Contagious: Why things catch on by Jonah Berger

Contagious: Why things catch on by Jonah Berger

Reviewed and summarised by Duncan Brett.

Why do some products or ideas catch on? It’s actually a really good question, and Jonah Berger explores it well, and gives some good suggestions on how to make it happen, packaged in a neat acronym called STEPPS.

Jonah Berger is a marketing academic at Wharton business school, and this book was named the best marketing book of 2014 by the American Marketing Association. It also made the New York Times bestseller list, so it should be no surprise that it is a very readable and well-referenced book. It is full of examples and makes its point quite clearly. If I had to criticize it, I felt that it was a little padded at times, but then I often feel that way about business books.

If you have a message or idea and you want to make it popular, this book will give you a good grounding on how to get started.

So what’s the secret to a product or idea catching like wildfire? It could be just brilliant, or better, or cheaper, or massively and cleverly advertised. However sometimes these logical reasons just don’t explain it sufficiently. There is another reason, which Berger calls social transmission, and this is what this book is about.

The good news is that almost anything can catch on and go viral. Here’s how to improve your chances. You need to give your idea characteristics that lend itself to being shared. You also need to remember the seeds of contagion lie in the content and not in the messenger. Berger believes Malcolm Gladwell got it wrong in The Tipping Point. Contagion does not come from a small group of special ‘influencers’. It comes from having a message that thousands of ordinary people want to pass on.

Word of mouth is immensely powerful. People love to share stories, news and information with each other. Berger cites research to show that word of mouth is responsible for between 20% and 50% of all purchasing decisions. Its persuasive strength lies in the fact that is more trusted than advertising. We listen to friends and acquaintances and trust them far more than adverts. It is also more targeted. We tend to share information with people who we think will be interested in the topic.

And this is not a technological argument; Berger notes that social media like facebook and twitter are technologies. Word of mouth is effective when people talk. And we talk offline far more than online. According to Faye Keller research only 7% of word of mouth happens online.

Berger has put together 6 principles designed to make it more likely that your idea will catch on and go viral. These are your STEPPS.

Each principle is discussed individually in 6 chapters.

Social currency: – “We share things that make us look good”. No one wants to sound boring or look like an idiot, so we like to talk about things that make us seem more interesting. A blender that can grind marbles to dust is remarkable so we will tell people about it. We also like to sound like insiders, a person with an inside scoop. That’s why we love to talk about the wonderful restaurant no one else has been to yet.

Social comparison is powerful as well, however much we may protest otherwise we care deeply about how we do compared to others. This is why we like to boast about the awards we receive, and in doing so we will (hopefully) have to mention who gave us the award.

Berger cautions against introducing money into the equation. Social motivators are strong and people like to tell stories and share, but if you introduce money or payment into the equation it kills all social motivation. This is a point to ponder; marketers and market researchers often give incentives and the like to encourage participation. By introducing payment, the net effect can be counter-productive.

Triggers: – “Top of mind, tip of tongue”. These are the things that remind us. Frequent reminders in the right context are the ideal triggers. The trigger doesn’t always need to be clever, funny, or interesting. Most conversations are just small talk, a way of filling space. In this type of talk, we speak about what is top of mind. It usually more about every day issues than our trip of a lifetime. So look to everyday life to generate triggers. This explains why a stupid Budweiser advert with youngsters shouting “wassup” to each other is so effective, while a funny advert about cavemen taking insurance does nothing.

Timing is also important. We are not looking at topics that stay top of mind for long, so it doesn’t help to think about beer at breakfast. Kit-Kat did very well by associating their chocolate with a coffee break.

Triggers can be effective even when they weren’t intended. When NASA’s mars mission landed, it caused sales of Mars Bars to spike even though there was no relationship between the two.

This chapter made me think about how we test adverts. It is great to know how much an advert is liked, but does it act as a trigger when it counts? It is not easy to build triggers.

Emotion: – “When we care we share”. In one of the most interesting parts of the book, Berger relates his research analyzing how 6 months of New York Times online articles were shared. He found that articles which induce high arousal emotions such as anger, humour and awe are much more likely to be shared than those which invoke low arousal emotions such as sadness and contentment. This is a reason why marketing messages need to focus on emotion: if you can tap into a high arousal feeling, then people are more likely to share it.

Interestingly he found that situational factors such as exercise can increase our state of emotional arousal and that leads us to share more too, and sometimes more than we planned to.

Public: – “Built to show, built to grow”. I suppose another cliché to use here is “monkey see, monkey do”. We can only copy what we see. This is why distinctive branding is so important. The little message sent from my iPhone in my emails acts as social proof. Apparently 1 in 8 car purchases in the USA are influenced by what others in the neighbourhood drive.

If your idea is a private one, then you have to figure out how to make it public so people can see it. Movember is an excellent example of how people brought an awareness campaign on prostate cancer into the open by getting people to grow moustaches in support of the cause for the month of November.

Conversely if you want people to stop doing something, make it less observable. The just say no drugs campaign failed because it made it sound like everyone was doing drugs.

Berger also tells us to try create a behavioural residue, to make it last. So think re-usable shopping bags, or the now disgraced Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong wristbands.

Practical value: – “News you can use”. This is probable the easiest step to apply.

We like to pass along information others can use. It may sound a little dull, but it can work if it is worth sharing. Like the YouTube clip of an 86 year old who showed how to dehusk a corn cob cleanly.

Stories: – “information travels under the guise of idle chatter”. Storytelling is all the rage at the moment. We don’t just present results, we tell stories. And in daily talk, people love to tell a narrative, a story. The trick is to embed your message in the story. That way your brand goes along for the ride.

Your message may not directly be what people want to share, so you have to build a Trojan horse, and hide the message inside, but in such a way that it is critical to the story.

There is some well known research from around 50 years ago, called the telephone game, where 1 person passes on a story to the next, who in turn passes it on and so on. The psychologists running the experiment found that by the 5th telling, 70% of the detail had been lost, even though the key story remained.

Evian made a fantastic video about babies on roller skates. The video went viral, but it had nothing to do with Evian and so Evian just got left out of the viral tale. Conversely Philadelphia restaurant called Barclays offered a $100 steak called the Barclay Prime, and it became a huge success, but you couldn’t talk about this ridiculously expensive steak without talking about the restaurant. Likewise you can’t tell the story about a blender that will blend marbles and an iPhone together without mentioning the blender.

Even if you follow Berger’s STEPPS, I’d have to say the chances of success are probably still quite low, its not like you are the only one trying to spread your tale. Most things don’t go viral. However, if you think about what he’s saying and apply the ideas, you can improve your chances.





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