Making Your Marketing and Your Brand “Contagious”: an Interview with Jonah Berger

Jonah Berger

Social media has transformed the way companies and marketing organizations engage their customers, prospective customers, target audiences and key stakeholders.

Of course, the big challenge for marketers is to figure out how to incorporate social media and effectively use these new platforms. The big payoff is having a campaign or content “go viral” and extend the reach of your marketing.

But is there a scientific or predictive approach to social business?

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, believes there is a science to generating social influence. His new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, reflects his extensive research on why things become popular in social media platforms. As Jonah told me in the following Q & A, “it’s not random, it’s not luck and it’s not chance.”

Q: In your book, you have extensively researched “virality.” What are the principles?

JONAH BERGER: I studied the phenomenon of social influence and social sharing and broke it down into a “6-STEPP” process:

  1. Social Currency: People share things that make them look good.
  2. Triggers: top-of-mind is tip-of-tongue. The more people are thinking about a product or idea, the more they’ll talk about it.
  3. Emotion: More emotional content gets shared more. When we care, we share.
  4. Public: Observability drives imitation. People tend to imitate others, but we can only imitate things we can observe.  If something is built to show, it is built to grow
  5. Practical Value:  useful information, news you can use
  6. Stories: Build a Trojan Horse.  A story that carries your brand or benefit along for the ride.

Q: Does virality require all six elements to occur in order for something to generate social word-of-mouth?

JONAH BERGER: It doesn’t require all six elements, but the more the better.  It’s like a Cobb salad. They usually come with bacon, eggs, tomatoes, cheese, etc.  A Cobb salad without bacon is still pretty good, but the more toppings that are included, the better it tastes.

Q: In your view, what does it mean for something to be contagious? Can you share an example?

JONAH BERGER: By contagious, I mean to spread like a virus from person-to-person.  To catch on and become popular, via word of mouth and social influence.

Take Greek yogurt for example.  A few years ago, no one had heard of the product and few companies offered it.  But Chobani and other brands started gaining traction, consumers spread the word about its health benefits, and the product took off.

Q: You also cite an interesting marketing phenomenon that was conceived by Blendtec to promote their line of blenders. Their “Will It Blend” video series has generated tens of millions of views on YouTube.

JONAH BERGER: The fact that a blender can cut through an iPhone, a music CD, golf balls, Glow Sticks or other obscure products- isn’t that amazing?

People shared those videos tens of millions of times because it’s a remarkable product. It is hard to believe a blender can do that. During that social sharing, people also share the Blendtec name. Sales shot up 700 percent. The virality of the “Will It Blend?” videos  is an example of STEPP #6: you build a story and, like a Trojan Horse, the benefit to your brand or company comes along for the ride.

Q: What have you found about the origins of a contagious idea/product? How does that buzz get started and gain momentum?

JONAH BERGER: People often think that contagious products just get lucky, that it is random. But it’s not luck and it’s not random.  It’s science.  Just like other aspects of consumer behavior, there is logic behind why things catch on.  Key psychological factors or principles that drive things to go viral and become popular.

Q: Your book is unique in that you’ve done extensive research into a broad range of industries, companies, brands, products and services to prove there is a “science” to social sharing. Do the STEPPS principles work more effectively in B2C scenarios, or do they apply equally to B2B marketing efforts?

JONAH BERGER: Word of mouth is the #1 influencer of B2B purchasing decisions and the STEPPS apply equally well to both B2B and B2C.  Rather than being industry specific they’re based on understanding WHY people talk.  Why they share some information rather than others and how companies and organization, whether B2C or B2B, can apply these concepts to get their own products and ideas to catch on.

Q: Do you think the importance of word of mouth marketing is specific to this time period, perhaps to the current values of our culture or the ease of sharing created by social media?

JONAH BERGER: With all the hype around social media, marketers often forget that word of mouth didn’t just come along with the advent of the internet.  It’s been around since the introduction of language.  Cavemen would communicate about good places to hunt and which plants were dangerous to eat.

Even today, researchers estimate that only 7% of word of mouth is online on things like social media. Much more is offline, or in face-to-face communication.  So having a social media strategy is good, but a lot of the book also talks about how to encourage normal face-to-face discussion.

Q: From your extensive research on brands and companies that have become “contagious,” what is the biggest misconception marketers need to be aware of when developing their on-line and off-line strategies for social business?

JONAH BERGER: You don’t have to get lucky, have a huge advertising budget or celebrity endorsements to get your product to catch on.  You just have to harness the psychology of word of mouth and social influence.  Whether you work in B2C or B2B, follow the six key STEPPS and you can make any product or idea more popular

Jonathan Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can contact Jonah at www.jonahberger.com.

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