Note: this is a repost of one of my first Medium posts that I wrote back in 2014. The post seemed to resonate with quite a few people, so I wanted to transfer it over here.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on why certain products and people become popular. What makes one product more successful than another seemingly homogeneous one? Likewise for people, how does an influencer amass millions of followers on Twitter and YouTube when others struggle to get any?
It’s a complex question, and I’m not going into all of the detail here — but let me touch upon some of my thoughts.
Products change. Likewise, trends rise and fall. But the mapping of our minds, as put forward by Derek Thompson, is ancient, and the most basic human needs — to belong, to escape, to aspire, to understand and to be understood — are eternal.
All successful products and influencers play to these needs.
They’re forever replaying the anxieties and the joys of past cultures.
So you’ve just come up with an idea for a startup or you want to write a book, what are the principles, beyond catering to the basic human needs listed above, that you should follow to ensure they’re a hit?
Familiarity is a huge deal. Think of the most popular songs you know. Why do you like them? They usually share the same underlying formula for catchiness — namely melodies, chords, etc. Have you seen the famous “Four Chord Song”?
Thinking about apps for a moment, there’s a reason why the top gross games have reached that spot. Typically they are a new twist on an old classic.
Now time for an experiment. Do you ever wince when you see photos of yourself? Thinking “Do I really look like that?”. When we look at ourselves in the mirror each morning, we condition ourselves to think this is what the world sees; however, they’re actually seeing the mirror image. That’s why we prefer ourselves when we see ourselves in the reflection of shop windows, or why in selfie mode, it automatically flips it to side you’re most used too.
So when launching your YouTube career, make sure you stick to the familiar. Audiences don’t like to be surprised too much. Analyse what successful peers are doing, why are they doing it? What has made their channel addictive? This leads me onto the second principle.
Second, the MAYA principle.
Design for the future, but balance it with your users’ present.
Maya is an abbreviation for“Most Advanced. Yet Acceptable.” It was coined by Raymond Loewy (1893–1986) — who is often referred to as the father of Industrial Design and his track record is indeed impressive.
The Air Force One logo, the Coca-Cola bottle, the Shell Oil logo, the US Postal Service logo, the Greyhound logo, the list goes on — many of which are still in use today.
Loewy sought to give his users the most advanced design, but not more advanced than what they were able to accept and embrace. Loewy believed that:
“The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”
With this in mind, I wouldn’t recommend you launch a product that is too far ahead of the curve; people need to feel comfortable — it needs to feel familiar (the user has to be able to grasp and comprehend it). Here comes the hard part, it should be sufficiently ahead of the curve to feel novel, contain a surprise or an “aha”. People want to be pleasantly surprised with the familiar. Speaking of the familiar, since the dawn of time stories have followed similar structures, and telling your correctly is pivotal to the success of whatever your launching.
Third, tell a great story.
I seem to always be banging on about stories; be it the power of stories or the importance of founders being good storytellers.
You’re going to find it very difficult to launch a successful product or build an audience if you struggle to structure a compelling story.
I would recommend you check out Watts’ very useful “Eight-Point Story Arc” — a fool-proof, fail-safe and time-honoured way to structure a story.
Customers, audiences, employees — they all buy the why.
Apple didn’t invent the computer, Nike wasn’t the first running shoe, Casey Neistat wasn’t the first vlogger. They are all, however, great storytellers.
I’m not going to go into too much detail on this one, but just know there are a certain number of story arcs that we are attracted too. Stack the odds in your favour and stay pretty close to the tried and tested formulas.
Fourth, ensure you have a hook.
If you haven’t read Nir Eyal’s book — go buy it now.
The book is largely for those of you launching products or startups. The concept of a hook can apply to everything. Again, if you want to become a famous YouTuber, there’s a bunch of hooks you can apply. One that I’ve seen that works quite well is the hook of consistency — e.g. the audience knows that a video will be uploaded at a specific time of day or day of week, the audience craves fresh content.
These are just a few of the principles that I remind myself of when launching a product. I’m actually starting to apply the principles to YouTube at the moment, as I attempt to do a daily vlog (which is why I reference YouTube so much throughout the article). All-in-all it doesn’t matter what you are making or creating, the principles of what we, as humans, crave hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
Hopefully they help you, if you enjoyed this article please do recommend, and share.
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