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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.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.


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