[Book Review] Contagious by Jonah Berger

Contagious is an easy-to-read guide to making content interesting. For those who have read similar books, such as Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, you may feel that Contagious covers a lot of similar ground. The advantage of Contagious over Made To Stick is that it provides hard evidence (as well as anecdote) to support the framework and the claims made by Jonah Berger.

The book covers six key principles over six chapters: Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical value and Stories. These six STEPPS are the key to creating ideas that catch on, according to the author.

The first of these is social currency. We all know that word of mouth is important to making an idea catch on. The author cites data that shows that word-of-mouth is responsible for 20-50% of all purchase decisions. For example., a five star review on Amazon leads to approximately 20 more books sold than a one star review. Social currency is much more persuasive than traditional advertising.

We know that our friends tell it straight, whereas we are never sure about advertisers and business.  Jonah Berger also points out that word-of-mouth is naturally more targeted too. According to Keller Fay, only 7% of word-of-mouth happens online and the vast majority of social currency comes through face-to-face interactions. While online word-of-mouth is more ‘visible’ the reality is that we spend far more of our days talking to others than we do online, and it has far more impact as well. Social currency comes because people want to look good sharing interesting ideas with their friends.

Triggers are important as well, ensuring that context and environment make an idea ‘top of mind’ (priming people to share).   Jonah Berger points out that Cheerios get far more word-of-mouth than Disney World. Why is this? While Disney have a much more emotional connection with people, we all eat breakfast every day (and sometimes more often) so there are simply more opportunities for Cheerios to get into the conversation. As I’ve argued before, context matters.

Emotion is always key (it’s our main mechanism for working out the relative importance of all the information around us). We are more likely to share things that make us happy, but also those that surprise us, or infuriate us.  Jonah Berger shows that positive emotions are not always those that have the biggest influence. Although it’s definitely true that sadness reduces virality, this is because it is a low arousal emotion, in the same way that contentment is (a positive emotion that has low virality). However, awe, excitement, amusement (happiness), anger and anxiety are all high arousal emotions and all increase the likelihood of an idea being shared with others.

Public refers to the importance of making things visible to others (“monkey see, monkey do”). We love to imitate and we are more likely too when something is publicly visible (think of Vittel water’s recent cap innovation). The story of the Apple logo on laptops demonstrates this perfectly. Steve Jobs eventually decided that it was more important for the logo to be the right way up for public visibility than for the individual user.

When things have Practical value and are useful to others, then they are much more likely to share them in turn (because it will give them social currency). Although in many ways we live more apart in the modern world, sharing useful information is a quick and easy way to help others out and to connect with your friends, family and others.

Finally, humans love stories, and are more likely to engage in an idea when it’s wrapped in a broader narrative. Stories are carriers of idea ‘germs’ with the ability to infect and create a pandemic when the idea is powerful enough. That can only happen if we ensure that the idea is central to the story (so that it can’t be told without it). Jonah Berger uses the story of the Trojan horse to illustrate how an idea (“never trust your enemies”) is more effectively spread by embedding it within a narrative.  While listeners focus on the narrative, the idea creeps into their mind.

For those who want to understand more about the keys to making ideas popular this is a book full of ideas and examples. Although, it may not be completely original, it is the equal of two or three others that share the same themes.

Review by Neil Gains, TapestryWorks [First published on Inspector Insight]