Insights People Book Club recap: What we’ve learned from Derek Thompson’s “Hit Makers”

Have you ever thought about why you like the things you like?

Or what the hidden mechanisms that are responsible for something hooking and keeping your attention are?

And how about the reasons why some songs become globally popular and you can’t get them out of your head, while others end up being forgotten? 

Derek Thompson, the Senior Editor at The Atlantic, certainly has.

In his intriguing book “Hit Makers”, which is filled with a great number of relatable examples and fresh insights, Thompson busts the myths of novelty and virality with ease and grace – fitting for the reputable journalist that he is. Indeed, he leaves no stone unturned while deconstructing possible answers to the question that’s highlighted in the subtitle of the book: 

How to succeed in an age of distraction

People’s attention has probably become the most valuable currency today. But defining what makes a hit and how things catch on is not easy. 

TL;DR: Key ideas the book explores

  • Although modern culture seems neotheistic, people crave fresh voices telling them familiar stories
  • Behind every idea that went “viral”, there is actually a whole broadcasting machinery that lead to its massive exposure
  • The power of repeated exposure is what often dictates fame, shapes public taste and opinion, and creates the canon (whether in art, literature, or some other field) 
  • People want familiarity (because it provides safety) but simultaneously they also crave new things, consumed by a “pioneer lust” (the MAYA rule)
  • Repetition is what brings rhythm and melody; that’s how – with the right structure – sounds turn into the music that has the best chance of becoming memorable. Inspiration, relatability, and suspense are the key ingredients of engaging stories 
  • Choices, economics, and marketing are the main three factors that define what you like or what is perceived cool

Remember when you couldn’t get Adele’s “Hello” out of your head? There’s a reason for that.

Just like his articles published in The Atlantic, Thompson’s book feels like an engaging and inspiring conversation you don’t want to leave. The author moves through a plethora of historical and contemporary examples to support his conclusions and arguments, and help readers better understand the essence of the story of how hits are born.

Thompson analyzes why some ideas and products become popular and why others flunk, but he does so by tickling our curiosity and encouraging us to ask new questions. As a result, we feel inspired to continue exploring. It’s like finding a new piece of information that’s fascinating or refreshingly new, and then going down the rabbit hole to discover the context and accompanying facts.

The book examines the phenomenon of popularity from two different angles:

  • in relation to the human mind and
  • in relation to the market

Chapters are intersected with so-called “interludes” in which Thompson describes his personal experiences that underline the accuracy of his conclusions and nicely complement the main ideas through compelling storytelling. 

The thing we love the most about this book is that it’s a work that can be summed in a Borgeisan manner (those who read “Aleph” will understand): multum in parvo, a great deal in a small place. It’s a book of a little more than 300 pages, but it has such great density to it. Don’t let that put you off, though: for all that it’s also lightweight and consumable.

Thompson uses vivid examples: from Claude Monet, Adele and Donald Trump to JFK, ABBA, NASA, George Lucas, Game of Thrones, Seinfeld, and more – to unlock the way we humans create and recognize hits, how we move and act as a group, how we decide to name our offspring and how we tell what’s cool. He digs in deep to describe why we love beautiful words and how we are enchanted by great speeches, why we adore some products and get moved by some ideas – but remain indifferent to others.

Who the heck is Gustave Caillebotte?

Have you ever heard of Gustave Caillebotte? He was an impressionist painter, although not as famous as Monet, Manet, or Cézanne. His paintings are stunning, but he has remained more or less anonymous in art history. Thompson writes:

“A mystery: Two rebellious painters hang their art in the same impressionist exhibit in 1876. They are considered of similar talent and promise. But one painter’s water lilies become a global cultural hit – enshrined in picture books, studied by art historians, gawked at by high school students, and highlighted in every tour in the National Gallery of Art – and the other painter is little known among casual art fans. Why?”

This is where Thompson explains how Caillebotte’s legacy (not least that he purposely bought the less famous paintings of his fellow artists) actually shaped the impressionist canon. His social status differed a lot from that of other impressionists and the fact he didn’t invest much effort in distributing his work both influenced the lack of popularity of his work.

But this is just the beginning.

The stories in the book are extraordinary and eye-opening. Suddenly, you know a bit more about the invisible forces that make us all act the way we do, and that’s the thing “Hit Makers” leaves you with.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to reveal too much: nobody likes spoilers, right?

A book perfect for curious minds who don’t understand how Trump got elected

We feel that Derek Thompson’s “Hit Makers” is a book that requires only one thing from its reader: curiosity spiced with thirst for information and context. 

From a practical point of view, there are plenty of interesting facts and pointers that would certainly be useful to product developers, marketers, journalists, and all those looking to understand what attention is, and what people tend to respond to.

One of the most exciting and valuable parts of the book lies in the following: it gives the reader a chance to look behind the curtain, to understand the science and logic of our behavior.

People whose job is (at least in part) to sell something or to build relationships with their target group would certainly benefit from understanding the concept of MAYA (most-advanced-yet-acceptable), or how exposure and distribution matter, or how something simple as repetition can make people listen. 

This book is both a pleasure to read and a powerful sum of knowledge that can be actionable. It can change the way you perceive things and you will certainly feel like you “leveled up” in a way, after reading it.    

About Insights People Book Club

There are a lot of bookworms at Content Insights and we’re proud of that. We feel that the culture of reading is important: it helps us stay sharp and curious, it encourages to learn and think differently. Books connect us and they imply a precious type of communication that’s unique to the experience of reading: the conversation between one human being and the other, through the written word. This is why we built an internal library that continues to grow.

Enjoyed this? Insights People suggest these to read next

If you are interested in learning even more about the human psychology, how things become popular and why, we would certainly recommend the following books:

  • Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tipping Point”
  • Jonah Berger, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On”

There are plenty of additional ones, of course. But we feel these make a great choice for further reading in case you want to focus on this topic, get to know different ideas from this field and explore how they overlap and intersect – or not.

So, what are your thoughts? Have you perhaps read “Hit Makers” already? Or are you now intrigued to read it? Believe us when we say: it’s a national bestseller for a reason.

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