Contagious: A book review by Bob Morris

ContagiousContagious: Why Things Catch On
Jonah Berger
Simon & Schuster (2013)

“What causes certain products, ideas, and behaviors to be talked about more?” That’s what this book is all about…and much more.

According to Berger, “The first issue with all the hype around social media is that people tend to ignore the importance of offline word of mouth, even though offline discussions are more prevalent, and potentially even more impactful, than online ones.” I agree while presuming to suggest that many (if not most) offline discussions occur because of an initial online connection. “The second issue is that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies.” I agree. However, they are immensely important enablers. “Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline, requires understanding why people talk and why some things get talked about and shared more than others. The psychology of sharing. The science of social transmission.” Berger has much of substantial value to say about both. What cause certain products, ideas, and behaviors to be talked about more? “That’s what this book is about.”

I was (and remain) especially interested in Berger’s discussion of what he characterizes as six “ingredients” or principles embraced by an acronym: STEPPS. They are Social Currency (enable people to discuss with others what is most important to them); Triggers (prompt or remind people to discuss what could be of benefit to you); Emotion (reveal how much you care but the feelings must be genuine, sincere, and authentic); Public (offer what is self-sufficient in terms of its appeal); Practical Value (much of its appeal is determined by its usefulness); and Stories (anchor the message in human experience with which others can identify). Berger suggests that these six as STEPPS (pun intended) during the process of crafting contagious content. “These ingredients lead ideas to get talked about and succeed…[however, they] are unlike a recipe because not all six ingredients are required to make a product or idea contagious. Sure, the more the better” but not every offering must possess all of them.

These are among the dozens of passages that caught my eye, also listed to indicate the scope of Berger’s coverage.

o Social Transmission, and, Generating Word of Mouth (Pages 7-15)
o Six Principles of Contagiousness (21-24)
o Minting a New Type of Currency (33-36)
o A Brief Note on Motivation (57-59)
o What Makes for an Effective Trigger? (85-90)
o The Power of Awe (102-104)
o Focus on Feelings, and, Kindling the Fire with High-Arousal Emotions (112-118)
o The Psychology of Imitation, and, The Power of Observability (127-136)
o The Psychology of Deals (162-168)
o Stories as Vessels (181-189)
o Making Virality Possible (193-195)
o Epilogue (203-210)

Before concluding his brilliant book, Berger observes, “The best part of the STEPPS framework is that anyone can use it.” He’s convinced (and I agree) that almost anyone, including those whom he calls “regular people, offering regular products and ideas,”can succeed with effective use of only one or two of these ingredients.

I realize that no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the material that Jonah Berger provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how create contagious products, ideas, and behaviors that attract interest, initiate online connections, and generate offline discussions.

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