Nobody Knows Anything, or How To Make The Next Big Internet Hit

Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that “in Hollywood, nobody knows anything”. What he meant was that nobody really understands how to make a successful film. Despite all the money and effort poured into every movie, it’s a total mystery why some films rake in mega bucks and others flop big time. If there was a secret formula to making a hit, Hollywood would crank out nothing but blockbusters. In reality most films actually lose money. Every year it’s a small handful of mega-blockbusters that keep the studios in the black.

It seems to me the same principle holds true on the internet. Every day legions of people upload YouTube videos, Flash animations, and funny pictures with the hopes of drawing the masses to their website. Advertisers are also getting into the act, spending thousands or even millions of dollars searching for the next big internet phenomenon. Everyone wants to be the next Numa Numa guy or Elf Yourself campaign. A few succeed. The majority disappear, washed under the waves in the vast internet ocean.

Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking. What types of things draw people to a website or YouTube video? What are the building blocks of internet popularity? Of course there’s no such thing as a sure-fire formula for internet success (if there was, everyone would be doing it). But it’s probably fair to say that there are at least a few common threads that run through most internet success stories.

Here’s a few off the top of my head:

1. Entertainment value. The content has to hold people’s attention and make them smile. Of course, how you define “entertainment value” is another topic altogether.

2. Interaction. People don’t want to just watch, they want to be drawn in and, if possible, play along. The latest gimmick is to paste your head onto an animated character, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. The Numa Numa guy just had a catchy song that people could tap their feet to as they watched.

3. Surprise. Media consumers have seen it all. You have to give them something fresh and new to hold their attention.

4. Humor. Everybody loves to laugh.

5. Brevity. Our modern attention spans are getting shorter by the minute. Some of you may have already become bored with this post and moved on.

This is a short list and I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed. What do you think? What types of things make you want to share a website with your friends and family? Feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “Nobody Knows Anything, or How To Make The Next Big Internet Hit

  1. I think the one key ingredient your list needs that enables them all is PASSION. That is the passion of who-ever is creating or developing the video, movie, what not. Passion that does it because they care about it more then they care about making a hit movie or hit what ever.

    Passion is the foundation, they still need the proper discipline to make it work. Passion without knowledge is misguided, but passion with knowledge and discipline will draw people.

    When I read your posts Cedric, I like them because I can read the passion and focus you have at doing what you do. People can smell out instances where people are doing things to try to make a hit when they really do not know what they are doing or have any passion for it.

    This is where Hollywood seems to miss out often. When they make movies to make a hit, the movie has no soul. It is always a pale imitation of the the great shows that were hits and no one knew would be a great hit.

    I often think that making a hit anything is like pursuing happiness. You do not find happiness when you seek it in and of it’s self, but happiness is found when you are not seeking it. It is found when you are pursuing the things that have meaning to you.

    I have not even touched on the ideal of what committees of different decision makers do to the creative process, Oh boy. That is another big problem in Hollywood and it’s own discussion.

  2. In giftware we as designers were in the same type of situation.
    We had bosses who were trying to figure out what the next “Million Dollar” design was going to be and they would just try to copy what worked last time. This of course made our jobs boring, because we were just re-inventing the wheel, and they started to discourage us from coming up with “new” “unique” ideas because they didn’t have a track record of sales.

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