“Jonah Berger knows more about what makes information ‘go viral’ than anyone in the world.” —Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness
What makes things popular? If you said advertising, think again. People don’t listen to advertisements, they listen to their peers. But why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others? Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And what makes online content go viral?
Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger has spent the last decade answering these questions. He’s studied why New York Times articles make the paper’s own Most E-mailed list, why products get word of mouth, and how social influence shapes everything from the cars we buy to the clothes we wear to the names we give our children.
In Contagious, Berger reveals the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission. Discover how six basic principles drive all sorts of things to become contagious, from consumer products and policy initiatives to workplace rumors and YouTube videos. Learn how a luxury steakhouse found popularity through the lowly cheesesteak, why anti-drug commercials might have actually increased drug use, and why more than 200 million consumers shared a video about one of the most boring products there is: a blender.
Contagious provides specific, actionable techniques for helping information spread—for designing messages, advertisements, and content that people will share. Whether you’re a manager at a big company, a small business owner trying to boost awareness, a politician running for office, or a health official trying to get the word out, Contagious will show you how to make your product or idea catch on.
|Simon & Schuster
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Walt Disney World. Say those words to children under the age of eight and just wait for their excited screams. More than 18 million people from all over the world visit the Orlando, Florida, theme park annually. Older kids love the frightening plummet down Space Mountain and the Tower of Terror. Younger ones savor the magic of Cinderella’s castle and the thrill of exploring the rivers of Africa in the Jungle Cruise. Even adults beam joyously when shaking hands with beloved Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Goofy.
Memories of my own first visit in the early 1990s still make me smile. My cousin and I were picked from the audience to play Gilligan and the Skipper in a reenactment of Gilligan’s Island. The look of wild triumph on my face when I successfully steered the boat to safety—after being doused with dozens of buckets of water—is still family lore.
Now compare these exhilarating images with a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. Yes, the classic breakfast cereal with a bee mascot that “packs the goodness of Cheerios with the irresistible taste of golden honey.” Considered reasonably healthy, Honey Nut Cheerios is still sugary enough to appeal to children and anyone with a sweet tooth and has become a staple of many American households.
Which of these products—Disney World or Honey Nut Cheerios—do you think gets more word of mouth? The Magic Kingdom? The self-described place where dreams come true?
Or Cheerios? The breakfast cereal made of whole grain oats that can help reduce cholesterol?
Clearly, the answer is Disney World, right? After all, talking about your adventures there is much more interesting than discussing what you ate for breakfast. If word-of-mouth pundits agree on anything, it’s that being interesting is essential if you want people to talk. Most buzz marketing books will tell you that. So will social media gurus. “Nobody talks about boring companies, boring products, or boring ads,” argues one prominent word-of-mouth advocate.
Unfortunately, he’s wrong. And so is everyone else who subscribes to the interest-is-king theory. And lest you think this contradicts what we talked about in the previous chapter about Social Currency, read on. People talk about Cheerios more than Disney World. The reason? Triggers.
No one would mistake Dave Balter for a Madison Avenue shark as portrayed in the popular TV series Mad Men. He’s young—just forty—and looks even younger, with downy cheeks, wire-rimmed glasses, and a wide-open grin. He’s also genuinely passionate about marketing. Yes, marketing. To Dave, marketing isn’t about trying to convince people to purchase things they don’t want or need. Marketing is about tapping into their genuine enthusiasm for products and services that they find useful. Or fun. Or beautiful. Marketing is about spreading the love.
Dave started out as a so-called loyalty marketer figuring out ways to reward customers for sticking with a particular brand. He then created and sold two promotional agencies before founding his current firm, BzzAgent.
Here’s how BzzAgent works. Say you’re Philips, the maker of the Sonicare electric toothbrush. Sales are good, but the product is new and most people aren’t aware of what it is or why they would want to buy one. Existing Sonicare customers are beginning to spread the word, but you want to accelerate things, get more people talking.
That’s where BzzAgent comes in.
Over the years, the company has assembled a network of more than 800,000 BzzAgents, people who have said that they are interested in learning about and trying new products. Agents span a broad range of ages, incomes, and occupations. Most are between eighteen and fifty-four years old, are well educated, and have a reasonable income. Teachers, stay-at-home moms, working professionals, PhDs, and even CEOs are BzzAgents.
If you wonder what type of person would be a BzzAgent, the answer is you. Agents reflect the U.S. population at large.
When a new client calls, Dave’s team culls through its large database to find BzzAgents who fit the desired demographic or psychographic profile. Philips believes its toothbrush will primarily appeal to busy professionals aged twenty-five to thirty-five from the East Coast? No problem, Dave has several thousand on call. You’d prefer working moms who care about dental hygiene? He’s got them, too.
BzzAgent then contacts the appropriate agents in its network and invites them to join a campaign. Those who agree get a kit in the mail containing information about the product and coupons or a free trial. Participants in the Sonicare campaign, for example, received a free toothbrush and ten-dollar mail-in rebates for additional toothbrushes to give to others. Participants in a Taco Bell campaign received free taco coupons. Because actual tacos are difficult to send in the mail.
Then, over the next few months, BzzAgents file reports describing the conversations they had about the product. Importantly, BzzAgents are not paid. They’re in it for the chance to get free stuff and learn about new products before the rest of their friends and families. And they’re never pressured to say anything other than what they honestly believe, whether they like the product or not.
When people first hear about BzzAgent, some argue that it can’t possibly work. People don’t just spontaneously mention products in everyday conversations, they protest. It just wouldn’t seem natural.
But what most people don’t realize is that they naturally talk about products, brands, and organizations all the time. Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth episodes, separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an organization, brand, product, or service. We suggest restaurants to coworkers, tell family members about a great sale, and recommend responsible babysitters to neighbors. American consumers mention specific brands more than 3 billion times a day. This kind of social talk is almost like breathing. It’s so basic and frequent that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
If you want to get a better sense for yourself, try keeping a conversation diary for twenty-four hours. Carry pen and paper with you and write down all the things you mention over the course of a day. You’ll be surprised at all the products and ideas you talk about.
Curious about how a BzzCampaign worked, I joined. I’m a big fan of soy milk, so when Silk did a campaign for almond milk, I had to try it. (After all, how can they get milk from an almond?) I used a coupon, got the product from the store, and tried it. It was delicious.
Not only was the product good, it was so good I simply had to tell others about it. I mentioned Silk almond milk to friends who don’t drink regular milk and gave them coupons to try it themselves. Not because I had to. No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I talked. I just liked the product and thought others might as well.
And this is exactly why BzzAgent and other word-of-mouth marketing firms are effective. They don’t force people to say nice things about products they hate. Nor do they entice people to insert product recommendations artificially into conversations. BzzAgent simply harnesses the fact that people already talk about and share products and services with others. Give people a product they enjoy, and they’ll be happy to spread the word.
BzzAgent has run hundreds of campaigns for clients as diverse as Ralph Lauren, the March of Dimes, and Holiday Inn Express. Some campaigns were more successful at generating word of mouth than others. Why? Did some products or ideas just get lucky? Or were there some underlying principles driving certain products to get talked about more?
I offered to help find the answer. Enthusiastic at the prospect, Dave gave my colleague Eric Schwartz and me access to data from the hundreds of campaigns he’d run over the years.
We started by testing an intuitive idea: interesting products get talked about more than boring ones. Products can be interesting because they’re novel, exciting, or confound expectations in some way. If interest drives talking, then action flicks and Disney World should be talked about more than Cheerios and dish soap.
Intuitively this makes sense. As we discussed in the Social Currency chapter, when we talk to others, we’re not only communicating information; we’re also saying something about ourselves. When we rave about a new foreign film or express disappointment with the Thai restaurant around the corner, we’re demonstrating our cultural and culinary knowledge and taste. Since we want others to think we’re interesting, we search for interesting things to tell them. After all, who’d want to invite people to a cocktail party if all they talked about was dish soap and breakfast cereal?
Based on this idea, advertisers often try to create surprising or even shocking ads. Dancing monkeys or ravenous wolves chasing a marching band. Guerrilla and viral marketing campaigns are built on the same notion: Have people dress in chicken suits and hand out fifty-dollar bills on the subway. Do something really different or people won’t talk.
But is this actually true? Do things have to be interesting to be discussed?
To find out, we took the hundreds of products that had taken part in BzzCampaigns and asked people how interesting they found each of them. An automatic shower cleaning device? A service that preserves newborn babies’ umbilical cords? Both seemed pretty interesting. Mouthwash and trail mix? Not so interesting.
Then we looked at the relationship between a product’s interest score and how frequently it was talked about over the ten-week campaign.
But there was none. Interesting products didn’t receive any more word of mouth than boring ones.
Puzzled, we took a step back. Maybe “interest” was the wrong term, potentially too vague or general a concept? So we asked people to score the products on more concrete dimensions, like how novel or surprising they were. An electronic toothbrush was seen as more novel than plastic storage bags; dress shoes designed to be as comfortable as sneakers were seen as more surprising than bath towels.
But there was still no relationship between novelty or surprise scores and overall word of mouth. More novel or surprising products didn’t get more buzz.
Maybe it was the people scoring the products. We had first used undergraduate college students, so we recruited a new set of people, of all ages and backgrounds.
Nope. Again the results remained the same. No correlation between levels of interest, novelty, or surprise and the number of times people talked about the products.
We were truly bewildered. What were we doing wrong?
Nothing, as it turned out. We just weren’t asking the right questions.
We had been focused on whether certain aspects matter—specifically, whether more interesting, novel, or surprising products get talked about more. But as we soon realized, we also should have been examining when they matter.
Some word of mouth is immediate, while some is ongoing. Imagine you’ve just gotten an e-mail about a new recycling initiative. Do you talk about it with your coworkers later that day? Mention it to your spouse that weekend? If so, you’re engaging in immediate word of mouth. This occurs when you pass on the details of an experience, or share new information you’ve acquired, soon after it occurs.
Ongoing word of mouth, in contrast, covers the conversations you have in the weeks and months that follow. The movies you saw last month or a vacation you took last year.
Both types of word of mouth are valuable, but certain types are more important for certain products or ideas. Movies depend on immediate word of mouth. Theaters are looking for success right off the bat, so if a film isn’t doing well right away, they’ll replace it with something else. New food products are under similar pressure. Grocery stores have limited shelf space. If consumers don’t immediately start buying a new anticholesterol spread, the store may stop stocking it. In such cases, immediate word of mouth is critical.
For most products or ideas, however, ongoing word of mouth is also important. Antibullying campaigns not only want to get students talking right after the campaign is introduced, they want them to keep spreading the word until bullying is eradicated. New policy initiatives certainly benefit from huge discussion when they are proposed, but to sway voter opinion, people need to keep mentioning them all the way up until Election Day.
But what leads someone to talk about something soon after it occurs? And are these the same things that drive them to keep talking about it for weeks or months after?
To answer these questions, we divided the data on each BzzCampaign into two categories: immediate and ongoing word of mouth. Then we looked at how much of each type of buzz different types of products generated.
As we suspected, interesting products received more immediate word of mouth than boring products. This reinforces what we talked about in the Social Currency chapter: interesting things are entertaining and reflect positively on the person talking about them.
But interesting products did not sustain high levels of word-of-mouth activity over time. Interesting products didn’t get any more ongoing word of mouth than boring ones.
Imagine I walked into work one day dressed as a pirate. A bright red satin bandana, long black waistcoat, gold earrings, and a patch over one eye. It would be pretty remarkable. People in my office would probably gossip about it all day. (“What in the world is Jonah doing? Casual Friday is supposed to be relaxed, but this is taking it too far!”)
But while my pirate getup would get lots of immediate word of mouth, people probably wouldn’t keep talking about it every week for the next two months.
So if interest doesn’t drive ongoing word of mouth, what does? What keeps people talking?
At any given moment, some thoughts are more top of mind, or accessible, than others. Right now, for example, you might be thinking about the sentence you are reading or the sandwich you had for lunch.
Some things are chronically accessible. Sports fanatics or foodies will often have those subjects top of mind. They are constantly thinking of their favorite team’s latest stats, or about ways to combine ingredients in tasty dishes.
But stimuli in the surrounding environment can also determine which thoughts and ideas are top of mind. If you see a puppy while jogging in the park, you might remember that you’ve always wanted to adopt a dog. If you smell Chinese food while walking past the corner noodle shop, you might start thinking about what to order for lunch. Or if you hear an advertisement for Coke, you might remember that you ran out of soda last night. Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas, making them more top of mind. A hot day might trigger thoughts about climate change. Seeing a sandy beach in a travel magazine might trigger thoughts of Corona beer.
Using a product is a strong trigger. Most people drink milk more often than grape juice, so milk is top of mind more often. But triggers can also be indirect. Seeing a jar of peanut butter not only triggers us to think about peanut butter, it also makes us think about its frequent partner, jelly. Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.
Why does it matter if particular thoughts or ideas are top of mind? Because accessible thoughts and ideas lead to action.
Back in mid-1997, the candy company Mars noticed an unexpected uptick in sales of its Mars bar. The company was surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. It wasn’t spending additional money on advertising, it hadn’t changed its pricing, and it hadn’t run any special promotions. Yet sales had gone up. What had happened?
NASA had happened. Specifically, NASA’s Pathfinder mission.
The mission was designed to collect samples of atmosphere, climate, and soil from a nearby planet. The undertaking took years of preparation and millions of dollars in funding. When the lander finally touched down on the alien landscape, the entire world was rapt, and all news outlets featured NASA’s triumph.
Pathfinder’s destination? Mars.
Mars bars are named after the company’s founder, Franklin Mars, not the planet. But the media attention the planet received acted as a trigger that reminded people of the candy and increased sales. Perhaps the makers of Sunny Delight should encourage NASA to explore the sun.
Music researchers Adrian North, David Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick examined how triggers might affect supermarket buying behavior more broadly. You know the Muzak you’re used to hearing while you shop for groceries? Well, North, Hargreaves, and McKendrick subtly replaced it with music from different countries. Some days they played French music while other days they played German music—what you’d expect to hear outside a French café on the banks of the Seine and what you might expect to hear at Oktoberfest. Then they measured the type of wine people purchased.
When French music was playing, most customers bought French wine. When German music was playing most customers bought German wine. By triggering consumers to think of different countries, the music affected sales. The music made ideas related to those countries more accessible, and those accessible ideas spilled over to affect behavior.
Psychologist Gráinne Fitzsimons and I conducted a related study on how to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Promoting healthy eating habits is tough. Most people realize they should eat more fruits and vegetables. Most people will even say that they mean to eat more fruits and vegetables. But somehow when the time comes to put fruits and vegetables into shopping carts or onto dinner plates, people forget. We thought we’d use triggers to help them remember.
Students were paid twenty dollars to report what they ate every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at their nearby dining hall. Monday: a bowl of Frosted Flakes cereal, two helpings of turkey lasagna with a side salad, and a pulled pork sandwich with spinach and fries. Tuesday: yogurt with fruit and walnuts, pepperoni pizza with Sprite, and shrimp pad thai.
Halfway through the two weeks we’d designated for the study, the students were asked to participate in what seemed like an unrelated experiment from a different researcher. They were asked to provide feedback on a public-health slogan targeting college students. Just to be sure they remembered the slogan, they were shown it more than twenty times, printed in different colors and fonts.
One group of students saw the slogan “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.” Another group saw “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” Both slogans encouraged people to eat fruits and vegetables, but the tray slogan did so using a trigger. The students lived on campus, and many of them ate in dining halls that used trays. So we wanted to see if we could trigger healthy eating behavior by using the dining room tray to remind students of the slogan.
Our students didn’t care for the tray slogan. They called it “corny” and rated it as less than half as attractive as the more generic “live healthy” slogan. Further, when asked whether the slogan would influence their own fruit and vegetable consumption, the students who had been shown the “tray” slogan were significantly more likely to say no.
But when it came to actual behavior, the effects were striking. Students who had been shown the more generic “live healthy” slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the “tray” slogan and used trays in their cafeterias markedly changed their behavior. The trays reminded them of the slogan and they ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables as a result. The trigger worked.
We were pretty excited by the results. Getting college students to do anything—let alone eat more fruits and vegetables—is an impressive feat.
But when a colleague of ours heard about the study he wondered whether triggers would impact an even more consequential behavior: voting.
Where did you cast your ballot in the last election?
Most people will answer this question with the name of their city or state. Evanston. Birmingham. Florida. Nevada. If asked to clarify, they might add “near my office” or “across from the supermarket.” Few will be more specific. And why should they be? Although geography clearly matters in voting—the East Coast leans Democratic while the South skews Republican—few people would think that the exact venue in which they vote matters.
But it does.
Political scientists usually assume that voting is based on rational and stable preferences: people possess core beliefs and weigh costs and benefits when deciding how to vote. If we care about the environment, we vote for candidates who promise to protect natural resources. If we’re concerned about health care, we support initiatives to make it more affordable and available to greater numbers of people. In this calculating, cognitive model of voting behavior, the particular kind of building people happen to cast their ballot in shouldn’t affect behavior.
But in light of what we were learning about triggers, we weren’t so sure. Most people in the United States are assigned to vote at a particular polling location. They are typically public buildings—firehouses, courthouses, or schools—but can also be churches, private office buildings, or other venues.
Different locations contain different triggers. Churches are filled with religious imagery, which might remind people of church doctrine. Schools are filled with lockers, desks, and chalkboards, which might remind people of children or early educational experiences. And once these thoughts are triggered, they might change behavior.
Could voting in a church lead people to think more negatively about abortion or gay marriage? Could voting in a school lead people to support education funding?
To test this idea, Marc Meredith, Christian Wheeler, and I acquired data from each polling place in Arizona’s 2000 general election. We used the name and address of each polling location to determine whether it was a church, a school, or some other type of building. Forty percent of people were assigned to vote in churches, 26 percent in schools, 10 percent in community centers, and the rest in a mix of apartment buildings, golf courses, and even RV parks.
Then we examined whether people voted differently at different types of polling places. In particular, we focused on a ballot initiative that proposed raising the sales tax from 5.0 percent to 5.6 percent to support public schools. This initiative had been hotly debated, with good arguments on both sides. Most people support education but few people enjoy paying more taxes. It was a tough decision.
If where people voted didn’t matter, then the percent supporting the initiative should be the same at schools and other polling locations.
But it wasn’t. More than ten thousand more people voted in favor of the school funding initiative when the polling place was a school. Polling location had a dramatic impact on voting behavior.
And the initiative passed.
This difference persisted even after we controlled for things like regional differences in political preferences and demographics. We even compared two similar groups of voters to double-check our findings. People who lived near schools and were assigned to vote at one versus people who lived near schools but were assigned to vote at a different type of polling place (such as a firehouse). A significantly higher percentage of the people who voted in schools were in favor of increasing funding for schools. The fact that they were in a school when they voted triggered more school-friendly behavior.
A ten-thousand-vote difference in a statewide election might not seem like much. But it was more than enough to shift a close election. In the 2000 presidential election the difference between George Bush and Al Gore came down to less than 1,000 votes. If 1,000 votes is enough to shift an election, 10,000 certainly could. Triggers matter.
So how do triggers help determine whether products and ideas catch on?
In 2011, Rebecca Black accomplished a momentous achievement. The thirteen-year-old released what many music critics dubbed the worst song ever.
Born in 1997, Rebecca was just a kid when she released her first full-length song. But this was far from her first foray into music. She had auditioned for shows, had attended music summer camp, and had sung publicly for a number of years. After hearing from a classmate who had turned to outside help for her music career, Rebecca’s parents paid four thousand dollars to ARK Music Factory, a Los Angeles label, to write a song for their daughter to sing.
The result was decidedly, well, awful. Entitled “Friday,” the tune was a whiny, overproduced number about teenage life and the joys of the weekend. The song starts with her getting up in the morning and getting ready to go to school:
Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Then she hustles down to the bus stop, sees her friends drive by, and ponders whether to sit in the front seat or the back. Finally, after all those tough decisions, she hits the chorus, an ode to her excitement about the impending two days of freedom:
It’s Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend.
All in all, the piece sounds more like a monologue of the random thoughts going through an especially vacant teenager’s head than a real song.
Yet this song was one of the most viral videos of 2011. It was viewed more than 300 million times on YouTube, and many millions more listened to it over other channels.
Why? The song was terrible, but lots of songs are terrible. So what made this one a success?
Take a look at the number of daily searches for “Rebecca Black” on YouTube in March 2011, soon after the song was first released. See if you notice a pattern.
Searches for “Rebecca Black” on YouTube March 2011
Notice the spike once every week? Look closer and you’ll see that the spike happens on the same day every week. There was one on March 18, seven days later on March 25, and seven days later, on April 1.
The particular day of the week? You guessed it. Friday—just like the name of Rebecca Black’s song.
So while the song was equally bad every day of the week, each Friday it received a strong trigger that contributed to its success.
As discussed in the Social Currency chapter, some word of mouth is motivated by peoples’ desire to look good to others. Mentioning clever or entertaining things makes people seem clever and entertaining. But that isn’t the only factor that drives us to share.
Most conversations can be described as small talk. We chat with parents at our kids’ soccer games or schmooze with coworkers in the break room. These conversations are less about finding interesting things to say to make us look good than they are about filling conversational space. We don’t want to sit there silently, so we talk about something. Anything. Our goal isn’t necessarily to prove that we are interesting, funny, or intelligent. We just want to say something to keep the conversation going. Anything to prove that we’re not terrible conversationalists.
So what do we talk about? Whatever is top of mind is a good place to start. If something is accessible, it’s usually relevant to the situation at hand. Did you read about the new bridge construction? What did you think about the game last night?
We talk about these topics because they are going on in the surrounding environment. We saw the bulldozers on our drive in, so construction is on our mind. We bump into a friend who likes sports, so we think about the big game. Triggers boost word of mouth.
Returning to the BzzAgent data, triggers helped us answer why some products get talked about more. More frequently triggered products got 15 percent more word of mouth. Even mundane products like Ziploc bags and moisturizer received lots of buzz because people were triggered to think about them so frequently. People who use moisturizer often apply it at least once a day. People often use Ziploc bags after meals to wrap up leftovers. These everyday activities make those products more top of mind and, as a result, lead them to be talked about more.
Furthermore, not only did triggered products get more immediate word of mouth, they also got more word of mouth on an ongoing basis.
In this way, Ziploc bags are the antithesis of me going to teach dressed like a pirate. The pirate story is interesting, but it’s here today, gone tomorrow. Ziploc bags may be boring, but they get mentioned week in and week out because they are frequently triggered. By acting as reminders, triggers not only get people talking, they keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.
So rather than just going for a catchy message, consider the context. Think about whether the message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target audience. Going for interesting is our default tendency. Whether running for class president or selling soda, we think that catchy or clever slogans will get us where we need to go.
But as we saw in our fruits and vegetables study, a strong trigger can be much more effective than a catchy slogan. Even though they hated the slogan, college students ate more fruits and vegetables when cafeteria trays triggered reminders of the health benefits. Just being exposed to a clever slogan didn’t change behavior at all.
A few years ago, auto insurance company GEICO ran ads that said switching to GEICO was so simple that even a caveman could do it. On the cleverness dimension the ads were great. They were funny and made the point that switching to GEICO was easy.
But judged on triggers, the ads fail. We don’t see many cavemen in our daily lives, so the ad is unlikely to come to mind often, making it less likely to be talked about.
Contrast that with the Budweiser beer “Wassup?” campaign. Two guys are talking on the phone while drinking Budweiser and watching a basketball game on television. A third friend arrives. He yells, “Wassup?” One of the first two guys yells “Wassup?” back. This kicks off an endless cycle of wassups between a growing number of Budweiser-drinking buddies.
No, it wasn’t the cleverest of commercials. But it became a global phenomenon. And at least part of its success was due to triggers. Budweiser considered the context. “Wassup” was a popular greeting among young men at the time. Just greeting friends triggered thoughts of Budweiser in Budweiser’s prime demographic.
The more the desired behavior happens after a delay, the more important being triggered becomes. Market research often focuses on consumers’ immediate reaction to an advertising message or campaign. That might be valuable in situations where the consumer is immediately offered a chance to buy the product. But in most cases, people hear an ad one day and then go to the store days or weeks later. If they’re not triggered to think about it, how will they remember that ad when they’re at the store?
Public health campaigns would also benefit from considering the context. Take messages that encourage college students to drink responsibly. While the messages might be really clever and convincing, they’re posted at the campus health center, far away from the frat houses or other places where students actually drink. So while students may agree with the message when they read it, unless they are triggered to think about it when they are actually drinking, the message is unlikely to change behavior.
Triggers even shed light on when negative word of mouth has positive effects. Economist Alan Sorensen, Scott Rasmussen, and I analyzed hundreds of New York Times book reviews to see how positive and negative reviews affected book sales.
In contrast to the notion that any publicity is good publicity, negative reviews hurt sales for some books. But for books by new or relatively unknown authors, negative reviews increased sales by 45 percent. A book called Fierce People, for example, got a terrible review. The Times noted that the author “does not have a particularly sharp eye” and complained that “the change in tone is so abrupt that the dissonance it creates is almost distasteful.” Yet sales more than quadrupled after the review.
Triggers explain why. Even a bad review or negative word of mouth can increase sales if it informs or reminds people that the product or idea exists. That’s why a sixty-dollar Tuscan red wine saw sales rise by 5 percent after a prominent wine website described it as “redolent of stinky socks.” It’s also one reason why the Shake Weight, a vibrating dumbbell that was widely ridiculed by the media and consumers, went on to do $50 million in sales. Even negative attention can be useful if it makes products and ideas top of mind.
One product that used triggers brilliantly is Kit Kat.
“Give me a break, give me a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar!” Introduced in the United States in 1986, the Kit Kat tune is one of the most iconic jingles ever made. Sing the first couple of words to almost anyone over twenty-five and the person can finish the line. Researchers even deemed it one of the top ten “earworms”—a melody that gets stuck in your head—of all time. Even more memorable than “YMCA” (take that, Village People).
But in 2007, Colleen Chorak was tasked with reviving the Kit Kat brand. In the twenty-plus years since the jingle was first introduced, the brand had run out of gas. Hershey produces everything from Reese’s Pieces and Hershey’s Kisses to Almond Joy, Twizzlers, and Jolly Ranchers. With this huge slate of different items, it’s not surprising that a brand can get lost. And that is exactly what had happened with Kit Kat. Hershey had floundered with replacing the “give me a break” campaign. Sales were declining around 5 percent a year, and the brand had contracted considerably. People still loved the product, but consumer interest was way down.
Colleen needed a way to get consumers to start thinking about the brand again. To make Kit Kat more top of mind. And given the years of failed new directions, upper management was unwilling to spend the money to put the brand back on TV. Any financial support would be modest at best.
So she did some research. Colleen looked at when people actually consumed Kit Kats. She found two things: consumers often ate Kit Kats to take a break, and many consumed it in coordination with a hot beverage.
She had an idea.
Kit Kat and coffee.
Colleen pulled the campaign together in a matter of months. Described as “a break’s best friend,” the radio spots featured the candy bar sitting on a counter next to a cup of coffee, or someone grabbing coffee and asking for a Kit Kat. Kit Kat and coffee. Coffee and Kit Kat. The spots repeatedly paired the two together.
The campaign was a hit.
By the end of the year it had lifted sales by 8 percent. After twelve months, sales were up by a third. Kit Kat and coffee put Kit Kat back on the map. The then-$300 million brand has since grown to $500 million.
Many things contributed to the campaign’s success. “Kit Kat and coffee” has a nice alliteration, and the idea of taking a break to have a Kit Kat fits well with the existing notion of a coffee break. But I’d like to add one more reason to the list.
Triggers. “Kit Kat and cantaloupe” is equally alliterative, and break dancing would also have fitted with the break concept. But coffee is a particularly good thing to link the brand to because it is a frequent stimulus in the environment. A huge number of people drink coffee. Many drink it a number of times throughout the day. And so by linking Kit Kat to coffee, Colleen created a frequent trigger to remind people of the brand.
Biologists often talk about plants and animals as having habitats, natural environments that contain all necessary elements for sustaining an organism’s life. Ducks need water and grasses to eat. Deer thrive in areas that contain open spaces for grazing.
Products and ideas also have habitats, or sets of triggers that cause people to think about them.
Take hot dogs. Barbecues, summertime, baseball games, and even wiener dogs (dachshunds) are just a few of the triggers that make up the habitat for hot dogs.
Compare that with the habitat for Ethiopian food. What triggers most people to think of Ethiopian food? Ethiopian food is certainly delicious, but its habitat is not as prevalent.
Most products or ideas have a number of natural triggers. Mars bars and Mars the planet are already naturally connected. The Mars company didn’t need to do anything to create that link. Likewise, French music is a natural trigger for French wine, and the last day of the workweek is a natural trigger for Rebecca Black’s song “Friday.”
But it’s also possible to grow an idea’s habitat by creating new links to stimuli in the environment. Kit Kat wouldn’t normally be associated with coffee, but through repeated pairing, Colleen Chorak was able to link the two. Similarly, our trays experiment created a link between dining-room trays and a message to eat fruits and vegetables by repeatedly pairing the two ideas together. And by increasing the habitat for the message, these newly formed links helped the desired behavior catch on.
Consider an experiment we conducted with BzzAgent and Boston Market. This fast-casual restaurant is best known for home-style comfort food (rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes) and was primarily viewed as a lunch place. Management wanted to generate more buzz. We thought we could help by growing Boston Market’s habitat.
During a six-week campaign, some people were exposed to messages that repeatedly paired the restaurant with dinner. “Thinking about dinner? Think about Boston Market!”. Other people received a similar advertising campaign that contained a more generic message: “Thinking about a place to eat? Think about Boston Market!” We then measured how often the respective groups talked about the restaurant.
The results were dramatic. Compared to the generic message, the message that grew the habitat (by associating Boston Market with dinner) increased word of mouth by 20 percent among people who previously had associated the brand only with lunch. Growing the habitat boosted buzz.
Competitors can even be used as a trigger.
How can public health organizations compete against the marketing strength of better-funded rivals like cigarette companies? One way to combat this inequality is to transform a weakness into a strength: by making a rival’s message act as a trigger for your own.
A famous antismoking campaign, for example, spoofed Marlboro’s iconic ads by captioning a picture of one Marlboro cowboy talking to another with the words: “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” So now whenever people see a Marlboro ad, it triggers them to think about the antismoking message.
Researchers call this strategy the poison parasite because it slyly injects “poison” (your message) into a rival’s message by making it a trigger for your own.
Triggers can help products and ideas catch on, but some stimuli are better triggers than others.
As we discussed, one key factor is how frequently the stimulus occurs. Hot chocolate would also have fitted really well with Kit Kat, and the sweet beverage might have even complemented the chocolate bar’s flavor better than coffee. But coffee is a more effective trigger because people think about and see it much more frequently. Most people drink hot chocolate only in the winter, while coffee is consumed year-round.
Similarly, Michelob ran a successful campaign in the 1970s that linked weekends with the beer brand (“Weekends are made for Michelob”). However, that wasn’t the slogan when the campaign started out. Originally the slogan was “Holidays are made for Michelob.” But this proved ineffective because the chosen stimuli—holidays—don’t happen that often. So Anheuser-Busch revised the slogan to “Weekends are made for Michelob,” which was much more successful.
Frequency, however, must also be balanced with the strength of the link. The more things a given cue is associated with, the weaker any given association. It’s like poking a hole in the bottom of a paper cup filled with water. If you poke just one hole, a strong stream of water will gush out. But poke more holes, and the pressure of the stream from each opening lessens. Poke too many holes and you’ll get barely a trickle from each.
Triggers work the same way. The color red, for example, is associated with many things: roses, love, Coca-Cola, and fast cars, to name just a few. As a result of being ubiquitous, it’s not a particularly strong trigger for any of these ideas. Ask different people to say the word that first comes to their mind when they think of red and you’ll see what I mean.
Compare that with how many people think “jelly” when you say “peanut butter” and it will be clear why stronger, more unusual links are better. Linking a product or idea with a stimulus that is already associated with many things isn’t as effective as forging a fresher, more original link.
It is also important to pick triggers that happen near where the desired behavior is taking place. Consider a clever but ultimately ineffective public service ad from New Zealand. A handsome, muscular man is taking a shower. In the background you hear a catchy jingle about HeatFlow, a new temperature-control system that ensures you’ll always have sufficient hot water for long, luxurious showers. The man turns off the water. When he opens the shower door, an attractive woman tosses him a towel. He smiles. She smiles. He begins to step out of the shower stall.
Suddenly, he slips. Falling, he cracks his head on the tile floor. As he lies there, motionless, his arm twitches slightly. A voice-over somberly intones: “Preventing slips around your home can be as easy as using a bath mat.”
Wow. Definitely surprising. Extremely memorable. So memorable, I think about it every time I take a shower in a bathroom that doesn’t have a mat on the floor.
But there’s only one problem.
I can’t buy a bath mat in a bathroom. The message is physically removed from the desired behavior. Unless I leave the bathroom, turn on my laptop, and buy a mat online, I have to remember the message until I get to a store.
Contrast that with a New York City Department of Health (DOH) antisoda campaign. While soda might seem like a relatively low-calorie item compared to all the food we eat during the course of a day, drinking sugary beverages actually has a big impact on weight gain. But the DOH didn’t just want to tell people how much sugar was in soda, it wanted to make sure people would remember to change their behavior and spread the message to others.
So the DOH made a video showing someone opening what seems like a normal soda can. But when he starts to pour it into a glass, out spills fat. Blob after blob of white, chunky fat. The guy picks the glass up and knocks the fat back just as one would a regular soda—chunks and all.
The “Man Drinks Fat” clip closes with a huge congealed chunk of fat being dropped on a dinner plate. It oozes over the table as a message flashes up on the screen: “Drinking one can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year. So don’t drink yourself fat.”
The video is clever. But by showing fat pouring out of a can, the DOH also nicely leveraged triggers. Unlike the bath mat ad, its video triggered the message (don’t consume sugary drinks) at precisely the right time: when people are thinking of drinking a soda.
These campaigns underscore how important it is to consider the context: to think about the environments of the people a message or idea is trying to trigger. Different environments contain different stimuli. Arizona is surrounded by desert. Floridians see lots of palm trees. Consequently, different triggers will be more or less effective depending on where people live.
Similarly, the effectiveness of the hundred-dollar cheesesteak that we talked about in the introduction depends on the city where it is introduced.
A hundred-dollar sandwich is pretty remarkable, wherever you are. But how frequently people will be triggered to think about it depends on geography. In places where people eat lots of cheesesteaks (Philadelphia), people would be triggered often, but in other places (such as Chicago) not so much.
Even within a given city or geographic region, people experience different triggers based on the time of day or year. One study we conducted around Halloween, for example, found that people were much more likely to think about products associated with the color orange (such as orange soda or Reese’s Pieces) the day before Halloween than a week later. Before Halloween, all the orange stimuli in the environment (pumpkins and orange displays) triggered thoughts of orange products. But as soon as the holiday was over, those triggers disappeared, and so did thoughts of orange products. People moved on to thinking about Christmas or whatever holiday came next.
So when thinking about, say, how to remember to take your reusable grocery bags to the grocery store, think about what will trigger you at exactly the right time. Using reusable grocery bags is like eating more vegetables. We know we should do it. We even want to do it (most of us have bought the bags). But when it comes time to take action, we forget.
Then, right as we pull into the grocery store parking lot, we remember. Argh, I forgot the reusable grocery bags! But by then it’s too late. We’re at the store and the grocery bags are at home in the closet.
It’s no accident that we think about reusable bags right when we get to the store. The grocery is a strong trigger for the bags. But unfortunately it is a badly timed one. Just as with the bath mat public service announcement, the idea is coming to mind, but at the wrong time. To solve this problem, we need to be reminded to bring the bags right when we are leaving the house.
What’s a good trigger in this instance? Anything you have to take with you to buy groceries. Your shopping list, for example, is a great one. Imagine if every time you saw your shopping list, it made you think of your reusable bags. It would be much harder to leave the bags at home.
To return to the example that started the chapter, triggers help explain why Cheerios get more word of mouth than Disney World. True, Disney World is interesting and exciting. To use the language of other chapters in the book, it has high Social Currency and evokes lots of Emotion (next chapter). But the problem is that people don’t think about it very frequently. Most people don’t go to Disney World unless they have kids. Even those who do go don’t go that often. Once a year if that. And there are few triggers to remind them about the experience after the initial excitement evaporates.
But hundreds of thousands of people eat Cheerios for breakfast every day. Still more see the bright orange boxes every time they push their shopping carts down the supermarket cereal aisle. And these triggers make Cheerios more accessible, increasing the chance that people will talk about the product.
The number of times Cheerios and Disney are mentioned on Twitter illustrates this nicely. Cheerios are mentioned more frequently than Disney World. But examine the data closely and you’ll notice a neat pattern.
Mention of Cheerios on Twitter
Mentions of Cheerios spike every day at approximately the same time. The first references occur at 5:00 a.m. They peak between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. And they diminish around 11:00 a.m. This sharp increase and corresponding decline align precisely with the traditional time for breakfast. The pattern even shifts slightly on weekends when people eat breakfast later. Triggers drive talking.
Triggers are the foundation of word of mouth and contagiousness. To use an analogy, think of most rock bands. Social Currency is the front man or woman. It’s exciting, fun, and gets lots of attention. Triggers could be the drummer or bassist. It’s not as sexy a concept as Social Currency, but it’s an important workhorse that gets the job done. People may not pay as much attention to it, but it lays the groundwork that drives success. The more something is triggered, the more it will be top of mind, and the more successful it will become.
So we need to consider the context. Like Budweiser’s “wassup” or Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” our products and ideas need to take advantage of existing triggers. We also need to grow the habitat. Like Colleen Chorak’s Kit Kat and coffee, we need to create new links to prevalent triggers.
Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose, and use. Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Things Catch On 1
Why $100 is a good price for a cheesesteak
Why do some things become popular?
Which is more important, the message or the messenger?
Can you make anything contagious?
The case of the viral blender
Six key STEPPS
1 Social Currency 29
When a telephone booth is a door
Ants can lift fifty times their own weight
Why frequent flier miles are like a video game
When it's good to be hard to get
Why everyone wants a mix of tripe, heart, and stomach meat
The downside of getting paid
We share things that make us look good
2 Triggers 61
Which gets more word of mouth, Disney or Cheerios?
Why a NASA mission boosted candy sales
Could where you vote affect how you vote?
Consider the context
Explaining Rebecca Black
Growing the habitat: Kit Kat and coffee
Top of mind, tip of tongue
3 Emotion 93
Why do some things make the Most E-Mailed list?
How reading science articles is like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon
Why anger is like humor
How breaking guitars can make you famous
Getting teary eyed about online search
When we care, we share
4 Public 125
Is the Apple logo better upside down than right side up?
Why dying people turn down kidney transplants
Using moustaches to make the private public
How to advertise without an advertising budget
Why anti-drug commercials might increase drug use
Built to show, built to grow
5 Practical Value 155
How an eighty-six-year-old made a viral -video about corn
Why hikers talk about vacuum cleaners
E-mail forwards are the new barn raising
Will people pay to save money?
Why $100 is a magic number
When lies spread faster than the truth
News you can use
6 Stories 179
How stories are like Trojan horses
Why good customer service is better than any ad
When a streaker crashed the Olympics
Why some story details are unforgettable
Using a panda to make valuable virality
Information travels under the guise of idle chatter
Why 80 percent of manicurists in California are Vietnamese
Applying the STEPPS
What People are Saying About This
“If you are seeking a bigger impact, especially with a smaller budget, you need this book. Contagious will show you how to make your product spread like crazy.”
“Jonah Berger is as creative and thoughtful as he is spunky and playful. Looking at his research, much like studying a masterpiece in a museum, provides the observer with new insights about life and also makes one aware of the creator's ingenuity and creativity. It is hard to come up with a better example of using social science to illuminate the ordinary and extraordinary in our daily lives.”
“Jonah Berger knows more about what makes information ‘go viral’ than anyone in the world.”
“Why do some ideas seemingly spread overnight, while others disappear? How can some products become ubiquitous, while others never gain traction? Jonah Berger knows the answers, and, with Contagious, now we do, too.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Contagious includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jonah Berger. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
What makes products and ideas catch on and become popular? Why do some stories get shared more than others? Why are some rumors infectious? What makes things “go viral”? In Contagious, Jonah Berger shares the secret science behind social transmission. Why we talk about and share some things rather than others. Why we pass things on. Filled with engaging stories and comprehensive research Contagious is an essential tool for anyone that wants to make their product or idea spread.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1) Consider and discuss the most recent email forward you received. It might have been a news article, video, or story. What aspects of the STEPPS framework did it adhere to? Do the same analysis for the last viral video you watched, hot restaurant you tried, hit movie you saw, etc. Which concepts in the framework apply?
2) Which examples that Berger mentioned (e.g., Blendtec, Dove’s Evolution, white iPhone earbuds) had you been aware of before the book? Trace how these cultural touchstones came to you.
3) Discuss and analyze something you do using the lens of game mechanics. What makes that game, club, website, community, or activity so engaging? Consider each of the STEPPS. What keeps you hooked? Also, why do we value achievement so much? Where is an area you’ve noticed yourself being motivated by it?
4) Can mundane things (like a blender) really diffuse through public consciousness as quickly as remarkable things can? Does sensationalism or novelty (inherent remarkability) carry an advantage, even when STEPPS are considered?
5) What is an example where you’ve noticed yourself being motivated by scarcity? New high tech devices (new phones, gadgets, etc.) are frequently scarce when they are released. Does possession of these products carry social currency? Does their frequent release (a veritable flooding of the market) make them less scarce?
6) Would you brave the phone lines to enter Please Don't Tell? What about its seclusion appeals to you? Is there also something that turns you off to the fight for a seat?
7) Compare an instance of ongoing and immediate word of mouth. Is one more powerful than the other?
8) Without thinking too hard, what is currently top of mind for you? Can you identify triggers is your own life that bring things to mind? For example, whenever I see or hear __________ I think about ____________.
9) Like the Mars Bar and Rebecca Black's Friday, discuss products or campaigns that have "natural" triggers. Does having a pre-existing "habitat" increase likelihood of sharing? Of purchase?
10) Discuss high-arousal versus low-arousal emotions. What are some examples of each that you’ve noticed in your own lives? Is it strange that "contentment" (which so many people strive for in every day life) elicits little arousal? Have you ever shared something sad?
11) Privacy is a paramount concern in today's information-driven digital era. How does this fit with the idea of making the private public? (Consider Movember, Hotmail, and the Facebook generation.). When do we want our choices and opinions to be public versus private? Where are the lines drawn between open and closed information?
12) Watch Tim Piper/Dove’s Evolution video. Discuss the idea of Trojan Horses and how emotion is coded into the narrative of ideas.
13) Which aspect of STEPPS do you think is most affective? Compare Berger’s various examples of Social Currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. Is one of these characteristics most important for driving sharing? Is there a specific combination that makes one thing more appealing than another?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Perform an experiment and monitor the “most emailed” section of NYtimes.com for a week. Do you begin to notice patterns in what is shared? Consider arousal emotions, practical value, and the very subject matter of the articles.
2. Keep a transmission journal and note the ways in which products, ideas, campaigns, and companies use the tenets of human behavioral sharing to make their wares “stick” and “spread.” How much of your life is subject to the basic STEPPS?
3. Create your own viral video with the STEPPS in mind. What are the challenges of making something that addresses all of these sharing factors? Track the success of your video and how people react. Have you cracked the code to viral content?
A Conversation with Jonah Berger
1. The Harvard neuro study revealing that sharing is rewarding in the same way as food and other high-pleasure reward was incredibly interesting. Taking this into consideration, how do you explain what is referred to as the “me” generation of Twitter and Facebook, in which individuals share the most minute aspects of their everyday lives. Are all generations focused on “me?” Is there something different going on in modernity?
People have always thought about and cared about themselves, but social media makes this easier to see because it creates a written record of our actions. What we said, what we shared, and what we “like.” But research suggests that these methods of communication may also contribute to making us “me” focused. Computer mediated communication, and talking to large groups (rather than a single other), may focus us more on ourselves and less on the wants and needs of others.
2. What’s the most recent thing you shared? And what was most recently shared with you?
Wow. Good question. :) One thing I recently shared was a New York Times article that has a quote related to a research project we’re working on. One thing I just received was a restaurant recommendation for good Asian fried chicken. I had talked about something related in a Financial Times article about brand extensions, and someone who read the article sent me a note to prove me wrong!
3. Do you think you’ve cracked the code of efficient product advertising? Would you ever try your hand at it?
Can we make ads more effective and viral? Yes. Have we “cracked the code”? There is always more to learn. Definitely like trying my hand at it. I often help companies use the STEPPS framework to improve their products and ideas and it is always lots of fun.
4. Along those same lines, have any of your students gone on to become successful advertisers/viral video makers/idea-spreaders?
Definitely. I teach an exercise in my class where students use the STEPPS framework to try and create a viral video. It’s tough but some people do amazingly well!
5. Discuss how you think sharing today compares to sharing 30 years ago. What about our digital culture has made things different? Has sharing decreased in any way?
Sharing today is certainly different in some ways. There is less face-to-face interaction with our friends and family, so we talk more over the phone or through the web. Research shows that this decreases some of the benefits of social interaction. Warm interpersonal contact reduces stress, but things like texting don’t have the same effect. Do we share less? Doubtful, but we do share differently.
6. The nature of current commercials seems more and more “off-brand,” as companies create non-sequitur and nonsensical ads to elicit a laugh or capitalize on “irony.” Are they failing to follow the STEPPS? Is there remarkability to silliness un-related to product? (Unlike the Panda in the food store).
Funny ads are great. And as a consumer, I love to watch them. But if the goal is not just to make people laugh, but to get them to buy something, then valuable virality becomes vital. People will share funny or ironic ads, but at the end of the day it doesn’t help the company if the consumer has no idea what the ad was for.
7. Do you think most STEPPS happen at the unconscious level, or do you believe people create things with these fundamental human behaviors in mind?
People are more aware of some of the STEPPS than others. Practical Value? We see that every day. Social Currency? We see it in others all the time (even if it’s hard to see in ourselves). But we are less aware of how Triggers or Public affects our behavior.
8. Is there something to be said for over-saturation? Can a good method of viral sharing exhaust itself in our fast-as-lightning culture?
There is a key difference between psychology and marketing tactics. We may get over-saturated with a particular tactic (e.g., pop-up ads or a certain style of ad) but the underlying psychology that drove us to like it still remains. If every company makes their product “scarce” consumers will start to catch on, but does that mean we’ll stop valuing scarcity altogether? Probably not.
9. Is one element of STEPPS more vital than the others?
No one of the STEPPS is most important, but certain ones are definitely easier to apply in certain situations. It’s easier to leverage Public if you have a physical product. It’s easier to use Emotion if you sell something related to children or animals. But the key is not just using the easy STEPPS. Trying to incorporate the more difficult ones will really boost their impact.
10. Have you ever eaten the $100 cheesesteak at Barclay’s?
Yes. I highly recommend it.