The Biology of a Marketplace Sensation

Hilary Masell Oswald
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
  • Jonah Berger, former assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, wrote a book called "Contagious: Why Things Catch On," which theorizes that virality isn't born, it's made. 

  • "We often see that someone’s behavior influences someone else’s behavior, and we know that our behavior is influenced by others’, but we don’t always understand why that works. Companies feel similarly," Berger says.

  • According to Berger: "When marketers are crafting content, they’re often thinking about painting their products in a positive light. Our research suggests that they should focus, instead, on crafting content that evokes these stronger emotions, like anxiety or awe."

Jonah Berger has gone viral.

Less than a year ago, Berger was a popular assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School—a good gig in academia, but not something that’s going to make headlines.

Then earlier this year, he released a 244-page book called Contagious: Why Things Catch On, which distills his academic research on viral marketing into marketer-and consumer-friendly insights and examples.

Now Berger is crisscrossing the country, speaking and consulting with some of the world’s biggest brands to share his theories, and garnering significant press mentions along the way.

Despite the author’s humility, it seems that Berger’s success could serve as an example of his book’s central insight: Virality isn’t born, as he writes in the intro. It’s made.

“The things that go viral are always surprising to me. They’re content that I never could have created,” he says. “But why things go viral is much less surprising. Once you see the patterns, you realize that things that look very different are actually very similar.”

Contagious presents an acronym for the principles that Berger says can make a product, service or idea go viral: STEPPS, for social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories. Successfully viral marketing comprises a mix of those principles, making the creation of such viral content more a science than an art. In the chapter about triggers, for example, Berger highlights Kit Kat’s successful marketing effort that tied the brand’s longstanding “Give me a break” campaign with a coffee break. By associating Kit Kat bars with coffee, the company created a common trigger—and boosted sales of the candy bar by 8%.

Marketing News recently caught up with Berger to discuss how the book’s insights were compiled and what it takes to craft compelling, shareable content.

Q: Words like ‘viral’ and ‘epidemic’ pepper your Wharton faculty bio, and despite their negative connotations in life, these are very desirable outcomes for marketers and their work. What prompted you to focus your research in this area?

A: Growing up, I was always interested in the hard sciences and for a long time, I’ve been interested in social influence, so for me—and for others, I think—there’s something fascinating in applying hard-science analysis to social phenomena. We often see that someone’s behavior influences someone else’s behavior, and we know that our behavior is influenced by others’, but we don’t always understand why that works. Companies feel similarly: They know word of mouth is more important than traditional advertising, but it’s been a little bit of a mystery why people share things, online and offline. I study that mystery.

Q: So let’s talk about that mystery, starting with the research that you and your colleague Katherine Milkman published in 2011 in the Journal of Marketing Research in an article called ‘What Makes Online Content Viral?’ You examined nearly 7,000 of the ‘most e-mailed’ New York Times articles to discern if there are any patterns that indicate what makes some content more popular. What did you find?

A: You might think that people are more likely to share bad news—the way the most alarming story usually leads the nightly newscast—but that’s not true. We found that people share positive stories more, but they also share stories that evoke ‘high-arousal’ emotions, like anger, amusement or awe. Stories that are practical or surprising also get shared more often. On the flip side, people are less likely to share sad stories. … When marketers are crafting content, they’re often thinking about painting their products in a positive light. Our research suggests that they should focus, instead, on crafting content that evokes these stronger emotions, like anxiety or awe. 

Q: Your book extends your research net from online content to offline products and services, too. You present common patterns that emerged in your research, indicating that certain characteristics can influence whether and how often people talk about a brand, and you’re surprising marketers with the characteristics of what makes content go viral.

A: The big benefit of this book over [Malcolm Gladwell’s] The Tipping Point—which I really enjoyed when I first read it—is that there’s science behind the stories. Gladwell isn’t a scientist and half his book is wrong. Unless you understand the science, you don’t know which half it is. [For Contagious], we looked at tens of thousands of brands to discover not only which brands get discussed more than others, but why.

If you look at the big impact of The Tipping Point, it’s the idea that key ‘influentials’ make something catch on. I can’t count the dozens, if not hundreds, of companies that have sprung up to help other companies find these people. The problem is that there’s no data supporting that notion. Influence is much more complicated than just getting a few popular people to support our project, and the messenger certainly isn’t more important than the message. There are characteristics of content that increase its likelihood of going viral. Marketers should look there first.

The goal should be to figure out how to craft contagious content—both the marketing message and the product. We picked the [bright orange] color for the book’s cover based on the principles of the book itself. You have to keep asking, ‘How can we create things that will spread person to person whether that person has 10 friends or 10,000?’ It’s very hard and it costs a lot of marketing resources to find someone who is ‘special.’ Companies like Klout can’t necessarily measure influence. It’s very hard to do, so we shift our focus to the content and the principles that influence whether and how much people talk about your product.

Q: Do you have strategies for marketers who are staring at a blank screen and a new product or service, trying to figure out how to create contagious content? Are there tools or tricks you think are especially helpful?

A: I should say first that I think Klout is doing a good job. They’re honest in saying: ‘We haven’t cracked this influence piece yet. We’re getting better every year.’

As for tools, it’s easy to get caught up in shiny, new toys and tactics. The idea is just to get people talking in a way that tracks back to the brand. How do we get people to share things that benefit the brand?

I guess it’s not exactly a tool, but consider how you can turn your customers into advocates for your brand. How can you use your current customers to get new ones? There’s a simple idea that I mention in the book: A publisher sent me two copies of the same book, one for me to read and one for me to give to a colleague. It’s a good idea because I did the targeting for the publisher. I was only going to give that book to someone I thought would enjoy and use it.

The point is that your customers like you already. You might not have millions, but you probably have hundreds or thousands. How can you use them to help them find new people? Give them content and stories they can use. That’s more important than tools. …

Stop focusing on technology and start thinking about psychology. Eighty-five percent of word of mouth is face-to-face. Only 7% is online. That’s amazing. Everyone points to social media and guesses that most discussion of brands happens on Facebook and Twitter and blogs. Small businesses, in particular, often look to whatever everyone else is doing and there are a lot of articles in magazines and newspapers about Facebook and Twitter, so small-business owners assume that’s what everyone is doing. There aren’t a lot of articles about offline word of mouth, but just because there’s not much news here doesn’t mean it’s not important. …

It’s difficult to build messages that spread from person to person. You know, going viral isn’t the goal for most people. True viral is great—don’t get me wrong—but what you really want to do is get each person you’ve reached to tell just one or two more people. Your business would grow by leaps and bounds.

Q: An oft-discussed topic in the marketing industry is that academic research tends to languish in the halls of academia, rather than being applied in the marketplace to positive effect—yet professors like you, Dan Ariely and others are succeeding at pushing out not just dense research papers, but also practitioner-friendly insights. In your opinion, what does it take to play the role of translator between the two worlds?

A: One reason I wrote this book is exactly what you just said. There’s some amazing academic research going on. The work of my colleagues is just incredible. Much of it gets published in academic journals, but we go have to find ways to get it into the hands of marketers.

I guess academics have to be willing to simplify the research and get to the practical implications, and then we have to find ways—by writing books or reaching out to companies, or speaking publicly to organizations or to the media—to share our work. You know, if you’re working on something that’s not being used by companies, it’s far less fun and less satisfying than knowing that your work is helping businesses do better. And there are definitely businesses doing things that aren’t working and that aren’t supported by research, so even though it’s a cluttered space, there’s room for academics to be a helpful resource for businesses. 

This was originally published in the September 2013 issue of Marketing News.


Author Bio:

Hilary Masell Oswald
​Hilary Masell Oswald is a freelance writer based in Denver.
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