A media blitz is often seen as a key step in a successful product launch. This view accounts for the current excitement around the use of social media strategies in marketing: the hope that lots of early digital "buzz" will influence people's buying decisions, pushing the new product past its competition. But does this really work? And if so, how?

Several years ago, a unique online music database, MusicLab, was set up to examine experimentally just these sorts of questions. [1] In the original MusicLab study, around 14,000 people sampled 48 pop songs and could download any of the songs they liked. One of the significant findings from this work was that songs that became popular right away had a large advantage over the others, a classic example of the first-mover advantage. But what was really happening here?

More recently, my research group has taken a closer look at the MusicLab data to understand more precisely how people were influenced by other people's choices. [2] From this re-examination, a more nuanced view of how social networks confer advantage emerges. While it is true that feedback from others can lend an initial popularity boost to songs, this advantage is often short-lived. More specifically, we found that social cues did influence people to listen to samples of songs, but not necessarily to take the next step and then download the songs. In other words, social cues could convince you to take a look - do a little window shopping - but didn't necessarily make you go in the store and buy something. 

Then what does push a song to the top of the download list and keep it there? The answer appears to be a reassuring one: quality. Initial popularity is not necessarily an indicator of eventual market share because quality tends to win in the end. This was the case in the MusicLab simulation and there are many examples of this, both in music and in other products. Anyone remember the Yugo? The car had a great wave of popularity when it was first introduced in the U.S. in 1985, with people buying the cars sight unseen. Sales of the car quickly slumped, however, as drivers discovered that nearly everything about the car was defective. The Yugo was undone by its poor quality.                                                                 

In the realm of music, examples of quality winning over initial popularity also abound. The brief phenomenon of the duo Milli Vanilli exemplifies this well. Milli Vanilli was one of the most popular pop groups of the late 1980s - until it was revealed that the duo did not sing the lead vocals on their own record. The two later released an album, again with lots of press, but using their actual voices. It was a commercial failure - a good example of lots of "buzz" with no quality to back it up in the long run.

To sum it up, social media strategies do have a place in marketing, but they may not achieve exactly what many marketing departments had hoped originally. In this current experiment, social influences appear to serve more of an informational role (i.e., should I stop and take a look?) rather than a predictive role (i.e., will I enjoy this product?). And, thankfully, quality does seem to win in the end.

[1] Salganik, M.J., Dodds, P.S., & Watts, D.J. Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market. Science 311 (2006).

[2] Krumme, K., Pickard,G., Cebrian, M. & Pentland, A. A model of social influence in markets for cultural products. PLoS (2011).

[3] Vuic, Jason. The Yugo: The rise and fall of the worst car in history. Macmillan, 2010.

About the Authors

Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland

Alex "Sandy" Pentland has founded more than a dozen companies and social institutions. He directs the MIT Human Dynamics Lab and the Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.

Tracy Heibeck, Ph.D.

Tracy Heibeck, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and award-winning science writer.

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