I like to think I’m immune from marketing. Working day in and day out with all the tips and tricks can make the underlying message of a soft sell glow in my brain like a neon light. And it makes me want to run the other way. Reading Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, I realized how susceptible we all are—even us marketers— to a well-crafted marketing campaign.
I’ve written before about how to make a video go viral. This book takes us deeper into the phenomenon and looks at the broader picture of social epidemics. Berger has developed a model for explaining marketing virality called STEPPS. It breaks down like this:
- Social Currency
- Practical Value
All of these factors are key to generating that priceless commodity: word of mouth.
“Here’s a little secret about secrets: they tend not to stay secret very long.” – Jonah Berger
We’re social creatures. Even introverts like me have opinions and want to share them. We want people to think we’re interesting and entertaining. Berger suggests marketers “give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products.”
The first big takeaway from this section is for brands to “find the inner remarkability in any product or idea.” Although Berger uses the classic Blendtec Blender example here, his deep dive into the history shows that the videos of blenders blending, well, everything, captured something the founder was already doing as a quality test for the blenders. Knowing that such a successful idea was the result of careful observation rather than magic makes the viral success of those videos seem all the more achievable for any brand.
As Berger described game mechanics (a fascinating read for anyone trying to increase engagement) and how that plays into our competitive natures, I had some pretty shameful flashbacks to the many hours I once spent sending virtual plants to friends over Facebook.
And his reflections on how marketers can manipulate demand helped me connect with my inner consumer. He made me think about how I respond to scarcity (I want to buy all it now) and being given insider access (I’ll tell all my friends about the great deal I just got). Achieving that level kind of empathy is always useful as long as you use it as an entry point only and don’t over-generalize your experience.
“Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth episodes, separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an organization, brand, product, or service.” – Jonah Berger
Triggers are the things in everyday life that make us recall anything from an earworm to a product. Berger uses the example of Rebecca Black’s song, “Friday,” and provides data that shows the video is most frequently viewed on, you guessed it, Friday.
Berger talks about how to leverage these triggers and to think carefully about the habitat that your product lives in. For example, thinking about peanut butter often conjures thoughts of jelly. Although peanut butter might also make you think of that time on your cousin’s boat when you first tried beer, think carefully about whether the trigger you’re using speaks to a wider experience. Because in marketing, you want your customers to feel like they’re on the inside of the joke.
I thought about this last night when our news station featured a picture of a double rainbow, and I turned to my husband (who does not live his life on the internet) and said, “What does it mean?” He had no idea what I was referencing. So we spent a few minutes on YouTube (re)discovering some classic viral videos. If he’d been my audience for a product and I’d used that reference as my trigger, I wouldn’t have had time to bring him in on the joke and the connection would have been lost.
I also realized how much of my brain is taken up by obscure references to dated and only vaguely interesting videos. My immunity to virality and marketing is starting to feel like a myth.
“When we care, we share.” – Jonah Berger
In this section, Berger looks closely at how the power of awe and other positive emotions inspire people to share. What I really appreciated is that he modified his research to go beyond that conventional wisdom. Ultimately what he found is that it’s not really how positive something is that makes people want to pass things along, rather it’s the state of heightened arousal that something provokes that incites people to share.
Quick aside: if anyone ever questions the power of social sharing, remind them that the “United Breaks Guitars” video caused United’s stock to drop 10% over a period of four days after the video went live.
Thinking about all the times I’ve ranted on Twitter about our local bus system or raved about an amazing customer service experience, Berger helped me remember how personal that state of heightened emotion can feel. As marketers, finding a way to channel the variety of strong emotions a product or service evokes is a fantastic opportunity to generate word of mouth.
“People imitate, in part, because others’ choices provide information.” – Jonah Berger
It is this public aspect of social contagion that I thought I was most immune to. I think of myself as an innovator, not an imitator. But I realized that I follow cues as much as anyone—and that that’s not a bad thing. Social proof can help us “resolve uncertainty.” It’s also a powerful marketing tactic.
For example, Berger tells the story of two identical gyro restaurants—one with a super-long line and the other with no line at all. The one with the long line had received a fantastic write-up in a major magazine. That positive review and the line of people are both signals to a hungry lunch crowd that the first gyro restaurant is the place to go.
Where the public discussion gets really interesting is with the idea of behavioral residue—anything that makes a thought or action observable, like “checking in” at your favorite restaurant. This residue, which can be anything from a Livestrong bracelet to an “I voted” sticker, is how our actions can become contagious even if we don’t expressly talk about them.
Reading this section, I looked down at the t-shirt I was wearing, which features a large logo for one of my publishers, and realized I’m not only a follower of trends, I have embraced behavioral residue as a communication tool without even knowing it. You can see this in everything from the wedding pictures on my desk (to show off my relationship status) to the book reviews I write on weekends (to share information about great literature with the world).
“People share practically valuable information to help others.” – Jonah Berger
Sharing practical information is one of my favorite things. Because my audience is mostly creative writers, both my Twitter and Facebook are filled with calls for writers and application deadlines for artist residencies and grants. I rarely think about the fact that I’m marketing for these organizations. I just want to connect my friends with opportunities.
This section also delves into how people perceive value. As the daughter of an economist, I was delighted to read about Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory (which basically says that people make decisions based on potential losses and gains with the information available at the time) and how it debunks the rational actor theory (which presumes that people have perfect information and are always looking for the best possible final outcome).
Instead, Berger writes, “The way people actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make decisions” and about how shifting the reference points of a deal can actually make consumers want to pay more for an item.
Or, if you’re a teenaged girl, Kahneman would argue that it’s perfectly normal to violate curfew if it means having an extra hour of fun. Rational choice theory would say that she’s more likely to think ahead to the weeks of grounding she will soon receive.
“Narratives are inherently more engrossing than basic facts.” – Jonah Berger
The fact that Berger wrapped all these factors of contagion together into a section on narrative thrilled my writer self. But it’s true. Stories have the power to convey that we’re interesting people who have something pertinent to say that might make your life easier while adding practical value. Isn’t that everything? While complete immunity from social contagion seems impossible, I may have been underestimating how rewarding connecting all the parts of our lives can be.
One thing that Berger did not address is the curiosity gap. But we’ve got you covered there. To learn even more about why things catch and why you click on those Buzzfeed articles (even when you hate yourself for it), register for Sara Lingafelter’s webinar, The Principles of Virality. I’ve previewed it, and let me tell you, it’s the best kept secret in town.