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6 Concepts of Contagious by Jonah Beger

Updated: Jul 19, 2021

Are you and your team taking the time to continue your education in your industry? Something we really value is furthering our knowledge of the digital marketing world. It’s always changing, so taking time to read, learn, and discuss helps us change and grow as the industry does the same.

Our team is reading Contagious by Jonah Berger. He subtitled the book “Why Things Catch On”, and in a world where Tik Tok videos create these viral trends, where videos can get over a million likes, and recipes like Feta Pasta become a household name, it’s important to consider why some ideas stick and some don’t.

Berger lays out 6 Principles of Virality, or STEPPS to virality. These are ‘social currency’, ‘trigger’, ‘emotion’, ‘public’, ‘practical value’, and ‘stories’.

Think about what drives you to tell your friends about a thing you bought, an experience you had, or a food you ate. It had to be sensational, it had to make you look good. “Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues,” writes Berger. “So to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency. Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way.”

The three ways to get people talking, according to Berger are:

  1. Find inner remarkability

  2. Leverage game mechanics

  3. Make people feel like insiders

Inner Remarkability

Something remarkable is by definition worthy of attention, amazing, extraordinary. So when it comes to your product, service, or idea, make it interesting, surprising, or novel. Berger suggests breaking a pattern people have come to expect. For example, Barclay Prime, a Philly-based restaurant, got buzz by selling a $100 cheesesteak. It defied expectations and, thus, got people talking.

Another example is the Blendtec “Will It Blend?” series from 2006. Blendtec founder was brainstorming ways to get people excited about a blender. So, he put on a lab coat and tossed stuff in a blender, marbles, coke cans, brooms, you name it.

Leverage Game Mechanics

What are game mechanics? Think: the elements of a game, app, or program that make them fun and exciting! These mechanics are the motivation for social comparison. People care about what others are doing and how that compares to what they, themselves are doing. Why? Because doing these things well makes us look good.

Game mechanics leads to word of mouth because people want to brag about their achievements. You may be thinking, how does someone bragging help my business? During these conversations, they will talk about the brand (like, Delta Sky Club) or domain (like, golf handicap) where they achieved.

Make People Feel Like Insiders

Scarcity and exclusivity boost word of mouth by making people feel like insiders.

“If people get something not everyone else has, it makes them feel special, unique, high status,” writes Berger. “And because of that, they’ll not only like a product or service more, but tell others about it. Why? Because telling others makes them look good. Having insider knowledge is social currency.”

All products do not require the same trigger. New food products require immediate action because stores will stop carrying these products if they don't sell, but something like an anti-bullying campaign or new policy initiative will succeed from ongoing word of mouth.

A trigger is an environmental reminder related to these products or ideas, because they lead to action. He says “rather than just going for a catchy message, consider the context. Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target audience.”

Pick a trigger that occurs often and around where the desired behavior takes place. For example, Kit Kats aren’t generally associated with coffee, but a Kit Kat campaign repeatedly paired the two and increased sales by 8 percent.

Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking.

What makes you talk about something? Or share something on Instagram? Something that makes you feel good, right? In an analysis of thousands of New York Times articles, the positive stories were more likely to be shared than those that were negative.

However, Berger, in his own research, found that people were also likely to share stories that stirred up anger and anxiety. Anxiety and anger, like positivity and happiness, are high arousal emotions. So, when marketing a product, tap into these emotions and drive your consumers to action.

Have you ever used a Lululemon bag as a reusable grocery bag or lunch box? This is the perfect example of the “public” principle that Berger lays out. This principle is pretty self explanatory, observability plays a big role in whether or not products or trends catch on.

When designing your products, think of ways to have them advertise themselves. “If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.”

People like to pass along practical information, “news others can use.” When your product or idea has practical value it helps with contagion and social bonding. Think about the TikTok trend “show me the link hack you randomly saw one day that is now an unconscious standard practice in your life.” This is a trend because people like to know useful information.

One study found that if the word “sale” was beside a price, sales increased, even if the item was not on sale. Why do you think this is? When someone asks where you got something, 9 times out of 10 you say “... and it was on sale!” That is practical value!

Just because something is viral doesn't mean it’s valuable. When a brand or product is laced with a story that people just have to tell when asked about the product, more people are willing to buy and share their own sentimental story.

How can you incorporate the STEPPS into your product, brand, or marketing strategy?

Let us know what you're reading! And if you have any questions about the STEPPS, reach out to us!


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