Share Wars reviews ‘Contagious’ by Jonah Berger

contagious-jonah-bergerJonah Berger’s Contagious arrives as we Share Warriors consider a book of our own. Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, faces a dilemma similar to ours. Who is the audience?

Should he do a “Malcolm Gladwell” and thread a string of entertaining and surprising anecdotes supporting a single thesis aimed at the New York Times best-seller list? Or should he go down the Seth Godin path and create a practical handbook for an audience of professional communicators?

Berger does both, but Contagious is more Godin than Gladwell and is therefore more likely to find an audience with marketers than soccer moms.

Contagious kicks off with a breezy Gladwell-like vignette about the creation of a $100 “cheesesteak” by an upmarket Philadelphia bistro called Barclay Prime. The restaurant had needed something special to stand out so owner Howard Wein created an expensive gourmet item based on a Philly fast-food staple, the cheesesteak. Berger’s description of the dish – filled with marbled Kobe beef, truffles, triple-cream Talleggio, a side order of butter-poached lobster tail and a “chilled split of Veuve Clicquot” – would have done Hemingway proud, although the author’s greater triumph was in finding and conveying a story packed full of his principles for creating viral content.

Berger cites Gladwell’s The Tipping Point as a major inspiration but also as an example of what Contagious is not. The Tipping Point describes the transmission of ideas through special people Gladwell calls “Mavens”, “Salesmen” and “Connectors”. But like us, Berger is more interested in the message than the messenger. What is it about the idea or story itself that enhances transmission? Answering that question is Share Wars’ mission, and we also share Berger’s lack of interest in mere description. Sifting through the debris in the wake of a viral or contagious phenomenon is only useful if it helps in creating a framework for generating the next viral story.

There is a marketing truism that it is almost impossible to intentionally create content that will go viral. BuzzFeed‘s  Jonah Peretti and Berger know this is not the case. That’s also one of Share Wars’ central planks: we believe there is a replicable formula for creating content that is more likely to be shared. Berger’s “formula” is a set of principles he calls STEPPS. He says that to give your idea the best chance of transmission, it must contain some or all of the following:

  1. Social currency: Does talking about the idea make someone appear in-the-know?
  2. Triggers: We need to create products and ideas that are triggered by the environment. Potential customers of Barclay Prime are prompted to think about the gourmet cheesesteak when they see the ubiquitous fast-food version.
  3. Emotion: Emotion-provoking things get shared.
  4. Public: Try to make the product idea as observable as possible. Make it advertise itself.
  5. Practical value: Craft content that is helpful.
  6. Stories: People don’t just share information, they tell stories. Make sure your idea has a good narrative wrapper.

Like Gladwell and Godin at their best, Berger delivers counter-intuitive insights that can be strangely gratifying. Did you know that boring everyday products often get talked more about than interesting products (due to the trigger effect)? Or that the almost $1bn spent by the US between 1998 and 2004 on anti-drug awareness actually contributed to an increase in drug use (due to the effect of making a private niche behaviour public)? Or that negative emotions can boost word-of-mouth? Readers of this blog would probably be aware of that last one. Keen readers will have also known Berger through our discussion of his work on the New York Times most-emailed list, detailed in this paper he wrote with Katherine Milkman. We also interviewed Berger in 2011 about the social media response to the death of Amy Winehouse.

Which is to say Jonah Berger has not popped up out of nowhere and he has some serious academic heft. Much of the material in this book is backed up by peer-reviewed papers published by such institutions as Wharton and Harvard. Some of that stuff is hard to wade through but in Contagious, Berger has delivered a page-turner, one that at 210 pages is over too quickly. It’s compact but much of what you need to know about creating shareable content is contained within.

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Andrew Hunter

About Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter is Editor-in-Chief of Microsoft's MSN. Twitter: @Huntzie

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