Think about recent chart toppers, from the latin croon of "Despacito" to the bubble gum cheer of "Call Me Maybe" to the country/rap mashup of "Old Town Road," and it's abundantly clear that hit songs sound wildly different. Does that mean it's impossible to analyze what makes songs popular?
While there's certainly a hefty dose of magic involved, according to fascinating new research from a pair of marketing professors, there is one common element that makes a song much more likely to be a hit. And helpfully for those of us who aren't pop stars, this insight can be used to grab attention and sell more stuff no matter what business you're in.
"You" -- but with a twist.
While researchers have tried to pin down the magic ingredient for a hit song before, Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger took a fresh, high-tech approach. As Berger explained in a recent Knowledge@Wharton interview, he and his collaborator, Grant Packard of York University, used natural language processing to analyze thousands of hits to see if anything in the language of their lyrics could explain their success.
Their results: songs that contain the word "you" more often are more likely to be hits.
You can be forgiven for greeting that finding with a shrug. "You" is such a common word it appears in tons of songs, you might object. Isn't it likely this is just some random noise in the data? Berger wondered the same, so he and Packard dug deeper. And the more they looked into this simple little pronoun, the more important it seemed.
First, they discovered that it's not just any old use of "you" that makes a song more likely to be successful. Instead, it's when "you" is the object of a sentence, as in songs like Whitney Houston's smash hit remake of the Dolly Parton classic "I Will Always Love You," or Queen's epic "We Will Rock You."
Then they designed experiments to see why the grammatical position of the "you" matters. It turns out it's not because we imagine Whitney or Freddie singing to us. Instead, the researchers discovered these songs remind us of times we've felt similarly. By putting ourselves in the singer's shoes, we recall and enrich our own memories.
"This gets to the core of why we like cultural products," Berger explains (and science confirms). "They help us see our own relationships, our own social connections, as deeper and different as they might be otherwise. When Whitney Houston is singing, 'I Will Always Love You,'... it causes us to think about, 'This is really an amazing, romantic song. Who do I love?' It helps us think of a close other in our own lives." Berger, for instance, gamely recalls listening to Houston as a teenager and pining over a high school crush.
How to make a hit in any industry.
If you're still skeptical, the lengthy interview goes into much greater detail about how the researchers reached these conclusions (it involved, in part, writing slightly different versions of their own best attempt at a catchy tune). But for those in a hurry, the key takeaway is both simple and applicable for anyone looking to incubate a hit, be it a song, product, or idea.
All of us, it turns out, are self-obsessed (yes, even you). Before we buy a product or click a headline, we subconsciously ask ourselves, "What's in this for me? How does this improve my life?" Adding "you" to copy of any kind, therefore, instantly draws attention.
"For example, if I'm reading an ad or a piece of mail or an e-mail, and a subject line says, 'You need to read this,' or 'You won't believe what happens next' -- think about the clickbait world. You often see a lot of second-person pronouns used in very successful online content because it encourages us to pay attention," Berger notes.
It's not just headlines. "You" can help hold people's interest in customer service interactions or how-to content, other research by Berger shows. Just be careful, he cautions, when troubleshooting customer problems, that you do not to use "you" so much that you imply the customer is at fault for the issue.
So if you want to become a pop star, use "you" a lot so listeners reflect back on their own life experiences. If you want to be successful in any other domain, do the same but without the music. The more you can use "you" to get your customers to think about their own lives, the more likely you are to create a hit.
Correction: A previous version of this column misspelled the title of "Despacito."