Why Things Catch On
The book Contagious details how to make ideas and products shareable. By following Berger’s six principles, you can create contagious ideas.
Keep reading to learn about the top 8 key takeaways of Contagious by Jonah Berger.
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Jonah Berger: The Man Behind the Book
Jonah Berger is a world-renowned marketing expert. He has written several best-selling books and over 50 articles. His works cover ideas, products, consumer behavior, and why certain things catch on. Over a million copies of his books are in print in over 35 countries. The New York Times and Harvard Business Review often cover his work too.
Berger is also a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Here, he teaches the school’s highest-rated online course at the Wharton School.
That’s not all, though. Berger often consults for large organizations, like Nike, Apple, and Google.
Contagious: A Summary
A simple summary of the book Contagious is this: there is value in a message.
In a world where social media influencers are sought out by companies, Berger aims to change that. He admits that some people will always be more influential than others. But he believes that they shouldn’t always be given the power to influence. Especially when it comes to discussing virality.
Berger suggests that brands miss the value of the message when using influencers. Instead, he wants people to focus on good, compelling content, rather than influencers.
He describes six principles companies should follow to create contagious ideas and products. In essence, this book describes how to naturally influence people with your ideas. Along with how to make your ideas and products sharable.
Berger’s six principles aren’t just for established companies, though. It’s the perfect read for anyone wanting to grow their customer base. It also teaches people how to spread ideas and increase brand awareness.
These six principles are social currency, triggers, emotions, public, practical value, and stories.
Storyshot #1: Contagious Ideas Are a Result of Smart Planning
One of the key things Berger highlights is the need for smart planning.
Popular ideas, products, and behaviors aren’t always naturally sharable. Their popularity isn’t good luck either, nor does it come down to just good marketing.
Berger highlights that some products are destined to be popular. But their popularity is a result of smart planning and intentional design.
Berger uses the Barclay Prime Steakhouse in Philadelphia to prove his point. The restaurant gained popularity after it added one, noticeable item to the menu. A $100 cheesesteak. But, this wasn’t any old cheesesteak. It was made from Kobe beef, lobster tail, and black truffles and served with champagne.
The $100 cheesesteak was solely introduced to generate buzz for the restaurant.
It worked. It also helped that Cheesecakes are a popular fast food in Philadelphia.
People simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat a $100 cheesesteak. It made the news and even celebrities had to give it a taste.
The owner’s planned idea made his restaurant contagious.
Storyshot #2: Word of Mouth is More Important Than People Realize
Well-planned and intentional advertising campaigns have a contagious effect. But they’re not a guarantee. You need a few things on your side to guarantee a contagious product or idea.
One of those things is word of mouth.
Few people realize the power of word of mouth. But it’s still a highly influential form of marketing, especially in the online world we live in today. Even the most seemingly insignificant online interactions make waves. Research shows that word of mouth makes up one-quarter of all the purchases we make.
This is because people tend to trust and value personal opinions over ad campaigns. But one shouldn’t overlook, good, traditional advertising. It just needs to be one aspect of your marketing arsenal.
Additionally, word of mouth tends to reach the intended target market. When we recommend things to people, it’s because we know their preferences on a personal level.
But, as powerful as social media is, it’s not necessarily going to make your idea contagious. Shares on social media only make up about 7% of people’s total word-of-mouth communication.
At the end of the day, social media can certainly help, but it’s not guaranteed to make your idea contagious.
As one would guess, we share things that make us look or feel good. Whether it’s personal opinion or “insider information.” It’s a natural feeling, according to one study Berger pointed out. Sharing our opinions has the same effect on our brains as money or food does.
Sharing is also seen as a social currency. This social currency (the first of the six principles) is used to “buy” the favor and interest of others around us. To put it simply, people are more likely to share things that will impress others. Because social currency is so powerful, businesses and companies use it to their advantage.
Contagious uses a prestigious New York bar, Please Don’t Tell, as a prime example. Customers have to use a secret entrance to enter the bar. This gives the illusion that they’re a part of something – on the “inside” of something important. Because of this, people are more likely to talk about it to impress others.
Another company that uses social currency to its advantage is Snapple. But they exploit it slightly differently.
All their iced tea bottle caps contain an interesting or remarkable fact. People share this fact to seem more interesting and knowledgeable. At the same time, they share the brand’s name.
This is called using “game mechanics.” Which essentially means to generate conversation between customers and their peers.
Storyshot #4: Some Ideas and Products are Triggering
Yes, some ideas and products are triggering. And no, not in the sense that it will dredge up unresolved traumas.
Instead, some ideas and products trigger associations in our minds. A contagious idea usually prompts someone to create an association with the idea to its context or environment.
Berger uses the hit song Friday by Rebecca Black as an example of a trigger. The song became a smash hit because it triggered people’s experiences of yearning for the end of the work week.
Another great example in Contagious is Kit Kat. Thanks to a great relatable and triggering ad campaign, Kit Kat made a major comeback. Their new ad campaign placed a Kit Kat bar next to a cup of coffee, with the slogan “a break’s best friend.” They made a major connection between eating a Kit Kat and taking a coffee break. Which is an everyday activity that most people do. So now, whenever you took a coffee break, a Kit Kat would pop into your head.
While social currency is important to making an idea contagious, it’ll only do so for a few minutes. By making an idea triggering, you create long-lasting contextualized imprints in people’s minds.
Storyshot #5: Sharable Ideas Arouse Strong Emotions
An idea that arouses emotion is contagious.
Berger used an interesting study to prove his point. This study showed that the most shared New York Times articles were on health and science. These articles usually aroused amazement in readers, triggering an emotional response and connection.
The same study highlighted that some emotions are more powerful than others when it comes to contagious ideas. It showed that people enjoy sharing positive articles over negative ones. But the articles that had the biggest emotional response, were ones that inspired readers to take action.
These articles, labeled as “high-arousal” articles, tended to provoke intense feelings. Such as awe, amusement, anger, or anxiety. On the other hand, though, “low-arousal” articles simply made readers sad or content.
Emotional arousal extends further than articles, though. It also explains why some videos get more views than others. For example, funny videos tend to go viral because it sparks happy and humorous emotions in us.
Storyshot #6: We’re influenced by Things We Constantly Observe
The more we see something, the more we want to interact with it.
Contagious uses the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign to drive this point home. The campaign actually increased drug use because it was so heavily advertised. People tend to imitate the behaviors and actions of others. So, the products others constantly use, become desirable and enticing to us.
Berger also uses the “Movember” as an example of this. The campaign encourages men to grow mustaches during November to bring awareness to men’s health issues. While it started small, as more men started partaking, the more contagious it got. As it was observed, more people asked about it, and knowledge was shared.
According to psychology, imitating other people’s behavior is normal. It’s known as “social proofing” and explains that we do what is popular because if a lot of other people are doing it, there must be a good reason behind it.
Tip jars are a good example of this. If there’s a bit of money in a tip jar at a coffee counter, other people will be compelled to add to it.
Storyshot #7: Contagious Ideas and Products are Simple, Practical, and Useful
While all the above things make an idea or product contagious, some of the most sharable things are useful. “Shareworthy” ideas and products are usually simple, practical, and useful.
Berger uses a simple video as an example. Ken Craig, an ex-farmer, shared a video showing an easy hack for removing husks of corn. He simply popped the ears of corn in his microwave, let them heat up, and pulled the husks off with ease. All without leaving behind a shred of corn silk. Craig’s video garnered over five million views and he quickly became an internet sensation.
Marketing agencies use the idea of useful, practical, and simple ideas to their advantage. These ideas usually revolve around saving money, and so companies display discounts in a very specific way. The way a discount is presented to you is more important than the value you’re saving.
Businesses do this by using the Rule of 100 principle. This principle is easy to understand. For example, if a product’s price is below $100, a percentage discount, like 10% off, looks more appealing than say $10 off. But, if a product is over $100, a numerical discount, like $10 off, is more attractive than a percentage discount.
When considering how to make products or ideas contagious, take their potential target market into account.
Targeting larger audiences isn’t always the most effective for making something contagious.
In fact, products that target a small, focused group of people, have a better chance of being shared more widely.
Niche markets are much better to infiltrate and influence than a large interest group. This is because members of the niche market feel special and that their interests are represented. As a result, they’re more likely to share the product or idea with other people.
Storyshot #8: Stories and Narratives are Powerful
Narratives and stories have been the main carrier of ideas since the beginning of civilization. Thanks to the passing down of stories, we naturally place value on them. And in turn, remember them and pass them on.
Berger uses the story of the Trojan horse to prove his point. The story has remained a popular one for two reasons; it’s entertaining and it teaches us a good lesson. The tale teaches us not to trust easily and never celebrate prematurely.
Stories are effective and influential because they smuggle ideas into our minds. Even if these stories aren’t based on fact. Entertaining stories don’t have to have validity to be contagious.
Entertaining stories are also far more contagious.
Take Jared Fogle’s “Subway Diet” as an example. His story is about losing over 240 pounds while only eating sandwiches from Subway. This outrageous tale became a contagious advertising campaign for Subway. Their message? Having a Subway sandwich every day forms part of having a healthy and satisfying diet.
Narratives and stories remain a crucial part of sharing information. They’re effective and contagious when sharing ideas among a large group of people.
Summary of the Book Contagious
The key takeaway of Contagious by Jonah Berger is to follow STEPPS – his six principles. Social currency, triggers emotions, public, practical value, and stories.
Some ideas and products are naturally contagious, but with the help of STEPPS, any idea can become viral.
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