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Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger
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Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger

The phenomenon of viral videos seems to have blindsided us, come out of nowhere with the explosion of YouTube, the ubiquity of email, the thriving of social media, and the accessibility of technology that makes content production accessible. Would Double Rainbow Guy have become the sensation he was in any other area? It's difficult to say, but what was it about his shaky, handheld video that caused millions of people to share it with others who in turn shared it with still others? What are the mechanisms that inspire word-of-mouth recommendations for products and ideas, whatever the available technology or medium, and how can these mechanisms be harnessed with purpose? Jonah Berger has studied the way ideas catch on and are passed around, and while others have examined the phenomena from anecdotal perspectives, Berger approaches the study from a social scientist's point of view, sharing his work in courses at The Wharton School, where he is a professor. His book Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013) explains that twenty to fifty percent of purchasing decisions are inspired by word of mouth, and contrary to what one might expect from the omnipresence of flash-in-the-pan YouTube stars, only seven percent of that word of mouth is spread online in email or social media.

Berger and his fellow researchers have isolated six characteristics of popular ideas spread by word of mouth, calling them STEPPs that lead to things being talked about, shared, or imitated: Social currency (the idea that passing along information can make a person look good in the eyes of others), Triggers (the way one idea or object can be associated with other ideas or objects), Emotion (the way an idea or object makes people feel), Public (the visibility of an idea or object in everyday lives), and Practical value (the usefulness of an idea or object). Using specific, familiar, fascinating examples of successfully contagious ideas and products such as the hundred-dollar cheesesteak, the candy bar that hitched a ride on the popularity of coffee, and the anti-smoking campaign that mimicked iconic cigarette ads, Berger explains each concept, then explains how it works, effectively removing the elements of mystery, randomness, or luck.

If you've ever Instagrammed a photo of some new restaurant or its fare, you've leveraged social currency in spreading word of the new place, whether that was your intention or not. The photo tells others that you're trying new, interesting things, says Berger, and that people who follow you in social media can experience them too, through their association with us. This also happens in the break room at work, where conversation is often more about social convention than meaningful discourse. "Hey, I tried out that new place on Friday" is trading in social currency. If your idea or product can come across in a way that plays to others' desire for some concept of social clout, you've taken a first step toward having a contagious thing.

One of the more interesting (and abstract, and broadly reaching) concepts Berger shares is about triggers If you've ever taken interest in the conceptual DNA of ideas, the chapter on triggers is likely a must-read. One cheesy slogan can influence college students to eat more fruits and vegetables when a similar cheesy slogan has no effect because it manages, even without students being aware they're doing it, to tie the concept of a lunch tray to the concept of healthier eating, effectively using a lunch tray as a visual trigger for a desired behavior. The trickiest and power of this concept is mind-blowing, and Berger spends a good amount of time exploring it's nuances.

Berger's writing style is almost accessible to a fault. His friendly tone at times makes the paragraphs slow to get where they're going, but this is a small complaint in the face of some pretty heady, academic stuff. His language is remarkably readable, and can safely be recommended, despite the complexity of some of its thinking, even to reasonably smart high-schoolers. Much is made of some of the rockstars currently sharing big, conceptual thinking with the masses, and Berger fits quite easily on the same reading lists.

Most important is the practical value of this work, whether the audience is interested in applying it to his or her own ideas and products, or simply fascinated by his or her own unwitting (or witting) participation in the word-of-mouth machinery we all contribute to. Interestingnes is no guarantee of word-of-mouth success, but in the case of Contagion, it might be enough for the reader to share it with a few well-chosen friends.


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Book Review: Contagious by Jonah Berger - Executive Leadership Articles

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