Is It Contagious?

Are you trying to promote an idea, a behavior change, a product—say, your new book? Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On, describes why things go viral. In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, Berger illustrates his pared-down principles with real-life examples and embeds in them the results of behavioral research. The book is based on marketing lectures he gives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and the cover design  is brilliant.

So, why do things go viral? “People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them,” Berger says, and word-of-mouth is dramatically more effective in motivating someone to buy your idea or product or service—your “it”—than any paid ad. If you present your it in a way that makes people want to talk about it, you’ve increased your chances of success many-fold. But what kinds of messages make someone want to share?

Messages that become contagious have at least some of these common elements, Berger says:

  • Social currency:  people feel cool—like insiders—when they know about it. Think how people feel about the small perks of frequent flyer status. (I’m right there.)
  • Triggers: The message has many triggers—things in the environment that remind people of it.
  • Emotion: think of the canned Facebook posts—pictures and sayings that made people sad or mad or smile. (Positive emotions evoke more shares, BTW.)
  • Public: “Making behavior more observable makes them easier to imitate,” which is why stores print their names on the shopping bags they give you. And people re-use their bags from Bloomingdale’s and Tiffany’s. Both instantly recognizable.
  • Practical value: People like to help others. Thus, “the six best ways to make your message contagious.” Or, as Berger sums it up: news you can use.
  • Stories: Bring it home.

Every one of us is trying to “sell” something. We may want to persuade people about the good works of our favorite charity so they will donate, we may want to promote a public health message on gun safety, we may be in the actual selling business—real estate, securities, lipstick. In my case, I want you to visit my website (and you have!). Berger has a persuasive chapter on each of the six elements that will help you analyze your messages and create more effective ones.

If you’ve read about the tipping point and stickiness, some of this will sound familiar, but if you haven’t read these books lately, Contagious is full of useful reminders.