What makes things popular? Often, new stuff is popular, just because it’s new. It’s there – and it wasn’t there before. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better.

This thought struck me as I was walking down the street on the weekend. I walked past a razor shop, and saw a whole heap of brand new electric razors. All the latest bells and whistles in razor technology. Genuine improvement, genuinely better than the electric razors of two years ago. Two doors up the road was JB Hi-Fi, all of the latest and greatest in music, games, movies and technology. New stuff. But very little of it was an improvement. Some of it was simply slightly different, but newly released.

So, how do punters differentiate between the mass of existing ideas and products – they have a generic choice:

  • Stuff that is better
  • Stuff that is new

Thriller should be in the top album charts – always. As should Saturday Night Fever. Along with AC/DC’s Back in Black, and Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard soundtrack. They are some of the best albums of all time – timeless classics, incredible artistry, superb songwriting and incredible production. However, they are nudged out by the newly released such as the utterly appalling Susan Boyle. It’s the same with films; Star Wars should be showing in cinemas all over the world these holidays, in the top selling DVDs, but instead we get Chipmunks – The Squeakquel. Sales charts are dominated by the newest releases, not the best.

Broadly speaking, companies with a strong focus on technology, research and development are good at making things better. For example, electric razors, microwaves, DVD players, iPods, computer software all get better with every iteration. Computer games are the perfect example (in stark contrast to other creative entertainment) where sequels are consistently better than the previous product. They get better. People are used to the new being better, because these companies train their customers to recognise that new = better. They largely deliver on that promise.

Again, broadly speaking – movie sequels and follow up albums suck, but still find a level of popularity because they are new. Politicians struggle to convince voters that they have an ongoing bias for policy innovation – because they generally don’t do anything anything better, they do things that are new. When politicians do genuinely reform, where they do make things better – witness Australia over the past 15 years – it’s regarded as a rarity. The media’s love affair with many politicians is often based on them not being better, but being NEWsworthy. Restaurants don’t often do things better, they do things that are new. New dishes, new menus, new decor, new music. The ones that do it better outlast the ones that do new things.

Subjectivity does play a role here of course, so these organisations expend a massive amount of effort in convincing people that their new is better, even though it’s generally not. Politicians try and convince people that their new policy will lead them to a far better quality of life. The restaurants try and convince their diners that their new dishes are the best they’ve ever tasted. Movie distributors try to fill their trailers with quotes saying their show is “the funniest film ever”. Music companies rarely have releases that are better than things past, but they are just new, so they try in vain to prove that they are better: “Madonna’s best album yet”. They must convince people with all of their might that new = better.

So, why are things popular if they are only new – not better? why the hell do people fall for it? Because these organisations make these new products remarkable.

Three types of remarkable:

  • Remarkable: Different, incredible, reactionary, inspiring – genuine innovation
  • Re-Markable: Provides people with a new way of looking at / using an existing product
  • Remark-able: Worthy of remark and discussion due to an overwhelming story or point of interest

Some things have two of these qualities (Susan Boyle – fat competition winner that you talk about with your friends, singing old songs in a new way), some have all three (iPod – amazingly innovative means of listening to music in a new way that you want to tell your friends about).

If you can be remarkable, you can rise above the vast back catalogues of human creation, rise above the better, and simply become the new – therefore implying a sense of better. Not to say that’s better, it’s simply remarkable.

So which category do you or your organisation fall into? New or Better? Either? What steps can you take to be both?

KaZaA vs the world – digital downloads vs legal eagles

Sharman Networks, the owners of the KaZaA P2P file-sharing software, has been sued by a collection of record companies in a civil case in Australian courts. The company is under pressure as the record companies are claiming that KaZaA was responsible for rampant piracy and file sharing of coyrighted product.

At the same time, on the other side of the world, record companies are buying into and initiating strategic alliances with file sharing software companies.

“Share and share alike, I say”

How the hell do these record companies make any sense? They don’t! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – file sharing is the best thing to happen to the music industry in years. It has encouraged passion about music again. What is this Christmas’ hottest gift? The iPod! what do people do with their iPod? Listen to music!

The problem with the music industry isn’t that people aren’t paying for music, it’s that they keep merging and releasing less artists of lower quality – therefore people couldn’t give a toss.

As a side topic, part of the defence argument from Sharman Networks is that file swapping per se is legal in the US, where 98 of users reside. It’s an interesting point – it is legal to swap files, but illegal to actually break copyright laws. Let’s hope the Supreme Court of New South Wales follows the precedent set in the Betamax cases where VCR manufacturers actually advertised that people should buy their VCRs based on the fact that they could duplicate tapes. The court found that while the act of copying was illegal, the VCRs had a legitimate use therefore could not be made illegal.

Either way, it shows how out of touch the record companies are – they sue KaZaA and another one will pop up in its place: Acquisition, Limewire, et al. To paraphrase Princess Leia: the more they squeeze the more file sharers will slip through their fingers.

Sadly, I imagine this is how companies will behave as digital distribution eats their business model. Sue, block or lobby to stop their competitors from taking away their cosy business model and replace it with something consumers much prefer.

A New Medium?

Robbie Williams released his Greatest Hits album on Monday, which was released on a multimedia card (MMC) format for the first time.

Is it the time to get excited?

Well I’m not entirely convinced. The point is that MMCs can be put into Palm PDAs, phones and a lot of other portable devices. But then again, all EMI have done is sold an MMC and the encoded album on it with a couple of extras.

New media or same stuff, different day?

So why not actually just sell a downloadable version of the album with all of the bits and pieces on it, lower the barriers to pricing by not having to sell people the actual card and sell more? The thing is, if you make people buy a card AND the album then it makes it very difficult for people to purchase it without having a very involved decision – it more expensive than buying the copyright in isolation.

On the other hand if you allow people the ability to buy the album online and download it into their iPod and their mobile or their MMC or their MemoryStick then it can be cheaper and more flexible. MMC is also not used in a majority of products anyway? Why did they choose MMC over any other format? Why go exclusively to MMC?

They may well be doing this already, I don’t know. If it is one thing that is good, it is that in the UK, the album will find a new, huge retail chain (Carphone Warehouse) who are selling music where previously they weren’t. That’s a positive.