Crafting Contagious Ideas

By Jonah Berger

What makes online content go viral? Cats, or luck – at least, that’s the answer if you search the web or look at what videos are most popular on YouTube. People often think that contagious products – those that spread like a virus from person to person via word of mouth – just get lucky, that it’s random why some things go viral and others don’t.

However, it’s not luck and it’s not random. It’s science. Just like other aspects of consumer behavior, there is logic behind why things catch on. Key psychological factors or principles drive things to go viral and become popular.

I analyzed millions of car purchases, thousands of news articles, and hundreds of brands across a variety of industries to understand why some things get more word-of-mouth than others. Again and again, I found the same six key principles at work.

Based on this rigorous academic research, I’ve put together a framework for crafting contagious content using the acronym STEPPS: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories:

  • Social Currency: People talk about things that make them look good. Make people feel like insiders, give them status, or make them feel special, and they’ll tell others—and spread word of mouth about you along the way.

    For example, the bar Please Don’t Tell is one of New York City’s most sought-after drink reservations, but the bar has never marketed itself, has no signage, no website. Why did it succeed? They made people feel like it is a secret. It’s only accessible via an antique phone booth in the back corner of a hot dog joint. People who find out about it feel like they’re in the know, and they tell others to share their status.
  • Triggers: If something is top of mind, it will be tip of tongue. The more people think about your product or idea, the more they’ll talk about it. So consider the context and link your product or idea to triggers, or environmental reminders that you exist.

    For example, internet searches for the singer Rebecca Black spike on Friday. The reason? Her song is titled “Friday,” so the day reminds people to listen. She benefits from the fact that we get that reminder, that trigger, once every week.
  • Emotion: When we care, we share. What drives people to share funny YouTube videos and angry political rants might seem completely different, but they’re actually quite similar. High arousal emotions (like humor and anger) drive people to action. The more you can focus on feelings the more people will be compelled to pass on your message.

    For example, Susan Boyle’s first appearance on Britain’s Got Talent is one of the most viral vides ever. It took off because she awed her audience. She looked like a frumpy lunch lady, but her voice was so beautiful that she left everyone speechless.
  • Public: Ever picked a restaurant based on how many people were inside? People use others’ behavior as a source of information. If lots of other people are doing something, we tend to assume it’s a good thing to do, but imitation only happens if we can see what others are doing. Make behavior more observable, and it will be more likely to catch on.

    For example, it’s easy to tell when someone is listening to an iPhone or iPod because the headphones are white. At the time, all other companies used black headphones, so it was impossible to tell what brand people were using. By simply changing the color, Apple made the private public, increasingly the likelihood that people would buy Apple products.
  • Practical Value: People love to share useful information. Six tips for a great power point. Ten new ways to use your barbeque this spring. It’s important to highlight incredible value. Whether it’s a great deal or just helpful content, helping people see the value will encourage them to share.

    For example, 86-year old Ken Craig’s video “Shucking Corn – Clean Ears Everytime” has more than 7 million views. If you’ve ever tried to clean corn, you know that corn silk clings to the corn for dear life even after you’ve peeled off the husk. Craig’s approach to cleaning corn is so simple and impressively useful and effective that people can’t help but share.
  • Stories: No one likes to be a walking advertisement or recite product features, but we do tell stories about ideas we love, experiences we’ve enjoyed, or products that save the day. Products and ideas often come along for the ride if they’re embedded in the narrative. Create an engaging narrative that spreads your product or idea under the guise of idle chatter.

    For example, Panda Cheese has a great set of ads out. The premise is always the same – someone offers their friend some Panda cheese, but the friend refuses at first. Then a man in a giant panda costume appears and menacingly destroys something. The tag line is “Never say no to Panda.” People share the commercials because they are funny, but it’s also impossible to explain what happened without using the word panda – the brand name.

You don’t have to get lucky or have a huge advertising budget to have your product catch on, and you don’t have to find famous people to endorse it. You just have to harness the psychology of word of mouth and social influence. Whether you run a big business or a small one, a for-profit or a non-profit, or do B2C or B2B, these six key STEPPS can help make anything more popular.

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Jonah Berger is the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and an expert on why ideas spread, some products get more word of mouth than others, and certain online content goes viral. The James G. Campbell assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business, he combines groundbreaking research and powerful stories and provides actionable techniques for helping information spread.

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