What makes ideas contagious?

The goal for many people is to become famous – to be recognized, talked about, respected.  The goal for many people who create content is similar – they want their content to be talked about and shared.  They want it to be contagious – readily transferred from person to person.  But how do you do that?  How do you make something contagious?  Jonah Berger offers terrific insights into understanding why certain ideas or content gets talked about or go viral while other content never goes anywhere.  In Contagious:  Why Things Catch On, he identifies six principles that explain why some ideas are contagious – they catch on while others other don’t.

Jonah offers STEPPS acronym to capture the six key principles:

Social currency: we share things that make us look good
Triggers:  top of mind, tip of tongue
Emotion:  when we care, we share
Public: built to show, built to grow
Practical value:  news you can use
Stories: information travels under the guise of idle chatter

Jonah explains each principle in greater depth and provides interesting anecdotes, points of reference as well as research that support his conclusions.  His book Contagious: Why Things Catch On is both informative and entertaining.  I am going to elaborate on some of the best parts of his book.

“Social currency – we share things that make us look good. “

Telling a good joke makes us look like we are humorous; telling a secret makes us look like we are an insider; telling something remarkable makes us look smart.  There is social currency in being in the know, witty, or smart.  Content that improves the status of the sharer is contagious.

“Triggers – top of mind, tip of tongue.”

A trigger is a stimulus that initiates a reaction.  Peanut butter leads many people to think of jelly.  Baseball games steer thoughts to hot dogs.  Word association relies on words to trigger thoughts.  Jonah observes that connecting a trigger with a response results in an increase in popularity and buzz.  The concept of triggers explains why Cheerios get more buzz than Walt Disney – people eat breakfast every morning while it is an occasion to visit Walt Disney magic kingdom.  Jonah makes a terrific observation that triggers need to be timed appropriately.  For example, being in the checkout line in the grocery store is not a great time to trigger thoughts about cloth or recyclable grocery bags – the trigger needs to be before you leave the house.  He recommends that to develop an effective trigger, you must consider what are the cues right before someone makes a decision.

 “Emotion:  when we care, we share”

While emotions cause us to share, certain emotions cause us to share more than others.  Content that generates high physiological arousal is shared more than content that generates lows physiological arousal.  We share when there is physiological arousal – awe, excitement, humor, anxiety and anger generate high physiological arousal while sadness and contentment generate low arousal.  If you’ve never seen the video Parisian Love, I urge you to watch it and then see if you don’t want to share it.  I had never heard of it before reading Jonah’s book, but now I won’t forget it.  If you are going to rely on emotion to lead people to share content, focus on emotions that generate high physiological arousal.

Jonah also reported a study that concluded “sharing personal opinions activated the same brain circuits they respond to rewards like food and money. So talking about what you did this weekend might just feel just as good as a delicious bite of double chocolate cake.” I wonder if this concept could be used as part of a diet?

While I do not doubt the study or the conclusion, there are times when taking a survey is more like a chore than chocolate cake.  When there are long surveys, I am inclined to agree with Michael Schrage when he says you can Learn More by Asking by Asking Fewer Questions.

“Public: build to show, built to grow”

“Monkey see, monkey do.”  Social proof.  Consensus.  There are a number of ways to describe the situation when people look to the actions of others to determine their own actions.  For example, people got to crowded restaurants.  Clever marketing campaigns take advantage of this by making the use of the product public – for example, iPod’s white headphones tells everyone what you are using.  A product becomes contagious if there is public behavior that supports it.  Clothing is perhaps the best example of marketing by wearing.

“Practical value: News you can use”

Useful information is contagious.  I immediately think of the emails that get forwarded around about people dying from drinking diet coke, or dangerous drugs in cough medicine.  When I get them, I immediately attempt to verify the claims – usually they have inaccurate information but people forward them anyway.  People share information that they feel can help others.

Jonah reports that articles about health and education in the New York Times were frequently shared and often appeared on the lists of most emailed.  He also noted that specific content may be more likely to be shared because it triggers a thought of someone in particular.  People are less likely to share an article about football because so many people like football, but may share an article about cricket with someone who is passionate about cricket.

“Stories: information travels under the guise of idle chatter”

Jonah relates a story of a man who buys a winter coat from Land’s End and the zipper breaks in the middle of the winter.  The man calls Land’s End who immediately sends a replacement.  The man tells the story because he is pleased with the customer service and everyone he tells learns about Land’s End.  Similarly, Jared’s story about losing weight is great marketing for Subway.  Jonah warns that getting people to re-tell a story is great, but it is important that what they are talking about is related to the product.  For example, he tells the story of a prank at the Olympics where a man in a tutu sneaks onto the diving board and does a belly flop in a tutu.  Great story, but who knows what the product or company was?  In contrast, the prompt replacement of the winter coat by Land’s End tells everyone what great customer service Land’s End has.

Wrap Up

I am fascinated by what causes people to share content and thoroughly enjoyed “Contagious.”  I loved learning about the six STEPPS principles and his research.  Now comes the hard part:  knowing what causes content to be contagious is a great start, but now I need to come up with the content….


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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