Contagious media: you can't predict what will be a sensation--or can you?

Author:Williams, Jim

about the book

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

by Jonah Berger

Simon & Schuster, 2013

256 pages

I can't count the number of marketing meetings I've been in where someone said, "Let's plan a viral campaign!" There was always a flurry of activity, with zany ideas going up on the whiteboard. Eventually the meeting ended with a loose promise to "take the discussion offline." But very few of those zany ideas ever saw the light of day, and none came remotely close to being a viral sensation.

The reason seemed straightforward: You can't engineer a viral campaign any more than you can engineer the weather. The human psyche is just too unpredictable. Viral ideas spread when a hidden switch within us suddenly compels us to share.

Not so, says Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Contagious is a fascinating read. Not only is it packed with entertaining examples of viral campaigns, but each is backed with painstaking analysis into the science of social transmission. What you end up with is a veritable blueprint for creating ideas, campaigns and messages that spread like wildfire.

There are six essential factors that contribute to contagious ideas, Berger writes, and a quick look at some of the most successful vital campaigns reveals each of them at work:

  1. Social currency. We share things that make us look good or help us compare favorably to others. Exclusive restaurants use social currency all the time to create demand.

  2. Triggers. Ideas that are top of mind spread. Like parasites, viral ideas attach themselves to top-of-mind stories, occurrences or environments. For example, sales of Mars candy bars spiked in 1997 when NASA's Pathfinder mission explored the red planet.

  3. Emotion. When we care, we share. Berger analyzed more than six months' worth of data from the New York Times "most emailed" list to discover that certain high-arousal emotions can dramatically increase our need to share ideas--like the outrage triggered by Dave Carroll's "United Breaks Guitars" video, in which he complained about the airline's handling of his guitar.

  4. Public. People tend to follow others, but only when they can see what those others are doing. There is a reason why baristas put money in their own tip jar at the beginning of a shift. Ideas need to be public to be copied.

  5. Practical. Humans crave the opportunity to give advice and offer tips (one reason why...

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