Ever wonder why some things catch on? Are things that take off simply better? Is it because they are a better deal? Or is the advertising budget the key to success? Yet things that don’t necessarily fit the three criteria manage to become popular. Why? The secret is social transmission through word of mouth. Ideas and products become popular because people chose to tell their friends about them.
Word of mouth is more effective than other forms of advertising because it is trusted and targeted. Our friends tell us about a product or an idea honestly and only if they know we’ll be interested. No other channel combines such credibility and right-time capability. But how to generate word of mouth? How do you get people to talk about your product or ideas?
The secret lies in understanding the psychology of sharing, which has been the subject of intense research but has not been written up in a form easily accessible to the casual reader looking for quick insights until now. Contagious: Why Things Catch On presents current research insights on creating word of mouth in an easy to comprehend but only introductory way.
Jonah Berger proposes six principles that can be used in making a message more contagious. Sharing is all about minting social currency. If you want your product or idea to be shared, you should craft it so that it creates social currency for people by making it somehow remarkable. Another strategy to generate social currency is through game dynamics: by letting people earn stuff to brag about, you help them create social capital within their circles. Finally, everyone loves a secret: you crate social currency if you give people the feeling that they are cool insiders. Once you have them talking, you want them to keep on talking rather than to forget and to move on.
Triggers can help you stay on people’s radar. These are aspects of the environment that can trigger association with the product or idea. While Disney, the author writes, is a highly recognizable brand, it is not talked about as much as cereal is because vacations and holidays are not as frequent triggers as daily breakfast is. Context matters when it comes to the spread of ideas. Triggers are also the reason why Apple has its own stores: you don’t want the environment to trigger negative associations with your product by abandoning control over it to third parties who don’t care about your brand.
A product or idea that generates emotional arousal, especially awe or anger, is more likely to be shared with others. You also want to generate social proof by making your product publicly visible. How else will people be converted to the coolness, usefulness and remarkability of your product or idea unless they can see others using it? Logos and stickers are one way of creating such behavioral residue and also serve as triggers. Things of practical value are likely to be shared because people want to be seen as essentially good and having practical and useful information to share helps them build that image.
Finally, you find a way to insert your idea or product into the stories people tell by making it so remarkable it gets talked about. What will people tell their friends when they talk about your product or idea?
Contagious is filled with many insights and certainly gives the reader much to think about but is not without problems: it tries to do too much, brings up examples from vastly different contexts without honoring the complexities of those contexts. A reader looking for specific ways of how to write more sharable articles or books, for example, might be disappointed — there is no granular discussion of the specifics here in any area of potential application. There are no in-depth case studies.
But context does matter. Writing remarkable or useful content, for example, requires that the writer have a deep understanding of his audience, something that is not trivial to accomplish because interest is relative, but Berger never discusses this or any other complication, which can create a false impression about the ease with which these principles can be applied in the real world contexts. Indeed, because interest is relative, the principle of remarkability really isn’t much of a guide. Missing a deeper engagement with context, the book can’t help the reader develop a more nuanced appreciation of the mechanics of these ideas in real life operation. In short, you walk away from the book wanting more.