By: Jonah Berger



Many different things ‘catch on’: diets, fashion trends, management techniques. These are all examples of social epidemics — events where products, ideas, or behaviors spread through a population. They start with a small set of users and spread from person to person, just like a virus.

But why do things ‘catch on’? Some become popular because they are just plain better. Another reason is attractive pricing. Advertising also plays a role. But although quality, price, and advertising contribute to products and ideas being successful, they don’t explain the whole story. Jonah Berger has studied why things catch on and has come up with a smart structure for success. Join us for the next ten minutes or so as we describe how your product can become contagious.

Lesson1: Social Transmission

People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them. We tell our friends about great vacation destinations, chat with our neighbours about good deals, and gossip with co-workers around the water cooler. We write online reviews about movies, share rumours on Facebook, and tweet about recipes we just tried.

Social influence has a huge impact on whether products, ideas, and behaviours catch on. A five-star review on leads to approximately twenty more books being sold than a one-star review. While traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth is at least ten times more effective.

First, it’s more persuasive. While ads will always argue that their products are the best, our friends tell it to us straight. Secondly, word of mouth is more targeted toward an interested audience. We don’t share a news story or recommendation with everyone we know. We select particular people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant.

Exploiting the power of word of mouth requires understanding why people talk and why some things get talked about and shared more than others. It’s the science of social transmission. So how can we design products, ideas, and behaviours so that people will talk about them? Berger gives us six key steps: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories – or STEPPS.

Lesson 2: Social Currency

When was the last time someone told you something that you should not tell anyone else. What did you do next? If you’re like most people, you probably went and told someone else. The reason? Social currency. We share things that make us look good to others.

Social-network-addicted people can’t seem to stop sharing with everyone, all the time. Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to make an impression among their families, friends, and colleagues. Berger suggests three ways of creating social currency.

Find remarkability. Remarkable things are unusual, extraordinary, and most importantly, worthy of mention. The key to finding remarkability is to think about what makes something interesting, surprising, or novel. One way is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect. Another is by thinking about what makes that thing stand out.

  • Make it a game. Why are we passionate about racking up air-miles? Because it’s a fun game. Games motivate us more on an interpersonal level by encouraging social comparison. We don’t just care about how we are doing, we care about our performance in relation to others. The best games for creating social currency have performance metrics. Badges, attainment levels, grades.
  • Make it exclusive. Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, we assume it must be worth the effort. Scarcity and exclusivity boost word of mouth by making us feel like insiders. If we get something not everyone else has, it makes us feel special and unique and because of that we’ll tell others about it.

Lesson 3: Triggers

Berger points out that we talk about products, brands, and organisations all the time. Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth exchanges where they say something positive or negative about a brand.

Being social animals, when we are in the presence of others we need to communicate: to find interesting things to say to make us look good. So we talk about whatever is top of mind. Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas, making them more top of our mind. Triggers are the foundation of word of mouth and contagiousness. Take hot dogs. Can you think of a hot dog without thoughts of barbecues and baseball games?

So to make our products or services contagious we need to think about whether recognition will be triggered by the everyday environment or sensory stimulation of the target audience.

Lesson 4: Emotion

Awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. Awe is a complex emotion and frequently involves a sense of surprise, unexpectedness, or mystery.

Susan Boyle’s first appearance on Britain’s Got Talent is still one of the most viral videos ever. In just nine short days, the clip accumulated more than 100 million views. It’s hard to watch this video and not be awed by her strength and heart. It’s not only moving, it’s awe-inspiring. And that emotion drove people to pass it on.

Emotion sharing is a bit like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships. Even if we’re not in the same place, the fact that we both feel the same way bonds us together.

Emotions can be categorised as positive or pleasant and negative or unpleasant. Berger suggests psychologists have further argued that emotions can also be classified on a second dimension: activation, or physiological arousal.

Positive emotions also generate arousal. Other emotions, however, have the opposite effect: they stifle action. Emotions like anger and anxiety also lead people to share because, like awe, they are high-arousal emotions.

So to be contagious, rather than talking facts and features we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.

Lesson 5: Public

Berger asks us: “Which is more important?” To have the logo look right to the customers before they open their PowerBook, or to make it look right to the rest of the world when the laptop is in use? This ties in with his fourth facet: public. As you can see the next time you glance at an Apple laptop, public has taken preference over person. The reason? Observability. Apple realised that letting others see what peers are doing (and the associated brand) makes people more likely to do it and use it themselves.

A key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow. People imitate, in part, because others’ choices provide information. Psychologists call this idea “social proof.” People can imitate only when they can see what others are doing.

As an example, the Movember Foundation succeeded because it figured out how to take support for an abstract cause — men’s health — and make it something that everyone can see. For the thirty days of November people who sport a moustache effectively become walking, talking billboards for the cause.

Humans are herding animals. To be contagious, our product or service needs to be visible to its intended public and in use within the peer group our intended consumer belongs to.

Lesson 6: Practical Value

Berger highlights that people like to pass along practical, useful information. News that others can use. 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 contagious.

We’re bombarded with deals all the time. If we shared every time the grocery store knocked ten cents off a can of soup no one would be friends with us anymore. A deal needs to cut through the clutter to get shared. Putting something on sale can make it seem like a good deal. But if a product is always on sale, people start to adjust their expectations. Rather than the full, “regular” price being their reference point, the sale price becomes the expected price.

In thinking about why some content gets shared more than others, a couple of points are worth noting. The first is how the information is packaged. Short succinct messages are best. Getting to the point and passing on the practical value is more effective than detail. That’s why short Amazon recommendations have a bigger impact. The second key is the audience. While broadly relevant content could be shared more, content that is obviously relevant to a narrow audience may actually be more viral.

Our desire to share helpful things is so powerful that it can make even false ideas succeed. Sometimes the drive to help takes a wrong turn. So the next time someone tells you about a miracle cure, or warns about the health risks of a particular food or behaviour, try to verify that information independently before you pass it on. False information can spread just as quickly as the truth.

Lesson 7: Stories

Finally, People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. Narratives are more engrossing than basic facts. They have a beginning, middle, and end. If we get sucked in early, we’ll stay for the conclusion. When we hear people tell a good story we hang on every word.

People tell stories for the same reasons they share word of mouth. Stories give us an easy way to talk about products and ideas. They provide a sort of psychological cover that allows us to talk about a product or idea without seeming like an advertisement.

Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s tied into the narrative we can’t tell the story without mentioning it.

Berger suggests if we want to craft contagious content, we should try to build a Social Currency–laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan Horse, hiding our message inside. Making sure our desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.

So there you have it, some simple STEPPS to creating and spreading contagious ideas for your business. Ahh-choooooo!