6 Keys to Contagious Marketing: Book Review

Contagious by Jonah Berger: Relation to advocate marketing

I can’t count the number of marketing meetings I’ve been in where someone said, “let’s plan a viral campaign!” There was always a flurry of activity, with zany ideas going up on the whiteboard. Eventually the meeting would end with a loose promise to ‘take the discussion offline.’

But very few of those zany ideas ever saw the light of day and none came remotely close to being a viral sensation.

The reason seemed straightforward: you can’t engineer a viral campaign any more than you can engineer the weather (though some have tried). The human psyche is just too unpredictable. Viral ideas spread when a hidden switch within us suddenly compels us to share.

Not so, shows Jonah Berger, author of the just-released book “Contagious: Why Things Catch On” and Marketing Professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s his first dip into the world of publishing and already he’s making waves.

Contagious is a fascinating read. Not only is the book packed with entertaining examples of viral campaigns, but each is backed with painstaking analysis into the science of social transmission. What you end up with is a veritable blueprint for creating ideas, campaigns and messages that spread like wildfire.

There are six essential factors that contribute to contagious ideas, shows Jonah, and a quick look at some of the most successful viral campaigns reveals each of them at work:

  1. Social currency. We share things that make us look good or help us compare favorably to others. Exclusive restaurants utilize social currency all the time to create demand. (BTW, so does Influitive’s AdvocateHub, through game mechanics, exclusivity and competition).
  2. Triggers. Ideas that are top of mind spread. Like parasites, viral ideas attach themselves to top of mind stories, occurrences or environments. For example, Mars bar sales spiked when in 1997 when NASA’s Pathfinder mission explored the red planet.
  3. Emotion. When we care, we share. Jonah analyzed over six months of data from the New York Times most emailed list to discover that certain high arousal emotions can dramatically increase our need to share ideas – like the outrage triggered by Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars“.
  4. Public. People tend to follow others, but only when they can see what those others are doing. There is a reason why baristas put money in their own tip jar at the beginning of a shift. Ideas need to be public to be copied.
  5. Practical. Humans crave the opportunity to give advice and offer tips (one reason why advocate marketing works – your best customers love to help out), but especially if they offer practical value. It’s why we ‘pay it forward’ and help others. Sharing is caring.
  6. Stories – People do not just share information, they tell stories. And stories are like Trojan horses, vessels that carry ideas, brands, and information. To benefit the brand, stories must not only be shared but also relate to a sponsoring company’s products. Thus the epic failure of viral sensations like Evian’s roller baby video (50M views) that did little to stem Evian’s 25% drop in sales.

There is so much this book offers marketers, making it required reading that follows in the footsteps of Malcolm Gladwell and the Heath brothers. It also perfectly demonstrates why advocate marketing is such a powerful idea for modern marketers. Viral campaigns eschew overt marketing messages by cleverly tapping into consumer wants, desires and emotional needs. Similarly, advocate marketing helps marketers reach audiences through a more effective and trusted means than direct messaging.

Advocate marketing also cleverly utilizes the six ingredients necessary for contagious ideas. Advocacy provides social currency and emotional appeal, and it’s a highly public act triggered by bigger events like product launches, events and campaigns. Advocate marketing lets customers pass on practical advice and knowledge typically through personal stories (as an example, note how our customer success stories focus personal achievement as much as business value).

Advocacy is not the same as brand loyalty. I am a repeat United Airlines customer and belong to their loyalty program – but I do not proactively promote or refer them to others. Nor is advocacy defined by social media. As Jonah points out, every day the average American consumer engages in more than sixteen word of mouth episodes, yet only 7% of those episodes are conducted online.

Like gift giving, advocacy is an inherently selfish function disguised as altruism. (We tend to choose gifts that we like over ones that the recipient likes, Jonah points out.) We share our experiences because that act enhances our personal and professional reputation and makes us feel good. When marketers tap into these very human needs, they can reach a much broader audience with a more genuine message than any advertisement can provide.

  • ShawnDesouza

    Jim, this is a great synopsis. It reminds me of Seth Godin’s Book Unleashing the Ideavirus which came out over a decade ago and is, in many ways, still relevant. http://www.sethgodin.com/ideavirus/