Contagious: How to make products, ideas, and behaviors catch on

Notes from a keynote speech from The Market Research Event

By Jonah Berger, Professor of Marketing, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania


Berger starts the keynote session by playing a game, Which is Tastier? Where two images are shown: broccoli and a cheeseburger.


The vote is cast: the majority vote, you guessed it, for the cheeseburger. The point is simple. We all know we should eat more broccoli but the cheeseburger beckons us.


The analogy of tasty then gets turned to ideas. Which ideas are Tastier?


Some of the ideas are like broccoli—they are good for us, but not desired, not catching on.


The curse of knowledge plagues the researcher.  We have to overcome what we know and communicate in a way people will try and spread it.


As an overview, we will explore these three, key points:

  1. How we make ideas tastier
  2. How we craft our insights that make people more likely to listen
  3. How we can use word-of-mouth to spread the idea


He asks the audience: What is the science of why people share? Let’s tour the main points. Let’s learn about the science of social transmission through storytelling.


Berger showed a slide proving that word-of-mouth is at least twice as effective as advertising, according to a McKinsey study.


The first hack he shared was based on his experience in academia. Two copies of the same book were sent to him; the second had a note encouraging him to pass along to a colleague who may enjoy it. Berger’s point: find the influencers and give them something to spread, and it comes across as a recommendation.


So, why do people share? Here are the top six driving factors:

  1. Social currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public
  5. Practical Value
  6. Stories


One way to get others to share our ideas is to make them look good, look smarter—this is the basis of social currency.


We share things that send desired signals of who we are, our ideal self. So do brands. How can you make your brand tribe feel smart and in-the-know, on the inside track? If people feel special sharing our stuff, they will.


One facet of social currency is finding the Inner Remarkability—something surprising, novel, or interesting. Berger used Blendtec’s blending of an iPhone in their Will it Blend campaign as an example. Blender sales went up 700% as a result.


The more you can show rather than tell, the more powerful.


So, what is a Trigger: something that is top-of-mind because it is tip-of-tongue.


Consideration is 80% of purchase, and getting in the consideration sphere is the most important part of the strategy.


Here are the four questions for getting value from triggers:

  1. Who do we want to trigger?
  2. When do they want to be triggered?
  3. What is in the environment at that time?
  4. How can we connect to the environment?


The last tactic discussed is Stories. Facts and data bore everyone. Stories are vessels of information, a Trojan Horse, a carrier of information. Stories imbue the emotional shorthand of a brand. Stories are the currency of conversation.


Berger’s advice: first, find your kernel. What do you want to pass on, to share? Then, how can you make others feel special about it, in-the-know, and share.