Why do things go viral?

I started off 2015 by spending the day reading Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Written by Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, it picks up where Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference left off in 2000.

Since last year, I have been running an online business teaching English as a second language to adult learners throughout the world. I have created a podcast, some products, conducted online classes and worked one-on-one with students via Skype. So as a small business owner, I am keen to learn how to improve my marketing strategies and get my information and products into the hands of people who will really use them and find them valuable.

Ideally, I would like to capitalize on the power of word-of-mouth marketing (having happy customers tell their friends about my offerings)…but, how do I get others to help spread the word?

This is why I was drawn to read this book. Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a quick, easy, and satisfying read (I finished all 210 pages in a couple of hours).

Berger’s main task in this book is to answer a few compelling questions that all marketers ask themselves:

Why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others?

Why are some stories and rumors more infectious?

What makes online content go viral?

Based on over 10 years of research, performed by himself and others, Berger posits that peer-to-peer sharing (aka word-of-mouth) is the most powerful form of advertising and that all marketers can learn the art of crafting a viral campaign by following six simple principles (STEPPS).

In a nut shell, the six principles are:

1. Social Currency: People share things because it influences how people perceive them and because we want to be seen as “special”. We want to look good, smart, savvy, with it, in the know or just plain better than others (e.g. VIP, Premier Class, the Insiders), and so we talk about certain products (e.g. Prada, iPhones, an exclusive bar) and information (e.g. NY Times articles, new studies, stock tips). We tell our friends and acquaintances these things because it makes us look a certain way (in their eyes) – we think.

2. Triggers: Certain context make us think about specific products, restaurants or pieces of information and then we talk about them to others. Marketing messages that get triggered within a certain environment make us share with others and buy more. For example, they did a study where they played music from different cultures in a store and then measured the sales of different wines. The result was that when French music was played, more French wine was sold. When German music was played, more German beer was sold. The music affected sales. (page 71)

3. Emotion: We tend to share things that we have an emotional response to. When we read an article or watch a video that makes us feel awe or joy, we share. When we feel angry or anxious, we get activated to take action, and thus share with others, so they too can do something.

I recently shared this video on Facebook because I thought it was so amazing.

4. Public: Basically, we are copycats. Monkey see, monkey do. We like to imitate others. If we see others wearing certain clothing, we want it. If we see them using a certain type of cell phone, we want it, too. It makes me think of the old Life cereal commercial: “He likes it! Hey, Mikey!”

5. Practical Value: We share things that are helpful to others. We tell each other about how to save money (who doesn’t want to get a deal?) and how to do things better. Pay attention though, because false information can spread just as quickly as accurate information. (Remember to check Snopes before you push send or post to your Facebook wall.)

6. Stories: People have been spreading news and teaching lessons through stories for thousands of years. When we tell someone about a product or an experience we had, we don’t just give the facts, we tell the story. Marketers – make sure the information you want people to know is embedded in the story. Some stories are great, but irrelevant from a marketing perspective (that is, they don’t increase your sales).

Do you remember the skating baby commercial from Evian? Well, it failed. Oh, the video went viral with tens of millions of views, but all that attention didn’t help the brand.(In fact, they have since removed it from their YouTube channel).  Their market share dropped and sales went down by about 25% (page 196).



I find it interesting to read books that are designed to help marketers understand human behavior with the purpose of helping them learn how to increase sales. Marketers benefit a lot from understanding human psychology and why we do the things we do! Do consumers, as well?

However, the ideas set forth in Contagious: Why Things Catch On are not just useful for marketers who want to sell more products, but also for government agencies, non-profits and other charitable and educational organizations who want to “get the word out” about various causes, like getting college students to stop binge drinking.

As an entrepreneur, I certainly want my products and ideas to catch on in the marketplace, but I am also a consumer, and I am always curious about how marketing strategies affect my own buying and sharing behavior.

Books like this one, based on research, give us a glimpse into how people really act and are instructional and useful whether you read them from the perspective of a business owner or that of a customer.


Who would like this book? 

This is an interesting book for marketers, entrepreneurs, designers of educational campaigns and people who enjoy reading about psychology and human behavior. It is full of interesting references to research studies, stories of marketing successes and failures, and it gives you some very specific, actionable things you can do to make sure others start spreading your marketing messages, far and wide.

I usually try to get books from my local library first (where I got this one), but when necessary, I do buy books at my local bookstore and online. (Full disclosure: the links above are Amazon affiliate links; perhaps I will make a few cents here and there if you use them.)

If you don’t have time to read, just watch this video. You will get a lot of what you need from this book by watching Jonathan Fields interview the author, Jonah Berger.

If you have read this book (or if you end up reading it or watching the video), I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic and his suggestions, in particular.

Please leave a comment. Click on “Leave a comment” up at the top if you don’t see the comments section below. Please keep your comments thoughtful and constructive. I’d like to have some intelligent discussions here on the blog, and as the owner, I will moderate them. Thanks!