Marketing Research Snapshot: Why Some Songs Become Hits

by Diana Drake

What is your image of a Wharton School professor? Hours spent in front of collegiate classrooms teaching finance to Wall Street-bound students?

That’s only part of the story. While Wharton began as a finance school, it has grown in many ways. Wharton has 12 academic departments and 250 faculty members who specialize in all areas of business, from advertising and entrepreneurship, to wage inequality and zoning regulations.

What’s more, Wharton professors don’t spend all their time in the classroom. They instead conduct hours of research and produce knowledge for other faculty around the world to teach to their students. That knowledge also helps improve the way businesses operate and people live in society.

Combine that broad business focus (well beyond finance) and a passion for experimentation and observation, and you’re bound to get some unique and powerful business-related intel. Recent published research by Wharton’s Jonah Berger definitely qualifies.

Dr. Jonah Berger studies behavioral insights from text.

Dr. Berger, an associate professor of marketing, is an expert in studying and communicating how products, behaviors and ideas catch on. Questions he researches include: Why do some products catch on and become popular while others fail? Why do apps and services take off while others languish? And why do certain ads, messages, or ideas stick in memory, while others disappear the minute you hear them?

His latest paper, “Thinking of You: How Second-person Pronouns Shape Cultural Success,” reveals information that could help marketers craft more enticing messages in advertising and other customer outreach. It’s part of a larger study into how precise language affects consumer behavior, with implications for marketing, sales and customer service.

With the help of our sister publication Knowledge@Wharton, here are 7 insights from Dr. Berger’s research, which he conducted with Grant Packard, marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. Listen to the full podcast for more of their “wisdom from words.”

  1. Understanding Jonah Berger’s research begins with natural language processing, which means to extract insights about how people behave from textual data (the words). He explains it like this: “Everything we do — from this interview we’re recording, conversations we have with friends and family members, reviews we leave online, customer services calls, songs we listen to, articles we read — contains language. There’s a really exciting opportunity now to mine some of this data for behavioral insight to understand why songs or movies succeed, to understand why some customer service calls go better than others, and to use language to be more effective.”
  1. Berger and Packard’s research started with a simple question: Why do some songs become hits?
  1. Their hypothesis: The success of a lot of popular songs boils down to one simple word: the pronoun “you.” “Songs use this word often,” said Berger. “Think about Whitney Houston’s famous song, “I Will Always Love You.” Think about Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” What we saw in preliminary analysis was the word “you” seemed to be linked to success. Songs that said “you” more often…seemed to be more successful. We started wondering, why might that be?”
  1. The process of studying and experimenting helped Berger arrive at informed conclusions. “We started doing different analyses to try to figure it out. For example, we started with a data set of around 2,000 songs over three years,” said Berger. “We went to the Billboard charts, scraped what songs were popular in different years and controlled for a variety of things like radio airplay, genre, artists and the content. We found that songs with more “you” were more successful…then we also did some experiments. We asked a number of people in an experiment, ‘Think about a song that you’ve heard recently, and think about how much you like that song.’ Then we went ahead and grabbed the lyrics to those songs and counted the number of “you’s” that appeared…What’s neat about work like this is, we’re not sitting there manually counting the number of you’s. We’re using natural language processing, automated textual analysis, to count it for us. We use scripts that run through the data.”
  1. The research revealed that songs with the word “you” weren’t necessarily successful because they made us feel good inside, as if the singer was speaking directly to us. Instead, “when we hear a song like “I Will Always Love You”…we think about someone in our own life that we feel that way toward,” explained Berger. “I think this is quite interesting because this gets to the core of why we like cultural products…They help us see our own relationships, our own social connections, as deeper and different as they might be otherwise.”
  1. The word “you” can drive action, concluded Berger. If I’m a songwriter, the number of “you’s” may impact whether or not my song is successful. If I’m a music producer thinking about investing in a particular artist, this might be useful to understand. Beyond the music industry, I think this has a lot of interesting implications. There’s other work showing that the word “you” can increase attention…You often see a lot of second-person pronouns used in very successful online content because it encourages us to pay attention.”
  1. Led by academic research, the business world is catching on to the wisdom of words. “Many companies now are doing some version of what we call social listening — listening to the chatter on social media about products and brands and services, and mining that for insight,” noted Berger. “I think this [research] opens up a lot of avenues to study language and cultural items.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

How do professors — at Wharton and other colleges and universities — spend much of their time? What is research?

What is natural language processing and how does it apply to business?

Do you agree that your favorite songs (especially those that use “you”) help you see your own relationships and social connections as deeper and different? Do they inspire you to think about connections in your own life?

2 comments on “Marketing Research Snapshot: Why Some Songs Become Hits

  1. No matter who you are, you know your opinion matters right?
    According to the article, this sentence above is my key to becoming successful, as the use of “you” encourages readers “to pay attention”. But of course, it also represents my perspective: I believe that words and languages from everyone matters. Acknowledging the impact of language and culture leads to marketing successes, perceived from one of the suggested results from Dr Berger and Professor Packard’s research paper, “Thinking of You: How Second-person Pronouns Shape Cultural Success.”
    Marketing deals with creating consumer’s needs and wants of products, and the first step is to attract. When “you” was mentioned, the first advertisement with “you” that pops into my head was the “I Want You for US Army” poster. This is an enormously successful marketing advertisement, where imitations have always been created and the impact of the slogan “I Want You” has never been reduced. The success could be related to how the use of “you” and the pointing figure attracts the audience, wherein this comment, “you”, will be discussed.
    In the article’s research, songs are the product analyzed. Dr Berger starts with a hypothesis that the “success of a lot of popular songs boils down to one simple word: the pronoun ‘you.’” This research reveals that the lyric “you” gives the listener the impression that “the singer was speaking directly to us”. It creates the link between the song and the listener as they think about their own life whilst the music is playing, allowing the listener to relate to the lyrics, believe in it, and be attracted to it, resulting in hit songs.
    Talking about the most recent cultural success in music, the miracle of BTS should not be ignored. This Kpop band with 7 Korean members became unimaginably successful globally, and they didn’t even release a single full English song before they hit the States. I started to be curious about why? Is their success related to the use of “you” as well? The result is: Yes, and they prove exactly how language in cultural products matters, not the language (Korean or English) itself, but the way of expression and communication, the way of how it reflects ourselves.
    BTS gained their first win with their song “I Need U”, which “U” means “You”. Except for the song name, the chorus in the song has a repetition of the lyric “you”. This supports Dr Berger’s research on how “you” can lead to success. Looking more closely at their rise, BTS was releasing their second album series, the “Hwa Yang Yeon Hwa” (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life or HYYH) era, and it was one of their most famous album series. After researching the lyrics, I found a surprising result: every song in this series has the lyric “you” in it. I did not expect this result, and it allows me to understand the impact of using “you” in the language to create relationships with the audience.
    Additionally, the whole HYYH series illustrates stories that a teenager faces, from friendship, love, and rebellion. These experiences aren’t unique to Koreans but are the same for everyone. With the lyrics portraying the member’s story, listeners saw themselves in it, creating resonance. Just as Dr Berger identifies the core of cultural products, it “helps us see our own relationships, our own social connections, as deeper and different as they might be otherwise” therefore, this series became a massive success in Korea and started their international domination. The album’s success was a matter of course, according to Dr Berger’s research.
    They repeat their success at a higher level with their next series, “Love Yourself”, which talks mainly about self-love and self-reflection, again allowing listeners from all around the world to relate with the songs. The continued success of BTS proves how words and the connection of hearts are the keys to success.
    However, it is easy to mistake that by using “you” in your marketing campaigns, then you will succeed. With millions and billions of songs worldwide having the lyric “you”, is every one of them successful? NO! This is not the case! With my reinforced idea of connecting with the audience, the audience’s linkage to the advertisement is the actual reason for a successful marketing campaign. The use of “you” is just a shortcut to this pathway of success.
    According to the article, “the business world is catching on to the wisdom of words”. It shows how business companies realize the importance of studying language and culture to succeed. As mentioned above, studying language is not simply learning different languages, but how a particular word could pick up a specific emotion and represent the whole human society. It is the tool to allow readers to understand and relate. But talking about culture, globalization nowadays merges different cultures and will gradually unify geographical cultures, separating different cultures in another way.
    Social media could be one of the main reasons for the rapid global growth. The importance of understanding culture to understand and relate to people is also supported by how Dr Berger mentioned that firms have been doing “social listening” nowadays, which is “listening to the chatter on social media about products and brands and services, and mining that for insight”. This shows how opinion gathers to form trends and values, which leads to the formation of culture. Businesses have to catch the opinion trend to prepare to launch related marketing campaigns relating to the mass before that culture becomes mainstream, gaining the first-leader competitive advantage.
    All trends come and go, but the core of creating a hit product remains the same. From the “I Want You” Poster to the discovery of “you” being the reason behind the success, it all points to one thing: Regardless of what is the current trend, the real key of business success is to connect and make the customer relate to the marketing idea. The use of “You” is one way to create this connection at the immediate time the audience hears or sees, attracting them, stepping out the first step in creating want and need.
    Anything goes, but the connection between you and me remains.

    • Great comment Tiffy! Your claim here about the importance of making customers relate to the marketing product is completely on point! I love how you used examples from BTS to reiterate the author’s perspective on how the word “you” is a great way for people to relate to the song, thus making it popular among listeners.

      However, I don’t think that using the word “you’’ in hopes of popularity is a shortcut to success. Just like the author mentions in the article, “You often see a lot of second-person pronouns used in very successful online content because it encourages us to pay attention.â€, the connection between customers and the marketing idea is no doubt, the key factor in a successful content, but how can this connection be made? People from diverse cultural backgrounds may have a different way of relating or connecting to a content. Some might relate to songs with more open expression of feelings, while others might enjoy lyrics that use scenery or environment to connate emotions. But behind all these differences, the author has provided us with data supporting evidence telling us a repeated pattern behind popular songs — the word “you”. Thus, when music companies choose to use this word in hope of popularity, I think the benefits of this decision can be that people from these diverse background will be able to relate to this similarity. In doing this, they are trying to grasp the common ground between people with different cultural backgrounds, using the word you so that no matter where the listeners are from, they are all able to find an inner connection to the lyrics.

      I applaud your perspective on the use of the word you, I am also impressed with your analysis of the success of BTS and all the effort you put in to prove the author’s point using this example. Through these analysis, song writers, companies and listeners will have a better grasp of the market’s interests, stimulating more high quality music in the future.

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