The Psychology of Rotten Tomatoes

In an article for Wired, @SVZWood writes about Rotten Tomatoes, the website one in five Americans use to inform their movie choices. Wood’s article showcases three helpful ideas:

Simple algorithms. Rotten Tomatoes has become a successful business and top website based on a simple algorithm—counting. Two movie curators read reviews each day, judge them as positive or not, and then count the totals. If a movie has more than sixty percent positive, it’s marked as fresh.

Numerical authority. There’s something about people, numbers, authority, and precision we just can’t get over. Wood captures this, writing, “There is an authoritative allure in the site’s numerical scores….(people) reflexively—and nonsensically—trust a fresh sixty percent Tomatometer over a Rotten 59%.”

In an age of big data and algorithms and random forests, it’s helpful to keep in mind that simple systems work. One example, football.

Numbers feel secure. They’re a rationalization blanket in a world of unknown things under the bed.

Jobs-to-be-done. Reviewers don’t like the binary nature of fresh or not. Wood notes that, “there is no Underripe or Overripe tomato.” In the terms of Bob Moesta, this is the difference between a supply-side orientation and demand-side orientation.

In JBTD theory, the goal is to find what customers want to do that rather than what a supplier wants or thinks the customer wants. Reviewers (supply) want to share their nuanced take rather than a 👍 or 👎 via their Twitter account. The customers (demand) just want to know if a movie is bad, potentially good, or very good. This plays out in some interesting ways that Rotten Tomatoes has plucked.

For example, a review which is glowingly positive and a review which is slightly positive are both coded as positive. This leads to extreme scores. This is a feature, not a bug. It’s the information people want to know.

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Escaping College and Commodity Competition

When one product is similar to another there is competition. Businesses which compete on price lead to low-cost-high-volume winners. Thankfully, being dissimilar isn’t difficult. Many brands (Advil, Coca-Cola, Harvard) differentiate commodities by framing the context.

Differentiation avoids the market mechanism. But that doesn’t mean things will be easy. Being the low-cost provider or being different both take extreme amounts of work. That said, jobs-to-be-done thinking may lead to a slightly easier slog

The JTBD idea is updated on Twitter, but Michael Horn’s TAG brought up an easy idea for escaping competition. Instead of asking who are your customers, ask what do customers want?

Typically businesses count things. This is easy data. Plus, the more math the less career risk: a bit of math in itself.

Through their book, Choosing College, Horn and Bob Moesta encourage people to think about new categories. To count less and consider more. Get past demographics (high school graduate) and to demands (level-up).

What is the demographic profile of someone who eats at Panera Bread? That’s a hard question. However, what’s the JTBD of someone who eats at Panera Bread? That’s easier. Ron Shaich explained that Panera is “the kind of space where you want to sit and do an interview, a place for a bible study group, for a team meeting.” 

People hire Panera for group space and bagel spreads. That’s the JTBD. That’s the differentiation.

Being different is easier—though not easy—because it offers many directions. If a business competes on price, that’s it. If a business finds a new JTBD they might have that market all to themselves, temporarily.