Why is it that some online videos catch fire, while others sputter and die without notice? What makes one piece of content irresistible to a target audience and another fade into the background? Why do stories cast a magical spell on even jaded consumers and buyers? Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, answers these questions, and many more, in Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Using groundbreaking research and wide-ranging examples from everyday life, he unlocks the secrets behind products, services, and ideas that people talk about and remember. Recently, business writer Robert Lerose spoke with Berger about the techniques for capturing attention and influencing action.
RL: How would you define a contagious idea, especially for a small business?
JB: A contagious idea is something that spreads from person to person. It might be a new restaurant that just opened, but suddenly it's the talk of the town. It might be a new service that people like so much that they just have to tell their friends. It's a product that becomes more and more popular because of word of mouth.
RL: You say that word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising because it's more persuasive and more targeted. Could you elaborate on these two ideas?
JB: We often see products that are contagious, that seem to get a lot of buzz. Advertising helps, but word of mouth is ten times as effective. People trust it more. We're more likely to listen to something our friends say than something we hear from an ad because we know our friends are out to help us, and an ad is out to sell us something. And word of mouth is much more targeted. Companies don't always know who will be the most interested in their product or idea, but friends tend to know what their friends like. It's almost like a searchlight that goes through a social network to find which people or person you know would find a particular product or idea most compelling.
RL: Through your research, you've isolated six principles of contagiousness. Let's talk about some of them. A trigger is about how we remind people to talk about our products and ideas. What are some ways that a business can keep a product at the top of a consumer's mind?
JB: The idea of triggers is people thinking about you more often. They're not only more likely to talk about you, but they're going to be more likely to purchase something from you. For example, when NASA went to the planet Mars, sales of Mars bars actually increased because people were thinking about the planet more often and that reminded them of the candy bar. In terms of small businesses, it's really about what's going to remind people that you exist and cause them to want to check you out.
RL: For example?
JB: There are dozens of restaurants for consumers in most major cities, perhaps hundreds. Why do we pick one rather than another? Well, part of it is that the restaurant is really good. If we didn't like the restaurant—even if we thought of it—we'd be unlikely to choose it. But second, it has to be top of mind. There may be 10 to 15 different restaurants in town that we like, but we're more likely to go to whichever one we think about. So one question is, which of those restaurants is top of mind? Maybe it has a really great appetizer that we can't stop thinking about. The more that a business can link themselves to these triggers in the environment, the more successful they're going to be.
RL: For the principle of social currency, you say to find something remarkable about your product that makes it "interesting, surprising or novel." Is that similar to the Unique Selling Proposition (USP), where marketers try to isolate the one thing about their product that makes it different from the competition?
JB: I think it's almost like a USP on steroids. A lot of times, companies think about what differentiates them from their competitors. Sometimes that differentiation is interesting, but it can also be really small. For example, let's say I have better pricing than you. I might say that my Unique Selling Proposition—my point of differentiation—is that I have low pricing. That may be true, but that's not particularly remarkable. It's about figuring out a way to frame that information in a way that is worthy of remark that is so surprising, novel or interesting that someone has to say something about it. It's not just finding a USP, but finding that information in a way that makes people feel like they have to talk about it.
RL: You also say that we "need to package our knowledge and expertise so that people can easily pass it on." How might a small business do that?
JB: The key is to highlight incredible value, whether it's amazing prices or just useful information. We see this all the time with news articles, for example: "Four types of sunscreen that you need to use this summer" or "Five types of super-food." Maybe your maternity store has great advice for moms and you send out a weekly or monthly newsletter with tips for new moms. Figure out some way to highlight that useful information so that people feel like they have to pass it on.
RL: Stories are another technique for spreading contagious ideas. Why are stories so important? How can businesses harness their power? What's the magic of stories when it comes to making a sale?
JB: Companies, and marketers in particular, are used to selling. But customers don't want to share ads. We don't want to tell our friends exactly what features a given product has. It's not very exciting and it doesn't make them want to be friends with us. Instead, stories are the currency of conversation, whether we're talking about a vacation we had or a dinner we went out to. We tell it in terms of a story. For example: I was having an issue with my air conditioning last night. I could say that I went home and I opened up the cover and I found this frozen part and then I defrosted it and there was all this water and then I called someone and they solved it. But I'm not saying just the punch line—hey, we solved it. We tell the beginning, middle, and end of the story because that's how we're used to communicating ideas. Small businesses need to think about the narrative their customers are telling about them and how they can turbo-charge that narrative to turn those customers into advocates.
RL: Getting customers to talk about products or ideas for free is valuable because there's a certain social currency in being seen as knowing more than other customers. How can a small business leverage this?
JB: The key to social currency is making people feel special, like they're smart and in the know. Sometimes it can be about giving people something that's scarce or exclusive, so maybe they get a limited edition product or information that not everyone else gets. Maybe they get to come in a day before everyone else to browse the merchandise because they're a valuable customer. Maybe it's about knowing the names of your frequent buyers when they come into your coffee shop and knowing what they want and being ready to make it right off the bat. It's making people feel like they're some sort of insider or that they get something that not everyone else has access to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.