The first time I heard about The Da Vinci Code, a thriller written by Dan Brown and released in 2003, was from a kid in my dorm at Union College.
He was a strange kid. He spent most of his days watching CHiPs reruns in a bathrobe.
Anyway, I walked into his room on a random Sunday evening around 9pm and he was lying on his bed reading. I’d never seen him read before. I asked him what he was reading, and without taking his eyes off the book he waved me away and said “nope.”
— — —
People who don’t read books read that book
If you weren’t around when The Da Vinci Code went crazy, it was…crazy. The only thing I can compare it to is Harry Potter. Everyone read it and everyone talked about it. People who hadn’t read books in a decade finished The Da Vinci Code in a weekend. It sold over 80 million copies. It was an absolute juggernaut.
I texted 15 friends to ask them what they remembered most about the book.
They all remembered it, and they all said variations of the same thing. Here were some of the responses:
“I read that in a weekend.”
“I haven’t read a book that fast since.”
“I finished it at 5am before work, I couldn’t put it down.”
“Wasn’t that the book <name redacted but guy I spoke about above who watched CHiPs in a bathrobe> read?”
I then asked about the twist. There’s a huge twist in the book. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it — and you really should read it if you haven’t.
The twist is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child together and that the bloodlines continued to present day. Further, there was a real life conspiracy to cover it all up. The actual story in the book was fake, but the research it was based on was positioned as real. The Catholic Church was pissed and told people not to read it**.** This was obviously the best press the book could’ve gotten and it took off.
Not a single one of the people I texted remembered the hook, though they all remembered it had something to do “with Jesus or the Catholic Church or something.”
So why am I writing about a book 17 years after it came out? Behavior change. That’s one of the biggest shifts I’ve ever seen. People who didn’t read books read that book and I want to know why.
And I think I got it. And if you’re building a product you already know how freaking hard it is to get anyone to do anything. This will help.
— — —
The Da Vinci code was a meaty 689 pages if you got the hardcover, and 497 if you got the paperback.
Yet every conversation I remember went like this:
Someone I knew who definitely wasn’t a big reader: “Have you read The Da Vinci Code yet? I read it in two days. You won’t put it down. The twist is insane. You’ve got to read it.”
How did Dan Brown (the author) get people who didn’t read to suddenly read a 700 page book in a weekend?
It all starts with chapters. There were 101 chapters in The Da Vinci Code. That means in the paperback edition, each chapter was less than 5 pages. Chapters start in the middle of a page and often end at the top of a page. I flipped through, and anecdotally there are 1.5 blank pages for every 5 pages of text. There is so much empty space.
This is backed up by the word count estimate. Here’s The Da Vinci Code next to the sequel Dan Brown wrote that wasn’t nearly as popular, Angels and Demons, but also had a ton of chapters.
The Da Vinci Code
Angels and Demons
The Da Vinci Code has 15,000 fewer words and 100 more pages. Dan Brown is pulling the old “Courier New” font trick we used to use in high school to make a 2 page essay in Times New Roman meet the 3–5 page requirement.
Diving even deeper, the literary structure of The Da Vinci Code is built around dopamine hits. There are about five main stories all happening simultaneously. Each new chapter bounces to a different story. You’ll never get two straight chapters on the same storyline. These chapters are formulaic — you’ll join a character you’d sort of forgotten about, you’ll find out a new piece of information people in the other storylines don’t know, you’ll end on a cliffhanger where they’re about to do something… and scene. Every chapter is a tension builder. Each chapter is a loop we’re dying to close.
The chapters start like this:
And end a few pages later like this:
Everything — from the half-full pages, to the constant tension, to the short chapters are cues to keep you moving. The plot isn’t the focus — the structure is.
So… is it a good book?
Not according to critics. I read through a bunch and you can almost feel them fuming through the page about its popularity. I think critics read the book, saw right through the structure, and all simultaneously did the Mugatu:
Here’s one of the kinder reviews:
But everyone was grading The Da Vinci Code wrong. They treated it like any other book, but it wasn’t. That’s not what readers wanted out of The Da Vinci Code.
Grading the writing makes no sense, because the writing is the least important part of the book.
Here’s how you experience The Da Vinci Code as Dan Brown’s customer:
First, someone tells you about it. They say they read it in a weekend and that you will, too. The twist is CRAZY and controversial… and maybe true. They tell you the Catholic Church is pissed and doesn’t want you to read it. You’re intrigued.
You wonder — “am I the type of person that reads a book in a weekend? I’d like to be. I didn’t know they (your friend) were the type of person who did that.”
You want to be part of the group. You buy the book at Barnes and Nobles (remember that?) and block off the next weekend. You tell your friends you can’t make dinner because you’re reading The Da Vinci Code this weekend. You grab a glass of wine and sit down on Friday night in a comfy chair. You’ve prepped yourself to get lost in the book.
The prologue — before the story even starts — hits hard:
Holy shit. Is this all… true? Is this about to expose something huge about the church? What am I about to read?
You dig in.
The chapters go fast. You look at you’re watch — it’s 8:30 and you’re already 23 chapters in. You text your friend — “already 23 chapters in — this is crazy. No sleep tonight.”
You’re rewarded every few pages with a new chapter. New parts of the story. New characters. It all feels fast. Physically turning the pages becomes part of it. There’s tension everywhere. The answer to “should you read another chapter?” is always yes because you know you won’t have to wait long to learn more about each storyline.
The Da Vinci Code reads like you’re scrolling through Twitter.
And that’s how, in 48 hours, people read a 600 page book that was really a 300 page book. The reward was you were part of the club — you got to talk about the book, sure, but more importantly you got to talk about how fast you read it. You got to tell other people about how fast they’d read it.
It was never about the story or the Church. It was about belonging to the club. The story, chapter length, controversy — those were all features that got you to that moment as quickly and efficiently as possible.
How to do this
The product itself — the nuts and bolts of the thing you’re building — doesn’t matter much. What matters is how your customer feels when they use it.
The Da Vinci Code wasn’t a book, it was a club. People hired it to give them a weekend that validated something about themselves and made them belong to a group. And every “feature” of the book supported and enhanced that goal. It’s a whole lot easier to write a book, or build a product, when you know the exact job you’re doing for your customer and how they want to feel. I actually don’t think Dan Brown did this on purpose — I think he fell ass-backwards into the perfect book — but it worked nonetheless.
You’ll want to do it on purpose. The way to do it is to think about what your customer plus your product becomes.
This means hyper-focus and deep understanding of your customer. Here’s an example I came across recently that I like, Clove:
The job they’re doing is clear. Healthcare workers often wear Crocs because that’s the only option for all the diverse needs they have in footwear. Clove realized healthcare workers deserved a shoe made just for them not one that meets spec by default. It give them choice, with design they’d wear outside the hospital.
They feel like Clove understands them. The hyper-specific language and feature selection differentiates them from any other shoe not designed specifically with this use case in mind. Even the shoe names — this one is “night shift” — have inclusionary messaging.
This type of focus is freeing. It allows you to go all-in on the things that will get your customer to feel the way you want them to. In Clove’s case, it’s looking out for someone who spends their lives looking out for other people.
This type of focus creates a relationship because it’s based on a feeling rather than just features. It’ll be way easier for Clove to sell products up and down the stack to healthcare workers after the initial shoe because they’ll have created trust.
People who didn’t buy books bought Dan Brown’s second book because they wanted that experience again.
As a founder, you’ll need to do five things:
- Get customers interested
- Keep them interested and build trust
- Sell them something
- Get them to buy more of that something or adjacent somethings
- Get them to tell people about you
The way to motivate behavior is to understand the feeling, and build your product accordingly. Too many people build a product and hope that feeling happens by accident. You need to orchestrate that feeling. Think about all the moments your product will pop up — how do you want people to talk about it? How do you want them to feel?
Dan Brown didn’t write a “great” book — he helped people feel like they were the types of people who could read a long book in a weekend.
What are you helping your customer become?
Holler at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk this through!
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