People Don't Share Brochures, They Share Stories

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Marketing podcast with Jonah Berger

We don’t always think of something that’s contagious as such a good thing. When it comes to marketing these days, however, it’s a very good thing. Getting something catch on or “go viral” is one of the most powerful forms of marketing.

photo credit: ~ Pil ~ via photopin cc
photo credit: ~ Pil ~ via photopin cc

One of the biggest goals of marketing today is to create marketing and messages that people want to share.

There is one school of thought that suggests getting something to go viral is mostly pure luck and a waste of one’s time, but as best-selling author and Warton School Professor, Jonah Berger found, there is an art and science to what makes things catch on.

Berger examined hundreds of baby names, thousands of New York Times articles and data from millions of YouTube videos to break down the elements that make things go viral.

He compiled his findings in the New York Times best selling Contagious: Why Things Catch On and recently visited with me on the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast.

The six keys to sharing as outlined in Berger’s book – Contagious

  • Social currency:, It’s all about people talking about things to make themselves look good, rather than bad
  • Triggers, which is all about the idea of “top of mind, tip of tongue.” We talk about things that are on the top of our heads.
  • Ease for emotion: When we care, we share. The more we care about a piece of information or the more we’re feeling physiologically aroused, the more likely we pass something on.
  • Public: When we can see other people doing something, we’re more likely to imitate it.
  • Practical value: Basically, it’s the idea of news you can use. We share information to help others, to make them better off.
  • Stories, or how we share things that are often wrapped up in stories or narratives.

To me that last point – people share stories is the money point. How can you start wrapping your marketing, culture and community in a story worth sharing?

Transcription of the Podcast:

John: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Jonah Berger he is the author of the New York Times best selling Contagious: Why Things Catch On and is the James G. Campbell Jr. Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Jonah thanks for joining me.

Jonah: John thanks so much for having me.

John: One of the contentions of this book and I think there are a lot of people that would say that … A lot of what we are going to talk about as contagious we are not really going to talk about diseases we are going to talk about contagious in a good way for a business. This idea of having something going viral so that millions of people are sharing it and you are getting all kinds of new exposure that in many cases you didn’t pay for. A lot of people would suggest that it’s just luck. You don’t plan it you do something and who knows why it catches on. Your contention is that it’s actually science isn’t it?

Jonah: Definitely and there are two key pointers in your question, first our research shows that it’s not luck and its not chance why some things catch on and become popular there is a science behind word of mouth. By understanding why people talk about and share certain things rather than others, companies and organizations can grow their business. The second thing that’s really important is you mentioned the word viral and that’s part of what I study why things go viral on the web. I also understand and study why things get more word of mouth offline and most small businesses would be really happy if they got a video that got 10 million views.

For the most part what they really like is 10% to 20% more customers. They key is how to turn those initial customers those existing customers into advocates. How to get them to talk about and share your business and help you bring new business in.

John: That’s a great point because I think most small businesses actually do live on word of mouth but what we are suggestion is a way to actually amplify that and really make it a significant part of how you systematically grow your business.

Jonah: Definitely word of mouth is the main way that small businesses grow and this is a way to sort of give a kick-start or a boost to that process.

John: On of the other contentions that you talk about why this is so important is because we’ve gotten really good at just either not listening or blocking out, do not call lists, email spam filters, satellite radio, DVRs. There is lost of ways for us not to have to be exposed to advertising. How do you think … It used to there was a time when I just read a history of Pepsodent and how that toothpaste became very popular even though people didn’t really brush their teeth or buy toothpaste. Advertising you go back to the Mad Men shows, advertising really dictated how we made decisions but that’s no longer true is it?

Jonah: Advertising is essentially an interruption, you are watching television you are reading a magazine, you are listening to the radio. You have to sit through some period of interruption a break in what you want to be doing so that you don’t have to pay to do that thing, you don’t have to pay to watch the television or pay as much for the magazine as you might otherwise. Lots of technologies have come about to allow consumers to skip those interruptions and consumers have learned not to pay attention to those interruptions because they are often not useful.
Word of mouth is over 10 times as effective as traditional advertising, we trust it, we know our friends are out to help us not just to sell us something. It’s much more targeted to our interest. More going to tell us about something that has nothing to do with who we are and ads often do that. We are much more likely to listen to word of mouth than we are to listen to advertising.

John: Yeah because my friends for example at a restaurant, I could read a review in a restaurant and that’s really relative. My friends know that I’m a vegetarian and the kind of place that I like to go to and the wine list and all those types of things. When they make a recommendation it holds so much more weight.

Jonah: Definitely if you know someone has preferences like yours and they like something that’s a great signal that you are going to like it as well.

John: I think that’s why sometimes social communities that are built around common beliefs or themes carry so much weight. Because there will be people that you may not know at all but you know a little about them based on some of their choices and that puts them in your club.

Jonah: As long as we are similar in some way or we think we are similar in some way we are going to believe that those person’s choices have information about what we are going to like.

John: One of the things that I see a lot of people strive for this idea of having something go viral, I make fun of some of the people that really talk about that that as their goal. Because a lot of times I see people that … Put a cat on a skateboard put some sunglasses on them, video them you’ve got something that for whatever reason a lot of people want to watch. How do you tie that to objectives of a business?

Jonah: That is certainly the key things that many brands or organizations forget. They often become so enamored with creating content that people want to share making something viral that they forget to make that virality valuable. Because at the end of the day that’s the goal, unless you are a content trader, unless your goal is to create funny content, you are hoping that the content you are creating will help your brand. What’s important to do as I talk about in the book is build a Trojan horse story. We all know that famous story of the Trojan horse where the Greeks hide inside that wooden horse. Most stories are actually like Trojan horses, they have a moral for example hidden inside.
The Trojan horse would be ware of [inaudible 00:06:00] or be ware of your enemies particularly when they are being nice to you. Most statements are stored in [inaudible 00:06:06] moral whether it’s the boy who cried wolf which is don’t lie. Or the three little pigs, work hard and it will pay-off. If you have kids you realize the kids don’t want to just hear the moral they need that story to pay attention, the story gets them engaged but the moral comes along for the ride. That’s the goal I think to build viable virality you need to build a Trojan horse story, you need to build an exterior that’s entertaining or engaging. No one is going to share an ad they don’t want to advertise for your brand.
If you can give them content that they want to pass on either because it makes them look good or it’s useful but your brand is hidden inside it’s an integral detail to that story it gets to come along for the ride. Almost like Will It Blend that famous campaign from a few years ago from the company Blendtec where they show a blender tearing through an iPhone. It’s an amazing video people share it because they can’t believe wow a blender could tear an iPhone to shreds that’s pretty impressive. At the end of the day that video got hundreds of millions of views but it also carried the message of the brand, this is a really tough blender. Then blender can tear through an iPhone it must be good. They didn’t just create engaging content they created a Trojan horse story to carry their message.

John: Yeah and of course that one was brilliant because it was at the time when the iPhone was new and people were actually still trying to get their hands on it and here they were actually destroying one. I think that was a stub message in that that really made it take off.

Jonah: Certainly and one other idea I talk about in the book is the notion of triggers, relating your message or idea to other things that are going on in the environment. Oreo did a great job of this during the super bowl where they had that tweet about the lights being out and people talking about Oreos they’ll eat them when the lights are off. It became part of the conversation because it was linked to a topic that lots of people were talking about. [Inaudible 00:07:57] you can get your idea be triggered by the environment a prevalent conversation in the environment you are going to be much more successful.

John: You are actually starting I know that you have these six steps and I think we are leaking them out one at a time. I do want to come back to the outline of those steps but one other question I did want to focus on because I’d love to hear your opinion on this. There are a lot of people that say even negative campaigns things that go viral maybe aren’t altogether positive has some value as well. What would be your take on that?

Jonah: I’d say two things to that first of all if people are sharing lots of negative word of mouth about you, you want to figure out why. Don’t start by worrying about word of mouth start by worrying about the problem, is there something that consumers are unhappy with? Is there a feature that’s breaking down? Is your customer service terrible? Does no one like the beef [inaudible 00:08:53] on the menu. Figuring out what those problems are and fixing them everyone will give you credit for that and for being authentic in your responses to that and that will help. Secondly if you are a small business even negative word of mouth can help.
We’ve done some research on negative publicity for example that shows that for small businesses or products or ideas that people didn’t know a lot about previously even negative can increase success. Because it makes that business or idea more top of mind. For example everyone knows the movie Borat that came out a few years ago that poked relentless fun at the country of Kazakhstan with Sacha Baron Cohen. Yet inquiries about that country went up 300% on travel websites after the movie came out because no one had really thought about that country previously. Even negative can help but I think the more important point is to solve the problem because that will make customers appreciate what you are doing.

John: That’s an interesting point because I think there are a lot of products or people or concepts that actually have a polarizing effect. There are people that … there are some books that have been very popular recently that they have as many one star this book is awful reviews as they have five star this book is awesome reviews. I think sometimes that when people are really trashing something it really raises the curiosity level to the point where some people then make their own decision.

Jonah: Definitely, curiosity is one thing it’s so bad I want to check it out and see is it that bad. Even beyond curiosity just think about the fact that if something is not good you may not remember that they said it was good or bad but you remember that you heard about it. You might not remember why and so that makes you more aware of it and more likely to check it out.

John: I was just saying considering the source too, every time the Catholic church bans a movie you can guarantee that’s going to be a bestseller.

Jonah: Certainly and that’s partially about the curiosity but also because it acts as an advertiser. Certainly there is a movie that no one knew about, its getting a lot of attention and even if people don’t remember why the Catholic church said don’t see it they might remember they heard something about it and be more likely to check it out.

John: Let’s go back to these six steps and maybe just so we don’t give away everything because I think the book certainly sets up and uses lots of case studies for each of these points. Maybe let’s go through and just set them up what you mean by …? The acronym STEPPS S-T-E-P-P-S starts with social currency.
Jonah: Social currency is the idea that people talk about or share things that make them look good, that make them seem smart and in the know. A great example of this happened a few months ago now LinkedIn actually sent emails out to many of their customers saying your profile is in the top 1% or 5% of all profiles on LinkedIn. This made people feel good, they felt special I have some status, tens of thousands of people also shared this with others because they wanted others to know that they were special. The key idea of social currency is if something makes us look good, if we get upgraded based on our frequent flyer status, if we get invited to a soft opening of a restaurant before that restaurant opens to the public.
If we get a limited edition product, if we had a really good round of golf, if we baked a cake that won a prize in the local bake-off. Anything that makes us look good we are going to talk about and share. Along the way we often talk about and share the brands with the organizations or the companies that made us look good. If we get invited to a soft opening we have to say, “Hey we got invited to a soft opening from restaurant X,” That helps the word spread about restaurant X.

John: Yeah and of course obviously we now have so many tools to spread the word too and brands are making it really easy to share that experience, lets talk about triggers then.

Jonah: Triggers and we talked a little bit about this already is the key idea that if something is top of mind it will be tip of tongue, the more we are thinking about something the more we are to talk about it. If I said for example peanut butter and … You might think of what word?

John: Chocolate I guess, Jelly. Sorry you caught me when I was not ready for lunch yet.

Jonah: No problem. I think many people would say peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter is almost like a little advertising of jelly, even though you might not be thinking about jelly. Thinking about peanut butter makes you think about what it’s paired with. That’s the idea of triggers. If something is triggered by the environment, if something makes your idea or product top of mind people are going to be more likely to talk about it.

John: I can’t not mow the lawn regardless of what time of day it is and not have a beer afterwards, I get that one too. Emotion, I love one of the things you did was study the New York Times most emailed list and it really gave you some clues into what really grabs people didn’t it?

Jonah: It did and you might think that people share positive emotions and don’t share negative emotions but what our research shows that its not just about the positivity in emotion its about the activation or the ulcer level. Some emotions like anger or high arousal they fire us up and other negative emotions like sadness are low arousal they deactivate us. It’s not just whether an emotion makes us feel good or bad it’s also whether it activates us or drives us to shit.

John: We are up to what number 4, public.

Jonah: Public is the idea that if something is built to show its built to go, there is that famous phrase monkey see, monkey do which points out two things. First, we tend to imitate others if you are looking for a restaurant for example and you in area of town you don’t know much about you’ll look in the parking lot to see if there are a lot of cars or you’ll look in the front window to see if it’s busy. Assuming that wow if it’s busy it must be good. We use others as information but that monkey see part is also really important, if we can’t see what others are doing we can’t imitate it. The key idea of public is by making things more observable it will be more likely that others will imitate people’s behavior and that thing will catch on.

John: Yeah its like the tip jar at the coffee shop right, if there is no money in it you are not as compelled to throw some but if it looks like everybody that came there that day put a buck in then you are probably going to do it aren’t you.

Jonah: Certainly and smart bartenders or smart barristers often put a few dollars in to seed the tip jar. They want other people to think wow others are donating it must be worth donating.

John: I give a lot of presentations and its funny how I can sit there and go, “Okay any questions, any questions?” Until that first person asks a question the flood gates won’t open, I know a lot of speakers do the same thing, they seed a few questions so that it gets the ball rolling. The second P is practical.

Jonah: Practical value is about useful information, we don’t just share things that make us look good or give us social currency we also share things that help others that make their lives better off. I share a clip in the book about a guy named Ken Craig who got a video to go viral about corn, 10 million views for a video about corn he is an 86 year old guy. You are probably sitting there going, “Corn what’s viral about corn?” This is pure useful information, the video shows how to eat corn in a way that’s much easier than you might usually think. People often share whether [inaudible 00:16:42] or helpful information, the top 10 super foods you should be eating, useful information gets passed on.
We have to understand how to highlight a practical value. How to show that your brand for example, that your restaurant, your service has remarkable value to the consumer.

John: I know quite often I have been blogging for years now and I know quite often lists posts that have lists of things. Or posts that have lots of tools linked to them are always the ones that people love to share and I think it goes certainly to that point. I also wrote a book about, my second book was called the referral engine and that was really one of the points that I made, one of the main points I made in there. A lot of people were really hesitant to ask for referrals. I think that if you are doing a good job people are really wired they are have lots of both social currency and this idea of practical to really share your story, share your company. The last point is stories which you already alluded to. It becomes the carrier of it does it?

Jonah: It does and that’s a perfect word John to think about, a carrier or a vessel. No one wants to advertise for you even if they are referring you as you just nicely said there is a reason. They are referring you because it makes them look good or they are referring you because they want to help others. You want to build that Trojan horse story that we talked about before. Build a narrative, build a piece of content, build an engaging vessel or carrier that allows your brand to come along for the ride. Fit in those key motives that we talked about, that social currency, that emotion, that practical value those triggers. Along the way build a story around it so that people will share your brand as they [inaudible 00:18:26] idle chatter.

John: If I’m this person listening and I’m thinking, “Well gosh I have a good story, we do good work how can we do something whether it’s a piece of content or a campaign that we really can get this sharing going?” The reason I set that up is because I’ve looked through some of your resources that you’ve produced and you really … You have two resources that I’ll mention and maybe you can highlight a little bit that I think are great. One is on you actually have a guide if you will for how to create a campaign don’t you?

Jonah: I do we built a workbook and often get calls from companies and I often do consulting in this space. Sometimes people say, “Hey we don’t have the money to pay you for consulting is there anyway you can help us out?” We built this free workbook, anybody can download it its on under the resources tab and it basically walks people through applying these ideas. I do the same exercise in my course at the Wharton School helping people walk through their company or their business in a workshop fashion to think about, “Well how can I apply each of these concepts? How can I [take in 00:19:38] social currency? How can I increase the number of triggers?” It’s a step-by-step almost [inaudible 00:19:44] by numbers approach to make your content and make your brand more contagious.

John: I think a lot of times business owners have all the answers they just need somebody to set up the questions the right way for them and I think that that guide does that very well. The second one is and I really love that because you take a couple of the case studies from the book and well known stories and you really then say, “Well here is why this worked.” You want to set that one up a little more?

Jonah: We often see viral videos whether its gangnam style or the Harlem shake or the one with Redbull diving from out of space, the famous commercial with Volkswagen and Star Wars. We wonder why are so many people sharing this thing, what about this thing made it a hit? Virality Explained just walks through each of these and helps us understand the why behind it, why did so many people share that feature content and how can that help us understand the science of transition.

John: I think for many people myself included that’s one of the best ways to learn I think is to really have somebody take the thing apart and deconstruct it. Then I think you can start applying those very tactics or ideas to something you are trying to do. Jonah thanks so much for joining us I really appreciate it, Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a book that ought to be in every marketer’s library these days. I’m glad you pointed out really for the reasons of all the online things that we see but certainly also for that offline and getting that neighbor to talk across the fence is certainly just as important. I appreciate you joining us, and great book and hopefully we’ll see you out there on the road.

Jonah: Thanks so much John, appreciate it.

Transcription service by


Contagious, Jonah Berger

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