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Review: Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger



This review first ran in the April 22nd edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

By Jonah Berger

Simon and Schuster


There’s good news if you’re setting up shop or looking to change the world. It’s never been easier or cheaper to get the word out on your own.

Now the bad news. It’s never been harder to cut through the clutter and get the rest of us to pay attention and help spread the word.

“Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies,” says Jonah Berger. a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

“Word-of-mouth marketing is effective only if people actually talk. Just putting up a Facebook page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice. Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline, requires understanding why people talk and why some things get talked about and shared more than others.”

Drawing on a decade worth of research, Berger’s come up with six principles for social transmission. If you want to get lots of people talking and your cash registers ringing, do one or more of the following.

Make sure that what you’re selling has social currency. “People share things that make them look good to others. Knowing about cool things makes people seem sharp and in the know.”

Use triggers so that something around us reminds us of you. “Triggers are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas. Top of mind is tip of the tongue.”

Tap into our emotions. “When we care, we share. Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion.”

Make your product public. “A key factor in driving products to catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow. Seeing others do something makes people more likely to do it themselves.”

Deliver practical value and news we can use. “Useful things are important. People don’t just value practical information, they share it. Sharing practically valuable content is like a modern-day barn raising.”

And tell stories. “Stories give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas. They provide a sort of psychological cover that allows people to talk about a product or idea without seeming like an advertisement.”

Follow these principles and you stand a good shot at generating a ton of online and offline word-of-mouth buzz for even regular, everyday products and ideas.

Blendtec blenders are a case in point. Tom Dickson founded his blender company in 1999. The product was great but awareness was low and sales were slow.

Seven years later, Dickson hired a marketing director to help get the word out. The director was walking through the Blendtech factory when he noticed a pile of sawdust. And that’s when he learned about Dickson’s daily routine of trying to break his blenders. Dickson would put his blenders to the test by cramming two-by-two boards through the blades.

So the marketing director spent $50 on a bag of marbles, a sleeve of golf balls, a rake and a white lab coat for his boss. The carnage was videotaped and posted online.

Within a week, the low-budget videos had been watched six million times. Within a year, retail sales were up 700 per cent.

Today, the Will it Blend? videos starring Dickson blending everything from a Justin Bieber CD and a can of EZ Cheese to an iPhone and his grandkids’ Transformer toys have been watched more than 300 million times.

“The Blendtec story demonstrates one of the key takeaways of contagious content,” says Berger. “Virality isn’t born, it’s made. Regardless of how plain or boring a product or idea may seem, there are ways to make it contagious.”

We’re surprised, amazed and amused when a kitchen blender pulverizes golf balls and turns marbles to glass dust. Dickson’s an affable mad scientist. We tell friends and family to watch the videos. We check back to see what else Dickson is blending. And we start thinking a Blendtec blender would look good in our kitchen and make the perfect gift.

Berger offers one other key insight on why things catch on. Word-of-mouth isn’t won by wooing a handful of connected influentials. Social epidemics are driven by your products and ideas.

“Contagious products and ideas are like forest fires. They can’t happen without hundreds, if not thousands, of regular Joes and Janes passing the product or message along. Some forest fires are bigger than others, but no one would claim that the size of the fire depends on the exceptional nature of the initial spark. Big forest fires aren’t caused by big sparks. Lots of individual trees have to catch fire and carry the flames.”

So whether you’re going into business, looking to bring in more business or pitching a big idea to make the world a better place, Berger has a proven gameplan to ignite a fire and get a growing army of Joes and Janes talking about you.


Review: Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues by Jake Breeden

tipping sacred cowsThis review first ran in the April 8 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues

By Jake Breeden



You’ve come up with a pretty cool and innovative solution to a money-wasting problem at work.

You fly the idea past your boss. Your boss likes the idea and, with nothing on the agenda at the next weekly team meeting, pencils you in for an hour of air time.

You pitch your idea to the team. A third of your colleagues appear to be vital signs absent. A third are preoccupied with their smartphones. And the remaining third, peeved that the meeting wasn’t scrubbed, tee off on you and your idea like a piñata.

Your boss mercifully brings the drubbing to a close and asks the team to email you their feedback.

Nothing lands in your inbox.

Time passes and you tell your boss that you’re ready, willing and able to test drive the idea on your own. Your boss, confusing you with an eight-year-old, reminds you that there is no “I” in team. Around here, we always do better by working together.

So you get 30 seconds at the end of another team meeting to ask if anyone’s interested in joining a planning, implementation and evaluation committee. Now everyone’s VSA.

Your boss takes the lack of feedback and the no-show of hands as a sure sign that now’s not the best time to roll out your idea. You’re told that maybe your idea could be revisited in a few months when everyone’s not so busy and the whole team can get engaged in a more fulsome discussion.

Welcome to the dark side of collaboration.

“Putting everyone together all the time means that the instinct to collaborate trumps the need to collaborate and it becomes unclear who or what can really contribute to results,” says Jake Breeden, a teacher with Duke Corporate Education and author of Tipping Sacred Cows. “It’s time to plant a new decision tree in your brain: is the outcome worth the cost of this collaboration?”

Breeden says working solo should be our default position, collaborating only when it’s helpful and not because it’s an unquestioned sacred cow. The payoff from collaboration must be greater than the pain of getting and keeping everyone on the same page.

We all have what Breeden calls a “getting things done” muscle. If we don’t flex it, the muscle atrophies and we lose our ability to carry a heavy load and step up when an individual act of excellence is needed. “Meetings are ritualized collaboration, with more talking about the work than doing the work. A calendar full of meetings indicates a collaboration binge. Just sitting in office chairs all day makes workers soft around the middle, spending the majority of time connected with others weakens the productivity core.”

Not only does our “getting things done” muscle go to seed, personal accountability also fades fast when it’s always all hands on deck.

“When everyone is collectively responsible for something, too often no one is personally accountable for it. If things don’t work out according to plan, it’s easy to blame the entire team instead of the individual.”

Breeden advocates ruthlessly eliminating automatic collaboration, making teams temporary, letting underperformers sink or swim, owning your results and getting work done by hunkering down on your own and unplugging from emails, voice mail and other distractions.

“There is no greater danger to productivity than the standing committee meeting — a team for the sake of a team, a meeting for the sake of a meeting. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself, and set aside the time and space you need to get things done.”

Along with automatic rather than accountable collaboration, Breeden warns against the dangers of six other leadership virtues with the potential to cripple your career and damage your organization:

  • Bland rather than bold balance. “Disguising indecision as a bland compromise that attempts to achieve many things but ends up accomplishing nothing.”
  • Narcissistic rather than useful creativity. “Wasting ime and money coming up with new ideas because it feels good, not because it’s needed.”
  • A focus on process rather than outcome excellence. “Spending too much energy producing perfect work instead of developing the quick-and-dirty solution needed now.”
  • A preoccupation with outcome rather than process fairness. “Keeping score and evening the score to make sure no one gets more than their fair share.”
  • Obsessive rather than harmonious passion. “Racing down a path seeking success only to find burn-out and misbehavior instead.”
  • And a preference for backstage rather than onstage preparation. “Planning to do work instead of productively working out just-in-time solutions with just the right people.”

“The truth is that many workplace values that seem beyond reproach actually do hidden damage,” says Breeden. “These are values that on the one hand give us life and direction, and on the other hand can steal our energy, effectiveness and success.”

The trick is to take a hard look at previously unquestioned virtues and your personal beliefs, keep the good and sidestep the unintended bad effects.

“Some leaders become fully aware and steadily mindful of the downsides of their and their companies’ most cherished and unquestioned virtues and, in the process, renew their spirits, get more down and enjoy more success. The goal is to stay true to yourself while avoiding the ways your unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviours can backfire.”