Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger

contagious jonah berger

Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a book about what makes content go viral, or as Berger calls it, contagious. Contagious is a fun read which largely succeeds at its goal of explaining what makes things go viral. That said, don’t expect any mind-blowing revelations about the way ideas or products become popular.

The whole book is built around Professor Berger’s STEPPS model, which include six things that make content viral: Social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, stories:

If an idea or product has social currency, it basically means that the product or idea makes the customer look cool. Secret bars have social currency because you get to brag about having gone. Interesting facts have social currency since they make you look smart. Snapple took advantage of this by printing interesting facts on the inside of their bottle caps. People shared the facts and mentioned they read it on Snapple bottles, making Snapple look cool.

Triggers simply means associating a product with a stimulus. For example, completely by accident, sales of Mars bars rose when NASA sent a probe there. People heard the name Mars, so they bought more of the candy. It’s that simple. When you think about peanut butter, you naturally think of jelly. If you can associate your product with a trigger, you are more likely to go viral. Apparently Kit Kat found success doing this by associating their candy with coffee breaks. (I say apparently because I’ve never heard anyone associate Kit Kats with coffee, and have no recollection of that ever being the case.) By associating their product with another, Kit Kat saw increased sales.

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Emotion refers to how people feel, but specifically refers to putting people in a state of arousal. As anyone who has used Facebook or Twitter can attest, if someone is angry or excited, they are likely to share how they feel. That’s because anger and excitement are high arousal emotions. They make you want to take action. Contentment and sadness, on the other hand, are low arousal emotions. If your product or idea makes people angry or excited, expect them to share it. If your product makes people sad or content, don’t be so optimistic. Arousal doesn’t just come from emotion, however. If you make someone walk in place and read articles, they are more likely to share those articles to others than the person who read the article while sitting down.

Public means what it sounds like. Ideas or products that are widely viewed or easily viewable are more likely to be popular because people conform. Berger notes that prospective MBA students have many different career goals, but by they time they are about to graduate, 2/3rds of them say they want to become consultants or investment bankers. It’s a safe, comfortable choice. We trust other people to make good decisions, so if we see a packed restaurant, we assume the food is good. If we see everyone with an Apple laptop, we assume Apple makes good laptops. But it doesn’t just apply to large corporations or already popular products. Berger discusses the origins of no shave November (Movember) where men grow out their moustaches to raise money for men’s health. This started with a small group of Australians and quickly spread across the world because it was highly visible. Hotmail also saw large growth because their email signatures automatically contained an advertisement for the company.

Practical value is perhaps the most obvious one. A product or idea with huge practical value, that is, it makes someones life better in some way, is more likely to go viral. It’s why boring videos on shucking corn or tying a tie may get millions of views.

Stories is the shortest chapter and simply makes the basic point that great stories stand the test of time (we still talk about Greek myths, after all) and that if you create a compelling story around or product or brand you can expect to do well.

None of the implications are particularly surprising, and given the speed at which viral content goes out of fashion, some of the examples, like Rebecca Black’s Friday, seem ancient. Given that the examples are all about viral content, many of the YouTube examples now feel quaint. View counts have risen, and there is now a higher bar for what qualifies as viral. That said, some of the examples were interesting, and the book as a whole is well written and relatively engaging.

Like other books in the genre, Contagious is at most 40% a discussion about psychology and 60% or more a collection of interesting stories that are related to that discussion.

Wrap Up

Fundamentally, Contagious is interesting but not surprising. There is some dust jacket language claiming Berger reveals “secret science” about word-of-mouth marketing. This is annoying for many reasons, mostly because it isn’t true, but I suppose it can be written off as marketing speak. Ultimately though this sort of language raises the bar to unattainable levels, and makes the lack of secrets more jarring. Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, also fell victim to this problem in a more prominent way, but it seems they realized this because the paperback has a different subtitle.

Other book reviews of Contagious have claimed that the book is heavily in debt to The Tipping Point and Made to Stick. I haven’t read either of those books, so I can’t make a judgement on that front. Berger chose his examples well and I appreciated the discussion on arousal and why certain emotions make people less likely to share content. I also enjoyed the story about how Movember quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.

All in all, if you are looking for an entertaining book on marketing, Contagious is worth checking out.

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