Contagious: Why Things Catch On


Do you want to learn how things go viral or why things catch on? I did, so that’s why I read Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. It was phenomenal and I couldn’t put it down as every page was filled with nuggets of marketing wisdom.

When I read books on my Kindle I’m always highlighting sections that have the most value so that I can go back and read them again. Below are my highlights from Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Hopefully you are able to get as much value from them as I did.

In the event that you end up reading the book drop me a line on Twitter @RobCressy and let me know what you think about it.


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.

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.

Social influence and word of mouth. People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them.

Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.

Word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising for two key reasons. First, it’s more persuasive.

Second, word of mouth is more targeted.

Word of mouth, on the other hand, is naturally directed toward an interested audience.

Word of mouth tends to reach people who are actually interested in the thing being discussed.

But a few years ago, one company did something slightly different. It sent me two copies of the same book. Now, unless I’m mistaken, there’s no reason for me to read the second copy, once I’ve read the first. But these publishers had a different goal in mind. They sent a note explaining why they thought the book would be good for my students, but they also mentioned that they sent a second copy so that I could pass it along to a colleague who might be interested.

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

Some jokes are so funny that it doesn’t matter who tells them. Everyone laughs even if the person sharing the joke isn’t all that funny. Contagious content is like that—so inherently viral that it spreads regardless of who is doing the talking.

Virality isn’t born, it’s made. And that is good news indeed. Some people are lucky. Their ideas or initiatives happen to be things that seem to naturally generate lots of excitement and buzz. 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.

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.

Principle 1: Social Currency How does it make people look to talk about a product or idea? Most people would rather look smart than dumb, rich than poor, and cool than geeky.

So to get people talking we need to craft messages that help them achieve these desired impressions. We need to find our inner remarkability and make people feel like insiders. We need to leverage game mechanics to give people ways to achieve and provide visible symbols of status that they can show to others.

Principle 2: Triggers How do we remind people to talk about our products and ideas? Triggers are stimuli that prompt people to think about related things. Peanut butter reminds us of jelly and the word “dog” reminds us of the word “cat.”

We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment and create new triggers by linking our products and ideas to prevalent cues in that environment. Top of mind leads to tip of tongue.

Principle 3: Emotion When we care, we share.

Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion. Blending an iPhone is surprising. A potential tax hike is infuriating. Emotional things often get shared. So rather than harping on function, we need to focus on feelings. But as we’ll discuss, some emotions increase sharing, while others actually decrease it. So we need to pick the right emotions to evoke. We need to kindle the fire. Sometimes even negative emotions may be useful.

Principle 4: Public Can people see when others are using our product or engaging in our desired behavior?

Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular.

We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.

Principle 5: Practical Value How can we craft content that seems useful? People like to help others, so if we can show them how our products or ideas will save time, improve health, or save money, they’ll spread the word. But given how inundated people are with information, we need to make our message stand out. We need to understand what makes something seem like a particularly good deal. We need to highlight the incredible value of what we offer—monetarily and otherwise. And we need to package our knowledge and expertise so that people can easily pass it on.

Principle 6: Stories What broader narrative can we wrap our idea in? People don’t just share information, they tell stories.

Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell. But we need to do more than just tell a great story. We need to make virality valuable. We need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.

These are the six principles of contagiousness: products or ideas that contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable, and wrapped into Stories.

People talked about the hundred-dollar cheesesteak at Barclay Prime because it gave them Social Currency, was Triggered (high frequency of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia), Emotional (very surprising), Practically Valuable (useful information about high-quality steakhouse), and wrapped in a Story.

1. Social Currency

“The most powerful marketing is personal recommendation,” he said. “Nothing is more viral or infectious than one of your friends going to a place and giving it his full recommendation.” And what could be more remarkable than watching two people disappear into the back of a phone booth?

In case it’s not already clear, here’s a little secret about secrets: they tend not to stay secret very long. Think about the last time someone shared a secret with you. Remember how earnestly she begged you not to tell a soul? And remember what you did next?

As it turns out, if something is supposed to be secret, people might well be more likely to talk about it. The reason? Social currency. People share things that make them look good to others.

So, not surprisingly, people prefer sharing things that make them seem entertaining rather than boring, clever rather than dumb, and hip rather than dull.

Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression—as potent as that new car or Prada handbag. Think of it as a kind of currency. Social currency. 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. 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. There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders.

During a marketing meeting, someone suggested that the space under the cap was unused real estate. Snapple had tried putting jokes under the cap with little success. But the jokes were terrible (“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”), so it was hard to tell if it was the strategy or the jokes that were failing. Rubenstein and her team wondered whether real facts might work better. Something “out of the ordinary that [Snapple drinkers] wouldn’t know and wouldn’t even know they’d want to know.” So Rubenstein and her team came up with a long list of clever trivia facts and began putting them under the caps—visible only after customers have purchased and opened the bottles. Fact #12, for example, notes that kangaroos can’t walk backward.

Remarkable things are defined as unusual, extraordinary, or worthy of notice or attention. Something can be remarkable because it is novel, surprising, extreme, or just plain interesting. But the most important aspect of remarkable things is that they are worthy of remark. Worthy of mention. Learning that a ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber is just so noteworthy that you have to mention it.

Remarkable things provide social currency because they make the people who talk about them seem, well, more remarkable. Some people like to be the life of the party, but no one wants to be the death of it. We all want to be liked. The desire for social approval is a fundamental human motivation. If we tell someone a cool Snapple fact it makes us seem more engaging.

The key to finding inner remarkability is to think about what makes something interesting, surprising, or novel. Can the product do something no one would have thought possible (such as blend golf balls like Blendtec)? Are the consequences of the idea or issue more extreme than people ever could have imagined?

One way to generate surprise is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect.

Mysteries and controversy are also often remarkable.

Toilet paper? Hardly seems remarkable. But a few years ago I made toilet paper one of the most talked-about conversation topics at a party. How? I put a roll of black toilet paper in the bathroom. Black toilet paper? No one had ever seen black toilet paper before. And that remarkability provoked discussion. Emphasize what’s remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk.

People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.

Many contests also involve game mechanics. Burberry created a website called “Art of the Trench” that is a montage of Burberry and all the people who wear it. Some photos were taken by the world’s leading photographers, but people can also send in photos of themselves or their friends wearing the iconic Burberry trench coat. If you’re lucky, Burberry posts your image on its website. Your photo then becomes part of a set of images reflecting personal style from across the globe. Imagine if your photo was picked for the site. What would be your first impulse? You’d tell someone else! And not just one person. Lots of people.

And this brings us to the third way to generate social currency: making people feel like insiders.

Rue La La’s success is particularly noteworthy, given one tiny detail. It sold the same products as SmartBargains. The exact same dresses, skirts, and suits. The same shoes, shirts, and slacks. So what transformed what could have been a ho-hum website into one people were clamoring to get access to? How come Rue La La was so much more successful? Because it made people feel like insiders.

And it was. Rue La La hit the ground running because it smartly leveraged the urgency factor.

Going to a membership-only model also made the site’s members feel like insiders. Just as with the velvet rope that prevents regular partygoers from just walking into an exclusive nightclub, people assumed that if you had to be a member, the site must be really desirable.

While it might not be obvious right away, Rue La La actually has a lot in common with Please Don’t Tell, the secret bar we talked about at the beginning of the chapter. Both used scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders.

Scarcity is about how much of something is offered. Scarce things are less available because of high demand, limited production, or restrictions on the time or place you can acquire them.

Exclusivity is also about availability, but in a different way. Exclusive things are accessible only to people who meet particular criteria.

But exclusivity isn’t just about money or celebrity. It’s also about knowledge. Knowing certain information or being connected to people who do.

Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, people assume that it must be worth the effort. If something is unavailable or sold out, people often infer that lots of other people must like it, and so it must be pretty good (something we’ll talk more about in the Public chapter).

The mere fact that something isn’t readily available can make people value it more and tell others to capitalize on the social currency of knowing about it or having it.

How do we get people talking and make our products and ideas catch on? One way is to mint social currency. People like to make a good impression, so we need to make our products a way to achieve that. Like Blendtec’s Will It Blend? we need to find the inner remarkability. Like Foursquare or airlines with frequent flier tiers, we need to leverage game mechanics. Like Rue La La, we need to use scarcity and exclusivity to make people feel as if they’re insiders. The drive to talk about ourselves brings us back full circle to Please Don’t Tell. The proprietors are smart. They understand that secrets boost social currency, but they don’t stop there. After you’ve paid for your drinks, your server hands you a small business card. All black, almost like the calling card of a psychic or wizard. In red script the card simply says “Please Don’t Tell” and includes a phone number. So while everything else suggests the proprietors want to keep the venue under wraps, at the end of the experience they make sure you have their phone number. Just in case you want to share their secret.

2. Triggers

To Dave, marketing isn’t about trying to convince people to purchase things they don’t want or need. Marketing is about tapping into their genuine enthusiasm for products and services that they find useful. Or fun. Or beautiful. Marketing is about spreading the love.

Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas, making them more top of mind.

Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.

Why does it matter if particular thoughts or ideas are top of mind? Because accessible thoughts and ideas lead to action.

The particular day of the week? You guessed it. Friday—just like the name of Rebecca Black’s song. So while the song was equally bad every day of the week, each Friday it received a strong trigger that contributed to its success.

So 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. Going for interesting is our default tendency. Whether running for class president or selling soda, we think that catchy or clever slogans will get us where we need to go. But as we saw in our fruits and vegetables study, a strong trigger can be much more effective than a catchy slogan. Even though they hated the slogan, college students ate more fruits and vegetables when cafeteria trays triggered reminders of the health benefits. Just being exposed to a clever slogan didn’t change behavior at all.

Many things contributed to the campaign’s success. “Kit Kat and coffee” has a nice alliteration, and the idea of taking a break to have a Kit Kat fits well with the existing notion of a coffee break. But I’d like to add one more reason to the list. Triggers. “Kit Kat and cantaloupe” is equally alliterative, and break dancing would also have fitted with the break concept. But coffee is a particularly good thing to link the brand to because it is a frequent stimulus in the environment. A huge number of people drink coffee. Many drink it a number of times throughout the day. And so by linking Kit Kat to coffee, Colleen created a frequent trigger to remind people of the brand.

As we discussed, one key factor is how frequently the stimulus occurs. Hot chocolate would also have fitted really well with Kit Kat, and the sweet beverage might have even complemented the chocolate bar’s flavor better than coffee. But coffee is a more effective trigger because people think about and see it much more frequently. Most people drink hot chocolate only in the winter, while coffee is consumed year-round.

Frequency, however, must also be balanced with the strength of the link. The more things a given cue is associated with, the weaker any given association. It’s like poking a hole in the bottom of a paper cup filled with water. If you poke just one hole, a strong stream of water will gush out. But poke more holes, and the pressure of the stream from each opening lessens. Poke too many holes and you’ll get barely a trickle from each.

Triggers are the foundation of word of mouth and contagiousness. To use an analogy, think of most rock bands. Social Currency is the front man or woman. It’s exciting, fun, and gets lots of attention. Triggers could be the drummer or bassist. It’s not as sexy a concept as Social Currency, but it’s an important workhorse that gets the job done. People may not pay as much attention to it, but it lays the groundwork that drives success. The more something is triggered, the more it will be top of mind, and the more successful it will become.

3. Emotion


awe is 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. Awe expands one’s frame of reference and drives self-transcendence.

Awe is a complex emotion and frequently involves a sense of surprise, unexpectedness, or mystery.

Awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list.

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. 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.

Just like inspiring things, or those that make us angry, funny content is shared because amusement is a high-arousal emotion. 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.

Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.

The clip tells a budding love story, using Google searches that evolve over time. No images of people, or even voices—just the phrases entered in the search bar and the results that emerge. It starts when a guy enters “study abroad Paris France” and clicks on one of the top search results to learn more. Later he searches for “cafés near the Louvre,” and scans to find one he thinks he’ll like. You hear a female laugh in the background as his next entry is “translate tu es très mignon,” which he soon learns is French for “you are very cute.” Quickly he then seeks advice on how to “impress a French girl,” reads up on the suggestions, and searches for chocolate shops in Paris. The music builds as the plot unfolds. We follow the searcher as he transitions from seeking long-distance relationship advice to job hunting in Paris. We see him tracking a plane’s landing time and then searching for Paris churches (to the accompaniment of church bells in the background). Finally, as the music crescendos, we see him asking how to assemble a crib. The video ends with a simple message. “Search on.” You cannot watch this clip without having your heartstrings tugged. It’s romantic, joyous, and inspiring all at once. I still feel tingles every time I see it, and I’ve watched it dozens of times.

In their wonderful book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about using the “Three Whys” to find the emotional core of an idea. Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask “Why is this important?” three times. Each time you do this, note your answer, and you’ll notice that you drill down further and further toward uncovering not only the core of an idea, but the emotion behind it.

When trying to use emotions to drive sharing, remember to pick ones that kindle the fire: select high-arousal emotions that drive people to action. On the positive side, excite people or inspire them by showing them how they can make a difference. On the negative side, make people mad, not sad. Make sure the polar bear story gets them fired up.

Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share, and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings. As Anthony Cafaro, the designer who helped develop the “Parisian Love” video at Google, noted: Whether it’s a digital product, like Google, or a physical product, like sneakers, you should make something that will move people. People don’t want to feel like they’re being told something—they want to be entertained, they want to be moved.

As we discussed, activating emotion is the key to transmission. Physiological arousal or activation drives people to talk and share. We need to get people excited or make them laugh. We need to make them angry rather than sad.

Thus a key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

people tend to conform to what others are doing. Television shows use canned laugh tracks for this reason: people are more likely to laugh when they hear others laughing.

Public visibility boosts word of mouth. The easier something is to see, the more people talk about it.

Designing products that advertise themselves is a particularly powerful strategy for small companies or organizations that don’t have a lot of resources. Even when there is no money to buy television ads or a spot in the local paper, existing customers can act as advertisements if the product advertises itself. It’s like advertising without an advertising budget.

the more others seem to be doing something, the more likely people are to think that thing is right or normal and what they should be doing as well.

So we need to be like Hotmail and Apple and design products that advertise themselves. We need to be like Lululemon and Livestrong and create behavioral residue, discernible evidence that sticks around even after people have used our product or engaged with our ideas. We need to make the private public. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

Here the infomercial is taking the reference quantity and augmenting it. You expected to pay $39.99 for one set of Miracle Blade knives, but now you are getting an extra set, and a knife sharpener, for the same price. In addition to the price being lower than your expectations (which was set by them in the first place), the additional goods makes the offer seem like an even better deal.

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.

As prospect theory illustrates, one key factor in highlighting incredible value is what people expect. Promotional offers that seem surprising or surpass expectations are more likely to be shared.

Another factor that affects whether deals seem valuable is their availability. Somewhat counterintuitively, making promotions more restrictive can actually make them more effective. Just as in the examples of Please Don’t Tell and Rue La La that we discussed in the Social Currency chapter, restricting availability through scarcity and exclusivity makes things seem more valuable.

Even restricting who has access can make a promotional offer seem better. Some deals are available to everyone.

But other deals are customized, or restricted to a certain set of customers. Hotels reward loyal members with “exclusive” hotel rates and restaurants have “soft openings” for a certain clientele. These offers seem special. This boosts sharing not only by increasing Social Currency, but also by making the deal itself seem better. Like restrictions on quantity or timing, the mere fact that not everyone can get access to this promotion makes it seem more valuable. This increases Practical Value, which in turn, boosts sharing.

The Rule of 100

A simple way to figure out which discount frame seems larger is by using something called the Rule of 100. If the product’s price is less than $100, the Rule of 100 says that percentage discounts will seem larger. For a $30 T-shirt or a $15 entrée, even a $3 discount is still a relatively small number. But percentagewise (10 percent or 20 percent), that same discount looks much bigger. If the product’s price is more than $100, the opposite is true. Numerical discounts will seem larger. Take a $750 vacation package or the $2,000 laptop. While a 10 percent discount may seem like a relatively small number, it immediately seems much bigger when translated into dollars ($75 or $200). So when deciding how good a promotional offer really is, or how to frame a promotional offer to make it better, use the Rule of 100. Think about where the price falls relative to $100 and how that shifts whether absolute or relative discounts seem more attractive.

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.

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. The next time you’re waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, take a look at the magazines and you’ll see the same idea being applied. Short lists focused around a key topic.

Like Vanguard, we need to package our knowledge and expertise so that people learn about us while they pass it along. We need to make it clear why our product or idea is so useful that people just have to spread the word. News you can use.

Stories carry things. A lesson or moral. Information or a take-home message.

Stories, then, can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others.

Stories solve this problem. They provide a quick and easy way for people to acquire lots of knowledge in a vivid and engaging fashion. One good story about a mechanic who fixed the problem without charging is worth dozens of observations and years of trial and error. Stories save time and hassle and give people the information they need in a way that’s easy to remember. You can think of stories as providing proof by analogy.

The story gets shared for many of the reasons we talked about in prior chapters. It’s remarkable (Social Currency), evokes surprise and amazement (Emotion), and provides useful information about healthy fast food (Practical Value). People don’t talk about Jared because they want to help Subway, but Subway still benefits because it is part of the narrative.

And that is the magic of stories. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter.

So how can we use stories to get people talking? We need to build our own Trojan Horse—a carrier narrative that people will share, while talking about our product or idea along the way.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The same six principles, or STEPPS, drive things to catch on. Social Currency We share things that make us look good Triggers Top of mind, tip of tongue Emotion When we care, we share Public Built to show, built to grow Practical Value News you can use Stories Information travels under the guise of idle chatter

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?

Perform an experiment and monitor the “most emailed” section of NYTimes.com for a week. Do you begin to notice patterns in what is shared? Consider arousal emotions, practical value, and the very subject matter of the articles.

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