Every once in a while comes a book—like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink— that fuses science and storytelling into a compelling narrative that expands your thinking. Contagious: Why Things Catch On, published by Simon & Schuster, is not that book. Still, it’s an entertaining, informative read that will confirm some of your hunches about why things go viral. Its author, Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, analyzed six months of New York Times articles in one of his studies, and found that the most e-mailed stories were ones that evoked high-arousal emotions (awe, excitement, amusement, anger, anxiety) rather than low-arousal emotions (contentment, sadness). Throughout his book, he uses catchy examples—the Apple logo, a $100 cheesesteak, a blender that can pulverize golf balls—to support his arguments. Here, he explains his rule of six, the lure of secrets and the perplexing popularity of the “Harlem Shake.”
DuJour : Your book is organized around six principles of contagion that you’ve identified. What are they?
Jonah Berger: What my researchers and I found over our decade-plus of research is there are six key drivers of word of mouth. I use the acronym STEPPS. The first S stands for “social currency,” namely that people talk about and share things to make themselves look good rather than bad, smart rather than dumb, and in-the-know rather than behind-the-times. T is for “triggers”—if something is top of mind, it’ll be tip of tongue. Whatever we’re thinking about, we’re more likely to talk about, so the more we’re reminded of a product or idea, the more likely we are to bring it up. E is for “emotion.” When we care, we share. When we feel really good or really bad about something or when we’re fired up and activated, we’re more likely to pass on that information. The first P is for “public.” If something is built to show, it’s built to grow. One thing that drives products to catch on is whether they’re public or observable. People tend to look at others to see what is the right thing to do. If we can’t see what others are doing, it’s hard to imitate them. The next P is for “practical value.” We share news you can use, so when something saves us money or time or makes us healthier, we’re more likely to pass it on. The final S is for “stories.” We don’t like to share information by itself and we don’t want it to sound like an advertisement; we like to pass along stories or narratives.
You’ve conducted many experiments. What’s your favorite?
That’s a tough one. We’ve played around with whether making something secret might make people more likely to share it. You see this with the velvet rope at clubs and lounges, but you also see it on websites. When Gmail was first released, it was a very exclusive product. You had to know someone who worked at Google to get access, and the company used that to build demand. Restaurants use secret menus. In-N-Out, the California burger chain, has one. Chipotle has a somewhat secret menu. You can order this thing that’s a mix of a burrito and a quesadilla. It’s like a burrito with a quesadilla wrapped around it. Now why would anyone order that? [Note from writer: Because it sounds delicious.] Not sure, but the mere fact it’s a secret and that someone must be an insider to have access makes people more likely to talk about it.
How did you test this?
We ran an experiment in which we sent an e-mail that either said, “Here’s a 20% discount” or “Here’s an exclusive secret 20% discount—don’t tell anyone about it.” People were more likely to pass it on if it was a secret, even though the discount was the same.
Some things go viral that don’t appear to conform to any of your principles, and I’ll say two words: “Harlem Shake.” How do you explain that?I think the “Harlem Shake” is a great example, similar to “Gangnam Style.”
With “Gangnam Style,” at least the video was cute and the dance was funny. The original “Harlem Shake” video was neither.
But there’s a dance to each of them. What a dance does is it makes a private act more public, that first P in STEPPS. While people listen to music in their own homes or in their cars, what a dance does is make a public signal of a private behavior. So if you’re at a party and someone starts doing it or talks about a video of it, you want to be in the know and find out what’s going on. Public is one reason these things get off the ground, but this desire to understand what’s going on in culture is social currency. That helps things really take off. It creates a loop where some people know about it and other people want to know because they don’t want to be behind.
Another example that defies explanation to me is Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” In your book, you talk about the day Friday being a trigger to cause people to watch the video, but it doesn’t explain why a mediocre video of a mediocre song got so popular.
But that explains some of why it got popular, right? Imagine a song called “Leap Day.” “Leap Day” could be a great song, but there wouldn’t be frequent triggers to think about it. There was another song by a young girl that was made by the same company that made “Friday.” It was about Thanksgiving. That song did well up until Thanksgiving and then it tailed off, because there were no triggers to remind people about the song. Does the trigger by itself explain why Rebecca Black got 300 million views? No. It became a popular thing, and people wanted to know about it because others were paying attention to it. But I think triggers help explain why it got off the ground and why, compared to many songs, even after it started to tail off, people remembered it and went back to look for it.
Every company has social media people on staff, and they’re all trying to create viral campaigns. What common mistakes do you see them making?
I think companies sit down and say, “We’re going to make a viral video.” What they mean is “We’re going to make a video, and we hope that people talk about it and share it.” But without understanding why people talk and share, it’s really hard to make a video that will spread. That’s what this book tries to do: Share the research we’ve done to help companies, organizations and individuals increase the chance that their content and ideas are passed along.
How have you applied your principles to producing your book?
The cover of the book is orange, which makes it easier for people to see others reading the book and makes it more likely they’ll go pick up a copy themselves.
Did you tell your publisher “I want the cover of the book to be orange?”
We spent a long time on it, and yes.
What about the image on the cover?
We spent a long time on that as well.
The image is confusing to me, to be honest.
What do you think it is?
Well, the light bulb says “idea,” and the dandelion says “wishful thinking” so maybe “magical thinking”?
The dandelion also says “spreading out,” so it means “spreading out ideas.”
It says spreading out to you, but there are people like me who associate dandelions with making wishes.
What we associate with it is blowing on it and encouraging your idea to spread. How do you get that light bulb to diffuse to others?
What are you currently researching?
We’re looking at the difference between broadcasting and narrowcasting. What do you talk about when you’re sharing with a large group vs. one person? Some examples of broadcasting are a Facebook status update or a Tweet or talking to a large group when you’re at a party. Narrowcasting is e-mailing a single person or talking to just one person at a party.
What have you discovered?
We find, for example, when you talk to larger groups, you tend to focus more on yourself rather than on other people and it encourages you to talk about things that make you look good and show your social currency. When you talk to a smaller group, you’re more likely to focus on the one person you’re speaking to so you’re more likely to share useful content or things that apply to him or her.
What message would you like readers to take away from your book?
You might have wondered why people talk about and share things. Talking and sharing are the most basic behaviors we do—we share dozens of things every day, often without realizing it. It’s not random; it’s not luck why we talk about some things rather than others. The message is there’s a science behind them, and this book shows why people talk and share and how companies and individuals can apply these ideas to craft their own contagions.