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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine, where he writes about economics and the media. He is a regular contributor to NPR's Here and Now and appears[…]

Senior Editor of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, boils down the science of popularity. He suggests that the best way to reach as many people as possible is to appeal to their inherent outsider nature. Since the cultural mainstream is so fractured, you have to understand that – at best – you’re going to reach perhaps 3% to 5% of people. Because out of 240 million Americans, just 4% of that is 9.6 million people. Derek posits that perhaps creators shouldn’t appeal to the masses. Instead, he suggests, they should appeal to the niche. Derek Thompson’s latest book is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.

Derek Thompson: I think that we have a terrible misconception about popularity. I think that often we define popularity in a majoritarian way. We say that in order for something to be popular most people have to like it. A majority of the population has to like it. But think about this, if a book sells one million copies in a year it is a runaway best seller that by definition 99.5 percent of Americans did not buy. The biggest movie of 2016, Rogue One, the Star Wars film, made enough money for about 35 to 40 percent of American adults to have bought a ticket and seen it. That means the vast majority of Americans did not see the most popular movie. You could say the same for television. You could say the same for music that lots of things that we consider popular are not majoritarily popular at all they aren’t mainstream by this old-fashioned definition. Instead they are cults that culture itself is cults from top to bottom. It is increasingly in this moment now where the mainstream has been completely shattered and has been totally niche-ified that culture is cults all the way down. 

And I think that in thinking about this from a marketing standpoint and you’re thinking about your total addressable market, your total addressable market is not America, it’s not the world, it’s not any enormous group of people, your total addressable market is probably really, really small. And rather than go big with the general message that you hope is going to embrace everybody, rather embrace the idea that the mainstream is dead, that it’s all cults and that you have to find your cult and hit them very, very clearly with the message that is cultish that says you are special because the mainstream is wrong. Remember, that is the definition of what cultish thinking is it’s a positive rebellion against an illegitimate mainstream. 

So in order for people to feel like a message is reaching them it helps for that message to tell them not only who they are but who they’re not, how they are different, how they’re special and how the vast majority of people, how the amorphous mainstream doesn’t get them. I sometimes talk about this online in terms of online marketing as the Tokyo example. I went to Tokyo two years ago and a friend was telling me about how awesome Tokyo is said “There’s this great bar that sells amazing Japanese whiskey and also vinyl records.” And I was like, “What a strange idea for a place to only sell vinyl records and whiskey.” And he said, “Yeah it does sound weird, but remember that Tokyo is a metro area of 35 million people so even if the store only applies to .5 percent of the Tokyo metropolitan population it’s still an incredibly popular store.” So the Internet is Tokyo. The Internet is this infrastructure that is connecting billions and billions of people and you don’t need to reach all of them all at once in order to make something that’s popular. In fact it makes much more sense to try to reach .2, .01 percent of them with a message that is really clear and very specific and very special and understand that even if I get this microscopic percentage of the total address from market to love what I’m doing, that is popularity.