Home Marketing Contagious: How Things Catch On

Contagious: How Things Catch On

by Editor

“Gone viral” is a phrase that marketers are desperately chasing these days. They all want their products to “go viral” and many businesses that have sprung up that provide services to make your product, idea or cause go viral. Now they may be effective or just making money off a latest fad, because “virality” seems to be a unpredictable and spontaneous. Yes, an interesting concept, a superior product, a heart tugging cause, clever advertising can increase the chances of virality, but there are so many ideas that have these characteristics but have failed to gather any significant attention. According to professor Jonah Berger of Wharton, there are six characteristics that are common to all marketing campaigns and even innocuous, non-business content that have gone viral. And Prof. Berger speaks from hard earned wisdom – he has been studying the phenomenon of social contagion or how certain ideas spread almost like an epidemic through word of mouth for over a decade. An interesting insight here for those who think that the internet and social media platforms play an important role in making things go viral – well the figure is around 7%. Yes, Prof. Berger has found that 93% of word of mouth transmission happens offline! It is the message itself not the carriers like Facebook or Twitter that is defining element of virality. In his book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” Prof. Berger lays down the 6 principles which are all characteristics that a piece of content should have for it to go viral. They are all based on the study of why people talk about ideas, causes or products and marketers can use them to create “contagious content”.

Knowledge Nugget #1: Social Currency

Any idea or topic of discussion that makes people feel important or knowledgeable is “social currency”. Most people love to discuss with their peers information that would be welcomed and appreciated, like finding a great new restaurant before anyone else. They also like to share information that would reflect well on them. Thus marketers need to find aspects of their product that people would eagerly share with their peers. Some companies do it by engaging their customers in games which keep them engaged, like points earned through credit card transactions which make one eligible for an exclusive card or frequent flyer miles. These are things that customers like discussing in their social circles and every time they do so, they are promoting your product.

Knowledge Nugget #2: Triggers

Triggers are things that remind people of specific ideas or products leading to a discussion about the same. Prof. Berger has found that people have conversations about products, brands and organization over 16 times daily. Now many of these discussions are prompted by triggers. Triggers can function in unexpected ways, for example the highly publicized landing of a rover on the planet Mar led to an increase in sales of Mars chocolate bars! Or that people are more likely to talk about their breakfast cereal than an exciting theme park because they go to theme parks occasionally but have breakfast everyday.  Marketers need to associate their products with relevant and potent triggers. Some tips to find such a trigger –

The strength of the link between the trigger and the product

Is the trigger a part of the product’s normal environment?

How frequently do your target audience encounter the trigger?

Is the message aligned with the interests and general environment of the geographic location where the campaign is going to happen.

Is the trigger related to anything special related to that time of the year when the campaign takes place? For example, in October orange colored products sell better because of Halloween.

Knowledge Nugget #3: Emotion

People talk about things that arouse their emotions. They discuss and share information that amuses them or makes them awestruck. Although advertisers tend to go with content that arouses positive emotions however there maybe instances where negative emotions is more appropriate for example, a campaign to quit smoking. When you deliver a message with the right emotion the chances of people taking action on it whether by buying your product or by sharing it with their peers would significantly increase.

Knowledge Nugget #4: Public

There is a phenomenon in psychology called “social proof”. It refers to the tendency of people to make choices based on the choices made by others in their social circle. It reduces the uncertainty in decision making. Steve Jobs had this in mind when he decided that the logo on Apple laptops should face the people around the user. This would tell the people around that this person is using an Apple laptop and maybe inspire a number of them to consider buying one for themselves. Thus to increase the chances of information about their product to be shared marketers need to come up with ways to ensure that their product is in the sight and top of the mind of users. For example, Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation decided to use bracelets for raising cancer awareness rather marketing through bike races because bike races happen occasionally but people use bracelets on a daily basis and it’s there for everyone to see. So the bracelet markets itself and since it stands for an enduring cause it has a long shelf life.

Knowledge Nugget #5: Practical Value

The information you share should have practical for it to be shareable. People like to share news that their friends might find useful. It can consist of simple tips for day to day living or ways to understand whether the price on offer is really a “good deal”. People judge bargains from their own mental reference points. So while a teenager would be quite accepting of movie tickets costing $10, a senior would not because they may still be holding on to memories of the times when movie tickets used to be under a dollar. This is why retailers mention the original prices of products right next to their discounted prices, they are providing a reference point to potential buyers.

Knowledge Nugget #6: Stories

Stories are the greatest communication tool. If you want someone to listen to your message, to remember it and share it with other, then give it to them wrapped in a story. Human beings have a natural affinity to storytelling. We tell stories and listen to them on a daily basis. Something as simple as going to the neighborhood store to get supplies can become an interesting story. In normal day-to-day conversation people communicate through stories, although they may not be doing so consciously. Say for example, you came across a great new restaurant, it’s unlikely that you will just tell your friends that xyz restaurant is amazing. You would rather narrate the whole experience you had there. And stories are easier to remember than facts. So if you provide a list of facts and figures that prove that you have a superior product do you think it has any potential to be remembered and shared compared to when you weave those same facts and figures into a story.

Although nothing can guarantee humungous number of shares, the six “STEPPS” presented above are a distillation of what Prof. Berger found after analyzing thousands of pieces of online content, and tens of thousands of products to understand what made some of them highly shareable. These are simple rules that can be applied on an idea or cause, product or service, to increase its shareability without burning a big hole in the pocket.

The CEO Magazine Review

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Wharton Professor Jonah Berger is highly readable and offers commonsensical advice. Most of these are things you will find nodding your head to as you are reading the book. So does that take away from the book, that you already know all that it presents? Well, not at all, the good professor brings over a decade of painstaking research which has helped him zero into to the foundational requirements of creating shareable content. In this age when successful viral content gets many million views, getting your message across may seem an insurmountable task what with all the biggies out their pouring in their cash reserves to come out with videos that can get folks to click the share buttons. But the framework offered by Prof. Berger can get you moving in the right direction.


Jonah Berger is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is an expert on word of mouth, viral marketing, social influence, and trends.

You may also like

Leave a Comment