What makes something contagious

What Makes Things Go Viral?

In this article about marketing strategy and tactics I want to talk about a book I read recently read entitled Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger.  Wouldn’t you love it if your marketing message were to spread like wildfire—both in real conversations with real people AND on the web?  Then you’ve got to learn how to make your message contagious! For example—would you be more likely to tell your friends about a $100 bottle of wine, or a $100 cheesesteak? The right answer is cheesesteak.

In the book, the author recounts a time recently when a Philadelphia restaurant named Barclay Prime Steakhouse wanted to create some buzz in their market because they were new and there were already a lot of other steakhouses in the area.  They were looking for a way to distinguish themselves in the marketplace.  So they created the “World’s Finest” (and most expensive cheesesteak sandwich made from their highest quality filet mignon cut of beef, the finest quality cheeses, they crafted a special process for caramelizing the onions, and the bread was an in-house recipe baked on premise fresh every day.

They then priced it at $100 and with very little advertising it created a buzz in their marketplace.  People such as a group of 5 or 6 people would often buy it as an appetizer and share it amongst each other just so they could have the bragging rights to say they ate the $100 cheesesteak sandwich.  Then other people would hear about their experience and ask them how did it taste?  Was it really that good?  It created a conversation piece.  It got people talking about it and the steakhouse. 

This book is not the definitive guide to what makes things go viral; no single resource can fully capture that concept.  Berger was however heavily influenced by two other related works; Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and Chip & Dan Heath’s 2007 book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  The principles of why things go viral are closely related to Heath’s concept of “stickiness.”

Berger has an acronym in the book that outlines what he believes are the characteristics that enable things to catch on.  (STEPPS)  What’s important to note is that not all characteristics need be present in order for something to become contagious in the marketplace.  According to the author the 6 principles that help make things go viral are: Social Currency (making people feel like they are cool insiders); Triggers (everyday reminders of an item or idea); Emotional connection (making people want to share the experience with friends); Public promotion, to be seen and heard (that is, a highly visible item promotes itself); Practical usefulness (people like to share practical or helpful information); and storytelling (embedding a product or an idea in a narrative enhances its power.)

Social Currency – how to make things interesting so people want to talk about them; people want to appear interesting, accomplished, and distinguished; thus why social media has exploded.  We are constantly searching for interesting things to share.  Just like how Seth Godin talked about in his book Purple Cow, you’ve got to be remarkable; unusual, novel, extraordinary, surprising, extreme, etc.  What creates social currency?  Things that are surprising – break a pattern; mysteries and controversies; game mechanics: give your customers something to talk and brag about i.e. frequent buyer programs, “wink, wink” deals, etc.  Give people something to talk about or a game to play.  For example the Pink Painter, the ‘Purple Electrician’, the $5,000 worst leak challenge, home of “Liquid Insanity,” Giant Dragon Donut, (high school mascot), etc.

Triggers – how to stay top of mind, how to stay on the forefront of people’s minds; conversations are influence by what is around us all the time; most conversations are small talk; the weather, construction delays, traffic, football/basketball/baseball games; indirect triggers via relationships; peanut butter and… ?  Tie your product or service to something people talk about all the time.  Look for something frequent and common

Emotion – how to engage strong feelings about something; things that touch us emotionally get us talking; AWE – the sense of wonder and amazement when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, or might; anxiety, anger, or fear.  What you’re looking for are “high arousal” emotions… ones that get people actively thinking; people often imitate people around them; find ways to make your product or service as visible in the public eye as possible.  This can be done with colors and logos; i.e. Design: white Apple ear buds; Pringle’s tube; signs or other giveaways.

Public – if you want things to catch on, they have to be out there in the public eye.  Breast cancer awareness – pink ribbons; wristbands, T-shirts, stickers,

Practical Value – people want to share things of genuine value that others will want to have or use

Stories – how to make the idea easy to spread

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