozen or more time.

So what does it teach us, as people who would like to make a hit.

Well, first we have to choose. We have to decide: Are we building Rocky Horror Picture Show? Are we building a cult favorite? Something that people are going to see over and over again. Because if we are, we should build it for them.

We should make it more complicated, more interesting. We should make it so the people can subscribe to it. We should embrace those folks.

If you think about how car brands like Ferrari or Jeep have built their profitable sinecures, it’s on the back of people who keep coming back again and again. It’s something you do on purpose. 

If you look at something like Twitter, it’s optimized for people to get hooked on it. Not everyone, just enough people.

The same thing is true with most social media. Which is one reason why there’s a real concern about their cultural impact, because they are sucking some people in, at the expense of everything else in their life.

Another way to build a hit, though, is more difficult but for some people really satisfying, which is to be The DaVinci Code. The one. The home run. 

The thing about this is it’s awfully difficult to do it on purpose. After the fact, we can look at it and say: Oh yeah! of course that was a hit, it was inevitable. But it’s not inevitable.

Every bestseller in this category is a surprise bestseller. It’s a surprise bestseller because starting from scratch, creating Harry Potter, Fifty Shades… Figure out which one you wanna look at, it’s not preordained. Yes, the sequel will do okay, but the sequel is a different sort of hit. 

And then the third thing we can do, the one that’s most likely to work, is the idea of people like us doing things like this. 

People Like Us Do Things Like This, is about cultural synchronization. 

It’s when you get people who are already into the medium, who already like books or TV shows or movies or restaurants. When they see that this is the next one. The one that people like them are engaging with.

If you look at the Zagat Restaurant Guide which has a fifteen-years run, before Google bought them, the people who have a Zagat’s guide are people who went out to dinner three or four times a week. These folks who are always looking for another place to go. And once they heard that people like them were going to a place like this, they went to.

So modeling this: People Like Us Do Things Like This, is something we do at the beginning of the process. Understanding that were not looking for lightning to strike us, we’re not looking to come up with something completely out of the blue, that would stun everyone, and became a worldwide sensation. That almost never happens. 

Sure, Psy has his video seen by more than two billion people. Pretty much, everyone with internet access saw him dancing in Korea. But you can’t do it on purpose. Even he can’t do it on purpose, again.

So I think we have to walk away from that part of hit making and instead figure out who we seek to serve. How do we create something that connects with a small, intertwined group of people. It’s easier than ever to do that.

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Well this discussion of hits would not be complete without a riff about Chris Anderson’s Long Tail. 

Lots of us have looked at Zipf’s Law and the Power Law Curve long before Chris Anderson from Wired Magazine took a look. 

But he looked at it differently than everyone else. He said: I’m not going to look at the hits I’m going to look at the other half of the curve.

You may record the beginning, I said that a hundred and thirty-five words account for half of all the usage of words in the English language. What about the rest? The other five hundred thousand. Well, they also account for a half. Each one a little bit, all added up.

What Chris discovered in the Long Tail is simple. Most limited shelf-space institutions, likes Barnes & Noble or Blockbuster or the local record store… (Oh, I forgot, there is no local record store, anymore.) Most of them have limited shelf-space. So what are they going to stock? They’re going to stock the hits.

So the Power Law Curve gets cut in half. All we get is the left part, the steep part. 

If you’re looking for Jamaican polka music, you’re out of luck, cuz they would have to have a million records in that store and they don’t.

But then the internet came along, and the internet said: We’ll stock it all. 

And something extraordinary happened. Amazon discovered that they get half their sales, half, in the Book Department from books that Barnes & Noble doesn’t even carry.

And back, when Blockbuster was in business, and Netflix rented DVDs, Netflix discovered that half of their rentals, half, were titles that Blockbuster didn’t carry.

And if you take a look at the iTunes Store versus a record store… You got it! Half the sales on iTunes are titles that would never once sold in a record store.

The Long Tail, it turns out, is inevitable when somebody with infinite shelf-space opens a chance for people to find it.

So Twitter is a long-tailed. Most of the people, half, on Twitter, who tweet, have not too many followers. But you add all them up, they have just as many followers as the people on the hit side.

So what should you do with this Long Tail information? Well, let me tell you what you shouldn’t do. What you shouldn’t do is seek to live out on a Long Tail. 

Because lots of products on the iTunes store sell zero copies a year, maybe one, maybe two. If enough people is signing two copies a year, Apple is happy. But if you’re one of those musicians, not so much.

So living on a Long Tail isn’t nearly as lucrative and powerful as owning the Long Tail.

As creating a collection of thousands and thousands of blog posts, or millions and millions of SKU so that people will find one, or two, or five, you don’t care which one, cuz you own the whole thing.

So I think in my blog which has never once, never once, had a hit post. None of my seven thousand posts have been the most popular post of the day across the internet. But when you add up seven thousand posts that sit there quietly in a Long Tail, every day somebody finds one. And the whales show up and they find a lot of them. Also, find with me. If they want to read it I’m happy to share it.

So we’re left with People Like Us Do Things Like This.

That when you don’t have a hit, yet, the option feels like: Oh, I’ve got to hire a PR firm, and hype and spam and promote. But maybe, just maybe, that’s not the right answer.

Maybe you need to find some whales.

Maybe you need to create a cultural construct to the people like us know about something like this.

Each of us, more now than ever, is capable of creating a hit. John Hammond and the rest of the gatekeepers don’t have the power that they used to have.

But making a hit is about more than just doing what the muse tells you to do. It involves thoughtfully analyzing what kind of hit you want to make. Who’s it for, what’s it for and how we’re going to talk about it.

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Where a creator will get into trouble is being confused about who she’s trying to reach. Because if you’re seeking the masses you’re going to dumb down your work. You’re going to lower the reading level, make it simple or obvious.

However, it’s not the masses that are looking for what you make. The masses aren’t looking for anything. That’s why they’re the masses. Welcome to Hitsville.

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Here are some answers on questions that came in about this episode.

Basically, when you’re hanging out on the Long Tail, when you’ve decided to make something specific for people who seek the specific, when you are forgoing the requirement that you reach everyone, you have hurdles, of course, but some benefits.

The biggest benefit is that people will seek you out. If you visit Record Store Day, -which is coming up, I think- you’ll see lines of people going to the record stores to buy the special releases. That’s because these records they are on the Long Tail. They’re not for everyone. 

So the obsession of the Long Tail Creator must be to create something that people on the edges care about, talk about, go out of their way for. Then it’s their job to spread the word.

It’s for the folks who make hits or want to make hits, it’s for Hershey’s or NBC or even Showtime, to try to find other channels to get the word out.

But people who live in the Long Tail, getting the word out doesn’t match on the budget, getting the word out isn’t the game. The game is to make something worth talking about.

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Your cause, your product, your podcast, your service may, very well, be designed to change the way lots of people behave.

But most people aren’t seeking you out. Most people don’t listen to your podcast, don’t use your product.

So the goal is to get the people who do use it. To have ammunition to tell the others. To have a story to share. 

That the way culture changes is not from the top down. It’s from person to person. People Like Us Do Things Like This. 

So when we’re more tempted to water down what we offer, hoping that will reach more people,we’re probably making an error.

At the beginning, especially, what we need to do is be more specific, more direct, give the people who need us exactly what they need.

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Of course, a hit makes it a lot easier to build a tribe. JK Rowling certainly found this with Harry Potter.

But having a tribe means you don’t have to count on having a hit.

The Grateful Dead only have one top-forty hit in their entire career. And it came at the end.

And yes, if you look at live touring grosses from more than ten years The Grateful Dead was the number one live band in America. How did they do that?

They did that because the tribe showed up. Because the tribe told their friends. Because the tribe got on the bus.

So, if you don’t have a lot of choices and you can’t count on a hit materializing out of the blue, the right strategy, the strategy that works for most of us is to build the tribe first.

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The definition of a hit and the definition of the masses get really confused when we were talking about a finite audience of countable individuals.

But one thing persists. That group of a thousand B2B customers or even five hundred they’re not going to move as one. Some of them are neophiliacs, some of them seek an advantage by going first. Some of them tell themselves a story that they are innovators.

If you cannot capture their attention and their trust you will go nowhere.

So the math is the same. It’s just compressed. We begin by being out in the Long Tail. Caring to the weird, finding something that the specifics will like. That say: Oh, yes, that’s exactly what I was looking for. 

But then, and it’s a big then, we have to have something that’s palatable to everyone. We have to build a ratchet into a network effect into it. So that, when a few people in the industry begin to use it, it spreads to the others.

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Seth Godin

Transcription: Maya Vázquez

(Corrections are welcome)