Books That Don't Suck | Contagious: Why Things Catch On

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Books That Don’t Suck | Viral Marketing | Contagious: Why Things Catch On

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| Books That Don'T Suck | Viral Marketing | Contagious: Why Things Catch On | 2Oddballs Creative | Websites | Social Media | Graphic Design

This is the first in a series of blog posts where I’ll be writing about books that can add a little oomph to your business, your life, and especially your marketing efforts. Today’s book is one of our favorites here at 2oddballs. It’s an oldie (2013) but goodie! An Ivy League professor delves into what makes things go viral and how you can get started with viral marketing, or at least make your marketing messages more shareable.


The author, Jonah Berger, is a Stanford PhD who is now a professor at the famed Ivy league Wharton School of Business. Berger is a popular speaker at major conferences and events and often consults for companies like General Motors, Facebook, Microsoft, Progressive, LinkedIn, and General Mills. He specializes in viral marketing and has done years of research in this regard (we’ll get into that later). According to Berger, this book is the written translation of a class he teaches at Wharton of the same name.

For me, this book served as a refresher in everything I learned at school (if you studied marketing or public relations, you know what I mean). It may not be the cutting edge of modern marketing, but it reviews some basic principles that get lost in the shuffle of today’s complex internet landscape. We tend to overcomplicate our marketing efforts hoping that the technology will do the viral legwork for us, when really, the true genius of successful viral marketing is in the message, not the medium (Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding).

The true genius of successful viral marketing is in the message, not the medium.

This book follows a series of case studies in ads, stories, videos, messages, and other types of content that have gone “viral”, that is to say they spread like a disease from one person to another until they have “infected” an entire population, bringing the content creator tons of attention, for better or worse. The idea of “going viral” is now a ubiquitous part of our culture. It’s something that most marketers, politicians, small business owners – and anyone else peddling a product, service, or idea – only dream of. It’s the best case advertising scenario: spend little to no money and get overwhelming, life-changing, business-booming results.

But what causes things to “go viral”?

That’s what Berger examines in this book. Berger identifies six ingredients commonly found in viral content. He contends that these six principles can be seen like ingredients in a salad: you don’t need to use every single one to have a great salad, but the more you have, the better. I won’t give away the farm here, because you really have to read it to grasp the nuance of what he is trying to convey, but the six ingredients are as follows:


Berger uses the Acronym STEPPS to help us remember all his principles.


People want to seem cool. They want to sound hip, in the know, down, jiggy, they want the 4-1-1. People spread information that makes them seem interesting, smart, cool, or otherwise neato.


It’s Friday. Friday.

Did your brain automatically complete the song lyric? “Gotta get down on Friday”. If you’re under 35, you may very well hate the Rebecca black song “Friday”, but you know the words! This is one example of a brilliant trigger. We’re reminded of Black’s horrible ear worm every 7 days. This is just one example. Another interesting example is the case of Mars candy bars increased sales when the Mars rover was all over the news, rolling around the red planet. Candy bars, distant planets – all they share is a name – but sometimes just thinking of a brand name can trigger a purchase or at least a conversation. Top of mind, tip of tongue!


Aristotle identified Pathos as one very important artistic mode of persuasion. So whether it’s a baby hearing his mother’s voice for the first time thanks to inner ear implants, or a military father being reunited with his daughter after years of being away – when we care, we share.


In Harry Beckwith’s book “Selling the Invisible,” he writes about how we must make the invisible, visible. In the service industry, you are selling a promise. People can’t wear a promise and they can’t drive around in a brand new service. Berger gives us a few thoughtful points about how we can make our products and services more public. For example, did you know that on the original Mac laptop, the shining apple logo used to be upside down? That is to say if you had closed your laptop, the apple would have been right-side up. When it was opened and facing away from you, it would have been upside down to anyone viewing it from the back. Steve Job’s recognized that the Apple logo wasn’t there for the person who owned the laptop to see and enjoy, it was there to tell everyone else in the room, “HEY I’VE GOT A MAC, BOW TO MY FANCY PANTSNESS YOU PLEBEIANS.” Or something like that.


This one is simple: be helpful! People like useful information. People share things with friends and family if they think that info will help their loved ones be healthy, happy, or safe.


We are natural storytellers. From the days of Homer and the Odyssey to today’s modern hits like Harry Potter: people love a good story, and they love to tell a good story even more. It’s in our nature. Stories are part of our natural survival mechanism. Our ancestors used stories to help each other stay alive. Eat that, don’t eat that, go there, don’t go there, and on and on. Wrap your message in interesting stories to help people pass it on.

TL;DR (summary)

The critical review is a little mixed on this book, but The New York Times Review, in my opinion, is overly harsh in that it picks at some of his research. For example, his attempt at quantifying the emotion “awe”. It’s a fair point that such emotions are difficult to quantify, but Berger does as good of a job as any, and just because something sounds difficult on the surface doesn’t mean it actually is. At very least, we can give it our best shot, and that’s what Berger does in his research. After all, marketers are always trying to capture cool or bottle sexy or sell happiness, and those things can be equally difficult to quantify.

Overall, if you are looking to kickstart your inner creativity and get some interesting insight into what makes people spread the messages they spread, Contagious is a great book to start with. Berger makes a lot of excellent points backed up with fascinating case studies and clever research. It’s not the technology that makes a message viral – it’s the message itself. You need to be more than tech savvy (although that never hurts). You need to craft unique, bold, different, interesting, quirky, useful content that people will naturally want to share. Then you can use technology to communicate that message efficiently.

As Berger says: Focus on psychology, not technology.

Luckily, 2oddballs can help you with both!

Want a little more? Check out this video of Jonah Berger himself giving a talk at Google HQ about viral marketing and his book.

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