Two years ago I asked if crowds generated wisdom, or simply crowdiness. Today’s WSJ has a really interesting article on the same topic, concluding that popularity is self fulfilling and that arbitrary top 10 lists can meaningfully increase the popularity of the items on that list:
A more-recent study demonstrates that popularity in the music world, even unearned, breeds more popularity. Researchers enlisted more than 12,000 volunteers to rate and download songs from among 48 chosen for their relative obscurity. Some of these volunteers were lied to: At a certain stage in the experiment, popularity rankings for this group were reversed, so the least-downloaded songs were made to appear most-downloaded.
Suddenly, everything changed. The prior No. 1 began making a comeback on the new top dog, but the former No. 47 maintained its comfortable lead on the old No. 2, buoyed by its apparent popularity. Overall, the study showed that popularity is both unstable and malleable.
I think music and other entertainment sources are an interesting case study because in these industries the problem of discovery is quite difficult to solve for many bands/movies/writers etc, as well as for consumers, and these top 10 lists can help solve that problem. However, it isn’t just improving discoverability that is important, but also the perception of popularity of the discovered items as another study found:
Another group of researchers demonstrated this with restaurant diners in Beijing. Table cards at Mei Zhou Dong Po, a Szechuan restaurant chain, touting the five most popular items boosted ordering of these items by 13% to 20%, according to a forthcoming paper by a team from Peking University and Duke University. “Part of it is reassurance that something is good and worth buying,” says Bill Paul, a restaurant-menu designer.
Calling these items popular is crucial, the researchers found, because other table cards that highlighted five sample items but made no claim on their popularity had little effect on sales. And the diners liked following the pack: “Diners who were exposed to the popularity information treatment are more satisfied,” says co-author Hanming Fang, a Duke economist.
These findings are consistent with one of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion, social proof.
The WSJ article mentions another study where a hotel tried to get customers to reuse towels. Claiming that 75% of people who stayed in the same room as the customer reused their towels increase towel reuse rates by 300% over the control message as you can see in the left hand column of the chart below.
Like the hotel, social media sites, e-tailers and other companies that are trying to influence their users’ click paths can use claimed or actual popularity to get their users to do more of what they want.