A podcast discussion of this book is also available here:
‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On By Jonah Berger (Simon and Schuster; March 5, 2013)
Table of Contents:
1. An Introduction to Contagiousness
- a. If You Want Your Message to Spread, You Need to Get People Talking, and Imitating
- b. The STEPPS
2. Social Currency
- a. On the Importance of Appearances
- b. The Appeal of the Remarkable
- c. Manufactured Remarkability
- d. On the Importance of Status
i. Our Accomplishments
ii. What Distinguishes Us
- a. Top of Mind, Tip of Tongue
- b. Indirect Triggers
- c. Natural and Artificial Triggers
- d. When Triggers Influence Behavior
i. Mars Bars, and the Planet Mars
ii. The Effect of Music on Wine Sales
iii. Kit Kat and Coffee
- a. Awe
- b. Sadness
- c. Positive and Negative Emotions
- d. Low Arousal and High Arousal Emotions
- e. Focusing on Emotions
i. The ‘Three Whys’
- a. Monkey See, Monkey Do
- b. Solving Binge-Drinking at American Universities
- c. The Movember Movement
- d. Livestrong and the Yellow Wrist-Band Campaign
6. Practical Value
- a. What’s Useful Gets Spread
- b. Giving Advice
- a. People Love Stories
- b. Stories in Advertising: Subway
- c. Valuable Virality
It is only recently, with the rise of the internet, that the term ‘viral’ has gone, well, viral. But the phenomenon of social pandemics—ideas, products and behaviors, that catch on and spread quickly and widely—has been around presumably as long as sociality itself. The phenomenon is interesting in its own right, for it says something meaningful about our psychology and how we interact. However, understanding how social pandemics work also holds great practical value, for when public service messages, charity campaigns or products and services go viral, the effect has a big impact on behavior and the bottom line.
On the mechanical side of things, understanding why something goes viral is straightforward enough: it must be something that has an impact, and that people are eager to talk about or imitate. But this just forces us to ask: what is it that makes something impactful, and ripe for sharing or imitating? We may think that our intuitions can carry us some way toward answering this. Nevertheless, getting something to go viral is certainly no easy task (as many a would-be influencer has come to find); and therefore, we may benefit from a more methodical, scientifically-minded attempt to understand the phenomenon. It is just such a project that Wharton marketing professor and writer Jonah Berger has been engaged in for much of his career, and in his new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger reports on his findings.
Berger’s research has revealed that there are 6 main factors that help explain social pandemics. They are 1. Social Currency; 2. Triggers; 3. Emotion; 4. Public; 5. Practical Value; and 6. Stories
When it comes to social currency, this refers to how good or important something makes us look for sharing it. We want to look bright, funny, entertaining, knowledgeable, prestigious etc. in the eyes of others; and therefore, we are more likely to mention those things that make us appear so. Certain talking points are naturally more interesting than others, just as certain characteristics are naturally more noteworthy; however, ideas, products and behaviors can all be presented or manipulated in certain ways to allow them to partake more of each (for example, a blender may not appear so interesting, but highlighting just how powerful it is by way of having it mash-up an iPod can make it appear a whole lot more interesting—and hence more worthy of sharing).
When it comes to triggers, this refers to stimuli in the environment that are associated with other phenomena, and that remind us of them. For example, peanut butter is highly associated with jelly, and so the mention of the former often ‘triggers’ the thought of the latter. Ideas, products and behaviors that are naturally associated with triggers that we encounter more often are more likely to be brought to mind than others, thus increasing the chances that they will be both talked about and influence our behavior, and hence spread. Natural associations often work best; however, associations between unrelated items can also be established through clever advertising campaigns (such as the Kit-Kat bar being associated with a coffee break).
When it comes to emotion, this refers to the fact that phenomena that evoke highly arousing emotions, both positive and negative (such as awe, excitement, anger and anxiety), are more likely to be shared, and hence spread; while phenomena that evoke less arousing emotions (such as sadness and contentment) are less likely to be shared. The share-ability of things that evoke highly arousing emotions helps explain why Susan Boyle went viral.
When it comes to public, this refers to how prevalent something is in the public eye. Things that are highly public and visible are more likely to be talked about and imitated than those that are more private. Nevertheless, there are ways to bring private phenomena into the public sphere. For example, donating to a charity tends to be a rather private affair. However, both the Movember movement in support of colon cancer (featuring the highly conspicuous mustache), and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign in support of cancer (featuring the yellow wrist-band), managed to bring charitable support into the public sphere, thus contributing to the success of these campaigns.
Practical value refers to the fact that people like to be helpful to others, and so anything that is particularly useful is more likely to be shared than that which is less so. This helps explain why so many articles on health and education matters are so widely shared, and also why an otherwise nondescript video about shucking corn (called ‘Clean Ears Everytime’) went viral on YouTube.
When it comes to stories, this refers to the fact that people tend to enjoy telling and hearing stories. Therefore, ideas, products and behaviors that are wrapped in narratives (and especially compelling narratives) are more likely to be shared than those that are just presented as information. Google’s ‘Parisian Love’ commercial, The Dove ‘Evolution’ commercial, and Panda’s ‘Never say no to Panda’ campaign are all good examples of products being wrapped in compelling narratives.
Here is Jonah Berger introducing his new book:
*To check out the book at Amazon.com, or purchase it, please click here: Contagious: Why Things Catch On. The book is also available as an audio file from Audible.com here: Audio Book
What follows is a full executive summary of Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Beger
1. An Introduction to Contagiousness
a. If You Want Your Message to Spread, You Need to Get People Talking, and Imitating
What do politicians, advertisers, charity organizations and public health officials all have in common? They all want their message to catch on and spread (loc. 322). But how to achieve this? Advertising is the immediate answer, of course. You can’t get your message to spread unless you put it out there (loc. 120). But more and more it’s becoming clear that advertising alone just isn’t enough. Even high priced and aggressive ad campaigns can fail. And that’s because just getting a message out there doesn’t mean it’s going to catch on. For that to happen, you need to get people talking, sharing and imitating (loc. 338). Social influence via word of mouth and apeing.
As Berger explains, “social influence has a huge impact on whether products, ideas, and behaviors catch on. A word-of-mouth conversation by a new customer leads to an almost $200 increase in restaurant sales. A five-star review on Amazon.com leads to approximately twenty more books sold than a one-star review. Doctors are more likely to prescribe a new drug if other doctors they know have prescribed it. People are more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit and get fatter if their friends become obese. In fact while traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth from everyday Joes and Janes is at least ten times more effective” (loc. 151).
So, just what gets us talking and influences our behavior? This is the very question that Berger has spent much of his career investigating (loc. 307). As the author explains, “I’ve spent the last ten years, most recently as a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studying this and related questions. With an incredible array of collaborators I’ve examined things like *Why certain New York Times articles or YouTube videos go viral *Why some products get more word of mouth *Why certain political messages spread *When and why certain baby names catch on or die out *When negative publicity increases, versus decreases, sales… All with the goal of understanding social influence and what drives certain things to become popular” (loc. 317).
b. The STEPPS
In the course of his research, Berger and his collaborators have identified 6 factors that emerge time and again in connection with things that have managed to catch on and spread. As Berger explains, “Just as recipes often call for sugar to make something sweet, we kept finding the same ingredients in ads that went viral, news articles that were shared, or products that received lots of word of mouth. After analyzing hundreds of contagious messages, products, and ideas, we noticed that the same six ‘ingredients,’ or principles, were often at work. Six key STEPPS, as I call them, that cause things to be talked about, shared, and imitated” (loc. 351). As mentioned in the introduction, the factors that make up these STEPPS are 1. Social Currency; 2. Triggers; 3. Emotion; 4. Public; 5. Practical Value; and 6. Stories . Let us now explore each, one by one.
2. Social Currency
a. On the Importance of Appearances
One thing that we certainly like to talk about are things that make us look good or important in the eyes of others. Being the social creatures that we are, we want to be liked and thought highly of by those around us (loc. 573), and this fact often finds its way into what we talk about. As Berger notes, “what people talk about… affects what others think of them. Telling a funny joke at a party makes people think we’re witty. Knowing all the info about last night’s big game or celebrity dance-off makes us seem cool or in the know. So, not surprisingly, people prefer sharing things that make them seem entertaining rather than boring, clever rather than dumb, and hip rather than dull” (loc. 524). Just to illustrate this last point, “we talk about how we got a reservation at the hottest restaurant in town and skip the story about how the hotel we chose faced a parking lot” (loc. 528).
When it comes to the image we portray of ourselves, there are three things in particular—according to Berger—that tend to be high up on the list: we want to appear interesting, accomplished, and distinguished (these 3 are not necessarily mutually exclusive). Therefore, things that make us appear such tend to get talked about more than others, hence increasingly the likelihood that they will spread.
b. The Appeal of the Remarkable
Let us begin with our desire to appear interesting. A big part of being interesting, Berger notes, is discussing things that are remarkable in some way (loc. 573), where “remarkable things are defined as unusual, extraordinary, or worthy of notice or attention. Something can be remarkable because it is novel, surprising, extreme…” (loc. 569). Hearing something remarkable naturally excites us, and captures our interest, so relaying something remarkable makes us look interesting in the eyes of others (loc. 573). Accordingly, people tend to enjoy passing on remarkable tid bits. Or so goes the theory.
In order to test this theory, Berger and a colleague, fellow Wharton professor Raghu Iyengar, had volunteers rate different products based on how remarkable they are. As the author explains, “we examined a huge list of 6,500 products and brands. Everything from big brands like Wells Fargo and Facebook to small brands like the Village Squire Restaurant and Jack Link’s. From every industry you can imagine. Banking and bagel shops to dish soaps and department stores” (loc. 580).
Once the results were in, Berger and Iyengar ran up the results against which brands received the most mentions on the internet (loc. 577). Here’s what they found: “the verdict was clear: more remarkable products like Facebook or Hollywood movies were talked about almost twice as often as less remarkable brands like Wells Fargo and Tylenol. Other research finds similar effects. More interesting tweets are shared more, and more interesting or surprising articles are more likely to make the New York Times Most E-Mailed list” (loc. 580).
c. Manufactured Remarkability
So, remarkable things have a leg up on less remarkable ones in terms of contagiousness. But this does not mean that less remarkable products cannot edge their way into the remarkability conversation (thus increasing their spread-ability). It just takes a bit of clever marketing and/or advertising. Take Snapple for example. On its own, Snapple is not a terribly remarkable product (to say the least). However, the executive VP of Snapple’s ad agency, Marke Rubenstein, decided to run a campaign wherein the underside of Snapple caps were blazoned with interesting and quirky facts: “Fact #12, for example, notes that kangaroos can’t walk backward. Fact #73 says that the average person spends two weeks over his/her lifetime waiting for traffic lights to change” (loc. 557). One more: “Real Fact #27: A ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber” (loc. 539).
The quirky little facts were a huge hit; and, in fact, they helped Snapple go contagious. As Berger explains, “Snapple facts are so infectious that they’ve become embedded in popular culture. Hundreds of websites chronicle the various facts. Comedians poke fun at them in their routines. Some of the facts are so unbelievable that people even debate back and forth whether they are actually correct” (loc. 561).
So, Snapple managed to tie remarkability to its product, and reaped the rewards. However, a second, and even better strategy when it comes to remarkability is to identify the inner remarkability of a product, and put it on display. For instance, a blender may not seem like such a remarkable product, but at least one blender-maker managed to identify something remarkable about its product: it was incredibly powerful—so powerful it could blend just about anything, from rakes, to golf balls (and clubs), to marbles, to iPods and iPads (loc. 269). Putting this remarkable feature on display in a video (and then a series of videos) made the videos go viral, and helped the product sell like hot cakes (loc. 287).
I think you’ll agree, this is just about as remarkable as a blender can get:
Here’s a link to the whole series of videos: Will It Blend?
For Berger, there is an important lesson here (and it has nothing to do with golf). The lesson is that even very mundane products often possess an inner remarkability. If we can only identify the inner remarkability of a product, and put in on display, we can increase its spread-ability and contagiousness (loc. 290).
d. On the Importance of Status
Talking about remarkable things can certainly make us appear interesting, which tends to contribute to our being liked—but we humans tend to want not just approval, but to be thought highly of, and held in high esteem. In other words, we want to be regarded as having status and prestige. As Berger explains, “just like many other animals, people care about hierarchy. Apes engage in status displays and dogs try to figure out who is the alpha. Humans are no different. We like feeling that we’re high status, top dog, or leader of the pack” (loc. 685). Thus we enjoy engaging in things that we excel at, and being a part of exclusive groups and organizations—and also talking about these things to others.
i. Our Accomplishments
When it comes to our accomplishments, for example, “people love boasting about … their golf handicaps, how many people follow them on Twitter, or their kids’ SAT scores” (loc. 690). Once again, as with our desire to be considered interesting, our desire to feel (and be considered) accomplished can be harnessed by businesses in order to increase the contagiousness of their products and services.
Take video games for example. Video games are naturally conducive to giving us a sense of accomplishment, because our achievements are rendered in terms of a numeric value or level achieved—which is very straightforward and intuitively pleasing (loc. 699). As we get better at a game, our high score increases, and/or we achieve a higher level—and this number, and/or level can be boasted to others (which many who are into games are want to do). And this, of course, can be exploited. As Berger explains, “by encouraging players to post their achievements on Facebook, online game makers have managed to convince people to proclaim loudly—even boast—that they spend hours playing computer games” (loc. 714)—thus helping to spread the word about the games themselves.
Now, while video games may enjoy a natural advantage over other products in this respect, this does not mean that other products cannot partake of this advantage. As Berger notes, virtually and product can be ‘gamified’ (loc. 699). As the author explains, “some domains like golf handicaps and SAT scores have built-in metrics. People can easily see how they are doing and compare themselves with others without needing any help. But if a product or idea doesn’t automatically do that, it needs to be ‘gamified.’ Metrics need to be created or recorded that let people see where they stand—for example, icons for how much they have contributed to a community message board or different colored tickets for season holders” (loc. 699).
A good example of the gamification strategy can be seen in frequent flyer miles. As Berger explains, “today, more than 180 million people accumulate frequent flier miles when they travel. These programs have motivated millions of people to pledge their loyalty to a single airline and stop over in random cities or fly inopportune times just to ensure that they accrue miles on their desired carrier” (loc. 659).
Of course, frequent flyer miles can be redeemed for “free travel, hotel stays, and other perks” (loc. 659). However, the vast majority of people never redeem their frequent flyer miles. As Berger explains, “most people never cash in the miles they accumulate. In fact, less than 10 percent of miles are redeemed every year. Experts estimate that as many as 10 trillion frequent flier miles are sitting in accounts, unused. Enough to travel to the moon and back 19.4 million times” (loc. 659).
So why, then, do so many of us collect frequent flier miles? It’s fun: it gives us a sense of accomplishment, and the more miles we collect, the more accomplished we feel (loc. 663). Many are so proud of just how many miles they’ve racked up that they’re willing to boast about it to others (loc. 692, 700), thus helping to spread the word about their particular airline of choice (loc. 692).
Product punch cards, and hierarchically ranked credit cards operate on the same principle (loc. 673, 719). If you’re looking to gamify a product, here’s Berger’s advice: find a way to quantify performance (loc. 695), and preferably include a hierarchy of levels that is simple and intuitive to understand (loc. 716).
ii. What Distinguishes Us
Of course, being accomplished in something is not the only way to exhibit status. Often it is enough simply to be part of a group or organization that is exclusive in some way.
When it comes to products and services, what this suggests is that it may be an effective strategy to limit access to said products and services in order to boost buzz, and ultimately achieve success. Now, this may sound somewhat counterintuitive, since one would think that to increase sales one would want ones products and services to be accessible to as many people as possible. Still, several businesses have shown that imposing exclusivity can actually lead to great success.
Take the New York bar ‘Please Don’t Tell,’ for instance. Please Don’t Tell is located in the East Village, smack dab in the middle of a four-black area that features more than 60 drinking establishments (loc. 453). The bar does not have a sign (loc. 463)—and, in fact, it is only accessible through a secret door in an old phone booth at the back of a hot dog restaurant, called Crif Dogs (loc. 459). The bar has never once ran an ad indicating its whereabouts (loc. 467). So, how’s business? It’s hoping! As Berger explains, “since opening in 2007 it has been one of the most sought-after drink reservations in New York City. It takes bookings only the day of, and the reservation line opens at 3:00 p.m., sharp. Spots are first-come, first-served. Callers madly hit redial again and again in the hopes of cutting through the busy signals. By 3:30 all spots are booked” (loc. 467).
To be sure, Please Don’t Tell has an excellent cocktail menu—but so do many of the 60 drinking establishments in the same neighborhood. So, what sets Please Don’t Tell apart? It’s a secret (well, more or less). You have to be in the know to know about it; and of course, when you’re in the know, you let others know (so they know you’re in the know). Please Don’t Tell relies on word of mouth alone, and it gets a ton (it’s also pretty remarkable, so let’s not take that away from it either [loc. 472]).
Another example of a business that has successfully exploited the exclusivity angle is an online retail company called Rue La La. Rue La La sells designer goods, but what makes it exclusive is that you can only gain access to the site if you receive an invitation from an existing member (loc. 751). What’s more, the goods themselves are only sold through ‘flash sales’ that last “twenty-four hours or a couple of days at most” (loc. 751); and often the sales are sold-out within a couple of hours, or even minutes (loc. 765). There’s exclusivity on 2 counts here: one to gain access to the site, and one to gain access to the sales. And on the strength of this limited access, the site has done extremely well (the founder, Ben Fischman, sold Rue La La, together with another online retail business that he owned ,for $350 million in 2009 [loc. 751]).
So, certain products and services may be naturally more exclusive and distinguished than others. However, exclusivity can be manufactured. This may not be a strategy that is effective for all products or services, but it can be effective for some.
a. Top of Mind, Tip of Tongue
Of course, social currency is not the only thing that motivates our behavior and our lips. As Berger points out, both our behavior and our conversations are often influenced simply by what is around us (loc. 1107). In other words, things in our immediate environment often trigger us to behave in certain ways, and influence us to speak about certain things, and this has important repercussions for social pandemics.
Beginning with our conversations, as Berger points out, “most conversations can be described as small talk. We chat with parents at our kids’ soccer games or schmooze with coworkers in the break room. These conversations are less about finding interesting things to say to make us look good than they are about filling conversational space. We don’t want to sit there silently, so we talk about something. Anything.” (loc. 1107). And what do we talk about when we just want to fill conversational space? Usually whatever is top of mind, and often enough this is something that is happening all around us (loc. 1110). For example, we talk about the weather, or the construction we passed on the way into work, or the sports event we saw recently (loc. 1110).
And the same holds for brands and products. Certain brands and products are simply used more frequently than others, and the research indicates that these products tend to get more mentions in our daily conversations than others—even when these others are far more exciting and interesting. For example, the marketing company BzzAgent (which gives away free products to hundreds of thousands of people in return for them reporting on the conversations they have about said products [loc. 899]), has found that more frequently used products “got 15 percent more word of mouth. Even mundane products like Ziploc bags and moisturizer received lots of buzz because people were triggered to think about them so frequently. People who use moisturizer often apply it at least once a day. People often use Ziploc bags after meals to wrap up leftovers. These everyday activities make those products more top of mind and, as a result, lead them to be talked about more” (loc. 1119).
b. Indirect Triggers
Now, it is not just the use of a product or brand (a direct trigger) that can bring it to the top of one’s mind. Oftentimes the presence of something that is in some way related to, or associated with it, can do the same trick. As Berger explains, “triggers can also be indirect. Seeing a jar of peanut butter not only triggers us to think about peanut butter, it also makes us think about its frequent partner, jelly” (loc. 1000).
c. Natural and Artificial Triggers
Now, many products have things that are naturally associated with them, and that naturally trigger the thought of them. For example, “Mars bars and Mars the planet are already naturally connected. The Mars company didn’t need to do anything to create that link. Likewise, French music is a natural trigger for French wine, and the last day of the workweek is a natural trigger for Rebecca Black’s song ‘Friday.’” (loc. 1188).
However, products can also come to be associated with things artificially, by way of being paired with them frequently—say by a clever ad campaign.
For example, if I were to say ‘whaaaaaaasssuuuuuuuuuup’ to you, you might think of Budweiser beer. That’s because Budweiser managed to take something as common, neutral and mundane as greeting someone, spruce it up, and make it an international sensation associated with its product. For a good spell of time, every time a young man smack dab in the middle of Budweiser’s demographic greeted another young man smack dab in the middle of Budweiser’s demographic, the two were triggered to think of the Budweiser brand. This, of course, increased the likelihood that they would talk about the brand, and this buzz helped drive sales (loc. 1136).
Here’s the commercial that spawned the sensation, just for old time’s sake:
d. When Triggers Influence Behavior
i. Mars Bars, and the Planet Mars
Actually, effectively tying a trigger to a brand not only stands to increase sales indirectly, through spurring buzz, it can also increase sales directly (or at least subconsciously), by way of reminding an individual of the product when it comes time to load the shopping cart. For example, it was mentioned above that the Mars bar is naturally associated with the planet Mars. Well, it turns out that in 1997, when the planet Mars was getting an awful lot of mentions in the media (due to the expedition of the Space Shuttle Pathfinder), the Mars bar enjoyed a big spike in sales (loc. 1010). The buzz about the Pathfinder expedition at the time put Mars on people’s minds, and this impacted people’s decisions when it came to buying candy bars (loc. 1010).
ii. The Effect of Music on Wine Sales
This effect has also been witnessed under more controlled conditions. For example, the music researchers Adrian North, David Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick decided to perform a little experiment at a grocery store. The experiment involved testing the effect of different types of music on wine sales. Specifically, on some days the researchers played French music over the sound system, while on other days they played German music. Wouldn’t you know it, “when French music was playing, most customers bought French wine. When German music was playing most bought German wine. By triggering consumers to think of different countries, the music affected sales. The music made ideas related to those countries more accessible, and those accessible ideas spilled over to affect behavior” (loc. 1017).
iii. Kit Kat and Coffee
And again, while French music and German music may be naturally associated with French and German wine respectively, there is nothing to say that the same affect cannot also be achieved by way of artificial triggers. Take Kit Kat, for instance. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Kit Kat bar enjoyed an enormous amount of success (based largely on their very popular ‘Give me a break, give me a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar’ gingle [loc. 1155]). By 2007, however, “the brand had run out of gas… Sales were declining around 5 percent a year, and the brand had contracted considerably. People still loved the product, but consumer interest was way down” (loc. 1160).
So Hershey (the maker of the Kit Kat bar) decided to launch another advertising campaign. The director of said advertising campaign, Colleen Chorak, started out with a little research, and she found two things that stuck out: “consumers often ate Kit Kats to take a break, and many consumed it in coordination with a hot beverage” (loc. 1168).
This got Chorak to thinking about coffee (loc. 1168). After all, coffee is one of the most, if not the most popular hot beverages in North America, and even the entire planet. What if an association could be formed between coffee and Kit Kats? So Chorak set to work and organized the ad campaign. As Berger explains, “described as ‘a break’s best friend,’ the radio spots featured the candy bar sitting on a counter next to a cup of coffee, or someone grabbing a coffee and asking for a Kit Kat. Kit Kat and coffee. Coffee and Kit Kat. The spots repeatedly paired the two together” (loc. 1173).
So, how did the campaign do? It was an enormous success. As the author notes, “by the end of the year it had lifted sales by 8 percent. After twelve months, sales were up by a third. Kit Kat and coffee put Kit Kat back on the map. The then-$300 million brand has since grown to $500 million” (loc. 1173). And all because the ad campaign got people to associate a very common beverage (coffee), and a very common experience (the coffee break), with the Kit Kat bar.
The upshot: triggers help put things on people’s brains and breath. And the more frequent the trigger, the better the chance that that which is associated with it will be both thought of and talked about (and hence catch on).
e. Diluted Triggers
One more thing, though, while a trigger that comes up more frequently has a better chance of contributing to contagiousness than one which comes up less often, we must also factor in how many other things the trigger is already associated with. Generally, the more things a trigger is associated with, the more diluted will be the tendency to think about any one of those things. As Berger explains, “the color red, for example, is associated with many things: roses, love, Coca-Cola, and fast cars, to name just a few. As a result of being ubiquitous, it’s not a particularly strong trigger for any of these ideas. Ask different people to say the word that first comes to mind when they think of red and you’ll see what I mean… Linking a product or idea with a stimulus that is already associated with many things isn’t as effective as forging a fresher, more original link” (loc. 1226).
Another thing that certainly has an impact on us, and often gets us talking, is content that touches us emotionally. However, it is worth asking whether we are more likely to share content that appeals to certain emotions over others. After all, there are a wide range of emotions, so we shouldn’t necessarily assume that each will contribute to contagiousness as much as any other. This very line of thinking occurred to Berger, and so he decided to get to the bottom of the issue by way of conducting some research. This time around, Berger chose to look at articles from the New York Times. The New York Times tracks which of its articles are shared the most by way of its Most E-Mailed list, so Berger had a way to measure the share-ability of each article.
Now, Berger already had a hunch that articles that evoked one emotion in particular would be more likely to be shared, and that emotion was awe—where awe is defined as “ the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself” (loc. 1419).
In order to test this hypothesis, Berger had his research assistants read over a large selection of articles from the New York Times, and give each a score in terms of how awe-inspiring it was. For example, “articles about a new treatment for AIDS or a hockey goalie who plays even though he has brain cancer evoked lots of awe. Articles about holiday shopping bargains evoked little or no awe” (loc. 1427).
Berger then consulted the New York Times Most E-Mailed list to see if there was a connection between the awe-someness of an article and its likelihood of achieving the list. Here’s Berger to explain the results: “our intuition was right: awe boosted sharing. Awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list” (loc. 1431).
So, awe-someness was shown to be a winner when it comes to contributing to contagiousness. But what about other emotions? Do all emotions contribute to contagiousness? Berger and his team decided to test sadness next. Once again, Berger had his assistants read over a large number of articles from the New York Times. This time, though, they evaluated the articles based on how much sadness they evoked (loc. 1468). For example, “articles about things like someone paying tribute to his deceased grandmother were scored as evoking a good deal of sadness, while articles about things like a winning golfer were scored as low sadness” (loc. 1468).
So, were the articles that evoked sadness more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list than those that did not? Nope: “in fact, sadness had the opposite effect. Sadder articles were actually 16 percent less likely to make the Most E-Mailed list” (loc. 1468).
c. Positive and Negative Emotions
So, it is not the case that all emotions boost contagiousness. While awe contributes to contagiousness, sadness inhibits it. But why? Well, one of the ways that we parse emotions has to do with whether they are positive or negative (loc. 1505). Awe is considered a positive emotion, as are emotions like excitement and contentment (loc. 1473, 1505). Sadness, on the other hand, is considered a negative emotion, as are emotions like anger and anxiety (loc. 1469, 1493). So, does the contagiousness factor of an emotion have to do with how positive or negative it is? In order to find out, Berger and his team decided to inquire after two more negative emotions next: anger and anxiety (loc. 1493).
Once again, Berger had his research assistants scour through a host of articles from the New York Times and rate them in terms of how much anger or anxiety they evoked. For example, “articles about things like Wall Street fat cats getting hefty bonuses during the economic downturn induced lots of anger, while articles about topics like summer T-shirts evoked no anger at all. Articles about things like the stock market tanking made people pretty anxious, while articles about things like Emmy Award nominees evoked no anxiety” (loc. 1498).
If it is the case that negative emotions inhibit contagiousness, the articles that scored high in evoking anger or anxiety should have shown a reduced likelihood of making the Most E-Mailed list. So did they? Nope: “in fact, it was the opposite. Articles that evoked anger or anxiety were more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list” (loc. 1502). So much for the positive emotion/negative emotion theory of contagiousness. Time to head back to the drawing board.
d. Low Arousal and High Arousal Emotions
At this point it helps to know that in recent years psychologists have begun to go beyond the positive/negative dichotomy when it comes to parsing emotions. Specifically, they have begun to employ a second dimension to help them classify the different emotions. And this second dimension has to do with physiological arousal, or activation (loc. 1505).
This new classificatory dimension comes from the fact that certain emotions tend to be highly arousing, while others tend to be much less so. As Berger explains, “think about the last time you gave a speech in front of a large audience. Or when your team was on the verge of winning a huge game. Your pulse raced, your palms sweated, and you could feel your heart pounding in your chest. You may have had similar feelings the last time you saw a scary movie or went camping and heard a weird noise outside your tent… Every sense was heightened. Your muscles were tensed and you were alert to every sound, smell and movement. This is arousal” (loc. 1510). Other emotions, on the other hand, are much less arousing: “Take sadness. Whether dealing with a tough breakup or the death of a beloved pet, sad people tend to power down. They put on some cozy clothes, curl up on the couch, and eat a bowl of ice cream. Contentment also deactivates. When people are content, they relax. Their heart rates slow, and their blood pressure decreases” (loc. 1521).
As you may have noticed, there really is no connection between whether an emotion is positive or negative, and whether it is low or high in arousal. Some highly arousing emotions are negative and some are positive, and likewise with low arousal emotions (loc. 1517-25).
Perhaps, then, arousal holds the key to unlocking the mystery of which emotions contribute to contagiousness and which inhibit it. In order to test this theory, Berger and his team headed back to the data one more time (loc. 1536). And this time, they did indeed find success! As Berger explains, “understanding arousal helps integrate the different results we had found so far. Anger and anxiety lead people to share because, like awe, they are high-arousal emotions. They kindle the fire, activate people, and drive them to take action… Low-arousal emotions, however, like sadness, decrease sharing. Contentment has the same effect. Contentment isn’t a bad feeling. Being content feels pretty good. But people are less likely to talk about or share things that make them content because contentment decreases arousal” (loc. 1547).
For Berger, the contagiousness of high-arousal emotions also helps explain why many funny things go viral (loc. 1540). As the author explains, “arousal is also one reason funny things get shared. Videos about the aftereffects of a kid having anesthesia at the dentist (‘David After Dentist’), a baby biting his brother’s finger (‘Charlie Bit My Finger—Again!’), or a unicorn going to Candy Mountain and getting his kidney stolen (‘Charlie the Unicorn’) are some of the most popular on YouTube. Taken together they have been viewed more than 600 million times. But while it is tempting to say that these things went viral simply because they are funny, a more fundamental process is at work… Just like inspiring things, or those that make us angry, funny content is shared because amusement is a high-arousal emotion” (loc. 1544).
e. Focusing on Emotions
For Berger, the fact that high arousal emotions tend to increase sharing carries important implications for those who are trying to spread their message. For it implies that the content of this message should include not only the important facts, but that it should also be couched in the appropriate emotions. As Berger explains, “marketing messages tend to focus on information. Public health officials note how much healthier teens will be if they don’t smoke or if they eat more vegetables. People think that if they just lay out the facts in a clear and concise way, it will tip the scales. Their audience will pay attention, weigh the information, and act accordingly. But many times information is not enough… And that is where emotion comes in. Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action” (loc. 1581).
Now, for certain ideas, products, and behaviors this will be easier than others. Some things just have high emotional value bound up in them more naturally than others. For example, “it seems easier to get people excited about a new, hip lounge than logistics management. Pets and babies seem to lend themselves to emotional appeals more than banking or nonprofit financial stratedgy does” (loc. 1581). Nevertheless, Berger insists that if we mine deep enough we can identify the emotional content of virtually any idea, product or behavior.
i. The ‘Three Whys’
One strategy that helps here is one that has been recommended by the business writers Chip and Dan Heath, which may be referred to as the ‘Three Whys’ (loc. 1625). Here’s how it works: Take any idea, product or behavior and ask ‘why is this important?’ Then take your answer to this question and ask again ‘why is this important?’ Finally, take your answer to this second question and ask yourself a third time ‘why is this important’ (loc. 1625). By probing ever-deeper into the importance of an idea in this way, we naturally uncover the emotional value behind it (loc. 1629).
Take an online search engine, for instance. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be much emotional content here. But watch what happens when we apply the ‘Three Whys’: “Why is search important? Because people want to find information quickly. Why do they want to do that? So they can get answers to what they are looking for. Why do they want those answers? So they can connect with people, achieve their goals, and fulfill their dreams. Now that’s starting to get emotional” (loc. 1630). Now we just need a clever way to parcel this message up and send it out. I think it’s fair to say that Google did just that:
a. Monkey See, Monkey Do
Another factor that influences both talk and behavior is what we see others do. The expression ‘monkey see, monkey do’ did not get coined by accident (loc. 1880). We humans are very good imitators. As Berger notes, “people often imitate those around them. They dress in the same styles as their friends, pick entrees preferred by other diners, and reuse hotel towels more whey they think others are doing the same. People are more likely to vote if their spouse votes, more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit, and more likely to get fat if their friends become obese. Whether making trivial choices like what brand of coffee to buy or important decisions like paying their taxes, people tend to conform to what others are doing” (loc. 1786).
If then, we are trying to get our ideas, products and behaviors to spread, one important factor is simply to make sure they’re as visible and in the public eye as possible (loc. 2052). Companies do this all the time when they apply their logos and insignia to their wares. For example, “Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike and Burberry all garnish their products with brand names or distinctive logos and patterns. For sale signs broadcast which Realtor the seller is working with” (loc. 1981).
Aside from directly applying a company name or logo to a particular product, there are also more subtle ways to remind people that others are using ones products. Sometimes simply designing something in a distinctive way is enough to tip others off about who made it. The peculiar sound that the Microsoft operating system makes when it gets booted up is a good example (loc. 1993). Not to be outdone, Apple’s white headphones are another good example (loc. 1993). Outside of the electronics industry, Pringles scored a hit with their tubular chip dispenser (loc. 1993).
There’s even hope for products that are normally consumed in private. For example, just make sure that when people buy it you give them a nice, sturdy, reusable bag to bring it home in (loc. 2064). Cheap swag with high visibility, like coffee mugs, can also be successful (loc. 2072).
b. Solving Binge-Drinking at American Universities
Increasing visibility can also work outside of the business realm. Take the phenomenon of binge-drinking in American universities, for example. It’s a big problem. As Berger explains, “more than three-quarters of American college students under the legal drinking age report drinking alcohol. But the bigger concern [is] the quantity that students consume. Forty-four percent of students binge-drink, and more than 1,800 U.S. college students die every year from alcohol-related injuries. Another 600,000 are injured while under the influence of alcohol” (loc. 1853).
At the University of Arizona, the institution’s director of health promotion and preventive services, Kerry Johannessen, decided to do something about it (loc. 1852). So she started a campaign featuring posters and ad spots highlighting the dangers of binge-drinking. As Berger explains, “she papered the campus with flyers detailing the negative consequences of bingeing. She placed ads in the school paper with information about how alcohol affects cognitive functioning and performance in school. She even set up a coffin at the student center with statistics about the number of alcohol-related injuries” (loc. 1853). Sadly, despite all of Johannessen’s good intentions, the campaign was a flop (loc. 1856).
So Johannessen decided to go back and do a bit more investigating. Specifically, she went to the students directly to ask them their opinions about binge-drinking (loc. 1856). What she found surprised her: “most students said they were not comfortable with the drinking habits of their peers. Sure, they might enjoy a casual drink once in a while, just like most adults. But they weren’t into the heavy binge drinking they saw among other students… So while their peers seemed fine with the drinking culture, they weren’t” (loc. 1857).
It dawned on Johannessen that there was a disconnect between what the students actually thought about binge-drinking, and what they perceived these attitudes to be among their peers. Specifically, most students had overestimated how much binge-drinking was occurring among their peers, and how acceptable it was thought to be (loc. 1864). So Johannessen decided to leverage this disconnect in order to give the students a new perspective. As Berger explains, “she created ads in the school newspaper that merely stated the true norm. That most students had only one or two drinks, and 69 percent have four or fewer drinks, when they party. She didn’t focus on the health consequences of drinking, she focused on social information. By showing students that the majority of their peers weren’t bingeing, she helped them realize that others felt the same way. That most students didn’t want to binge. This corrected the false inferences students had made about others’ behavior and led them to reduce their own drinking as a result. By making the private public, Johannessen was able to decrease heavy drinking by almost 30 percent” (loc. 1955).
c. The Movember Movement
Making the private public has also been shown to work in the realm of charitable donation. As noted in the introduction, supporting a charity tends to be a rather private affair. Take cancer, for example. As Berger explains, “whether you support a particular cancer fund is typically a private matter. If you’re like most people, you probably have little idea which of your neighbors, coworkers, or even friends have donated to help fight this disease. So there is no way for their behavior to influence yours or vice versa” (loc. 1917). However, at least two cancer charity campaigns have managed to overturn this state of affairs.
The first is known as the Movember movement. As many will know, the Movember movement is a prostate cancer charity drive that runs every year in the month of November. Campaigners do their best to grow a mustache, and because this makes them look utterly foolish (a few lucky Tom Selick-types notwithstanding), people recognize what a sacrifice they are making on behalf of the charity, and so pledge to support them in their cause.
The mustaches get people talking (and laughing), and this acts as great publicity for the drive. It’s a huge success. Indeed, the idea started out as a silly contest among a group of Australians (‘let’s grow-out our mustaches for a month and see which one looks the stupidest, er best’), but when they saw how fun it was they decided to make it an annual event—and also put a cause behind it (loc. 1921). “So they formed the Movember Foundation and adopted the tagline ‘Changing the face of men’s health.’ That year 450 guys raised $54,000 for the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia. It grew from there. Next year there were more than 9,000 participants. The following year, more than 50,000. Soon the annual event started spreading around the world. In 2007, events were launched everywhere from Ireland and Denmark to South Africa and Taiwan. The organization has since raised more than $174 million worldwide. Not bad for a few tufts of facial hair” (loc. 1930).
d. Livestrong and the Yellow Wrist-Band Campaign
Another good example of a cancer charity that took the private public is Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong charity. In 2003, Armstrong and his sponsor, Nike, were mulling over ways to promote his charity, The Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Scott MacEachern, Nike’s representative, came up with a couple of ideas. One idea was to stage a charity bike ride across America (loc. 2023). The second idea was to issue a set of wristbands (5 million of them) that Nike would manufacture and sell, donating all of the proceeds to the foundation. At first Armstrong’s associates, and even Armstrong himself, were very skeptical about the wrist-band idea. As Berger reports, “the foundation thought the bands would be a dud. Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s agent, thought they had no chance of success and called them ‘a stupid idea.’ Even Armstrong was incredulous, saying, ‘What are we going to do with the 4.9 million that we don’t sell?’ (loc. 2031).
But MacEachern persisted, and eventually the wrist bands were made. Importantly, MacEachern made the wrist-bands yellow. As Berger explains, “yellow was chosen because it is the color of the race leader’s jersey in the Tour de France. It’s also not strongly associated with either gender, making it easy for both men and women to wear. But it is also smart from an observability perspective. Yellow is a color people almost never see. And it is striking. Yellow stands out against almost anything people wear, making it easy to see a Livestrong wristband from far away” (loc. 2040).
As you may be aware, the Livestrong wristbands turned out to be an enormous success. Indeed, Armstrong and his agents couldn’t have been more wrong about the idea (happily for them). As Berger explains, the public visibility of the wristbands “helped make the product a huge success. Not only did Nike sell the first 5 million bands, but it did so within the first six months of release. Production couldn’t keep up with demand. The wristbands were such a hot item that people started bidding ten times the retail price to snag them on eBay. In the end, more than 85 million wristbands were sold… Not bad for a little piece of plastic” (loc. 2040).
The message is clear: no matter the idea, product or behavior you are trying to spread, make sure you make an effort to make it as public as possible.
6. Practical Value
a. What’s Useful Gets Spread
It was mentioned above that one of the things that gets us talking are those things that make us look good and/or important. However, it is not the case that we are always so self-centered. People enjoy helping others too, and for that reason we also like to share things that are useful to those around us (especially those near and dear to us). As Berger notes, “people share practically valuable information to help others. Whether by saving a friend time or ensuring a colleague saves a couple of bucks next time he goes to the supermarket, useful information helps” (loc. 2204). The act of sharing valuable information also lets the sharee know that we carry about them, thus strengthening the social bond between us, which is also a positive (loc. 2216).
As evidence that we like to share useful things with one another, first take a look at the following video.
As you may have noticed, the video has over 7 million views (at the time of printing). That means that a lot of people have shared this video with a lot of other people. Why? There’s not much social currency to be had here: the video certainly doesn’t make us look all that interesting, accomplished or distinguished for sharing it. Not much emotional value to the thing. While corn may be a fairly popular food, corn on the cob tends to be eaten only rarely, and is seasonal, so there aren’t all that many opportunities for triggers. And yet, the video has over 7 million views, so what gives?
Well, it’s useful. When we do enjoy a good stick of corn on the cob, we’d like to be able to eat it without all the hassle. And this video offers a fast and simple way to do just that. So why wouldn’t we share it? Helpful things are worth passing along (loc. 2199-2204).
And herein lies an important lesson. If you are trying to spread an idea, product or behavior, make sure you don’t forget to highlight its practical usefulness. As Berger put it, “in the context of Triggers or hidden bars like Please Don’t Tell, practical value may not seem like the sexiest or most exciting concept. Some might even say it’s obvious or intuitive. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not consequential” (loc. 2199).
b. Giving Advice
Now, if you’re in the business of hocking useful information (say as a consultant, columnist or financial advisor), there are a few rules thumb that can be applied here too.
Berger argues that useful information should always be presented in a short, simple and straightforward way. As the author explains (using the financial company, Vanguard, as an example), “in thinking about why some useful content gets shared more, a couple of points are worth noting. The first is how the information is packaged. Vanguard doesn’t send out a rambling four-page e-mail with twenty-five advice links about fifteen different topics. It sends out a short, one-page note, with a key header article and three or four main links below it. It’s easy to see what the main points are, and if you want to find out more, you can simply click on the links. Many of the most viral articles on The New York Times and other websites have a similar structure. Five ways to lose weight. Ten dating tips for the New Year… Short lists focused around a key topic” (loc. 2431).
In sum: useful things catch on—and don’t forget the KISS principle.
a. People Love Stories
The final factor that contributes to contagiousness is stories. We humans love our stories. From the time we are very young (and beg to hear the same stories over and over) to the time we are very old (and insist on repeating the same stories over and over). As Berger explains, “narratives are inherently more engrossing than basic facts… If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. When you hear people tell a good story you hang on to every word… You started down a path and you want to know how it ends. Until it does, they’ve captured your attention. Today there are thousands of entertainment options, but our tendency to tell stories remains. We get together around our proverbial campfires—now water coolers or girls’/guys’ night out—and tell stories. About ourselves and the things that have happened to us lately. About our friends and other people we know” (loc. 2512).
b. Stories in Advertising: Jared, the Subway Guy
And, of course, a good story gets told and retold, so a good yarn is a fine recipe for contagiousness. When it comes to advertising, the use of stories is particularly appealing because it allows the advertiser to embed their message in a narrative that is interesting and entertaining in its own right.
Take the sandwich chain Subway, for instance. Subway is a fast food restaurant that offers a healthier alternative than many fast food chains that are currently out there. Now, Subway could just mention this in one of its ads, or it could tell it in the form of a story—say the story of a man named Jared Fogle. I’ll allow Berger to tell the story of Jared, the Subway guy: “Bad eating habits and lack of exercise led Jared to balloon to 425 pounds in college. He was so heavy that he picked his courses based on whether the classroom had large-enough seats for him to be comfortable rather than whether he liked the material. But after his roommate pointed out that his health was getting worse, Jared decided to take action. So he started a ‘Subway diet’: almost every day he ate a foot-long veggie sub for lunch and a six-inch turkey sub for dinner. After three months of this self-imposed regimen he had lost almost 100 pounds. But he didn’t stop there. Jared kept up his diet. Soon his pants size had dropped from an enormous sixty inches to a normal thirty-four-inch waist. He lost all that weight and had Subway to thank” (loc. 2608).
This is a very compelling story, and people often pass it on even when they’re not talking about diets: it’s just a good story (loc. 2612). But it also transmits an awful lot of information about Subway: “(1) while Subway might seem like fast food, it actually offers a number of healthy options. (2) So healthy that someone could lose weight by eating them. (3) A lot of weight. Further, (4) someone could eat mostly Subway sandwiches for three months and still come back for more. So the food must be pretty tasty. Listeners learn all this about Subway, even though people tell the story because of Jared” (loc. 2620).
In short, a good story makes advertising seem less like advertising, and more like, well, a story. This allows people to pass on the information about the company without seeming like a walking billboard. As Berger explains, “Subway might have low-fat subs… but outside of triggers in a conversation, people need a reason to bring that information up. And good stories provide that reason. They provide a sort of psychological cover that allows people to talk about a product or idea without seeming like an advertisement” (loc. 2625).
c. Valuable Virality
However it is not the case that just any story will do. Even a very compelling story may fail to help spread the word about a particular product or service. Consider the following story: At the 2004 Athens Olympics, in the middle of a diving competition, a man proceeded to mount the three-meter springboard and perform a most unorthodox dive: it was a belly-flop. Even more unorthodox, the man was wearing a blue tutu with white polka-dot tights (loc. 2689). This man was quickly identified as being no competitor at all: it was a stunt! As the man finally emerged from the water, accompanied by a host of security guards, something could be seen emblazoned across his chest. It read ‘GoldenPalace.com’ (loc. 2689).
This was quite a story. As Berger explains, “millions of people were watching, and the story got picked up by the news outlets around the world. It also got a huge amount of word-of-mouth chatter. Someone crashing the Olympics and diving into a pool in a tutu? What a story. Pretty remarkable” (loc. 2693).
But while people were talking about the story, they were not talking about its alleged sponsor, GoldenPalace.com. Why not? Because GoldenPalace.com really had nothing to do with the story. It was an add-on, and an unimportant add-on at that. As Berger explains, “the stunt had nothing to do with the product it was trying to promote. Yes, people talked about the stunt, but they didn’t talk about casinos… it had nothing to do with casinos. Not even in the slightest. So people talked about the remarkable story but left the casino out as it was irrelevant” (loc. 2710).
The Jared story mentioned above is just the opposite. You can’t tell the Jared story without mentioning Subway. Subway’s the whole point! Or think about the Google commercial mentioned above called ‘Parisian Love’. The commercial is clearly a narrative, and a compelling one at that. Now think of how you would tell this story to someone else. To tell the story without mentioning search engines would be non-sensical, it’s integral to the story.
When it comes to advertising ideas, products or behaviors via stories, this point is key. As Berger explains, “when trying to generate word of mouth many people forget one important detail. They focus so much on getting people to talk that they ignore the part that really matters: what people are talking about. That’s the problem with creating content that is unrelated to the product or idea it is meant to promote. There’s a big difference between people talking about content and people talking about the company, organization, or person that created that content” (loc. 2716).
In short, then, if you’re looking to spread something via a story, make sure that the thing itself is an integral part of the story (loc. 2732). I’ll leave with you one more example. This example comes from the Egyptian cheese company, Panda. The campaign is called ‘Never say no to Panda’:
The Panda stories are all pretty funny (as well as unsettling). But one of the main reasons why they are so valuable to the Panda brand is that you can’t tell the stories without the Panda—so the brand name gets smuggled right along with the stories.
The upshot: stories are a great way to spread no matter what you’re looking to spread. Just make sure your idea, product or behavior is an integral part of the story.
Berger’s research identified 6 main factors that contribute to social pandemics. Again, they are Social Currency: “we share things that make us look good” (loc. 2853); Triggers: “Top of mind, tip of tongue” (loc. 2853); Emotion: “When we care, we share” (loc. 2853); Public: “built to show, built to grow” (loc. 2853); Practical Value: “news you can use” (loc. 2853); and Stories: “information travels under the guise of idle chatter” (loc. 2853). Certain ideas, products and behaviors naturally draw on one or more of these factors, and so have a natural advantage when it comes to contagiousness. However, no matter what idea, product or behavior we are trying to spread, the factors themselves can be manipulated in order to help us spread it. For many of us, this is very valuable information. For the rest of us, now we know what to be wary of.
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