Contagious: book says social influence plays a key role

Why do products, ideas, and behaviors catch on? A book I read recently has some fascinating explanations. Over the next few posts, I’ll tell you some of what I found out.

There are the obvious reasons, says Jonah Berger in Contagious: Why things catch on. For example, it may be better or cheaper, or it may have better advertising. But that only explains part of it.

Social transmission is really important, according to Berger. Word of mouth is the primary factor in 20-50% of all purchasing decisions.

Think about it: I bet you’re more likely to believe a recommendation or opinion from a friend, neighbor or co-worker than an advertisement or website. A friend who says a certain restaurant is good, or a medical treatment is effective, will have more influence on me than an article or ad I read online.

Berger says that social influence is more effective than advertising because:

  • It’s more persuasive and more credible
  • It’s more targeted to an interested audience

He spends most of the book listing and explaining six key principles and how to apply them.

6 principles of contagiousness

  1. Social currency: “Most people would rather look smart than dumb, rich than poor, and cool than geeky.” Knowing about cool things makes people seem smart and in the know.
  2. Triggers: “Stimuli that prompt people to think about related things,” such as peanut butter and jelly.
  3. Emotion: “When we care, we share.”
  4. Public: can people see when you’re using the product or doing the behavior?
  5. Practical value: useful content
  6. Stories: people like to tell stories. The story of the Trojan horse has been around for many centuries.

These six principles spell STEPPS: ” 6 STEPPS to crafting contagious content.”

Social currency

People like to talk about themselves and share their opinions. You can increase how much your products or ideas are shared if you give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas. Berger suggests three ways:

Inner remarkability: things that are unusual, extraordinary or worthy of notice or attention. For example, Snapple made a splash by putting clever trivia on the underside of its caps: “Did you know that frowning burns more calories than smiling? That an ant can live 50 times its own weight?”

“Will it blend?” is a great example. Videos of a mad scientist trying to blend marbles, iPhones, hockey pucks and a vuvuzela in the Blendtec blender have gone viral, with millions of views. It’s just a blender, but it manages to blend all of these things, making it remarkable.

Leverage game mechanics: Make things fun and compelling. Have you tried to book a flight on the airline where you have frequent flyer miles so you could build up your points? Or bought more groceries at the store where you get a discount or rebate after you buy a certain amount? Foursquare, the social media app that lets you check in with your friends and locations, issues badges for people who visit a certain bar or restaurant regularly.

Make people feel like insiders. Give them exclusive insider deals or make things look scarce, such as a limited time offer. Apple has this one figured out. I went to the store twice trying to buy a new iPhone, and they were sold out every time. They clearly had enough manufactured to meet early demand, but they doled them out day by day. People who had managed to buy one could hone their reputation for being cool and up-to-the-minute.