Contagious, Why Things Catch On – Jonah Berger

Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail? Berger reveals the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission. He describes the six basic principles that drive all sorts of things to become contagious – from consumer products, policy initiatives, and workplace rumors to YouTube videos.

You might be thinking, that some things are more contagious than others, but is it possible to make anything contagious, or are some things just naturally more infectious? Can any product or idea be engineered to be more infectious? This book provides research-based principles for understanding what makes things catch on. Berger explains what makes content “contagious.” By “content,” he means stories, news, information, products, ideas, messages, and videos. By “contagious,” he means likely to spread. To diffuse from person to person via word of mouth and social influence. To be talked about, shared, or imitated by consumers, coworkers, and constituents. Essentially, this book provides cutting-edge science about how word of mouth and social transmission work and how you can leverage them to make your product and ideas succeed.


  1. One reason some products and ideas become popular is that they are just plain better. Another reason products catch on is attractive pricing. Advertising also plays a role. Consumers need to know about something before they can buy it. But although quality, price, and advertising contribute to products and ideas being successful, they don’t explain the whole story.
  2. Social influence and word of mouth – people love to share stories, news, and information with those around them.
  3. Research by the Keller Fay Group finds that only 7% of word of mouth happens online. But we forget that people also spend a lot of time offline.
  4. Certain stories are more contagious, and certain rumors are more infectious.
  5. One common intuition is that generating word of mouth is all about finding the right people.
  6. To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and failures. And whether, more often than not, certain characteristics are linked to success.
  7. The six STEPPS include Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories.
  8. Social Currency: We share things that make us look good.
  9. Triggers: Top of mind, tip of tongue.
  10. Emotion: When we care, we share.
  11. Public: Built to show, built to grow.
  12. Practical Value: News you can use.
  13. Stories: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.
  14. If you follow these six key STEPPS, you can make any product or idea contagious.
  15. As it turns out, if something is supposed to be secret, people might well be more likely to talk about it. The reason? Social currency. People share things that make them look good to others. And, it’s not always vanity but we’re wired to find it pleasurable.
  16. Often when telling stories, we’re not trying to exaggerate; we just can’t recall all the details of the story. We have the main chunks, but some of the pieces are missing, so we fill them in as best we can. We make an educated guess. But in the process, stories often become more extreme or entertaining.
  17. Emphasize what is remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk.
  18. People don’t just care about how they are going, they care about their performance in relation to others.
  19. But status is inherently relational. Being the leader of the pack requires a pack, doing better than others.
  20. Instead of marketing itself directly, the company uses the contest to get people who want to win to do the marketing themselves.
  21. Make people feel like insiders.
  22. If something is difficult to obtain, people assume that it must be worth the effort. If something is unavailable or sold out, people often infer that lots of other people must like it, and so it must be pretty good.
  23. The mere fact that something isn’t readily available can make people value it more and tell others to capitalize on the social currency of knowing about it or having it.
  24. Give people a product they enjoy, and they’ll be happy to spread the word.
  25. Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.
  26. Even a bad review or negative word of mouth can increase sales if it informs or reminds people that the product or idea exists.
  27. Sadder articles were actually 16% less likely to make the Most Emailed list. Something about sadness was making people less likely to share.
  28. Articles that evoked anger or anxiety were more likely to make the Most Emailed list.
  29. Rather than harping on features and facts, we need to focus on feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.
  30. Three Whys: To find the emotional core of an idea. Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask “Why is this important?” three times. Each time you do this, note your answer, and you’ll notice that you drill down further and further toward uncovering not only the core of an idea but the emotion behind it.
  31. You may overshare information with others in the aftermath of an exciting/turbulent experience. One way to generate word of mouth though is to find people when they are already fired up.
  32. Key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.
  33. Designing products that advertise themselves is a particularly powerful strategy for small companies or organizations that don’t have a lot of resources.
  34. Is there something that generates social proof that sticks around even when the product is not being used or the idea is not top of mind? It’s called behavioral residue – discernible evidence that sticks around after people have used the product or engaged with an idea.
  35. Passing along useful things also strengthens social bonds. If we know our friends are into cooking, sending them a new recipe we found brings us closer together. Our friends see we know and care about them, we feel good for being helpful, and the sharing cements our friendship.
  36. Practical Value is mostly about the information receiver. It’s about saving people time or money or helping them have good experiences. Helping others feels good.
  37. One of the main tenets of prospect theory is that people don’t evaluate things in absolute terms. They evaluate them relative to a comparison standard, or “reference point.”
  38. Rule of 100: If the product’s price is more than $100, the Rule of 100 says that percentage discounts will seem larger. If the product’s price is more than $100, the opposite is true. Numerical discounts will seem larger.
  39. So when deciding how good a promotional offer really is, or how to frame a promotional offer to make it better, use the Rule of 100.
  40. The ordinary stories we tell one another every day also carry information.
  41. It’s hard to disagree with a specific thing that happened to a specific person. We’re so caught up in the drama of what happened to so-and-so that we don’t have the cognitive resources to disagree. We’re so engaged in following the narrative that we don’t have the energy to question what is being said. So in the end, we’re much more likely to be persuaded.
  42. Not only should you try to make something viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring company or organization. Not just virality but valuable virality.
  43. Make sure the information you want people to remember and transmit is critical to the narrative. Sure, you can make your narrative funny, surprising, or entertaining. But if people don’t connect the content back to you, it’s not going to help you very much. Even if it goes viral.
  44. Make sure your desired information is so embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.
Behavior is public and thoughts are private.
*I take no credit for any of these points.

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