By Dylan Walsh
Ed Sheeran, the 28-year-old British pop star, released his fourth studio album in July. No.6 Collaboration Project, true to its name, boasts a lot of collaborators: Khalid, Cardi B, Justin Bieber, 50 Cent, Eminem, Bruno Mars, Ella Mai, and on and on—a total of 22 guest artists are featured on the 15 tracks.
As No.6 debuted at the top of the Billboard charts, reviewers were wondering about the expansive cast of characters: “There’s something gratuitous about the guest list, no?” wrote Jon Caramanica in the New York Times. “It smacks of dilettantism. Flashiness.” Pitchfork described the album as “guest-laden,” while Rolling Stone went with “guest-heavy.” For Sheeran, the album was a chance to demonstrate his fluency in a variety of pop styles, but the reviewers were skeptical before they heard a note.
If there can be too many cooks in the kitchen, can there be too many artists on an album? How much collaboration feels like too much of a good thing? It’s a question that is increasingly relevant to businesses, since many companies are marketing their products by raising the curtain on the creative process that spawned them.
“More and more frequently, companies are looking to talk about the creation story of their products,” says Taly Reich, an associate professor of marketing at Yale SOM. “This forces consideration of what exactly you should communicate to your consumers.”
A recent article, itself the product of collaboration between eight scholars—Reich, Sam Maglio, Odelia Wong, Cristina Rabaglia, Evan Polman, Julie Huang, Hal Hershfield, and Sean Lane—begins to tease apart this question by studying how people perceive collaborative efforts of different sizes. Published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the article reveals empirical support for the notion of “too much of a good thing.”
In one of the studies, participants were randomized into one of three groups and asked how likely they were to purchase a new athletic shoe. One group was told that a single designer created the shoe. The other groups learned that either three or nine designers were involved. Ultimately, participants who were told that three designers collaborated on the shoe were more likely to consider a purchase than participants in either of the other groups. (There was no difference in purchase likelihood between the one- and nine-designer conditions.)
While the aforementioned study looked at purchase intent, a second probed actual consumer experience. Told they were part of a taste test for a new product at a local bakery, participants were given a cookie ostensibly baked by one person, four people, or eight people. The cookie baked by four people, participants said, tasted better than the cookie baked by one person, and marginally better than the cookie baked by eight. Some collaboration proved beneficial, but, as the authors put it, past a certain threshold “increasing collaboration did not make for an increasingly tasty cookie.”
“To me, what’s interesting is that there is a kind of sweet middle spot when it comes to collaboration,” Reich says. “Sure, there are instances where one creator is better, but in other instances it’s not a simple truth that more is merrier.” Related experiments show that this “sweet spot” is, at least in part, tied to task complexity. When people think something is complex, they believe that more collaborators lead to better outcomes, at least up to a certain point. Beyond that point, impressions tilt the other way and more partners can detract from the quality of results.
For companies, the first lesson is that it’s important to know whether consumers hold different ideas than they do about how many people should be involved in creating a product.
“This is an important question,” Reich says, “as it not only affects the perceived quality of a product, but whether or not consumers want to buy something in the first place.”