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How to use popularity lists to influence your users behavior May 20, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, product management, social media, user generated content.

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.


1. David Scott - May 20, 2009

So a way to increase the average payment a members make when buying a virtual currency, when presented with $5, or $10 amounts, may be to say “Today 87% of people are buying $15”


“Payment options, ordered by popularity:”
1. $20
2. $5
3. $10

May be worth trying out both, if it’s self fulfilling the lie won’t last long.

jeremyliew - May 20, 2009

@ David

Might be harder for payment amounts, but could work for actual digital goods (or real goods); e.g. a list of Popular items (which might not be exhaustive, or ordered in any particular way). I’m not sure that outright lying would be a good thing.

2. David - May 20, 2009

I agree, lying is never a good thing. I got 15,5,10 from our current order. I was thinking that making this public may swing more people towards 15.

3. Cem Sertoğlu - May 20, 2009

Thanks, Jeremy, very interesting. I wonder if audiences demand proof of popularity, such as access to data or full, comparative listings, when popularity is used as a tactic in social media, where you have a data rich environment.

4. cHaUnO - May 21, 2009

“Payment options, ordered by popularity:”
1. $20
2. $5
3. $10

i agree with that


5. Ted Rheingold - May 21, 2009

Very, very interesting.

I can already hear John Vars’ first question: did overall sales of the (hypothetical) music store or the Chinese restaurant go up or did it just redistribute the same amount of dollars?

The towel example definitely creates a savings (and also confirms my suspicion that hotels chains don’t actually care about water minimizing environmental impact. 😉 David’s example also appears to be a winner too, assuming that too doesn’t even out revenue over the course of a year.

We have this dilemma quite often. Yes we can get people to do something we’d prefer, but can we do it such that there’s an overall gain, not just a redistribution of the same sum of action.

6. Alex Iskold - May 21, 2009

Hey Jeremy,

This is rich-get-richer, top digg users get more followers and first facebook apps get a ton of users principles. Its a phenomenon in networks known as hub formation.

You can simulate it like this: have a game where N original nodes are placed on the plane, then have new nodes come in and point to an arbitrarily selected node. After a while hubs will form.

What WSJ is saying is that anything can be a hub. I would refine that anything good enough can be a hub. Any one of the top 10 contestants on American idol could be the idol.

What are the implications then? Are you suggesting that having top lists is something that is necessary in any social / gaming environment?

7. David Scott - May 31, 2009

We have games which people can play for free or pay to unlock extra content / features by buying the upgrade. It may be an idea to put under the game ‘X number of people have upgraded this game this month’ Maybe merely seeing others are purchasing an upgrade will make others ‘follow the pack’ ?

We would of course not lie about X but we could chose to only display it when it hits 3 digits (showing a low number may have the opposite effect 🙂

8. How Popularity Influences Popularity : LLLL.com - May 31, 2009

[…] was reading a post on Lightspeed Ventures (a popular venture capital blog) recently about how being popular has been found to make you […]

9. How Popularity Influences Popularity « DNyap - the best of the domaining blogs - June 4, 2009

[…] was reading a post on Lightspeed Ventures (a popular venture capital blog) recently about how being popular has been found to make you […]

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