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.


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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