Contagious: Why Things Catch On


It’s hard not to hear about a YouTube video that goes viral these days.  With billions accessing the Internet globally, anyone with a product to market can theoretically tap the power of the Internet to  create demand for their product after generating a positive buzz on any number of consumer accessed websites.  Jonah Berger is the James G. Campbell Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and has extensively researched word-of-mouth and social transmission of messages.  His book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, is his attempt to explain some of his findings in layman’s terms.

Dr. Berger quickly dispels some commonly accepted “facts” about word of mouth.  First, while online word of mouth may be able to reach more people, that’s not always the case since many people are inundated with online content.  Offline conversations are more prevalent according to Berger and provide more potential impact.  Second, Facebook and Twitter are technologies on which people frequently discuss products and services.  Unless the information is compelling enough to convince people to share it, these technologies are of little use in creating effective word of mouth advertising online.  Certain stories are more contagious according to the author, and people need to design products, ideas, and behaviors so that people will talk about them.

There are six principles of content contagiousness.  These principles are organized into an acronym that Berger refers to as STEPPS.  The first principle is Social currency.  People would rather look smart when they talk about something so the message needs to be crafted in a manner that makes the conveyer look like a smart insider.  Principle 2 is Triggers.  Triggers are stimuli that cause people to think about related things.  Products and ideas need to be designed in a way so that cues in the environment around us will trigger discussions about the product or idea.  The third principle is Emotion.  “When we care, we share.” The right emotion needs to be stimulated in order for people to share a message.  Principle 4 is Public.  Our ideas need to be made more public so that people can see them frequently.  The fifth principle is Practical value.  Content needs to be crafted so that it appears to be useful, and people will pass it on in order to be seen as helpful.  The sixth and last principle is Stories.  People like to tell stories far more frequently than they like to share information.  Berger says that we need to do far more than tell a great story.  We need to make the message of the idea or product so valuable to the narrative that people won’t be able to tell the story without it.  While the STEPPS acronym is useful, Berger states that not all six principles are necessary for the message about an effective idea or product to be contagious.

From the perspective of a researcher who is an expert at social communication, Dr. Berger writes a chapter about each of the STEPPS principles and provides concrete examples (great stories) about products or ideas that utilized that principle and that were successful (or unsuccessful in a couple of cases).  In addition, stories and information are appropriately footnoted with references to research articles published about the product and/or idea.  Regardless of whether you work for a non-profit or for-profit, the information provided in Contagious is highly useful for those of us responsible for increasing awareness of our product or our ideas.  I enjoyed finding out more about this current topic and highly recommend this book.



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  1. Wally Boston | The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge | - August 29, 2014

    […] to friends, relatives, and colleagues, I thought about a book that I had read more than a year ago, Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger. Dr. Berger, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, […]

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