Scott Kedersha Books

A book review of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger

What makes a YouTube video, blog post, or new restaurant go viral? Why do some things catch on, while others just fizzle away? In Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger asks the question, “Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail?” He addresses the effectiveness of word of mouth, and why people tell others about some experiences, products, or ideas and not others.

A friend recommended I read Contagious so that I could learn from the author’s writing style. As a writer who hopes his ideas will get shared and catch on, I’m so glad I read this book for several reasons:

  • Berger shares fascinating stories to illustrate his main points. For instance, he writes about a top-secret bar that you can only get to by dialing a code in the phone booth in the back of a hot dog restaurant in New York City. Bizarre? You bet. You’ve got to read it to believe it! Or, he tells of a cheesesteak in Philadelphia that sells for $100! Why would someone pay $100 for a cheesesteak when they can buy one right around the corner for $6? Contagious details why people willingly choose to line-up to enjoy one of those $100 cheesesteaks.
  • Curiosity leads me to wonder why some things catch on and get shared, while some posts, videos, or books fall flat. What causes things that go viral to go viral?

Six Ways Something Becomes Contagious

In his research on why some things go viral and not others, Berger and his team came across six key ingredients or principles that all fit according to the acronym STEPPS:

1. Social Currency – people share things that make them look good to others. For example, if you eat at a good restaurant or watch a good movie, you can’t wait to share this with others. If they like the restaurant or movie, then it will help make you look good to others. We share things that are remarkable, interesting, and surprising. I think of the show Lost from years ago, or the current show, This Is Us. People like to share shows that seem different or remarkable.

2. Triggers – looks at what causes someone to talk about a product or idea. For example, every Friday, the traffic for the (horrible) song Friday by Rebecca Black goes way up. The day of the week provides a trigger for people to look for and listen to the song. Berger says that triggers drive talking and that they become the foundation of word of mouth and contagiousness. Products and ideas sparked by environmental triggers lead to things catching on.

3. Emotion – when we care, we share. When something triggers our emotions, we’re more likely to share with others. People share articles that give off a sense of awe. On the other hand, people are much less likely to share articles that produce a sense of sadness. Berger writes, “However, negative emotions, when used correctly, can be a powerful driver of discussion.” Emotions drive us to action, so the more we focus on feelings, the more likely something will be contagious.

4. Public – if something is built to show, it’s built to grow. We often look to what other people are doing and follow that. Observable things are more likely to be discussed and shared. Therefore, how can our products or ideas be more publicly observed? Something becomes more contagious if what’s often private is somehow made public. When something is observable, it makes it easier to imitate, which makes it more likely to become popular.

5. Practical Value – people like to pass along practical, useful information that others can use. For example, we like to share things that save people time or money. We like to help others, and when we find things with helpful, practical value, we share it.

6. Stories – we love good stories, and a good tale is the original form of entertainment. I think of powerful video testimonies we’ve shown at our church. People love to hear stories and like to share them with others. A great example of a powerful story many of you may have seen is the Dove “Evolution” commercial. Whenever someone wraps their product or idea into the context of a powerful story, the chances are greater that it will be contagious.

Whether you have a product you’re trying to sell or an article you want to share, or if you like interesting business books, you’ll want to check out Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger.