Popularity Matters – Ignore It At Your Own Peril

The web was not initially created to be a popularity contest.  And yet in many ways it has evolved into that because the digital world is merely a reflection of the physical.

I’m not anymore a fan that this is the reality of the web (and the world) as you are, but better to accept it and know how to make it work for you than pretend it doesn’t exist.

Consider…

  • We create online ranking lists, superlatives and awards because as a society we were trained to do that in the physical world.
  • Some obsess over number of followers, fans and subscribers not for the social proofing application but merely to outdo a competitor, similar to brands trying to one-up each other for bragging rights.
  • A factor Google uses to rank web pages is links, which are in a sense popularity (more popular web pages inevitably get more links).
  • Like lemmings, many run to new networks with no real purpose other than that fact they’re becoming popular.
  • You need to be a popular Digg user to submit a story that goes popular as just one example (several communities are like this).
  • Many are conditioned to share content merely because it’s published by a popular person or site (think about how you can make this happen for your content).

While popularity is not trust, it is still advantageous:  you should orchestrate your own rise to popularity.  Whether you’re a company, an artist, marketer or a blogger – anyone who wants to have their ideas heard – you stand to benefit greatly:

Popular people/brands/ideas/stories/content get referenced

The web is a referential medium – we link, source and credit quite easily.  How many times do you hear Comcast or Dell’s Twitter success story referenced?  Exactly.  In a sense, these brands being tagged to their success is worth even more than any outcomes from using the service.

Companies are organizing around the tail

Demand Media’s answer factory produces content fast, cheap and profitable as hell.  They have organized a business model around the long tail of search and are not the only ones.  Now that every company is a media company if you don’t want to lose rankings to those pumping out cheap content to win mildly popular but important search phrases, your own digital media outlet (blog, newsroom, etc) must be somewhat popular.

As an aside, I find the business digital divide fascinating:  there are media companies sophisticated enough to actually structure themselves around a social media and SEO driven world alongside others clinging to the past.

As search engines and social sites innovate together, popularity may be a factor

Search engines and social sites are already integrating in meaningful ways today.  There are opportunities for mutual benefit by working together and so this trend may accelerate.  The social sites we are on know quite a bit of detail about us and our web activity, including user popularity.  With the rise in personalized search and social search integration a reality, greater popularity could be a factor for your brand to win the search results of tomorrow.

Popular brands have advocates

If I wrote a post titled “Apple Sucks” I’d be subjected to a barrage of upset commenters.  The brand has an resting army of advocates waiting to pounce when someone speaks negatively.  In many cases, popular brands have their reputation management issues handled for them.

Being popular helps you create buzz

Buzz is a vital element of digital PR.  And by being popular enough to have an audience you’re already positioned to set viral content on fire.

Popular brands court attention

A quote from Robert Greene’s artful 48 Laws of Power solidifies the importance of this:

Everything is judged by its appearance; what is unseen counts for nothing.  Never let yourself get lost in the crowd, then, or buried in oblivion.  Stand out.  Be conspicuous, at all cost.  Make yourself a magnet of attention by appearing larger, more colorful, more mysterious, than the bland and timid masses.

Remember, you don’t need massive numbers to be popular

The real value of your network is not based on raw numbers, you just need to be popular among the right group.  Look at how Louis Gray has made himself popular among many technology and marketing bloggers.  And for it, we promote him.  Louis has both trust and popularity – a potent combination.

That’s the why.  The how?  Subscribe if you’re not already a reader, I’ll revisit this in the future.

Robert Scoble