Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger

I recently read the book Contagious by Jonah Bergerwhich one of my friends recommended to me. Wow, it was a fantastic read. For anyone that is in the field of business/marketing, I would say this is an essential read. But even for the non-business folk that are curious about how ideas and movements spread, this book provides some fascinating incite into what exactly causes videos to go viral, people to spread secrets & ideas, and how most of what we share is a reflection of how we want to be viewed by others.

I took the below summary of the book from Gavin Adams so I can revisit this content and brush up on it in the future.

Contagious Summary


If something is supposed to be secret, people might well be more likely to talk about it.

People share things that make them look good to others.

More than 40 percent of what people talk about is their personal experiences.

Harvard neuroscientists Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding.

Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression—as potent as that new car or Prada handbag. Think of it as a kind of currency. Social currency. Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.

There are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders.

Sharing extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and entertaining.

Remarkable things get brought up more often.

Our memories aren’t perfect records of what happened. They’re more like dinosaur skeletons patched together by archeologists. We have the main chunks, but some of the pieces are missing, so we fill them in as best we can.

One way to generate surprise is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect.

Remember Blendtec, the blender company we talked about in the Introduction? By finding the product’s inner remarkability, the company was able to get millions of people to talk about a boring old blender. And they were able to do it with no advertising and a fifty-dollar marketing budget.

Game mechanics are the elements of a game, application, or program—including rules and feedback loops—that make them fun and compelling.

They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms.

People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to others.

what good is status if no one else knows you have it?

Leverage scarcity and exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders.

Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, people assume that it must be worth the effort.

People don’t need to be paid to be motivated. Managers often default to monetary incentives when trying to motivate employees. Some gift or other perk to get people to take action. But that’s the wrong way to think about it.

Social incentives, like social currency, are more effective in the long term.

Marketing is about tapping into their genuine enthusiasm for products and services that they find useful. Or fun. Or beautiful.

Marketing is about spreading the love.

But what most people don’t realize is that they naturally talk about products, brands, and organizations all the time. Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-mouth episodes, separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an organization, brand, product, or service.

The reason people shared Grady’s article was emotion. When we care, we share.

Two reasons people might share things are that they are interesting and that they are useful.

It turns out that science articles frequently chronicle innovations and discoveries that evoke a particular emotion in readers. That emotion? Awe.

According to psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, awe is the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might.

It’s the experience of confronting something greater than yourself.

Indeed, as Albert Einstein himself noted, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious.

More than any other emotion, awe described what many readers felt after looking at science pieces from The New York Times.

Awe boosted sharing. Awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent

Talking to others often makes emotional experiences better.

Emotion sharing is thus a bit like social glue, maintaining and strengthening relationships.

Marketing messages tend to focus on information. Public health officials note how much healthier teens will be if they don’t smoke or if they eat more vegetables. People think that if they just lay out the facts in a clear and concise way, it will tip the scales. Their audience will pay attention, weigh the information, and act accordingly. But many times information is not enough. Most teens don’t smoke because they think it’s good for them. And most people who scarf down a Big Mac and large fries and wash it down with a supersized Coke are not oblivious to the health risks. So additional information probably won’t get them to change their behavior. They need something more.

And that is where emotion comes in. Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.

The best results don’t show up in a search engine, they show up in people’s lives.

Write down why you think people are doing something.

When trying to use emotions to drive sharing, remember to pick ones that kindle the fire: select high-arousal emotions that drive people to action.

Excite people or inspire them by showing them how they can make a difference.

Work groups may benefit from taking walks together because it will encourage people to share their ideas and opinions.

Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share, and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings.

You should make something that will move people.

People don’t want to be entertained, they want to be moved.

Observability. Jobs realized that seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.

If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

People often imitate those around them.

Whether making trivial choices like what brand of coffee to buy or important decisions like paying their taxes, people tend to conform to what others are doing. Television shows use canned laugh tracks for this reason: people are more likely to laugh when they hear others laughing.

So to help resolve our uncertainty, we often look to what other people are doing and follow that. We assume that if other people are doing something, it must be a good idea. They probably know something we don’t.

Simply educating students about the risks of alcohol didn’t seem to be enough.

If most students were uncomfortable with the drinking culture, then why was it happening in the first place? Why were students drinking so much if they don’t actually like it? Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.

The more public a product or service is, the more it triggers people to take action.

The Movember Foundation succeeded because they figured out how to make the private public.

Shapes, sounds, and a host of other distinctive characteristics can also help products advertise themselves.

Designing products that advertise themselves is a particularly powerful strategy for small companies or organizations that don’t have a lot of resources.

But regardless, one thing is clear: the wristband creates more behavioral residue than the cross-country ride ever could have. As MacEachern keenly noted: The nice thing about a wristband is that it lives on. The bike ride doesn’t. There’ll be pictures of the bike ride and people will talk about the bike ride, but unless it goes on every year—even if it does go on every year, it doesn’t live on as a reminder every day of this sort of stuff. But the wristband does.

Behavioral residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake.

Items like the Livestrong wristband provide insight into who people are and what they like.

But anti-drug ads often say two things simultaneously. They say that drugs are bad, but they also say that other people are doing them.

Our basic hypothesis is that the more kids saw these ads, the more they came to believe that lots of other kids were using marijuana. And the more they came to believe that other kids were using marijuana, the more they became interested in using it themselves.

It’s been said that when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another. We look to others for information about what is right or good to do in a given situation, and this social proof shapes everything from the products we buy to the candidates we vote for.

Create behavioral residue, discernible evidence that sticks around even after people have used our product or engaged with our ideas. We need to make the private public. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

Most viral videos are made by adolescents and watched by adolescents. Crazy tricks someone did on his motorcycle or cartoon characters edited to look as if they are dancing to rap songs. Things young people love.

People like to pass along practical, useful information. News others can use.

Offering practical value helps make things contagious.

If Social Currency is about information senders and how sharing makes them look, Practical Value is mostly about the information receiver. It’s about saving people time or money, or helping them have good experiences.

“Prospect theory.” The theory is amazingly rich, but at its core, it’s based on a very basic idea. The way people actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make decisions. Judgments and decisions are not always rational or optimal. Instead, they are based on psychological principles of how people perceive and process information.

Diminishing sensitivity reflects the idea that the same change has a smaller impact the farther it is from the reference point.

If the product’s price is less than $100, the Rule of 100 says that percentage discounts will seem larger.

Practical advice is shareable advice.

In fact, narrower content may actually be more likely to be shared because it reminds people of a specific friend or family member and makes them feel compelled to pass it along.

Content that is obviously relevant to a narrow audience may actually be more viral.

That’s because people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.

Stories, then, can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others.

Stories save time and hassle and give people the information they need in a way that’s easy to remember.

It’s harder to argue with personal stories.

Stories thus give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas.

Marketing experts talk about “the fool in the pool” as one of the worst guerrilla marketing failures of all time.

The key, then, is to not only make something viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring company or organization. Not just virality but valuable virality.

Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.

In trying to craft contagious content, valuable virality is critical. That means making the idea or desired benefit a key part of the narrative. It’s like the plot of a good detective story.