Contagious: Why Things Catch On

by Jay Connor, August 1, 2013

Six Elements to Turn Your Ideas of Collective Impact Viral,

Jonah Berger in his recently published book, “Contagious,” has given us a very good read that builds on “Switch” and “The Tipping Point.”  In essence we are introduced to a means to put into practice what were simply observations in the Heath’s and Gladwell’s separate takes on how to influence others.  Those of us who work across sectors in community are always trying to find the magic formula for engaging and moving our respective audiences to action.

For Berger, there are six essential factors that contribute to contagious ideas: think of them as the STEPPS to having your ideas catch on.  Not all elements are necessary for an idea to catch on, but a combination of some or all these elements would certainly increase the likelihood. (A key note here is that this is not all about virality in an Internet context — according to Berger only 7% of real world contagion occurs on the web; the vast majority of ideas that catch on are still transported word of mouth.)  A quick look at some of the most successful viral campaigns reveals each of these elements at work.

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.  In community: involvement in an effort to solve seemingly intractable problems would provide social currency, but if jargon makes it too hard to explain either the issue or the solution we preclude virality.

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.  In community: think of how to frame your ideas in order that they might have triggers for the larger community.  For example: your work on poverty reduction might have more triggers if you were also able to talk about it in economic development or community betterment terms.

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” video.  In community: we’ve been fairly adept at the first part of the equation – care – but we have had more difficulty with creating the vehicle for sharing, be it a video, website or story.

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.  In community: the question should be: what is the behavior we want repeated and how to we publicly model it.

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.  In community: have you provided your advocates with a story, checklist or tool to share that brings practical value.  Many communities have developed a “kindergarten-readiness checklist” for this purpose.

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.

As you are developing your marketing campaign or community engagement strategy, you should put it through the test of the STEPPS elements.  It will move you from your frame of reference to your audiences’ and that is the beginning of being contagious!

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