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Contagious: Why Things Catch On By Jonah Berger – Review

What makes content or ideas spread?

It’s pure fluke, or at least I thought so.

Call me a cynic… but a weasel riding on woodpeckers back?

A big HOLE in the ground…

Or a frog sitting on a bench like a human?

Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly convinced by any ‘secret formula’ to viral success.
But it got me thinking… what is it that compels us to talk about stuff and share it with our friends?
So with one unused credit available on my Audible account, I did a little digging and stumbled across “Contagious: Why Things Catch On By Jonah Berger” the reviews looked great – so I went for it!
It turns out Jonah Berger (the author) had given this question some significant thought and conducted a tonne of research to understand and dissect the physiological phenomenon behind what makes stuff spread, and to help provide answers to the following crucial questions:

  • Why do some products get more word of mouth than others?
  • Why does some online content go viral? 
  • Can you create word of mouth for your product or idea?

The book opened my eyes (or ears).
The narration is beautifully articulate and engaging which made listening to it a pleasure from start to finish.
It goes something like this…
Berger effectively explains 6 succinct steps (STEPPS) to crafting contagious content, products and ideas; STEPPS stands for: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. Berger devotes a chapter to each of these categories (I’ll paraphrase for the sake of this post).

1) Social Currency

People like to feel like ‘insiders’ – to be ‘in the know’.
Berger illustrates how we like to share stuff with others to make ourselves look good and that the stuff we choose to share serves to reinforce our sense of self-identity – to achieve our desired impressions.
Social Currency represents the value of knowledge within social groups, it makes us appear more informed or witty.
Transactions of social currency are transmitted when we share stories about cool experiences with friends, or forward them quirky emails (like a dog dressed like a giant spider).

When creating ideas, products or content Berger proposes the following guide for social currency.

Find inner remarkability

Berger explains that we need to produce something unusual, extraordinary or worthy of notice or attention to create a conversation piece. He also explains that the desire for social approval is a fundamental human trait and discusses case studies which evidence how we often exaggerate things to make us look better; we even emphasise what’s remarkable about the product to make people more inclined to talk about it.

Leverage game mechanics

The book explains how we need to keep people engaged and motivated to ensure they always want more. People like doing stuff before anyone else and care about hierarchy; we like the feeling of a high social status and if we do well at something, it makes us look good, which gives us more social currency.

Make people feel like insiders

Scarcity (not available for long or only a limited number of) and Exclusivity (only people who meet specific criteria, or knowing people or being connected to people that do) makes products seem difficult to obtain. Limited availability makes us want to act now, even if we don’t necessarily want to. “Look at me and what I was able to get”.

So when something’s not available it becomes valuable and when people have it they can let others know they have that something that’s so ‘unavailable’.

2) Triggers

Triggers happen when products and ideas are triggered by little environmental reminders for related concepts. These ideas then become more accessible so they remain top-of-mind. Through clever marketing, we can grow a habitat for triggers – like eating a Kit Kat on a tea-break.

An example where an idea comes to mind at the wrong time would be a reusable shopping bag (I’m sure you can think of better) – it’s not on our mind at the time we leave to go shopping, only when we get to the checkout…

Whilst social currency gets people talking, triggers keep them talking.

3) Emotion

When we care we share (quite simply).

Berger explains the importance of evoking particular emotions. The key emotion, according to his findings, is ‘awe’ – a sense of wonder or amazement inspired by an experience. He cites Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition (with over 13 million views) and how ‘time stopped’ when she started signing (check it out and get ready for goosebumps).

Berger talks of how ’emotion sharing’ maintains and strengthens relationships between people. He observes that something about sadness makes people less likely to share because it makes people slow down (they feel like doing nothing). The same applies to the feeling of being content because it doesn’t ignite action.

Yet, on the contrary, evoke anger or anxiety and you’re on to a winner because these emotions spark arousal and motivate a ‘fight or flight’ response. When we are aroused, we do things, we’re ‘activated’.

Arousal or anger kindles the fire within us.

Google’s ‘Parisian Love’ campaign is referenced as an example of how even the most unromantic, technical concept (like a search engine) can connect with peoples feelings and prompt an emotional reaction…

Emotions kick people into action, so don’t just tell people stuff and expect to activate a response but instead focus on connecting with their feelings.
How does your product or idea trigger emotions?

4) Public

If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.
We need to make our products and ideas more public.
Berger discusses the idea of social proof and how we look for others as a source of validation because it helps build trust and allows us to proceed with confidence.
If other people are doing something – it must be a good idea, right?
We often fall victim to the ‘heard mentality’, a famous example would be when people assume a queue must mean that something is better so it’s worth queuing for… monkey see – monkey do.
Observability has a huge impact on whether ideas or products catch on. It also spurs purchase and action. The more public, the more it triggers people to take action. Take Movember as an example of putting a cause for men’s health in the public eye.

People can’t imitate what they can’t see so let them know how many other people are doing it. Apple’s white headphones are a great example of visible social proof.

5) Practical Value

We must make the message clear and make it stand out. What is it we are trying to convey?
Share news others can use and highlight the incredible value of what’s on offer. People share useful stuff to help others because it strengthens their social bonds. So create content that’s obviously sharable to a smaller audience with short lists focused around a key topic.
Does your product allow people to help others?

6) Stories

Make stories that people want to tell and make the message integral to the narrative.
Stories are naturally passed along as people think in terms of narratives. They are carriers which help transmit information to others but it’s vital that the brand or product is woven deeply into the context of the story. For example, whilst Evian’s Roller Skating Babies campaign was a viral sensation, it didn’t lead to an increase in sales because the narrative wasn’t closely linked to Evian’s product – it was all about roller skating babies. There was no ‘viral value’.
You have to hide your brand or product within the plot but make it so integral that the story can’t be told without it.

Closing Thoughts

This audiobook has completely changed the way I think when creating new content.
So the next time you want to make something spread, try to build in these key steps to help make your product or idea more contagious:
1) Social Currency
2) Triggers
3) Emotion
4) Public
5) Practical Value
6) Stories
They could make a really useful ‘content creating’ checklist.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On