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What Makes Things Go Viral?

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School asked the very same question – why do some things catch on and go viral, while others are left in the shadows? In his pursuit to answer the question, he penned the must-read marketing book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On?

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The book explains the science of social transmission, why people share ideas, stories, their recommendations and opinions of brands and products, with their own personal networks. What incites people to talk about something, such that word of mouth spreads the message much farther and wider than a simple ad.

By taking a look at brands, ideas, content and products that have successfully gone viral, Berger identifies six qualities shared by these contagious campaigns.  Using the acronym STEPPS – he explains how Social currency, Triggers, Emotion, Publicity, Practical value and Stories combine to create infectious material that people just have to talk about.

While Berger admits there isn’t a 100% guarantee that a product or concept will go viral, he likens the art of creating contagious content to batting averages in baseball, “…no one hits a home run every time. But it’s also not luck. By understanding the science of word of mouth, you improve your average.”

To leverage these principles yourself, here is a brief explanation of what Berger’s STEPPS are:

Social Currency

Social currency refers to the concept that people talk about things that enhance their identity, status or recognition. We want to look good in the eyes of others because we’re social creatures that want to be liked. No one wants to be a straight up ‘Debbie-Downer’ that makes people cringe or walk away in an effort to avoid us.

As such, we like to share things that make us appear interesting, clever or hip. Whether it’s being in the know about the latest Hollywood fitness craze (have you heard of Lagree?) Or telling a funny joke that makes us look witty, or sharing NASA’s most recent scientific endeavor to look smart, it’s about showing ourselves in the best light.

Triggers

We talk about brands, products and organizations all the time whether or not we’re aware of it. Inadvertently, through conversations we become ambassadors for brands, marketing for them unawares while we go about our day. For example, a colleague may say they’re hungry and you might mention that yummy shawarma spot down the street. Or, you may notice someone carrying around a Lululemon bag and be reminded of how your exercise regime is starting today.

We are triggered by our social environment to recall and share the information that we find relevant. Like salt needs pepper or peanut butter needs jam, to make an idea go viral it needs to be easily triggered in the minds of those you seek to appeal to.

Emotion

We share what we care about. Whether an experience makes us feel happy, sad or angry, or even confused, we talk to others about it to get their input or just share the experience. More often than not, we’re likely to share something that makes us smile, in the hopes that it will make others smile as well. Using emotional appeals in your marketing messages, makes your brand look human and not just like a big uncaring corporation or business. Be real and appeal through what connects us as beings, our capacity to feel and make others feel as well.  

Public

In order for people to talk about what you do as a business or an idea that you have, it needs to be made public. Like the old adage, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound. To garner a following, you need to let people know you are there. A great example used in the book, is the Movember movement and how it made what is otherwise private – prostate cancer – a public thing. Or another example is Apple’s use of white headphones, as opposed to black headphones, so people could SEE that others were also using and buying Mac products.

To illicit triggers, social currency and public awareness, people need to recognize you among the crowd. It’s about letting people see your brand and familiarize themselves with it. So much so that they talk about it.

Practical Value

We share what is useful, what actually helps us in our day to day lives. We seek the practical value behind ideas, brands, products or even people when sharing information with our networks. The value in things may be industry insight, it may be what grocery store has the best produce, something that makes us laugh or something that helps us work more efficiently. To create practical value for whatever it is you’re pitching, you must alleviate some need for people that helps them live a fuller life. It needs to be of practical use.

Stories

Stories kind of bring us back full circle to social currency but it’s worth noting that our lives are shaped by the narratives we create, read, hear and tell. To sell an idea, or spark a wildfire out of it such that it spreads and becomes contagious, we need to create a good story around it. Non profit organizations benefit greatly from this principle, given that the stories they tell about what they do are human stories that appeal to our emotions and make us remember that life isn’t simple, there are many paths taken.

When creating a story for your product, brand or idea, even if you happen to be an engineering firm let’s say – think about how it is what you do affects a larger narrative, not only are you designing a building’s HVAC system let’s say – you’re also helping build a social environment that ideally will make people feel comfortable and want to be in. You get it?

It’s about positioning the idea in a larger scheme, showing how it fits into the story of our lives. By crafting messages in this way, you create something that can be shared. And that’s what all this is about. Sharing means caring.

Conclusion

Contagious: Why Things Catch On is definitely worth the read. By identifying the principles shared by things that have caught on and gone viral, Berger shows how these concepts play to people’s desire to talk about and share information. When creating your own campaigns, ideas, or products remember:

  • People care about how they look to others (Social Currency)
  • Top of mind means tip of tongue (Triggers)
  • When we care, we share (Emotion)
  • Built to show means its built to grow (Public)
  • News you can use. Always provide something that makes a difference in people’s lives. (Practical Value)
  • Information travels under what seems like idle chatter (Stories)