Contagious: Why Things Catch On

by: Jonah Berger

In these days when so many of us live in the fun-house mirror of our reflected, online selves, we all seem to have started to resemble toddlers doing tricks for our parents just to get them to notice us. We are all trying desperately for that post, picture, video, or comment to strike a chord and "go viral."

Needless to say, 99% of the time we're only talking to ourselves.

So what is it, muses Wharton School Professor Jonah Berger, that makes one idea or video or commercial or book suddenly become the thing everybody is talking about, sharing, must have, can't wait for?

He has taken a mid-level dive into the question of why this and not that when it comes to ideas that are contagious.

The book is easy reading. He offers plenty of good, interesting, real-life examples to illustrate his short list of features that make for ideo-contagion (my word, not his!), and not all of them relate to the Internet and social media,  demonstrates the fact that many under 25 will believe: people were talking and sharing the "latest and greatest" long before there was a Facebook or Twitter. There was that thing called "word of mouth," and it was always, as Berger reminds us, more reliable than advertising.

The thing about advertising, even those supposed "testimonial" spots, is that we know we're being pitched. When a friend at a party tells us how great a new restaurant is because he just ate there the other night, we're much more inclined to believe it, and give it a try. So every business wants - needs - good word of mouth, the more the merrier.

So Berger wants to find out why this restaurant gets talked about, not that one. In fact, one of his first examples is about a Philadelphia restaurant that took an old idea - the Philly Cheesesteak - and asked himself,  "How can I make a cheesesteak that fits into my upscale steak house?" Well, maybe that's not the question he asked himself, but in effect, that's what he set out to do.

He created the ultimate gourmet cheesesteak, priced it at over $100 (it comes with a split of champagne), and wonder of wonders, sold it. More than sold it, it became the talk of the town. And therein lies one of Berger's principles: the town was Philadelphia, so everywhere a visitor to town looked he saw - Philadelphia. And because Philly and cheesesteaks are inextricably linked, and cheesesteak joints are on every other corner, a "trigger" was, literally, right around every corner.

A trigger is simply a reminder - an inescapable link between your product and something people see or do all the time. If you are somehow linked to a drink of water, then this simple act that people repeat perhaps many times a day will bring you to their minds, and increase the likelihood that they'll call you or purchase your product.

The other important factors Berger discovered in his study of what makes you, your product, or your idea contagious can be summed up with the acronym STEPPS: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.

And he challenges the reader, whom he presumes to be marketers or product owners, to see if they can meet as many of these requirements as possible in trying to market their product, the underlying objective being to get people talking. Yes, you may create an ad that meets these requirements, and there are examples of that, such as Kit Kat and coffee - a campaign that linked Kit Kat chocolate bars to a cup of coffee, successfully creating a trigger so that every time a person stopped for a cup of coffee, he was reminded of a Kit Kat bar - and that much more likely to pick one up at the same time.

You needn't meet every one of the STEPPS to be successful. Sometimes one or two spectacular successes is all you need. Think of singer Susan Boyle, the not-too-gorgeous, not-too-young Scottish woman competing for Britain's Got Talent top honors who shocked everyone with her beautiful singing voice, and her choice of songs - "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miz. What did this have that few of the others in its category lacked? Emotion, and storytelling. The video of her singing was stunningly emotional; and it made for a great story. Add to that a little helping of social currency ("What, you haven't heard Susan Boyle singing? Look it up on YouTube, it's amazing!") and you have the perfect recipe for contagion.

I admit there were a few times when Berger lost me in his path to his conclusion, and some of his ideas were borrowed from other studies the results of which I've read a time or three before. Still, if you're looking to market your products or services, particularly in a world where so much is grabbing for our attention, this is a good basic guidebook for how to get people talking in an honest and therefore reliable, long-lasting way, about what you have to offer.

The book belongs on every marketer's bookshelf. And you can post that on Facebook.


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