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Contagious Marketing: Why Things Catch On

Word of mouth is 10 times more effective than advertising, Wharton professor says . / Credit: Bacteria image via Shutterstock

The power of word of mouth to set the stage for a product, person or idea to go viral and become a  part of the fabric of our lives is the latest epiphany to rattle the rafters of the marketing world.  You know a discovery like this has reached its tipping point when it acquires its own trade association (Word of Mouth Marketing Association) and a substantial library of breathless how-to literature.

What's missing in all this hoopla is a fundamental understanding of the characteristics that make a product or an idea word-of-mouth worthy and give it potential to go viral. Jonah Berger goes a long way toward addressing that gap with his upcoming book, "Contagious: Why Things Catch On" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Berger, a Wharton marketing professor, has spent the last decade studying social influence.  In “Contagious,” he combines his groundbreaking research with powerful stories to explain the secret science behind word of mouth and social transmission.

According to Berger, word of mouth and social transmission are rooted in six basic principles – STEPPS, as he calls them. He recently shared his thoughts on those and much more with BusinessNewsDaily.

BusinessNewsDaily:  In “Contagious,” you say that word of mouth and social transmission are the key drivers making ideas and products spread virally and, in fact, are the most important motivators. Please explain.

Jonah Berger: You might think that success is all about having a big advertising budget, or being the best product out there, but it's not.  Word of mouth is 10 times more effective than advertising.  And people care more about whether other people are using something than whether that product is the "best."  We look to others to help us decide what to do, think and buy, and social influence has a huge impact on behavior 

BND: Where does Malcolm Gladwell's “The Tipping Point” leave off and “Contagious” begin?

JB: “The Tipping Point” was a great read, but it's half wrong.  And we've learned a lot in the decade since it was published.  If social epidemics were a car, word of mouth would be the engine.  And that engine is what “Contagious” is all about:  The science behind word of mouth and why people talk and share.  Without word of mouth the car won't go

BND: What are the six essential factors that contribute to contagious ideas? Do these factors have a hierarchy?

JB: STEPPS, or Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Stories.  There is no hierarchy, but different factors matter more in different situations.  Public is much easier to leverage offline, for example.  Emotion is easier to build in to certain products or ideas. That said, working to apply all the concepts to any product or idea will make it more likely to succeed.


. Credit: Author Jonah Berger photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster


BND: Can any idea/product become contagious?

JB: Definitely.  Some products or ideas might seem more mundane or boring but if they harness the six key STEPPS they can get people talking.  Take the McRib.  It's a sandwich at McDonalds, not the most exciting stuff, but by generating “social currency,” McDonald's got people to go crazy about it

BND: Why has so much of the conversation about viral messaging and social transmission focused on the mechanics rather than underlying principles you set out in “Contagious?”

JB: It's easy to focus on the technology such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.  But it's more important to understand why people share, the underlying psychology that drives people to pass things on, both online and offline.  And until “Contagious,” the research behind the why wasn't out there.  But now companies and organizations are using these concepts to help their messages catch on.

[How Much Is a Facebook Friend Worth? $174.17]

BND: Do small or new companies/organizations have any inherent advantages in spreading the word about products/ideas?

JB: The more you know about your customers, the more you can get them to talk.  So to the degree that small business can give customers that personal attention, they can turn them in to advocates.  We've even put together a free workbook to help small business apply these principles to help drive success. http://jonahberger.com/member-content/

BND: What are high arousal positive emotions and how do they affect our response to ideas, products, or events? What is a good example?

JB: Excitement, humor and awe are all high arousal positive emotions.  These emotions fire us up and drive us to take action.  Think about the first time you heard about Google Glass or saw Susan Boyle sing.  You're so amazed you just have to spread the word.

BND: Who has conducted the most successful viral marketing campaign? The least?

JB: Many companies have conducted successful viral campaigns, but most businesses don't need a huge viral hit.  They just want to grow by 10-20 percent.  So it's all about turning customers into advocates.  Getting old customers to bring in more new ones by understanding the psychology of word of mouth

BND: Is 'Contagio' budget-agnostic?

JB: Even small companies can take advantage of these principles.  You don't need a huge advertising budget, you just have to get people talking.

BND: How do game mechanics help ideas spread?

JB: People love to compare themselves to others.  Game mechanics helps people see how they stack up to their peers and motivates them to tell others when they succeed.  When we achieve something we spread the word because it makes us look good.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith. Follow us @BNDarticles, Facebook or Google +.  This story was originally published on BusinessNewsDaily

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and held a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.