“Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger

I am a social media user as many people are and I bet that I am not the only one who has noticed the uprise of the social media influencers. This made me think about why some content spreads and get shared and how some people get 1 million followers while others with relatively similar content do not. What is so special about some content that it goes viral? All those questions lead me to one of the most practical books on marketing that I ever came across – “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger.

Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pensylvania who studied how the content not only becomes popular but how it gets shared for many years. So what does scientific research tells us this? And how can any piece of content become popular?

Naturally, there are some things that are generally more exciting than the others – vacationing in Montenegro is more exciting than Cheerios or new jewelry collection is more fun that pillowcases.  But there are principles that Berger outlines that can help make any piece of content remarkable. He abbreviates them as STEPPS.

S = Social Currency (Does talking about your product make people look good?)

T = Triggers (What cues can make people thing about your product or idea?)

E = Emotions (Does talking about your product generates emotion?)

P = Public (Can people see when others are using it?)

P = Practical Value (Does talking about your product or idea help people help others?)

S = Stories (Is your product or idea embedded in a broader narrative that people want to share?)

Short Note On Word Of Mouth

If you were asked how much % of word of mouth happens online, what would you guess? It is unlikely that you would say that it is 7%. But in fact, that is what it is. Only 7% of word of mouth happens online and the rest is generated offline: when we have a coffee break with our colleagues, when our friend asks us to suggest a good accountant, when our neighbors talk about new good food or new deals at Walmart.

“Virality isn’t born, it’s made.”

Another interesting fact is that offline word of mouth is more targeted. We only share specific information with someone that we would think be interested in it – we do not just share all the stories with everyone. And these are important components to think about when we talk about social transmission and how the content spreads and becomes viral.

Social Currency

We all like to be interesting and we become interesting to others by sharing information with them. It is great to look cool because you know the best bar in town or a secret restaurant that you are not supposed to talk about and that can only be accessed through a telephone booth inside the hotdog lunch spot. In a similar way that we use the money to buy products and services, we “user social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among [our] families, friends and colleagues”. And we do this by sharing information.

Berger suggests that there are three ways for companies to make people share information about their product and “mint social currency”: finding inner remarkability, leveraging game mechanics and making people feel like insiders.

Remarkable things are worth talking about – they are “unusual, extraordinary, or worth of notice or attention”. The key question to find inner remarkability to answer according to Berger is “Can the product do something no one would have thought possible”? (e.g. a blender blending an iPhone).

The game mechanics is related to us standing in comparison to others. What is our performance when compared to a friend? Do we run more miles logged in FitBit? Did we save more miles on our credit card? People have innate instincts (just like any other animal) that hierarchy matters. “Leveraging game mechanics […] involves helping people publicize their achievements” so that they can see where they stand in comparison to others.

Make people feel like insiders. “Exclusivity is also about availability”. When someone posses an exclusive knowledge or has exclusive access, it makes them feel that they are an insider. Have you ever considered why airplane companies have gold, premium or platinum statuses on their frequent flier programs?

Social incentives, like social currency, are more effective in the long term. Foursquare doesn’t pay users to check in to bars, and airlines don’t give discounts to frequent flier members. But by harnessing people’s desire to look good to others, their customers did these things anyway – and spread word of mouth for free.


Triggers are stimuli in our environment that make us think about specific things in our environment – like breakfast time makes us think about Cheerios. They remind us of the ideas and concepts that are related. And it matters because “accessible thoughts and ideas lead to action”.

“Top of mind, top of the tongue”.

One of the examples of good illustrations of how triggers can be used that Berger mentioned is in slogans. In one of his studies, he compared two slogans and which one is more likely to lead to action – “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day” vs. “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day”. Guess which one has affected the university students to eat more veggies and fruits? Yep, the second one since it had a trigger of a “dining-hall tray” in it.


“When we care, we share”.


Not all articles or content get shared – but those that do can sometimes seem unrelated. Even though they might seem unrelated in topics, their sharing is largely driven by the emotions that they inspire. Not all emotions spur sharing – in fact, those that do are related to high arousals such as awe, excitement, amusement, anger or anxiety. This explains why some of the random discovery scientific articles often make it to the most emailed list – they inspire awe.

“Whether it’s a digital product, like Google, or a physical product, like sneakers, you should make something that will move people. People don’t want to feel like they’re being told something – they want to be entertained, they want to be moved”. – Anthony Cafaro.


“If something is built to show, it is built to grow”.

Human originates from an animal and we do still have “herd mentality” ingrained in us. When we are unsure how to proceed or where to find the right answer, we look at others. The more something is observable and visible, the more likely more people will use it.

“Solving [the problem of observability] requires making the private public. Generating public signals for private choices, actions, and opinions. Taking what was once an unobservable thought or behavior and transforming it into a more observable one”.

Did you ever wonder when you look at your MacBook closed and facing you, why the apple logo is flipped? Because when you open it, others can see it perfectly right. It is observable to others and now they know you are using it.

Practical Value

People like to pass practical information as it can be useful to others – either if it saving money or saving time. In that section of the book, Berger goes in detail about the psychology of deals and how we estimate sales based on “reference point”. Here it is important for the companies that would like to win on people sharing practical value about their products to remember the “rule of 100” in terms of discounts. If you are selling something that costs more than $100, the most valuable is to display your discounts in %. For example, 20% off $2000 does not seem as much as $400 off from $2000 while those are essentially the same. Now, when we look at $30 with a 10% discount, this seems like a good deal. But $3 off $30 looks much worse. In fact, those again are the same. You get the principle, right?

The practical value information is obviously not limited to discounts. Another important part is to figure out the products remarkability and “why people gravitate to our product or idea in the first place”.


Stories usually serve as “vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others”. Can your product be wrapped in a story that can not be shared without mentioning the product? Similar to a guy who lost 200 pounds by eating Subway vegetable sandwiches? This is a story about the guy who lost weight; however, Subway cannot be eliminated from it. Narratives matter.

On the last note, I wanted to highlight again the phrase from the post that when we care, we share. Making your content, idea or product wanted to be shared is not easy but Berger’s “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” is a brilliant scientifically supported guide into this topic. In this post, I have outlined just the basic principles but the book is so much more. Honestly, I think it is the best marketing book I have read so far in terms of practical use. C’est tout.

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