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Changing Minds in Sales, Marketing, and Business

Marketing Podcast with Jonah Berger
Podcast Transcript

On this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I visit with author and Wharton School Professor Jonah Berger.

Berger is the best-selling author of three books, including his latest The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. As an academic and a marketing expert, Berger has been studying human and consumer behavior for decades.

So much of what happens in business is about changing people’s minds. Marketers and salespeople want to convince consumers to buy their product or service. Bosses want to convince employees to give their new business strategy a try. But when we go to change people’s minds, we often focus on pushing them towards our way of seeing things.

In reality, trying to force someone to see things our way is the quickest way to get them to put up their defenses. To effect change, we need to take a different tack. Berger stops by the podcast to share the methods that are actually likely to get people to reconsider their stance and take a second look at your point of view.

Questions I ask Jonah Berger:

  • You’ve been called a “world-renowned expert on change.” What’s the training for that?
  • Why do people resist change so much?
  • How would you codify helping people make change?

What you’ll learn if you give a listen:

  • What understanding others has to do with effecting change.
  • Why offering guided choices can help to facilitate change.
  • What the five main obstacles to change are, and how you can counteract several of them.

Key takeaways from the episode and more about Jonah Berger:

Like this show? Click on over and give us a review on iTunes, please!

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Transcript of Changing Minds in Sales, Marketing, and Business

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John Jantsch: This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Zephyr CMS. It’s a modern cloud based CMS system that’s licensed only to agencies. You can find them at, more about this later in the show.

John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Jonah Berger. He’s a professor, professional professor I suppose at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and he’s an expert on things like word of mouth and viral marketing and social influence and he’s also the author of several books. We’re going to talk about his newest one, The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. Welcome Jonah.

Jonah Berger: Thanks for having me back.

John Jantsch: So before we get into talking about the book, I do want to compliment you on the palette of colors on your covers. They’re all very neatly tied together. If we had them together right now, people would see yellow for the new book, kind of an aqua and then an orange and they all just really fit together as a set.

Jonah Berger: That’s my goal, [inaudible 00:01:16] you want to collect all three, you want to have them as a reference next to your desk.

John Jantsch: That’s awesome. So I have heard you called a world renowned expert on change and I just wonder what’s the training for that?

Jonah Berger: You know, I’ve spent over 20 years doing research on the science of change, whether we think about changes as persuasion, whether we think about change as social influence, everything from a PhD in marketing in this general area to hundreds of studies that we’ve conducted in the space. So I don’t know if world renowned is exactly right, but hopefully it’s at least close.

John Jantsch: So before we get into kind of the framework and what the book is really, kind of breaking the book down in chunks, what would be the scope of the application? I mean, people need to change bad habits. There needs to be culture change at large organizations. Are you prepared to say this kind of works regardless of the scope?

Jonah Berger: I would say it’s more focused on others than the self, though, certainly you can apply some of the ideas to the self. I think the quick story behind this book is I’m an academic, so I’ve taught at the Wharton School for 13 years now, a number of years ago, came out with this book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, had worked with companies before then, but, nowhere close to the scope of what happened afterwards. And so I’ve gotten the chance to work with large fortune five hundreds from the Googles and the Nike’s and the Apples to small startups and mid size companies and B2B and B2C, dry cleaners, everything, every business you can imagine. And I really learned a lot about what businesses are wrestling with. And I realized that everyone in some level had something they wanted to change.

Jonah Berger: So the sales people want to change client’s mind and marketing wants to change consumer behavior. Leaders want to transform organizations. Employees want to change their boss’s mind. Yet change is really hard. Whichever of those things we’re trying to change, we often have tried a number of times and we’ve often failed. And so what I started to wonder is could there be a better way? And so, in the last few years, both on the research front as well as on the consulting side, spent a lot of time trying to figure out, okay, could there be a better way to change minds and organizations, might there be a more effective approach? And if so, how can we codify that approach and how people apply it?

John Jantsch: Okay. So before we get into that approach, and I was going to say, I was basically going to ask you why is change so hard? You just kind of stole my thunder there and said change is hard.

Jonah Berger: Oh, sorry.

John Jantsch: No, but really, I’m sure in your research, a lot of what you discovered is why it’s so hard. What are some of the reasons that people resist change so much?

Jonah Berger: Yeah, I mean I think at its core, often when we try to change something, whether it’s a person’s mind, whether it’s organization, whenever it is, we default to some version of what I’ll call pushing. So we send more emails, we provide more information. We give more reasons. We think if we just explain why something is a good idea, why we want people to do something, they’ll come along and that intuition makes a lot of sense. Implicitly it comes from the physical world, right? When you have a chair, whether it’s at home or at your office and you want to move that chair, pushing that chair is a great way to go, right? Provide more compulsion, more pushing in one direction, why people should do something in particular and that chair will move in that direction. There’s only one problem. People aren’t like chairs.

Jonah Berger: When you push people, they don’t just go, they tend to push back. When you push them in one direction, they don’t just listen. They tend to think about all the reasons why what you’re suggesting is wrong and they tend to sometimes even go in the opposite direction. And so what I soon realized is that successful change agents don’t think about why someone might change but what they could do to get someone to change. They ask a very slightly but importantly different question, which is why hasn’t that person changed already? What are the barriers or the obstacles that are in their way and how can I mitigate them? I think a good analogy, if you think about getting in a car, so you’ve parked on an incline, you’re getting in your car, you stick your key in the ignition, you put your seatbelt in, you step your foot on the gas, you’re ready to go.

Jonah Berger: If the car doesn’t go, we often just think we need more gas, right? If I just press on that gas pedal a little more, the car will move. But sometimes we just need to depress that parking brake. Sometimes we just need to get rid of the stuff that’s in the way that’s preventing change from happening and mitigate it. And so that’s what the book is all about. It talks about the five key or common parking brakes or barriers, obstacles that prevent change. And how by mitigating those obstacles, removing those obstacles, we can make change more likely.

John Jantsch: So let’s talk about, and I do want you… You’ve even got a nice acronym, so we definitely want to unpack the framework, but there’s, again, I want to keep drilling on this where maybe people get it wrong. I know early in my career, I mean everybody sells. It doesn’t matter what your title is at some point you’re selling. And I remember I used to really make the mistake, took me a long time to learn this, I used to really make the mistake of saying, Oh, well this is their problem, clearly, and going and telling them what they were doing wrong. I learned pretty quickly, that was a great way to get a lot of resistance.

Jonah Berger: Yeah.

John Jantsch: Even if I was right.

Jonah Berger: Yes.

John Jantsch: In your research, is that one of the kind of common mistakes that, be they salespeople or anybody trying to change somebody’s mind makes?

Jonah Berger: Yeah, I think what you’re pointing out is to get someone to change, we really have to understand them and that’s often hard for us, even our personal lives, right? As you were talking, this happens in our personal lives all the time, right? We think we know what’s best for someone. We think we know why someone’s doing something. We make a suggestion, but we don’t actually understand the core, the core reason. I talk about this a lot is finding the root. So I think about this. I don’t have a large yard, but I have a large enough yard that I have to weed and often when we want to get rid of weeds, we do the same thing when we’re trying to sell, which is we just do the quickest approach, right? We just rip the top off that weed and we move on to the next one.

Jonah Berger: We want to convince 10 people, we want to as quickly as possible, convince the first and move on to the next. But the problem is if we don’t understand the core, that underlying issue, and if we don’t find the root cause of what the problem is, it’s going to be really hard to get that person to change or get rid of that weed. Weed is just going to grow back. And so we really have to spend more time getting outside of ourselves, understanding that person, where they are in that journey, whether it’s a customer journey, employee journey, whatever it might be, where they are in that decision making process, what stage they’re at, what the barriers are that are preventing them from doing what we want them to, and then figure out how to mitigate them. Someone said it very nicely, we need to stop selling and get people to buy in. And I think that’s a really nice way of articulating it. Right? Stop thinking about what we want. Think more about what they want and it’ll make it more likely that they can persuade themselves.

John Jantsch: Yeah. And on the flip side of that, I guess, where I’ve felt like I’ve had my most success in getting somebody to change is to actually get them to see how much it’s costing them, not to change.

Jonah Berger: Oh, yes.

John Jantsch: Or if we did achieve this result it would be worth like 10 times what the investment is and so I’d be silly not to change. I mean that, getting that kind of, I guess what you just called buy-in is really important, isn’t it?

Jonah Berger: Yeah. I mean one of the chapters talks about this idea of the endowment effect, which is basically we value things we’re doing already more than things we’re not, which is great for the status quo, right? We value the status quo highly. The project we’re doing, the client we’re using, the software we have already, we know it and even though it has problems, we like what we have already. The problem is we’ve got to get people to switch to something new and they think that sticking with the old thing is costless. People talk a lot about switching and costs, right? The time, money, effort or energy to get people to switch. When you buy a new phone, for example, it costs you money. You install a new software package it requires time and effort to get it to work without all the other systems.

Jonah Berger: As a leader you try to get people to be more innovative. Well that’s costly. They have to change their practices of what they’re doing, but it’s particularly challenging because they’re attached to that old way of doing things and they think the old way is fine. Essentially we think, okay, we just keep doing what we’re doing. It has no cost. But often the status quo is not as costless as it seems. And so what that chapter talks a lot about is how do we make people realize that doing nothing actually isn’t costless. There’s a cost to doing nothing and it’s more expensive as you articulated than people might actually think.

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John Jantsch: So what role does choice play in getting people to change their mind? So in other words, give people 10 choices so that they can pick the one they want, because we all want options. I’ve learned at least over the years that actually causes paralysis.

Jonah Berger: Yeah. So the first chapter in the book, the first content chapter, the first letter in the framework, is an R for reactance. And I’ll briefly talk about reactance and then I’ll go to answer your question about choice. To understand why choice happens, it is important, we need to understand reactants. That’s basically what we talked about before where when we push people, people push back and in a sense people have an almost innate anti-persuasion radar, just like an antimissile defense system. When we detect incoming projectile, the boss is trying to convince us, a client’s trying to convince us, a salesperson is trying to convince us. Whenever we feel someone’s trying to convince us, we put our defenses up. We either ignore the message, we avoid listening to it in the first place or even worse, we counter argue, right?

Jonah Berger: People often talk about this, you pitch something, someone’s not just sitting there, they’re sitting there thinking about all the reasons why you’re wrong, why what you’re suggesting is a bad thing to do. And so whether we’re a boss and trying to get an organization to change, or get people to change or whether they’re a consultant or a sales person or a marketing person trying to get a client to change, we need to think about how we avoid that anti-persuasion radar. And in a sense, part of the problem is people like to feel like they have choice, freedom and autonomy. I like to feel like I’m the one driving what’s happening in my life. Why did I decide to take this particular job? Because I like this job. Why did I decide to buy this particular product or service? Because I felt it’s the best product or service.

Jonah Berger: But if someone else is also trying to convince me to do it, it’s not clear whether I did it because I like it, I’m in that driver’s seat or someone else likes it and they are in the driver’s seat. And so because of that, people push back. So one way to deal with that is to provide a choice but a certain type of choice. And that’s where I think it gets to your initial question. So think about a meeting, right? We’re trying to pitch somebody on something in particular. If we give them one option, they often sit there and think about all the reasons why that option is wrong. So if we’re a leader, for example, we’re trying to change organizational culture. We have an all hands meeting, we say, Hey guys, we need to do this. This is how we’re going to behave moving forward.

Jonah Berger: The challenge, everyone’s sitting there going, God, how are we going to implement this? Is it actually going to work? It’s going to be super expensive. How’s it going to affect my compensation? I was working with a midsize real estate firm, was dealing with the lack of this or changing the way they do business, but everyone’s worried about their compensation. So they’re sitting there going, what’s in it for me? And so rather than think about all the upsides of the change, I think about all the reasons why it doesn’t work. And so what smart leaders and smart catalysts do in this situation is they don’t just give people one option. They give people multiple. Rather than giving people one choice, they give them at least two. And what it does, it subtly shifts the role of the listener.

Jonah Berger: Because rather than sitting there thinking about all the reasons wrong with what’s being suggested, now they’re sitting there going, which of these two or three things do I like better? Which is the best for me? And because they’re focused on which is the best for them, they’re much more likely to go along at the end. It’s guided choice in a sense. And you’re very right, it’s not infinite choice. It’s not 50 options, it’s not 40 options, it’s not 30 options. It’s two, three, may be four, enough to give people freedom. It’s choice but with you choosing the choice set. You’re choosing a limited set, a guided set of choices among which people are choosing from. They get to feel they participated, they feel like they had some freedom and autonomy. But you’re shaping that journey along the way.

John Jantsch: So I should let you, at this point I bet you’ve mentioned several of the elements. I should kind of allow you to talk about the framework itself and how you would, as you mentioned, codify helping people make change.

Jonah Berger: Oh yeah, sure and we’re not going to have time to cover all five, so it’s no problem. But the book talks about the five main barriers or five main obstacles to change. Whether you’re trying to change minds, organizations or whatever it might be. The five fit into a framework. It’s reactance is the first one we talked a little bit about. Endowment is the second. Distance is the third. Uncertainty is the fourth. Corroborating evidence is the fifth. Take those five things together, they spell the word reduce, which exactly what good catalysts do, right? They don’t add temperature, they don’t add pressure, they don’t push harder, they don’t add more reasons. They’ve reduced the barriers or those obstacles to change. And so the book is all about what each of these obstacles is. What’s the science behind it, why is it such a prevalent obstacle, and then what are some ways that we can mitigate it.

John Jantsch: So we’ve talked, I feel like we’ve talked probably about reactance quite a bit. So you want to maybe just go down the chain and talk a little bit about endowment?

Jonah Berger: Sure, yeah. I’ll talk about whichever one seems the best fit, but happy to talk about endowment. The idea of endowment, and I alluded to this a little bit already, we tend to be very emotionally attached to the status quo, what we’re doing already. Homeowners for example, the longer they’ve lived in their home, the more they value it above market, right? Why? Because they can’t believe that no one would value it as much as they do because they’ve been doing it so long. But there’s lots of very nice experiments that show this in a variety of contexts. Compare something you don’t have already with something that you do have already, and we tend to value that thing we have already more. So if I give you a coffee mug, for example, and I say, Hey, so you don’t have that coffee mug yet, I asked you how much you’d be willing to pay to buy that coffee mug.

Jonah Berger: You assign a value to it. I ask a different set of people, okay, here is this coffee mug. It’s yours. How much would you pay to sell it? Now you think that the buyers and sellers would have the same valuation for that mug. It’s still the same mug, still holds coffee and tea looks exactly the same, but the people that already have it value it more, because for them it’s the status quo. It’s what they’re used to. They’re endowed with it already. And so as leaders, this is really hard because the stuff we’re already doing, people value it more. They know it, it feels safer. The new things feel risky and uncertain. And so it’s really hard to get people to budge off the old ones because they value what they’re doing already.

John Jantsch: What role does social proof play really in change? I see a lot of times people are more convinced by saying, Oh yeah, look at these other people are doing it. Okay, maybe that is a safe choice for me to make because… Is there an element of we don’t trust ourselves unless we get that kind of proof from other people?

Jonah Berger: Yes. Yes, and… I would say yes. We don’t trust ourselves. We also don’t trust the one person that’s trying to convince us. So imagine you walk into the office Monday morning or you’re talking to friend Monday morning and they go, Oh my God, I saw the most amazing television show this weekend. You’d absolutely love it. This is what it is. Okay. You have some information, you know that person likes that show, but you’re trying to figure out a couple things. One, you’re trying to figure out, does that mean the show is good, to say something about the show? Or does it say something about them? And second, what does their endorsement mean for whether I would like it? In some sense you’re looking for proof and there’s a translation problem, right? If one person likes something, it’s hard to know if it says about them or the thing itself. And so often we’re looking for multiple others to provide that source of proof.

John Jantsch: So how much, in your opinion, do these principles apply, say in copywriting? Obviously you’re not sitting across the desk, but you’re trying to make change. Is there sort of a path that you need to walk down or that you could potentially walk down say in a document?

Jonah Berger: Oh, certainly. I think a lot of the examples in the book are ones about people talking to others, but many are also about written language. Even something when we’re dealing with reactants, for example, asking questions rather than making statements, right? So as soon as we make statements, that radar goes up, right? People are counter-arguing with those statements. Instead, good change agents often ask questions. Think about in a health context, for example, rather than telling people, Hey, smoking is bad. Ask people a question. What’s the consequence of smoking for your health? Right? A great leader did this, this wasn’t in copywriting, but I was in a meeting, obviously leaders want to get their employees to work harder. Guy was trying, it was working. It wasn’t really working. When the boss says work harder, everyone says, ah, no thanks. So instead what he did in the meeting and said, Hey, what type of organization do we want to be?

Jonah Berger: Do we want to be a good organization or great organization? Now obviously we know how everyone answers that question. No one goes, we want to be an okay organization. Everybody goes, Oh, we want to be a great organization. And then he said, okay, well how do we become a great organization? And then what the room has is a conversation about how they get there. But because they’ve participated in that conversation, it’s much harder for them not to commit to the conclusion later on because that conclusion was something they reached on their own. Right? It’s they have stake, they have a stake in the outcome. They have skin in the game. And so in some sense they’re much more likely to go along with it. And so when you think about the same thing in copywriting, not using statements, but asking questions, giving people a chance to experience something themselves, not just providing information and reasons, but by reducing the barriers even in written form as well.

John Jantsch: Yeah, because it’s a bit of a journey, right? I mean you’re almost like going hurdle after hurdle, aren’t you?

Jonah Berger: Yeah. I think the customer journeys are really the important way to think about all this, right? What stage is someone in that journey? Why haven’t they moved to the next stage? Whether it’s a customer, an actual customer, or a customer in quotes, right? An employee can be a customer. They’re just a person who’s a part of a decision making process. Why haven’t they moved to the next stage of that journey? What’s stopping them and how can I mitigate that barrier?

Jonah Berger: I was working with a software firm a few years ago that helps companies find machine parts. So imagine you have a backhoe and it goes out. Something breaks. You got to find a machine part and they’ll help you find that faster and more cheaply. And they realized different customers had different issues, right? Some people didn’t realize they existed. That’s one issue. Other people realized they existed but didn’t think they had a problem. That’s the second issue. Other people realize they had a problem but didn’t realize that this thing would be a good solution or didn’t trust it. That’s a third issue. Other people trusted it, didn’t know if they could afford it. Other people knew they could afford it, but didn’t know how to integrate with the existing system. And so depending on where people are in that journey, we can write down that journey for anyone. What are those barriers, those roadblocks, those hurdles? How can we mitigate them and make it more frictionless to move to that conclusion?

John Jantsch: Well, I tell you the challenge in what I just heard you describing is, how do you get that story? How do you identify all of those challenges? I guess it’s just in objections that you’re getting maybe in sales presentations?

Jonah Berger: I think it’s some of that. I think it’s also collecting information. Even thinking about in sales presentation, asking more questions than just saying things. If you’re a leader of an organization, figuring out, well, how can I figure out what people need and what they’re not getting? Rather than sort of suggesting solutions, start with asking questions. Hey, we want to transform organizational culture, what are you guys worried about, about transforming our organizational culture? What do you think was good about the organization and what things do you think we could work on? Getting people’s buy in before making those decisions makes them much more likely to go along. And so some is, it requires a longer time, right? It certainly requires a bit more effort early on to collect that information, but it makes those transitions much more effective.

John Jantsch: Speaking with Jonah Berger, author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. So Jonah, where can people find out more about your work and obviously the book itself?

Jonah Berger: Yeah, so the book is available wherever books are sold. So Amazon, Barnes and Noble, wherever you like, audio books as well. They can find me on my website. That’s just Jonah, J-O-N-A-H, Berger, And I’m also on LinkedIn as well as @j1berger on Twitter.

John Jantsch: Awesome. Well, Jonah, thanks for stopping by yet again, and hopefully we will run into you soon someday out there on the road.

Jonah Berger: Thanks so much for having me.

invisible influences

Invisible Influences that Surround Us

Marketing Podcast with Jonah Berger

Most of us believe we are in charge of the decisions we make throughout each day. To some extent we certainly are, but many of the decisions we make – what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what to say – are driven by forces at the subconscious level.

It can be useful to understand this behavior from a consumer point of view to better understand how and why people decide to buy one product or service over another.

My guest for this week’s episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author. His newest book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior explores the subtle, secret influences that affect the decisions we make—from what we buy, to the careers we choose, to what we eat.

Having been published in top-tier academic journals and recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching, Jonah is an expert on word of mouth, viral marketing, social influence, and trends.

Questions I ask Jonah Berger:

  • During your research, did you discover some ways that you personally may have been influenced – with or without your knowledge?
  • With respect to invisible influence, what role does storytelling play to create influence?
  • You dedicated a chapter in your book to “Why favorites are more likely to quit” – can you elaborate on this?

What you’ll learn if you give a listen:

  • How to understand the science of influences and ways to use it to your advantage 
  • How mimicking others can make you more persuasive
  • How imitation isn’t always what results from social influence – sometimes there can be reverse effect causing people to avoid your product

Key takeaways from the episode and more about Jonah Berger:

The Invisible Influences that Surround Us

Marketing Podcast with Jonah Berger

Most of us believe we are in charge of the decisions we make throughout each day. To some extent we certainly are, but many of the decisions we make – what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what to say – are driven by forces at the subconscious level.

It can be useful to understand this behavior from a consumer point of view to better understand how and why people decide to buy one product or service over another.

My guest for this week’s episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author. His newest book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior explores the subtle, secret influences that affect the decisions we make—from what we buy, to the careers we choose, to what we eat.

Having been published in top-tier academic journals and recognized with a number of awards for both scholarship and teaching, Jonah is an expert on word of mouth, viral marketing, social influence, and trends.

Questions I ask Jonah Berger:

  • During your research, did you discover some ways that you personally may have been influenced – with or without your knowledge?
  • With respect to invisible influence, what role does storytelling play to create influence?
  • You dedicated a chapter in your book to “Why favorites are more likely to quit” – can you elaborate on this?

What you’ll learn if you give a listen:

  • How to understand the science of influences and ways to use it to your advantage 
  • How mimicking others can make you more persuasive
  • How imitation isn’t always what results from social influence – sometimes there can be reverse effect causing people to avoid your product

Learn more about Jonah Berger and the helpful resources he offers. Click here to find out more about his book Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior.

4 5 Most Popular Podcasts of 2013

photo credit: Bill Selak via photopin cc

photo credit: Bill Selak via photopin cc

Podcasting saw a huge renaissance in 2013 as major content producers woke up to the ease or production and portability afforded the spoken word. It didn’t hurt that Apple made the podcast app a default app of the iPhone IOS either.

I’ve been podcasting since some time in 2006 and I still find it one of the best ways to gain access to people of influence.

In continuing my year end wrap up I present the most popular podcast episodes throughout 2013. These were judged most popular by virtue of the number of downloads each received.

1. People Don’t Share Brochures, They Share Stories – In this August episode author Jonah Berger talks about what makes something go viral – Contagious: Why Things Catch On

2. Reboot Your Business and Your Life – For this May show I spoke with Mitch Joel about the future of business – Ctrl Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends

3. How I Podcast and Why I Think You Should – In May I did a solo show talking about how I do my show and why I think others should podcast – great tool for though leadership and sales! (You can hear a replay of this one by clicking the playing above.)

4. Nobody Talks About Boring Businesses – For this March show I spoke with Bernadette Jiwa about how to make your ideas stand out – Make Your Idea Matter: Stand out with a better story

5. How to Play More and Work and Why You Must – For this March show I spoke with Jonathan Fields – check out his The Good Life Project for some real inspiration.

You can find the entire year of podcasts here.

So, who would you love to hear me interview in 2014?

1 People Don't Share Brochures, They Share Stories

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.

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