Contagious | Jonah Berger


Published in: 2016

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Products, ideas, and behaviours start with a small set of individuals or organizations and spread, often from person to person, almost like a virus. The six principles of contagiousness is: (1) products and ideas that contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable, and wrapped into Stories.

SOCIAL TRANSMISSION. People share more than 16 000 words per day and every hour there are more than 100 million conversations about brands. Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20-50% of all purchasing decisions. While traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth is at least 10x more effective. It’s both more persuasive and it’s also more targeted.

ONLINE WORD OF MOUTH. Just putting up a Facebook page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice or spread the word. Fifty percent of YouTube videos have fewer than five hundred views. Only one-third of 1% get more than 1 million. Research by Keller Fay Group finds that only 7% of word of mouth happens online. Online conversations could reach a much larger audience, but offline conversations may be more in-depth.  

IMMEDIATE AND ONGOING WOM. Immediate word of mouth occurs when you pass on the details of an experience or new information you acquired soon after it occurs. In contrast, ongoing word of mouth covers the conversations you have in the weeks and months that follow – a vacation you took last year. Both types of word of mouth are valuable, but certain types are more important for certain products (theatres need instant chatter).

SOCIAL CURRENCY – WE SHARE WHAT MAKES US LOOK GOOD. Research finds that more than 40% of what people talk about is their personal experiences or personal relationships. People prefer sharing things that make them seem entertaining rather than boring, clever rather than dumb, and hip rather than dull. They use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions. To get people talking, companies need to mint social currency and give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way. There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability, (2) leverage game mechanics, i.e., racking up miles, and (3) make people feel like insiders (exclusivity and scarcity).

TRIGGERS – TOP OF MIND MEANS TIP OF TONGUE. Most conversations can be described as small talk, meaning filling conversational space. Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environment of the target audience. Frequency must also be balanced with the strength of the link. The more things a given cue is associated with, the weaker any given association. We also need to create links to prevalent triggers (Kit-Kat and coffee). Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking.

EMOTION – WHEN WE CARE, WE SHARE. People share what they find interesting and useful. Sharing to others often makes emotional experiences better. If we get promoted, telling others helps us celebrate. If we get fired, telling others helps us vent. Sharing emotions also helps us connect – it’s like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships. For example, awe-inspiring articles were 30% more likely to get shared. Anger and anxiety lead people to share because, like awe, they are high-arousal emotions. Low-arousal emotions, like sadness, decrease sharing. Select high-arousal emotions that drive people to action.

PUBLIC – BUILT TO SHOW, BUILT TO GROW. People imitate, in part, because other’s choices provide information. So, to help resolve our uncertainty, we often look to what other people are doing and following that. Psychologists call this idea social proof. We also have the famous phrase “monkey see, monkey do”.

PRACTICAL VALUE – NEWS YOU CAN USE. People like to pass along practical useful information. News others can use. Helping people do things they want to do or encouraging them to do things they should do. Faster, better, and easier. It does matter how the information is packaged, and what the audience is. We need to make it clear why our product or idea is so useful that people just have to spread the word.   

STORIES – INFORMATION TRAVELS UNDER THE GUISE OF CHATTER. Just like the trojan horse itself, stories are more than they seem. The story grabs your attention and engages your interest, but peel back the exterior, and you’ll usually find something hidden inside. The story gets sharing for many of the above reasons: social currency, emotion, and practical value. The key is not to make something go viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring company. Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefits its integral to the story. When its woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.

THE HUNDRED DOLLAR CHEESESTEAK. Howard Wein started the restaurant Barclay Prime in Philadelphia in 2004. The stats were bad. More than 25 percent of all restaurants fail within twelve months of opening their doors. Sixty percent are gone in the first three years. Wein knew he needed to generate buzz so he launched a hundred-dollar cheesesteak. And the story of this cheesesteak was contagious. People talked about the hundred-dollar cheesesteak because it has them Social Currency, was Triggered (many cheesesteaks in Philadelphia), Emotional (very surprising), Practically Valuable (useful information about high-quality steakhouse), and wrapped in a story.

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