Lessons from Jonah Berger’s Contagious


Inspired by Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, marketing professor Jonah Berger aims to explain “the psychology of sharing” in his book Contagious: Why things catch on. Here are my crib notes on the book’s best points:

The argument: There are “six principles of contagiousness” according to Berger; six ingredients that will help an idea spread from person to person like the flu in January. You don’t need them all, but upon close examination of any ‘viral’ thing people can’t stop talking about and at least a few of the ingredients will become clear.


Six ingredients of contagious ideas:


1.  Social Currency:

People like to tell stories that make them look good: a hot tip, a cool fact, a secret bar. You’ll tell a story if it will make other people admire you. Berger suggest we can “mint social currency” and make our ideas spread by giving people:

  • a remarkable story
  • a game they can win
  • insider treatment

The above will make them look like a hero to friends and family. This may seem like a no brainer, but some communications program focus so hard on making a product, event or organization look good, they forget that their audience wants to look good too.

Cool examples: the $100 cheesesteak, Will it Blend?, Please Don’t Tell, Foursquare, Rue La La


2.  Triggers:

What gets more word of mouth: Cheerios or Disneyland? On the face of it, Disneyland seems more remarkable, but in reality Cheerios gets more chatter. Why? The counterpoint to social currency is the trigger. Cool or not, we tend to talk about the things when we’re reminded of them and we get a lot more face time with Cheerios than Disneyland.

Triggers can be obvious (Rebecca Black’s song “Friday” was most-Googled on Fridays) or surprising (sales of Mars chocolate bars skyrocketed when NASA’s Pathfinder landed on the planet Mars in 1997). The key is to understand what makes people think about your brand and tap into those triggers.


3.  Emotion:

Any Oscars fan knows we like emotional stories, but Berger hones on specific emotions that make us more willing to share. A person will share a story if it makes them feel: awe, excitement, amusement, anger or anxiety. Stories are less-likely to be shared if they tap into low-arousal emotions like contentment and sadness.

This is good advice for communicators dealing with public education, technical topics or tons of statistics. Your goal may be to inform, but if you don’t make your audience feel an emotion first, your story will get as far as homework on a Friday night.

Cool examples: Google’s “Parisian Love”, Susan Boyle


4.  Public:

Humans are a surprisingly “monkey see, monkey do” species. If we can see other people doing something we’re likely to do it too. But not everything we do is visible. The kind of car you drive is very visible, the charity you support isn’t. Berger argues that smart marketers can make the intangible very visible and very popular just like LiveStrong bracelets and Movember did.

On the flipside, sometimes telling an audience not to do something has the opposite effect. This was the case with the famous “Just Say No to Drugs” ads which actually made kids more likely to try drugs, because it made drug use more visible.

Cool example: the Apple logo


5.  Practical value

News you can use goes a long way and it doesn’t have to be glamorous to be remarkable (shucked corn anyone?). The trick of the marketer and communicator is to frame the value so that it looks amazing.

Cool example: Jay Baers book Youtility


6.  Stories:

Stories are an obvious focus for PR pros and Berger thinks they are a good way to encapsulate key ingredients listed above. (He describes stories, uncharitably, as a Trojan Horse for marketing messages). Berger’s warning (which has been pointed out by countless others) is to make your brand a critical part of the story so that your message won’t get lost in retelling.


The paradox: Here an interesting factoid from the book: What percentage of ‘word of mouth’ do you think happens online? Beger bets you’ll guess about 50-60 per cent, but according to a 2013 Keller Fay Study only seven per cent of ‘word of mouth’ happens online. It seems the mouth is mightier than the keyboard (or smartphone or tablet) in the marketing world.

Yet Berger’s book is full of online success stories: Susan Boyle, Will it Blend?, Clean Ears Every Time.

I wish he’d addressed the effectiveness of social media a bit more in the book. However, this omission offers a key concept for social media marketers:

Social media is a great channel for information, but if you’re not sharing a story you’d also talk about in person, it probably won’t get very far. (Think about how many times you’ve heard about an online sensation verbally or talked to someone about a funny video.)


The problem: When Berger introduces Livestrong bracelets as a success story, he has to allow that it is a success story despite the fact that Lance Armstrong was stripped of seven Tour de France titles for blood doping.

This is a good reminder for communicators that viral ideas are amazing, but they’ll die off pretty quickly if they aren’t backed by thoughtful communications, genuine actions and integrity.


The verdict: This is breezy read that is worth a few hours of your time and a great resource for multitaskers without their own marketing budget. While it serves as great reminder for marketers and communicators too it’s far from a prescription for the next viral hit.


(posted by Patrick)

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