Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, 2013

Interesting read on the pivotal elements to product virality.

15 Jan 2021

Social Currency Does talking about your product or idea make people look good? Can you find the inner remarkability? Leverage game mechanics? Make people feel like insiders? Triggers Consider the context. What cues make people think about your product or idea? How can you grow the habitat and make it come to mind more often? Emotion Focus on feelings. Does talking about your product or idea generate emotion? How can you kindle the fire? Public Does your product or idea advertise itself? Can people see when others are using it? If not, how can you make the private public? Can you create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people use it? Practical Value Does talking about your product or idea help people help others? How can you highlight incredible value, packaging your knowledge and expertise into useful information others will want to disseminate? Stories What is your Trojan Horse? Is your product or idea embedded in a broader narrative that people want to share? Is the story not only viral, but also valuable?

So build a Social Currency–laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan Horse, but don’t forget to hide your message inside. Make sure your desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.

If you want to craft contagious content, try to build your own Trojan Horse. But make sure you think about valuable virality. Make sure the information you want people to remember and transmit is critical to the narrative. Sure, you can make your narrative funny, surprising, or entertaining. But if people don’t connect the content back to you, it’s not going to help you very much. Even if it goes viral.

The fact that one person was pointing at the other and brandishing a knife. Just as in the detective story, people mentioned the critical details and left out the extraneous ones.

Around 70 percent of the story details were lost in the first five to six transmissions.

So the best part of the story and the brand name are perfectly intertwined. That increases the chance not only that people telling the story will talk about Panda the brand, but also that they will remember what product the commercial is for, days or even weeks later. Panda is part and parcel of the story. It’s an essential part of the narrative.

Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.

The key, then, is to not only make something viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring company or organization. Not just virality but valuable virality.

Roller-skating babies are cute, but they have nothing to do with Evian. So people shared the clip, but that didn’t benefit the brand.

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.

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.

So people talked about the remarkable story but left the casino out because it was irrelevant. They might have mentioned that Bensimhon was sponsored by someone but didn’t mention the casino either because it was so irrelevant that they forgot, or because it didn’t make the story any better. It’s like building a magnificent Trojan Horse but forgetting to put anything inside.

They provide a sort of psychological cover that allows people to talk about a product or idea without seeming like an advertisement.

People don’t talk about Jared because they want to help Subway, but Subway still benefits because it is part of the narrative. Listeners learn about Jared, but they also learn about Subway along the way. They learn that (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.

How we avoided the traffic jam or how the dry cleaner was able to take our oil-splattered white shirt and make it look like new. These stories contain helpful information: a good route to take if the highway is blocked; a great dry cleaner if you need to get out tough stains.

By encasing the lesson in a story, these early writers ensured that it would be passed along—and perhaps even be believed more wholeheartedly than if the lesson’s words were spoken simply and plainly. That’s because people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.

The problem with this assumption, though, is that just because people can share with more people doesn’t mean they will. In fact, narrower content may actually be more likely to be shared because it reminds people of a specific friend or family member and makes them feel compelled to pass it along. You might have a lot of friends who like American food or football. But because so many people are interested in that type of thing, no one person strongly comes to mind when you come across related content. In contrast, you may have only one friend who cares about Ethiopian restaurants or water polo, but if you read an article about those topics you think about your friend right away. And because it seems so uniquely perfect for her, you feel you have to share it.

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.

So while broadly relevant content could be shared more, content that is obviously relevant to a narrow audience may actually be more viral.

Useful information, then, is another form of practical value. Helping people do things they want to do, or encouraging them to do things they should do. Faster, better, and easier.

One last point about promotional offers is that the practical value is more effective the easier it is for people to see. Take the shopper discount cards that you get at your local grocery store or pharmacy. These cards are certainly useful. They save consumers money and sometimes even give them free gifts if they have accumulated enough purchases. But one problem is that the practical value is not very visible. The only information people get about how much they saved is hidden among a half dozen other pieces of information on a lengthy receipt. And given that most people don’t show their receipts to others, it’s unlikely that anyone but the person who used the card will see how much they saved. That makes it less likely that the information will be contagious.

Take Will It Blend? and the hundred-dollar cheesesteak at Barclay Prime. Both stories evoke emotions like surprise or amazement: Who would have thought a blender could tear through an iPhone, or that a cheesesteak would cost anywhere near a hundred dollars? Both stories are also pretty remarkable, so they make the teller look cool for passing them on. And both offer useful information: it’s always helpful to know about products that work well or restaurants that have great food.

But as the Blendtec story shows, even regular everyday products and ideas can generate lots of word-of-mouth if someone figures out the right way to do it. Regardless of how plain or boring a product or idea may seem, there are ways to make it contagious.

Further, by focusing so much on the messenger, we’ve neglected a much more obvious driver of sharing: the message.

Yes, we all know people who are really persuasive, and yes, some people have more friends than others. But in most cases that doesn’t make them any more influential in spreading information or making things go viral.

One common intuition is that generating word of mouth is all about finding the right people. That certain special individuals are just more influential than others.

The second issue is that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies. Word-of-mouth marketing is effective only if people actually talk. Public health officials can tweet daily bulletins about safe sex, but if but no one passes them along, the campaign will fail. Just putting up a Facebook page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice or spread the word.

After all, while face-to-face conversations tend to be one-on-one, or among a small handful of people, the average tweet or Facebook status update is sent to more than one hundred people. But not all of these potential recipients will actually see every message. People are inundated with online content, so they don’t have the time to read every tweet, message, or update sent their way.

So the first issue with all the hype around social media is that people tend to ignore the importance of offline word of mouth, even though offline discussions are more prevalent, and potentially even more impactful, than online ones.

Research by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online.

From start-ups to starlets, people have embraced social media as the wave of the future. But there are two issues with this approach: the focus and the execution.

Word of mouth, on the other hand, is naturally directed toward an interested audience. We don’t share a news story or recommendation with everyone we know. Rather, we tend to select particular people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant. We’re not going to tell a friend about a new pair of skis if we know the friend hates skiing. And we’re not going to tell a friend who doesn’t have kids about the best way to change a diaper. Word of mouth tends to reach people who are actually interested in the thing being discussed. No wonder customers referred by their friends spend more, shop faster, and are more profitable overall.

Our friends, however, tend to tell it to us straight. If they thought Crest did a good job, they’ll say that. But they’d also tell us if Crest tasted bad or failed to whiten their teeth. Their objectivity, coupled with their candidness, make us much more likely to trust, listen to, and believe our friends.

A word-of-mouth conversation by a new customer leads to an almost $200 increase in restaurant sales. A five-star review on 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.

Word of mouth is not just frequent, it’s also important. The things others tell us, e-mail us, and text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do. We try websites our neighbors recommend, read books our relatives praise, and vote for candidates our friends endorse. Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.

Advertising also plays a role. Consumers need to know about something before they can buy it. So people tend to think that the more they spend on advertising, the more likely something will become popular. Want to get people to eat more vegetables? Spending more on ads should increase the number of people who hear your message and buy broccoli.

Another reason products catch on is attractive pricing. Not surprisingly, most people prefer paying less rather than more. So if two very similar products are competing, the cheaper one often wins out. Or if a company cuts its prices in half, that tends to help sales.

One reason some products and ideas become popular is that they are just plain better. We tend to prefer websites that are easier to use, drugs that are more effective, and scientific theories that are true rather than false. So when something comes along that offers better functionality or does a better job, people tend to switch to it.