Book notes: Contagious - Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Why do things catch on?

‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On’ by Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger is an interesting book that seeks to explore why some things ‘go viral’ or become popular compared to others.

My notes from the book:

Six principles of contagiousness – STEPPS

1. Social Currency

“As it turns out, if something is meant to be a secret, people might be more likely to talk about it. The reason? Social Currency.”

Social Currency: what people use to achieve desired impressions among friends, family and colleagues.

Give people a good way to make themselves look good while promoting your ideas and products along the way.

There are three ways to do it:

1) Inner Remarkability
Talking about remarkable things provides Social Currency. Remarkable things are defined as unusual, extraordinary, or worthy of notice or attention. The most important aspect is that it is worthy of remark.

Remarkable things provide social currency because they make the people talking about them seem more remarkable.

The key to finding inner remarkability is to think about what makes something interesting, surprising, or novel. One way to create surprise is to break patterns that people have come to expect.
Another way to help find the inner remarkability for a product/service is by thinking about what makes that thing stand out.

2) Leverage Game Mechanics
Game Mechanics are the elements of a game, application, or program – including rules and feedback loops – that make them fun and compelling. Good mechanics keep people engaged, motivated and wanting more. They motivate us internally, letting us feel we are achieving something.

Game mechanics encourage social comparison - people don’t just care how well they are doing, they care how well they are performing compared to others. Eg: Early boarding to Premier air mile members – the real perk is nice (boarding early) but people also like that it allows them to actually board before everyone else.

Game Mechanics help build social currency because doing well makes us look good – people love boasting about achievements. “After all – what good is status if no one else knows you have it?”. Game Mechanics boost word of mouth because people share their achievements and mention the brand/product/domain as they do so.

Building a Good Game

If it doesn’t already have built in metrics then a product or service needs to be gamified – metrics need to be created to let people know where they stand.

Help people publicise their achievements – people can talk, but also offer a tangible, visible symbol for them to display to others (e.g.: Foursquares checkin mayors). An effective status system is easy to understand, even by people who aren’t familiar with the domain.

3) Making People Feel Like Insiders
Use scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders. Scarcity means the actual product offering is limited e.g.: 50 seats in a restaurant, 5 hand made widgets/whatever’s. Exclusivity involves making things available only to people who meet a certain criteria. Not just money/celebrity – knowledge. Knowing certain information or being connected to the right people.

2. Triggers

Immediate vs Ongoing Word of Mouth
Interesting products receive more immediate word of mouth than more boring products, but they do not sustain this increased attention over time.

Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas, making them more top of mind. Using a product is a strong trigger. Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.

Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target market.

Products and ideas have habitats, or sets of triggers that cause people to think about them. e.g.: Hotdogs – summertime. bbq, baseball etc. It is possible to grow an idea’s habitat by creating new links to stimuli in the environment.

Competition/competitors can also be a trigger by making a rival’s message act as a trigger for your own – the ‘poison parasite’.

What makes an effective trigger?

Consider the context – think about the environment of the people a message is trying to trigger.

3. Emotion

“When we care, we share”

The Power of Awe – (Awe being the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great beauty, sublimity, or might). Awe inspiring articles (ex: Science articles) may be low in Social Currency or Practical Value but are popular because of the awe that they inspire.

Emotional sharing is like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships.

Physiological Arousal – when your body responds physically to an emotion – e.g.: heart starts to race when you watch a close sports game. Arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action.

High Arousal emotions lead to a higher level of sharing

High Arousal Emotions:

Low Arousal:

When marketing, instead of focusing on information, focus on feelings and underlying emotions that motivate people to action.

A method to find the emotional core of an idea: Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask: “Why is that important?”
Repeat this three times, applying it to each answer as you go.

4. Public

“If something is built to show, it’s built to grow”

Seeing people do something makes people more likely to do it themselves. People imitate (in part) because others’ choices provide information. We assume that if other people are doing something, it must be a good idea – “social proof”.

“Behaviour is public while thought is private”

Public visibility boosts word of mouth.

Products can advertise themselves. Shapes, sounds, and other distinctive characteristics can help them do this (e.g.: the size of the logo for Ralph Lauren Polo shirts).

A product, idea, or behaviour advertises itself when people consume it. When people wear certain brands, attend a concert, use a website, etc, they make it more likely that others will see what they are doing and imitate it.

Behavioural Residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviours leave in their wake. They offer a way to provide insight into who people are and what they like (e.g.: Lance Armstrong LiveStrong bands). When publicly visible, they facilitate imitation and provide chances for people to talk about related ideas or products.

Shopping bags from stores like Tiffany and Victorias secret are  combination of behavioural residue and social currency.

5. Practical Value

People like to pass along useful, practical information. “News others can use”. Useful things are important.

Behavioual Economics
Prospect theory – people don’t evaluate things in absolute terms, they evaluate them to a comparison standard, or reference point.

6. Stories

People don’t think it terms of information, they think in terms of narrative. People tell stories for the same reasons they share word of mouth. Some narratives are about Social Currency (e.g.: PDT). Other stories are about high arousal (emotion). Or amazement, or practical value.

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