Jonah Berger: An interview by Bob Morris

BergerWhat leads products, ideas, and behaviors to catch on and become popular? Jonah Berger studies how word of mouth and social influence drive social epidemics and trends. He is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

His research has been published in top-tier academic journals, and popular accounts of his work have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, Science, Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, Wired, BusinessWeek, The Atlantic,and The Economist. His research has also been featured in the New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas. Jonah’s latest book, Contagious
:Why Things Catch On

, was published by Simon & Schuster (April 2013).

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Contagious?

Berger: I started writing Contagious almost two years ago. I’d been teaching a course on word of mouth and social influence at Wharton, and people who couldn’t take the course always asked me if there books they could read instead. While there are some fun reads out there on word of mouth, no one had really brought any actual science to bear. So I decided to collect the research I and others had been doing into a book that would share what drives word of mouth and how companies and individuals can apply those principles to help their own ideas catch on.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Berger: You might think that most word of mouth is on Facebook and Twitter, but in actuality, only 7% of word of mouth is online. Most is offline or face-to-face. In all the hype around new technologies, people tend to forget that face-to-face is the original social media.

One more revelation is that word of mouth is over 10 times as effective as traditional advertising. It’s more trusted, more targeted, and much more efficient. No wonder most companies are moving money away from traditional advertising and towards word of mouth marketing.

Morris: Here’s one of several dozen passages that caught my eye: “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. Do you concur?

Berger: I actually disagree. Think about all the conversations you have with family members around the breakfast table, colleagues at work, or over drinks with friends after work. These conversations all begin and end offline. Yes we spend more time online than we used to, even two hours a day by some estimates, but we still spend five to six times as much time offline.

Morris: Here’s another: “The second issue is that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies.” Please explain.

Berger: Companies tend to think that social media is a cure-all. Just get a presence and check the book. But just getting on Twitter or having a Facebook page isn’t enough. You may be posting, but if almost no one is engaging with your content, it’s not going to help the brand. So the key is getting people to engage with or share the content. Don’t confuse activity for productivity.

Morris: What are the key tenets of what you characterize as “the psychology of sharing”?

Berger: There are six key principles that drive people to talk and share. Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. I’ve put them together in a handy acronym, called STEPPS.

Morris: How does each of the components of the STEPPS process contribute to the crafting of contagious content?

Berger: To give you one example, Social Currency is all about how sharing makes people look. Just like the car we drive or the clothes we wear, the things we say affect how other people see us. What we share is Social Currency. So we talk about things that make us look good rather than bad. Smart and in-the-know rather than behind the times. So one way to craft contagious content is to make something that makes people look good to share. Linkedin did a great job of this a few months back. They sent out a note to many of their users saying “Hey, you have one of the top 5% of profiles on Linkedin.” But not only did that make people feel good, it made them share the message with others to spread their status. And Linkedin got to come along for the ride. 

Morris: For me at least, your narrative often evokes as many questions as it provides answers. For those who have not as yet read Contagious, please answer these. First, which is more important, the message or the messenger? Why?

Berger: The message is more important than the message. Whether people have 10 friends of ten thousand, they still have a big impact on the behavior of those around them. So it’s important to understand how to craft messages that anyone will share, whether they seem really persuasive or not.

Morris: To what extent does where one lives determine how one votes? Please explain.

Berger: You might think that how you vote depends entirely on your personal preferences. But in some research we conducted a few years ago, we found that merely voting in a church versus a school can actually change how people cast their ballot. As I talk about in the Triggers chapter, these subtle environmental cues changed what ideas were top of mind, which changed people’s behavior.

Morris: What do reading scientific articles and standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon share in common?

Berger: They both evoke the emotion of awe. Of inspiration. Of being aware that the world is a vast an amazing place. And as I talk about in the Emotions chapter, this sense of awe is just one of the high arousal emotions that drive people to share.

Morris: Why do lies seem to spread faster than the truth?

Berger: Lies are usually hurtful, rather than helpful, but understanding why false information spreads can teach us a lot about how to engineer true ideas to diffuse. False information is often highly remarkable or emotional, two factors that drive people to share.

Morris: To what extent do stories resemble Trojan horses?

Berger: Stories resemble Trojan Horses because they can act as a vessel, carrying something inside them. People share stories because they are engaging or emotional, but morals or messages often come along for the ride. Hidden inside what otherwise might seem just like idle chatter.

Morris: When concluding the book, you observe, “If you follow these six key STEPPS, you can make any product or idea contagious.”
Do you really mean [begin italics] any [end italics] product or idea, even those of poor quality? Please explain.

Berger: Following the six key steps will help you make any idea contagious. But if it’s a bad idea that word of mouth won’t help. It will just lead more people to realize what a bad idea it is. The key point is that even mundane or seemingly boring products or ideas can get a lot of word of mouth if you understand the science behind why people share.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Contagious and is now determined to improve decision-making capabilities at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Berger: Start with the Crafting Contagious Workbook

. We built it to help companies and individuals to apply these ideas to whatever product or idea they’re working on. Whether you’re a small business or a large one, it will walk you through sharpening your message, apply the six key STEPPS, and using the framework to craft contagious content.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Contagious, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Berger: You might have thought that you needed a big advertising budget to succeed. Or that you had to invest tons of dollars in hiring influencers. But Contagious shows you that word of mouth is much more effective than advertising, and more efficient. All you have to do is understand why people talk. By understanding this science, you can turn your customers into advocates.

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Jonah cordially invites you to check out the resources here.

For help applying these ideas, check out the free Crafting Contagious Workbook.

You can follow Jonah on Twitter @j1berger

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