BOOK REVIEW: “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger
CEO’s, marketers, politicians, sociologists, and entrepreneurs alike, expend excessive time and resources to explore new ways to fuel buzz around their latest products, service, advertisements, campaigns or causes – yet without clear structure, it’s easy to spend millions of marketing dollars on methods that miss the mark every time. But what if we could use research in a way that helps us understand how things go viral?
Contagious – Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger (Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania) distills years of research into understanding why certain ads, products, YouTube videos, political movements, songs, and/or restaurants catch on, while others are ignored.
Traditional marketing suggests that quality, price, and advertising are the critical factors to determine a product or idea’s ability to achieve success or popularity, but Berger argues that this misses the full view – social influence and word-of-mouth transmission are far more essential to drive “virality,” and ultimately account for 20-50% of all purchasing decisions. In fact, “word-of-mouth,” he explains, is effective because it is more persuasive (people trust what others tell them much more than they trust ads they see on T.V.) and more targeted (people share stories with those who are actually interested in the topic).
Interestingly, only 7% of word-of-mouth content is shared online (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are merely tools to help support the spread of good ideas, not the answer to adoption), and while social media can help us reach millions of people, often face-to-face interactions are more effective and allow people to focus on the topic at hand (instead of sorting through the hordes of data online).
How you can make your own product or idea viral
Berger explains that “regardless of how plain or boring a product or idea may seem, there are ways to make it contagious…” if you know the right way to do it. Consistent throughout all viral content, are six key ingredients or “STEPPS:” Social Currency; Triggers; Emotion; Public; Practical Value; Stories – none of which are mutually exclusive but are all independently available for use on your product or idea wherever and whenever it makes the most sense.
1. Social Currency – “We share things that make us look good”
Whether through a post on Facebook or Twitter, or telling an engaging story at a dinner party – people “self-share” experiences, ideas, and topics to make themselves and their lives appear more fascinating and interesting to others. Berger describes this form of word-of-mouth tool as “social currency,” or the “currency” we use to buy and sell people’s opinions of us. What we talk about, inevitably determines what others perceive of us, which leads us to share things that make us seem more entertaining, clever, smart, and/or funny.
The human brain is hot-wired to use this so-called “currency” to make a good impression on others. Companies and individuals can use this to their advantage, by providing their customers with products, experiences, and content that connect directly with them in a way that encourages sharing with others, while promoting the company’s ideas, causes and/or products simultaneously.
To do so, it’s important to create one of the following three things:
- “Find inner remarkability” – generate something unique, quirky, surprising, or novel. Think about ways to make your product or idea stand out by breaking from tradition and what people expect from an experience; i.e. JetBlue (low cost airline) offers first class amenities to all passengers: quality snacks, comfortable / roomy seat, DIRECTV for all.
- ‘“Leverage game mechanics” – use elements of a game to make something fun, interesting, and hook the consumer. “Good game mechanics keep people engaged, motivated, and always wanting more.” i.e. hotel and airline rewards programs… people will go out of their way to achieve status and to fly with their preferred airline (even if it means making multiple layovers), moreover they love telling others that they are a Diamond Medallion member with Delta and what their experience is as a Medallion member.
- “Make people feel like insiders” – scarcity and exclusivity drives desirability… people love when they feel like “insiders” i.e. Ru La La is a member-only (originally invite only, now they allow for anyone to sign up) online flash sale clothing website providing daily deals on high fashion at discounted prices to those who are on their distribution list (aka the insiders).
The key to being successful across all of these factors, is to build intrinsic motivation within people – if something is truly successful, people will want to talk about or buy into your product or service if it means they will gain value from the product or experience, as well as look good to others. If you get someone bought in, they will likely tell their friends and family about it, thus beginning the cycle of creating something viral.
2. Triggers – “Top of mind, tip of tongue”
While social currency gets people to talk about things, “triggers” keep ideas and products fresh in the minds of consumers, ensuring that they keep talking about your idea.
“Triggers” are stimuli that connect thoughts and ideas together. By designing products and ideas that are linked to our surroundings, it helps to set off frequent “lightbulbs” or “triggers” in people’s mind. When people think about your product, they will likely talk about it, share their experience with it, and become repeat customers over time. In fact, more frequently trigger-associated products can increase word-of-mouth by 15 percent, and because it is top of mind, it generally means someone will be more likely to act on what they are thinking about.
For example, in 1997, The Mars Candy Company noticed a spike in their Mars candy bar sales. They had not changed their marketing campaigns, yet sales were up. It turned out that during that same period, NASA was organizing a mission to Mars to collect samples and data from the planet – and with the continuous news cycle featuring NASAs and the planet Mars (the candy/company is named after the founder, not the planet), the news triggered the idea of the candy in people’s minds, and sure enough sales spiked.
It is also possible to create a trigger by expanding the “habitat” that people exist in – meaning creating new habits / further associating your product or idea with things we do on a daily basis. For example, in 2007, Colleen Chorak was the Hershey brand manager tasked with revitalizing the Kit Kat brand. The candy bar’s jingle had been around for 21 years, and had run its course. To get consumers thinking about the brand again she looked at when people ate Kit Kats the most… during breaks and usually with a hot beverage. She began releasing ads that tied Kit Kats to coffee breaks at work, specifically eating them while drinking coffee. The spots did exactly as she hoped, and soon sales increased by 8% by the end of the year.
Effective triggers are caused by frequency (how often we interact with a trigger i.e. coffee vs. hot chocolate – people see and think about coffee every day, whereas hot chocolate is more seasonal, so associating with coffee is far more effective) and strength of the link (more unusual links are better than those that are associated with too many things, i.e. the color red is linked with roses, Coca-Cola, cars, Valentine’s Day etc. – too many weak links, whereas when you hear the word “peanut butter”, “jelly” usually is the first link we think about).
Thus, it is important to think about context of the environment of the people you are trying to target: whether seasonal (candy corn and Halloween); geographic (cheesesteaks and Philadelphia).
3. Emotion – “When we care, we share”
Emotional content evokes feelings, both positive and negative, that drive people to share and act on those emotions. Tax hikes, price increases, new iPhone releases, elections and policy stances – all evoke positive and negative outbursts that drive people to talk about it with those around them. In many cases, it can drive activism in politics, switching from one product to another, or writing a Yelp review online to encourage people to eat or not eat at a certain cafe.
Berger explains that certain emotions evoke action while causing others to stifle:
Awe, excitement, humor evoke as much arousal as anger and anxiety, while contentment and sadness leave people to do nothing at all. Understanding arousal can help you drive viral content and products for yourself, by focusing less on information (features and benefits) around your product or idea, and focus on how people think, feel, and react to certain messages.
4. Public – “Built to show, built to grow”
“Making things more observable, makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular,” writes Berger. By making our products more public, we create self-promoting ideas that produce lasting memories that stick around well after the first interaction.
Berger provides the following example to illustrate this rule: Say you see someone you know and respect using an Apple Computer at a cafe (identified by the Apple logo and exterior casing), this form of public visibility might mean that you are likely to want to imitate their behavior and buy a Mac because it looks cool or because you want to emulate their behavior.
Berger calls the concept of looking at what others are doing to resolve our own uncertainty, “social proof.” Individuals imitate actions, because other’s choices provide information that helps them decide how to do something. Berger provides the example, of looking for a restaurant in an unfamiliar city: we look for restaurants that are full of people (because it must be delicious or hip), and we walk by the restaurants that are empty (food too expensive or bland).
People do what they can see – “monkey see, monkey do”. So, they make choices based on what they see. People binge drink in college, because they see their peers doing the same. Observability plays a huge role in what products or ideas catch on.
“Making the private public” suggests that if you can bring something to the surface that others previously had been too embarrassed to talk about – you can eliminate stigma around products, services, and ideas that were previously consumed privately and help it catch on with people who had previously felt uncomfortable discussing this out loud (i.e. online dating, supporting certain causes like Mustache November… where participants raise money growing a beard during there month of November… these things start a conversation).
Two key components to making something public:
- Self-advertising, or product or idea that transmits social proof or passive approval because usage is observed (i.e. logos on shirts, the message at the end of an email sent on iPhone: “Sent from my iPhone” etc.).
- Behavioral residue, or remnants that a product, idea or story leave behind after use or purchase. For example, “I voted” stickers after voting make the private act less private and reminds others to vote too. Or, reusable bags from Lululemon, event participation t-shirts, and Livestrong yellow wrist-bands provide the public a glimpse of what the individual believes or likes.
5. Practical Value – “News you can use”
People like helping and feeling useful to others. Practical value is all about sharing useful information that will help others save time, energy and resources. When there is is a product, services, cause or article that provides practical applicability for someone you know, you will likely share with them. Moreover, products and ideas with practical value is passed along to help others despite geographic distances. That’s why parents often send useful articles, coupons, as well as cooking & cleaning advice to their kids – it strengthens social bonds, even when distance makes things difficult.
The key to being successful for companies is to position this useful information in a way that stands out to consumers.
Practical value relies heavily on buyer behavior, and Berger explains that people use “reference points” to determine the value of a good, service, or discount. Companies understand that this is how their customers make purchasing decisions, and use it to their advantage to encourage customers to make selections easier and faster for them. For example, when buying a book from Amazon, the website posts the original price next to the discounted price to make people think that they are getting a good deal – Amazon benefits from that contrast.
When it comes to pricing, “diminishing sensitivity” can influence buyer behavior, which is where the “Rule of 100” becomes handy. It helps merchants increase the likelihood that people buy your product and share with others. The general rule:
- If the product sells for less than $100, sale price should be set in terms of the percentage reduction (discounts as a percentage seems more impressive on low priced items)
- If it’s greater than $100, discount the price in dollar reduction (discounts as a dollar seem more impressive on high cost items)
6. Stories – “Information travels under the guise of idle chatter”
Stories are the most effective way to share ideas and information. As Berger explains, “Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter… we need to… (embed) our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell… [by making] our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.”
Humans think in terms of narratives, which is why we frequently recall and share stories. If you find a great bargain, you will probably describe your entire experience when you recommend the deal to your friends.
A few years ago, Dove skin products created a viral video that showed how unrealistic professional models look in advertisements – showing how much make-up, hairspray, and photoshopping went into creating a “beautiful” advertisement. The video encourages the viewer to be natural and to be happy in one’s own skin. The story was only a few minutes long – but it told a positive story, while simultaneously plugging the Dove brand. Dove asked customers to send in videos of their own stories under the rubric of “Real Beauty.” Thousands of video stories were sent in, which generated millions of views. Analytics showed that the sales response functions of all promotional activities were enhanced by this program.
Most people miss superfluous details, so to get customers to think about your product or idea, weave it into a story with key factors critical to your brand and add other “sticky” factors: humor, creativity, quirky.
Standing out in today’s market is harder than ever as advertising clutter projects 4,000 – 10,000 ads and brands at American consumers every day. But the most effective and prosperous ideas have been empowered and supported by one or more of the 6 STEPPS in some way. Leveraging good stories that are useful, engaging, and that drive value will help you and your product, idea, cause increase social influence and word-of-mouth transmission and propel it to be the next big thing.
Thank you, Dr. Berger, for this elucidating and very useful book.
Book review by Matthew Hellman, Head of strategy for GE Digital, the Americas, and Asia Pacific and Catherine Trevor-Roberts, Consultant, Resultek