Review of Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger is one of the books that inform the unique grading rubric for determining whether or not a certain campaign conceived in our daily Ideation meetings will be proposed to our advertising clients, send back for further details how it would be completed or shelved. The TL;DR book review format can turn the book into a short acronym, STEPPS, that stands for and encourages marketers to ask the following about their products:

Social Currency – Does sharing information about this make you look good?

Triggers – What cues do people have with your product, how can this be expanded

Emotion – What sort of emotion is elicited by discussion of you product and how can this be changed?

Public – What can be done to make private purchasing decisions private?

Practical Value – Can you assist others in some way by this information

Stories – Are you framing the information you want transmitted into a narrative format or just a list of product specifications?

Delving deeper into these principles, Berger presents a number of case studies that illustrates various advertising campaigns in action using these principles, correctly or incorrectly.

Being familiar with internet lore in general several of the examples provided in each of these sections, or variations therein, were those that I was familiar with. For example the $100 sandwich and the  connection between 1980s anti-drug advertising, which made the private public, being seen in part as a cause for the rise in teen drug use. A larger number of them, however, I was not. Thankfully the books was written in such a way that though it consists primarily of case studies illustrating the aforementioned messaging qualities the book does not take an overly formal tone.

Reading these analyses and commentary on the over-importance of influencers, varieties of physiological arousal, presenting information in an appropriate context all are very useful not only to those seeking to raise awareness about products for sale but also for those seeking to engage in any sort of public awareness campaign. An anecdote about a healthier eating campaign on college campuses, for instance, is described how a different choice in wording (A/B testing) could have a 25% greater likelihood in encouraging students to eat more fruits and vegetables. The difference in wording? Using a general food associated terms “When you eat” versus “when you fill your tray”. The latter was more effective as it had a stronger contextual trigger – students saw this in a cafeteria.

I found the “fool in the pool” anecdote – the story about Ron Bensimhon’s break in to the Olympics and jumping from the divers deck while wearing polka dot tights and emblazoned on his chest – to be particularly useful as a reminder for the need for correct triggers/context and being attuned to the psychology of sharing. As a content marketer, depending on the client, much of the material we produce can be quite tangential to those whose products or services we are seeking to help bring greater exposure to.

The book is a quick and easy read and I was happy to learn that some of the practices that I’ve applied to my project decisions are those that Jonah Berger endorses. This isn’t necessarily a result of my own genius, but likely from my having read Berger’s teacher’s book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. For example, a project that I’m working on I was ready to use a single broad survey as a data source for a campaign. After having read this I’m now more confident in pursuing a slightly different direction that queries less people but gets more information that will likely lead to others relating to it at a deeper level. Previously open to pursuing the least time intensive route that would likely still make the customer happy, now I can cite evidence why a small pivot could be result in much greater visibility.