Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

What percent of word of mouth do you think happens online? In other words, what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, e-mail, and chat rooms? If you’re like most people you probably guessed something around 50 or 60 percent… Research by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online. Most people are extremely surprised when they hear that number. “But that’s way too low,” they protest. “People spend a huge amount of time online!” And that’s true. People do spend a good bit of time online. Close to two hours a day by some estimates. But we forget that people also spend a lot of time offline. More than eight times as much, in fact. And that creates a lot more time for offline conversations.

These are the six principles of contagiousness: products or ideas that contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable, and wrapped into Stories… Taken together they spell STEPPS. Think of the principles as the six STEPPS to crafting contagious content.

…research finds that more than 40 percent of what people talk about is their personal experiences or personal relationships. Similarly, around half of tweets are “me” focused, covering what people are doing now or something that has happened to them… Harvard neuroscientists Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. In one study, Mitchell and Tamir hooked subjects up to brain scanners and asked them to share either their own opinions and attitudes (“I like snowboarding”) or the opinions and attitudes of another person (“He likes puppies”). They found that sharing personal opinions activated the same brain circuits that respond to rewards like food and money. So talking about what you did this weekend might feel just as good as taking a delicious bite of double chocolate cake.

most people never cash in the miles they accumulate. In fact, less than 10 percent of miles are redeemed every year. Experts estimate that as many as 10 trillion frequent flier miles are sitting in accounts, unused. Enough to travel to the moon and back 19.4 million times.

A few years ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000. In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them. What did the majority of people choose? Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms. People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.

Back in mid-1997, the candy company Mars noticed an unexpected uptick in sales of its Mars bar. The company was surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. It wasn’t spending additional money on advertising, it hadn’t changed its pricing, and it hadn’t run any special promotions. Yet sales had gone up. What had happened? NASA had happened. Specifically, NASA’s Pathfinder mission. The mission was designed to collect samples of atmosphere, climate, and soil from a nearby planet. The undertaking took years of preparation and millions of dollars in funding. When the lander finally touched down on the alien landscape, the entire world was rapt, and all news outlets featured NASA’s triumph. Pathfinder’s destination? Mars.

Even a bad review or negative word of mouth can increase sales if it informs or reminds people that the product or idea exists. That’s why a sixty-dollar Tuscan red wine saw sales rise by 5 percent after a prominent wine website described it as “redolent of stinky socks.” It’s also one reason why the Shake Weight, a vibrating dumbbell that was widely ridiculed by the media and consumers, went on to do $50 million in sales. Even negative attention can be useful if it makes products and ideas top of mind.

as Albert Einstein himself noted, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”

Sharing emotions also helps us connect. Say I watch a really awe-inspiring video, like Susan Boyle’s performance. If I share that video with a friend, he’s likely to feel similarly inspired. And the fact that we both feel the same way helps deepen our social connection. It highlights our similarities and reminds us how much we have in common. Emotion sharing is thus a bit like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships. Even if we’re not in the same place, the fact that we both feel the same way bonds us together.

In their wonderful book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about using the “Three Whys” to find the emotional core of an idea. Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask “Why is this important?” three times. Each time you do this, note your answer, and you’ll notice that you drill down further and further toward uncovering not only the core of an idea, but the emotion behind it.

If most students were uncomfortable with the drinking culture, then why was it happening in the first place? Why were students drinking so much if they don’t actually like it? Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

Our basic hypothesis is that the more kids saw these ads, the more they came to believe that lots of other kids were using marijuana. And the more they came to believe that other kids were using marijuana, the more they became interested in using it themselves.

One of the main tenets of prospect theory is that people don’t evaluate things in absolute terms. They evaluate them relative to a comparison standard, or “reference point.”

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