Jonah Berger is a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the New York Times Bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He has published dozens of articles in top-tier academic journals, and popular outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Harvard Business Review often cover his research. Berger is a world-renowned expert on word of mouth, social influence, and why things go viral, and consults for a variety of companies and organizations to help them get their products, ideas, and behaviors catch on
In the following interview, Jonah talks about how Contagious came to be, how marketers can leverage the framework set forth by Contagious, recent examples of contagious content, and what’s next in his contagious career.
Amanda Healy: How did you come up with the ideas set forth in Contagious? What was the research process like?
Jonah Berger: There was a great deal of attention on social media at the time, and as a result companies began to take a more vested interest in word of mouth and how to get people to talk about their brand or product. They realized word of mouth was far more effective than advertising, but couldn’t get to the root of why people talk about certain things or share them with others.
I began teaching a course at Wharton called Contagious: How Products, Behaviors, and Ideas Catch On. It soon became one of the most popular classes, and many students were unable to enroll in time before it filled up. They would ask how they could best learn about the subject if not attending the class, and I would send them a stack of academic articles. While grateful, most admitted that the content was a bit of a snore fest. They needed something more accessible. It was an interesting space and while there were books on it by self-proclaimed “marketing gurus”, they lacked the data to support their ideologies. In writing Contagious, I aimed to combine science with stories.
AH: How did you apply the teachings of Contagious to your own book launch?
JB: The pressure was on because of the inherent expectation for a book named Contagious to be, well, contagious. Fast Company even wrote an article about how if my book was unsuccessful then the teachings put forth by it were clearly off base.
Consequently, we put a lot of thought into each aspect of the book. For example, the cover was very intentional. We used the concept of “Public” to ensure the book was easy to see and interesting to look at. Bright orange catches the eye and is an active color. We wanted people to wonder what the book was about and imitate their peers by purchasing it.
We also employed “Triggers”. As I mention in the book, “top of mind = tip of tongue”. We launched the book during cold and flu season, when there were lots of “contagious” diseases. We created orange tissues with the message “Don’t you wish your ideas were this contagious?” We liked the thought of people “sneezing” ideas. For “Social Currency” we produced a limited edition of the book, which I signed. I could go on with the practices we applied to the launch, but you get the idea!
AH: Of the six key STEPPS (Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, Stories) of creating contagious content, which are the most important and why?
JB: This is a tough question because it truly depends on the industry. All of the STEPPS are important, but it depends on who you are and what type of situation you are wrestling with. An easy one to tackle is Social Currency – everyone wants to look smart regardless of what field they may be in. They want to be the first to know something. So using social currency to your advantage is really a no brainer.
I would say that “Triggers” are the most under-utilized, yet important of the STEPPS. They’re also the most difficult to create. Companies care about their brand or products but they don’t think enough about being top of mind.
AH: What is a recent example of a contagious content or program? Why did it work?
JB: People just can’t stop talking about the ALS ice bucket challenge. It got huge so quickly and there was little to no marketing spend – it spread organically from person to person. It’s not a chain letter, and someone is publically challenging you. And because of the visibility, you are more likely to take action. Social Currency comes into play as it makes you look good to participate and/or donate to the cause. Emotion comes as a result of the surprise of seeing someone pour a bucket of ice over his or her head. The ice bucket challenge truly hit on all six STEPPS in a strategic way.
AH: How do you feel about companies intentionally creating “viral” content? For example, Applebee’s recently launched a YouTube campaign named “You’ll Never Believe How These Applebee’s Burgers are Made”. While a bit corny, it generated 270K+ views. What lessons can be learned?
JB: I actually work with companies and organizations to generate content or ideas that are contagious. From Fortune 500 financial services companies, to Google and General Mills, to small startups and medium business, the key to success is signaling without being overbearing. Being authentic without being sales-y. You have to have a Trojan horse mentality and leverage creativity to carry your message along for the ride. Create great content that people want to share that whispers your brand rather than shouts it. 3M is a fantastic company with successful products but while it’s great to say so, it’s even better to bake this message into a story; “Did you realize this is what it takes to make a paperclip?” Show the science behind how 3M makes things happen. The focus shouldn’t be on the product, the focus should be an engaging story that connects the product to a bigger idea.
AH: How can one apply Contagious to I to their personal brand?
JB: Contagious is not specific to a certain industry or area of life; it is just as applicable in business as it is in a personal sense. Think about your personal life and the gossip and information that you talk about and share. What will make you come to mind for others? What is your trigger? What’s your story and why are you valuable to your current for future company? Contagious is basic psychology, and can be applied to all sorts of aspects of life.
AH: What is the single biggest takeaway from Contagious for marketers?
JB: It’s a simple takeaway: word of mouth is ten times more effective than advertising but to make it work you need to first understand why people talk and share. Most of your business comes from existing business. How do we turn customers into advocates?
AH: What’s next for you? Are you conducting additional research? Will you author another book?
JB: At the moment I’m helping share ideas with other companies. My fall schedule is chock full helping people apply the principles of Contagious – I’m excited to teach them learn how to use this toolkit. I’m continuing my research, looking at how certain channels influence our propensity to share, both online and offline, and will likely author another book in the future.
AH: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
JB: Yes – at www.JonahBerger.com/Resources there is a free workbook for those looking to use Contagious in their line of work. It’s a great resource for small businesses and entrepreneurs in particular!