am 26. März 2013
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, April 2.
It is only recently, with the rise of the internet, that the term `viral' has gone, well, viral. But, the phenomenon of social pandemics--ideas, products and behaviors that catch on and spread quickly and widely--has been around presumably as long as sociality itself. The phenomenon is interesting in its own right, for it says something meaningful about our psychology and how we interact. However, understanding how social pandemics work also holds great practical value, for when public service messages, charity campaigns or products and services go viral, the effect stands to have a big impact on behavior and the bottom line.
On the mechanical side of things, understanding why something goes viral is straightforward enough: it must be something that has an impact, and that people are eager to talk about. But this just begs the question: what is it that makes something impactful, and ripe for sharing? We may think that our intuitions can carry us some way toward answering this. Nevertheless, getting something to go viral is certainly no easy task (as many a would-be influencer has come to find); and therefore, we may benefit from a more methodical, scientifically-minded attempt to understand the phenomenon. It is just such a project that Wharton marketing professor and writer Jonah Berger has been engaged in for much of his career, and in his new book 'Contagious: Why Things Catch On,' Berger reports on his findings.
Berger's research has revealed that there are 5 main factors that help explain social pandemics. They are 1. Social Currency; 2. Triggers; 3. Emotion; 4. Public; 5. Practical Value; and 6. Stories. (The 6 factors may be rendered as an acronym: STEPPS.)
When it comes to social currency, this refers to how good or important something makes us look for sharing it. We want to look bright, funny, entertaining, knowledgeable, prestigious etc. in the eyes of others; and therefore, we are more likely to mention those things that make us appear so. Prestige is particularly important here. We humans, like many other social animals, are concerned about our place in the social hierarchy, and so we are more likely to talk about things that make us appear accomplished or distinguished in some way (such as mentioning a very exclusive and secret club accessible only through a hidden entrance in the back of a hot-dog restaurant [loc. 461]), hence increasing the likelihood that these things will spread.
When it comes to triggers, this refers to stimuli in the environment that are associated with other phenomena, and that remind us of them. For example, the Space Shuttle Pathfinder that visited Mars is naturally associated with the Mars bar, and so the mention of the former may trigger the thought of the latter (the Mars bar did indeed witness an uptick in sales following the launch of the Pathfinder [loc. 1012]). Ideas, products and behaviors that are naturally associated with triggers that we encounter more often are more likely to be brought to mind than others, increasing the chances that they will be talked about, and hence spread. Interestingly, though, associations between unrelated items can be established through clever advertising campaigns (such as the Kit-Kat bar being associated with a coffee break).
When it comes to emotion, this refers to the fact that phenomena that evoke highly arousing emotions, both positive and negative (such as awe, excitement, anger and anxiety), are more likely to be shared (and hence spread) than those that evoke less arousing emotions (such as sadness and contentment). This helps explain why Susan Boyle went viral.
When it comes to public, this refers to how prevalent something is in the public eye. Things that are highly public and visible are more likely to be talked about than those that are more private. Nevertheless, there are ways to bring private phenomena into the public sphere. For example, donating to a charity tends to be a rather private affair. However, both the Movember movement in support of colon cancer (featuring the highly conspicuous moustache), and Lance Armstrong's Livestrong campaign in support of cancer (featuring the yellow wrist-band), managed to bring charitable support into the public sphere, thus contributing to the success of these campaigns.
Practical value refers to the fact that people like to be helpful to others, and so anything that is particularly useful is more likely to be shared than that which is less so. This helps explain why so many articles on health and education matters are so widely shared, and also why an otherwise nondescript video about shucking corn went viral on Youtube (just search `clean ears everytime').
When it comes to stories, this refers to the fact that people tend to enjoy telling and hearing stories. Therefore, ideas, products and behaviors that are wrapped in narratives (and especially compelling narratives) are more likely to be shared than those that are just presented as information. The Dove `Evolution' commercial, Google's `Parisian Love' commercial, and Panda's `Never say no to Panda' campaign are all good examples of products being wrapped in compelling narratives.
Berger's book is a very easy read, and he does a good job of using academic studies and interesting real-world examples to help prove his points. None of the theory here will be new to anyone who is steeped in the marketing/advertising industry (as is clear from other reviews). And much of it will even strike the rest of us as being somewhat self-evident after the fact. Nevertheless, it is not likely that many of us will have explored the subject with so much rigor, and this is valuable in itself. Altogether a very enjoyable read about an interesting subject. A full executive summary of the book will be available at newbooksinbrief dot com, on or before Tuesday, April 2; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.