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Contagious

A new case study in the vein of “Freakonomics” and “The Tipping Point” addresses the “why” of viral marketing.

By Contributor / February 28, 2013

Contagious by Jonah Berger Simon and Schuster 256 pp.

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Did you know that if you microwave an unshucked ear of corn for eight minutes, then cut off about a half-inch of the bottom, and then remove the corn from the leaves, none of those pesky silks will get stuck to the ear? This information comes from a YouTube video that was posted by an 86-year-old man. It is the only video he’s ever made and it has almost 7.5 million views. According to studies, less than one percent of all videos on YouTube get more than a million hits. So why did this one go “viral”?

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That’s exactly what Jonah Berger, assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has set out to explain. In Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger lays out the principles that affect the "virality" of any product, idea, or message. His study focuses heavily on the human element of social epidemics. According to Berger, “Word of mouth [advertising] is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”

While the Internet may be a great tool for tracking buzz for products, Berger found that only 7 percent of that buzz took place on sites like Facebook and Twitter. The rest was generated almost entirely by face-to-face interaction. So what makes people talk about something?

Berger writes in a straightforward, conversational tone. Each chapter sets up the first halves of several cases, then explains the principle that the chapter is focused on, and then shows how that principle affected the outcome of each case.

Style and structure aside, the book is just plain interesting. Berger’s cases are not only topical and relevant, but his principles seem practical and are easily understood. Reading it feels like sitting in on one of his college courses. His research can also be overly simplistic (rate how sad you are on a scale from one to ten), but I'd rather take on the 179 pages of this than fake my way through another 400-page Malcolm Gladwell epic any day.

"Contagious" might sound a lot like Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” but Berger makes very clear the difference between the two. “Tipping Point” is about the personality types that make something a sensation; “Contagious” is about the mechanics of the message itself. You might think of it as the third part in a series: Gladwell wrote "The Tipping Point" about the "who" behind social epidemics; Chip and Dan Heath wrote "Made to Stick" analyzing the "how"; and now, with "Contagious," Berger has written a follow-up about the "why." (All of them have their own versions of the "what" that support their claims)

Using psychology and sociology to analyze vast swaths of data, Berger describes six “STEPPS” or factors that affect whether or not people will talk about the product, idea, or message in question. The six are:

Social Currency: If people feel that knowing about something makes them look good, you can bet that they will talk about it. (How many of your friends regularly brag about the need to use up their frequent flyer miles?)

Triggers: Peanut butter and jelly is a great example of a close association.

Emotion: It’s the reason why your friends keep telling you that same story about the Grand Canyon – it was awe-inspiring.

Public: Apple makes their headphones white so everyone can see that you’re using their product.

Practical Value: It’s why “discounts” are effective and so many people watched the corn-shucking video.

Stories: Like the Trojan horse, the real message should be wrapped up in a great story.

"Contagious" is accessible for laymen and marketing professionals alike, and might be just as useful for both. Its bright orange cover is an example of his own principles: It advertises itself (hopefully). 

Berger is one of those lucky academics who has managed to write a book that answers the important questions, like, how come my awesome YouTube videos never get more than 100 hits? If what he says is true, I have a strong feeling that this book will catch on.

- Ben Frederick is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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