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Summary of Contagious: Why Things Catch On By Jonah Berger

1-Page Summary

The book starts by laying out what the author believes are the Six Principles of Contagiousness called STEPPS: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories.

As he puts it the principles of contagiousness are “products or ideas that contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable, and wrapped in Stories.” 

  • Social Currency: Appearances matter.’ Give your product – and its owner – social status by making it – and those who own/talk about it appear REMARKABLE (interesting, exclusive, distinctive, attractive, successful).  Example: Blendtec’s Does it Blend Videos, Please Don’t Tell NY hidden bar, Rue La La’s secret flash sales…
  • Triggers: ‘Top of Mind, Tip of Tongue.’ Associate your product with ideas and activities in peoples lives (moments – Kit Kat = break, colours, Coke = Red, music, words (more Mars candy stories in news during Mars pathfinder news story)
  • Emotion‘When we care, we share’. Focus on what really matters and be ‘awe-some’ by asking the ‘3 Whys’ (Why is this product important, why is that important, and why is that important) and striving to evoke ‘awe’ – the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity. Example – Google’s Search On campaign (how to impress a French girl)
  • Public‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’: Make adoption and use, publicly visible and copyable – e.g. Prostate cancer Movember campaign, Nike Livestrong
  • Practical value‘News you can use’  Should be Useful – in a short, straightforward, and simple way – for you, and for who you share it with.  Example, a corn on the cob tip on YouTube gets 7M+ views. The Power of Lists (buzzfeed style news)
  • Stories: ‘Once Upon a Time’ – Your product should be wrapped up/communicated in a shareable (human) story or narrative – e.g. Subway – Jared Fogle story, went from 60″ waist to 34″ eating Subway sandwiches.  But ensure your product is an integral part of the story (many people forget the product that is advertised in story-based ads/word of mouth)

Full Summary

1. Social Currency

Humans like to share things — it is one of the main reasons social media is so popular. One of the things sharing does is that it helps us signal to others what our identity is. We share our likes, opinions, and more, letting other people know who we are. It isn’t the only reason we share though.

One of the prime purposes of why we share, whether you are aware of it or not, is that it helps us look good in the eyes of others. We want to be the person who shares the hot new band or cool new restaurant because it makes us look hip, tell our friends about the trending news because we are intelligent, share photos of a recent trip to show how awesome our lives are and more.

This behavior can be labeled as social currency — we build our social wealth up by sharing and influencing others in a positive way.

As Jonah Berger puts it, “just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.”

Jonah says marketers need to use social currency to achieve great word-of-mouth for a product. A company needs to “give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way.” He says, “There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders.” (36)

1.1. Inner Remarkability

This one is straightforward. Make your product remarkable, so people will want to share it. People like to share awesome things, so if your marketing can get across that the product is remarkable, then it will help its word of mouth build.

One way he says to do this is by “breaking a pattern people have to come to expect” or just focus on what about your product makes it stand out from all the rest.

1.2. 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.”

If possible, marketers should implement game mechanics into their marketing and product plan. Make the customer try to achieve something or accrue some kind of currency, such as Regal crown club points that make a person more likely to visit a Regal theater again rather than a competitor because they want to accrue more points.

So how does this help build word of mouth?

Game mechanics “motivate us on an interpersonal level by encouraging social comparison.” People like to compare how they do compared to others, especially if it is a comparison against their friends. “Just like many other animals, people care about hierarchy,” aka we are prone to status displays.

Game Mechanics help create social currency because it can give a positive impression to others in our group whose opinions we value. This is important for word-of-mouth growth because when people share their achievements, they also “talk about the brands or domains where they achieved” them.

So How Does A Company Build A Good Game?

According to Jonah, “leveraging game mechanics requires quantifying performance… Metrics need to be created or recorded that let people see where they stand.”

The great thing is that you can gamify things you wouldn’t think are a game. Jonah’s example for this is airline mile programs. “Great game mechanics can even create achievement out of nothing. Airlines turned loyalty into a status symbol.”

1.3. Make People Feel Like Insiders

Jonah suggests brands use scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders.

“Scarcity is about how much of something is offered. Scarce things are less available because of high demand, limited production, or restrictions on the time or place you can acquire them… Exclusivity is also about availability, but in a different way. Exclusive things are accessible only to people who meet particular criteria.”

These two things make products seem more desirable and people love desirable things.

One of the ways brands use these two concepts is by doing things like including the words ‘limited availability,’ which “makes us feel like we have to act now.” So if you notice a product being sold using those words, realize that they are trying to make the product more desirable by making it appear as if it is scarce (it may not actually be), thus making it more likely you will buy it.

2. Triggers

Before diving into triggers, Jonah talks some more about word of mouth. (It’s in the Triggers chapter and is relevant to Triggers so I’m putting it in this section)

He describes two types of word of mouth: immediate and ongoing. As you can probably put together, immediate happens very quickly after being influenced by a product, while ongoing can happen way later.

I want to note that to really take away the most from this section you will want to read the book because he shares a lot of useful information to back up his point.

One of the things he concluded was that triggers help drive ongoing word of mouth. He says that, “Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas, making them more top of mind…Why does it matter if particular thoughts or ideas are top of mind? Because accessible thoughts and ideas lead to action.”

He continues on with multiple stories about this effect in action. He wrote, “triggers not only get people talking, they keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.”

So what makes for an effective trigger?

He says, “one key factor is how frequently the stimuli occurs” and that “linking a product or idea with a stimulus that is already associated with many things isn’t as effective as forging a fresher, more original link.”

“It is also important to pick triggers that happen near where the desired behavior is taking place” and to “think about the environments of the people a message or idea is trying to trigger.”

Once again, I suggest you read the book so you can understand the studies and stories he uses to back up these points and to understand them more in depth.

If you’re a little confused about this. Does the word “peanut butter” trigger anything for you? What about the color red and the word soda together? What do hot dogs tend to make you think about if you’re an American? He goes into several case studies of how marketers were able to link up certain triggers with certain brands causing sales to rise because people would buy them more oftenbecause they were be triggered to do so whether they were aware of it or not.

3. Emotion

“When we care, we share”

There are emotions that most people deem positive while there are other emotions that are deemed negative. Happiness, awe, and joy are considered positive, while sadness, anger, and anxiety tend to be viewed as negative.

There is also an argument by psychologists “that emotions can also be classified based on a second dimension. That of activation, or physiological arousal.”

And as a side note, though you probably know what arousal is, but just in case, “arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action.”

What Jonah found was that the most viral articles usually included high arousal emotions. The articles that were shared the most in his analysis of the NY Times Most Emailed list were articles that provoked awe, excitement, amusement, anger, or anxiety.

Articles that mainly provoked sadness were not shared widely. In fact, “sadness articles were actually 16 percent less likely to make the Most E-Mailed list.”

Jonah Berger suggests to marketers that “rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.” 

The way he suggests marketers go about this is by mentioning advice from the book Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, which says “talk about using the ‘Three Whys’ to find the emotional core of an idea. Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask “Why is this important?” three times. Each time you do this, note your answer, and you’ll notice that you drill down further and further toward uncovering not only the core of an idea, but the emotion behind it.”

So when you are deciding how to market things, select high arousal emotions because “simply adding more arousal to a story or ad can have a big impact on people’s willingness to share it.”

He ends this chapter talking about the concept of over-sharing. He states that one of the reasons people over-share is that “if situational factors end up making us physiologically aroused, we may end up sharing more than we planned.”

So if you need to learn certain information from someone, but you know it may be difficult to get out, you could bring them to a place where they will be physiologically aroused. Now I don’t suggest doing that, but people may do that to you, so be wary of yourself if you are entering into a potential high arousal state. You don’t want to end up asking yourself the next day, “Why did I say that?”

4. Public

Did you know the reason why the Apple logo on laptops doesn’t face you when the laptop is closed?

According to the book, “The reason? Observability. Jobs realized that seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.” He wanted an observer to see the Apple logo the right way, making it more enticing for them to want to buy it.

“Making something more observable makes it easier to imitate. Thus a key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility.”

People often imitate those around them.” This concept of doing things strangers do, or what are friends do is often referred to as ‘social proof.’ You’ve probably seen this in action, such as when a crowd of people are looking at something, you start looking too, wondering what is going on.

You may not have realized it, but often times in bars or coffee shops, the employees stuff the tip jar before their shift. They do this because it provides social proof that other people are tipping. As Jonah puts it, “If the tip jar is empty, their customers may assume that other people aren’t really tipping and decide not to tip much themselves either. But if the tip jar is already brimming with money, they assume that everyone must be tipping, and thus they should tip as well.”

The observability of a product “has a huge impact on whether products and ideas catch on.”

An example he provides of this is, “The Movember Foundation succeeded because they figured out how to make the private public. They figured out how to take support for an abstract cause—something not typically observable—and make it something that everyone can see.”

The benefit of a product that can be seen in the public eye is that “every time people use the product or service, they also transmit social proof or passive approval because usage is observable.” Its usage by others thus helps advertise it to others.

One of the things Jonah asks and then answers is, “Is there something that generates social proof that sticks around even when the product is not being used or the idea is not top of mind… It’s called behavioral residue.”

“Behavioral residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake.” He goes in-depth into a case study about this effect. The case study is about how a popular yellow wristband came about.

Did the words “yellow wristband” automatically trigger the brand “LiveStrong” for you?

For a lot of people it does. I suggest reading the book to get the full understanding of behavioral residue.

Just remember, one of the ways to help make a product or idea contagious is to somehow make it publically observable.

5. Practical Value

Let’s talk about ‘Prospect Theory’ and the economist Daniel Kahneman.

“Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for his work with Amos Tversky on what they called ‘prospect theory.’ The theory is amazingly rich, but at its core, it’s based on a very basic idea. The way people actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make decisions. Judgments and decisions are not always rational or optimal. Instead, they are based on psychological principles of how people perceived and process information. Just as perceptual processes influence whether we see a particular sweater as red or view an object on the horizon as far away, they also influence whether a price seems high or a deal seems good.” (163)

“One of the main tenets of prospect theory is that people don’t evaluate things in absolute terms. They evaluate them relative to a comparison standard, or ‘reference point’.”(163)

Aka if you are use to seeing an item at $1, then seeing it at $4 will seem insane even if that may be the norm in that place.

We see this theory in use all of the time when it comes to the concept of a ‘sale’ at a store. There may not actually be a sale at all, but “setting a higher reference point made the first deal seem better even though the price was higher overall.”

So you are aware of the power of the word ‘sale,’ in a study, using the word ‘sale’ by an item when the price didn’t change at all increased sales by more than 50 percent.  Be wary whenever you see the word ‘sale.’

Another part of prospect theory is “diminishing sensitivity,” which “reflects the idea that the same change has a smaller impact the farther it is from the reference point.”

He talks about this concept while talking about an item that is an INCREDIBLE VALUE.

“As prospect theory illustrates, one key factor in highlighting incredible value is what people expect. Promotional offers that seem surprising or surpass expectations are more likely to be shared. This can be because the actual deal itself exceeds expectations (for example, the percentage off is so unbelievable) or because the way the deal is framed makes it seem that way.”

“Another factor that affects whether deals seem valuable is their availability. Somewhat counter intuitively, making promotions more restrictive can make them more effective.” I believe this makes logical sense. People like to be part of an exclusive group, so if they can get a deal others can’t, it will make them feel special and more likely to purchase.

He next goes on to talk about

The Rule of 100

I think this is a fascinating thing to consider from both the viewpoint of a purchaser and a seller. Have you ever wondered why items sometimes use a percentage instead of a number when they offer a discount?

Well, if they are marketing effectively, they are using the rule of 100. “Researchers find that whether a discount seems larger as money or percentage off depends on the original price.”

The rule is basically that if an item is less than $100 than a percentage off seems more than a number discount, while the opposite is true with anything above $100.

These values also have to be easy for people to see. So make a product easy to see and highlight how its valuable for the person to use and how its pricing is of value. People love things that are practical.

6. Stories

“People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives… Stories carry things. A lesson or moral. Information or a take home message.”

Most people are very skeptical of traditional advertising these days and of people trying to persuade them to do things. But putting your ad subtly into a story can help get the message across in a more efficient manner because the “information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter.” 

Jonah Berger says blending your advertising into a story is equivalent to building a Trojan Horse.

“We need to build our own Trojan Horse — a carrier narrative that people will share, while talking about our product or idea along the way.” The important part of this being the “while talking about our product or idea along the way.” We have all known some cool ads that we shared with others, but that didn’t make us at all talk about the product or idea.

“When trying to generate word of mouth, many people forget one important detail. They focus so much on getting people to talk that they ignore that part that really matters: what people are talking about.” 

You don’t want to create a story that has people talking about the story and sharing it, but not talking about the organization behind it. “The key, then, is to not only make something viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring company or organization. Not just virality but valuable virality.”

Jonah details multiple examples of viral content that was shared widely, but failed to have any positive impact on the brand. If you are a marketer, you don’t want this to be the case for your product.

To avoid this you want the brand or product benefit to be “integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.”

So make the message you are trying to tell critical to the story. “Build a social currency-laden, triggered, emotional, public, practically valuable Trojan Horse, but don’t forget to hide your message inside. Make sure your desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.”

What did you learn from Contagious? What was your favorite takeaway? Is there an important insight that we missed? Comment below or tweet to us @storyshots.

Check out the video and audio summary on StoryShots.




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