February 18, 2008
Online Buzz as a Catalyst and a Symptom of Popularity

Perhaps it is intuitive, but it's always helpful to have some bolstering studies out there. News came out earlier this month of the results of a study from the Stern Business School at NYU that, among a variety of factors studied surrounding the success of album sales, blogs and social networks are particular indicators of successful album sales.

According to Jacqui Cheng with Ars Technica, the study found that albums with 40 or more posts made about them before their release received three times the average sales; for albums with 250 or more blog posts about them, the sales were six time the average.

The question that I was wondering as I read through the piece was whether we should view this relationship between blogosphere activity and the success of music sales as a causal relationship or as a symptom of success. In other words, does this blogosphere activity act as a catalyst for greater sales, or is it an online manifestation of the buzz around a product and thus an indicator or symptom that an album is going to sell well?

Of course, the answer is that it's some of both. The number of blog posts that pop up about an album are an indicator of positive buzz being generated both online and off, but these posts also serve to reach new readers and further the buzz, not just act as a symptom that it's taking place.

The study also found a correlation between MySpace friends and success of album sales, although it was not quite as great as the connection between blogosphere activity and album sales. Vasant Dhar and Elaine Chang, who conducted the study, point out that the act of adding someone as a friend is a more passive activity than writing a blog post about an upcoming album, so I agree that it is much less prevalent of a symptom for an album's success. Additionally, although Cheng doesn't point this out, adding friends on one's MySpace page isn't a very powerful catalyst to reach others, while the proselytism involved in a blog passalong is much more prevalent for reaching a greater audience.

Finally, Cheng writes:

Despite all of this new data, a good review in Rolling Stone still can't be beat. "Although we found that user-generated content is a good predictor of music album sales, our analysis showed that traditional factors cannot be ignored," the researchers wrote. Music from major labels traditionally sold 12 times as much as that from independent labels, and the more mainstream media reviews an album got, the higher the sales.

This is important to keep in mind. I wrote last month about Bernard Timberg's concepts of "launch" and "rebound" texts. Timberg's theories, in part, are aimed to better understand the connection between online buzz and traditional media and how the two feed one another and act in conjunction with one another.

Can online buzz be proof of success? Some people have used the online buzz surrounding Ron Paul and his lack of mainstream support in his bid for the U.S. Presidency as an indicator that these trends do not work. After giving it further thought, I've been pointing out of late that Paul's presidential campaign is actually quite successful in the same way that album sales are, in generating revenue. While, in terms of impressions, Paul has not done that well on a national stage--in that, no matter how engaged Paul's supporters are, they still can only vote once. As catalysts, their abilities may be limited, especially since Paul is such a niche figure, with ideas outside the political mainstream.

On the other hand, as symptoms of a greater level of engagement per supporter, blog and social network discussions about Paul has been indicative of more ardent support, in terms of financial support in particular, as evidenced by the fact that Paul's campaign has continually brought in very impressive campaign funds relative to the quantitative size of his popularity.

For more on Ron Paul, look here. For more on the "Does Chatter Matter?" study, look here. The study is available here.