Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)
Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)
Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | 210 pages ex-notes (256 official)
Blurb/Description: In a concise and extremely well-written and engaging book, Wharton professor Jonah Berger identifies the six key “STEPPS” that make content go viral.
Summary: As I discuss in the September 2018 mental models memo, I read Contagious as part of a thematic study of advertising. It was fun to compare/contrast the book with two classics by one of the fathers of American advertising, David Ogilvy – Berger brings modern research and modern digital context to many of the principles Ogilvy espoused on his way to world-renowned success.
While many business books tend toward redundancy or triteness, Berger’s does neither: he provides strong supports for the points he makes, and doesn’t keep hammering them home in different ways for the sake of filling up extra pages.
Lowlights: There’s not much (if anything) to dislike about this book. However, its conclusions – while well-researched – will probably feel pretty intuitive to those already versed in mental models.
Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: social proof, path dependency, salience, base rates, habit,utility, storytelling, overconfidence, memory, n-order impacts, contrast bias, incentives, correlationvs. causation, chronotypes, disaggregation, trait adaptivity, product vs. packaging, framing, complexity
You should buy a copy of Contagious: Why Things Catch On if: you’re a business leader (or content creator) who wants to understand how to leverage specific mental models to maximize your word-of-mouth reach.
Reading Tips: none.
“If I disappeared, would you notice I’m not here?” Askeladden’s September 2018 mental models memo, summarizing some of the highlights of what I learned from studying advertising.
“Ogilvy on Advertising” by David Ogilvy (OnA review + notes) and The Unpublished David Ogilvy” (Oglvy review + notes). These two books complement each other very well; “Unpublished” is more theoretical in nature while “Ogilvy on Advertising” breaks down a number of (pictured) ads to explore the exact reasons why they do (or don’t) work.
Ogilvy does have a third book as well – “Confessions of an Advertising Man“ – but if you read Unpublished and Ogilvy on Advertising, Confessions is rendered mostly redundant and not worth the incremental time to read.
“Behind the Cloud” by Marc Benioff (BtC review + notes). There are a number of good read-acrosses from Berger’s theory to in-depth real-world applications, but one of my favorites is how Marc Benioff skillfully leveraged a lot of Berger’s techniques to launch Salesforce into the global limelight.
Reread Value: 3/5 (medium)
More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):
IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK. Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive. It was primarily created for my own personal reference.
Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference. Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.” Do so at your own peril.
I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases. First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.
Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall. However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.
Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made. I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning. Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.
Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.
Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.
Pages 2 – 3: The book starts out discussing the challenges facing new restaurants (with a high failure rate). One of the major problems is awareness (and, though Berger doesn’t say it, mindshare) – how do you ensure locals know about your restaurant… and are thinking about it?
Berger relays the story of a $100 cheesesteak at a new steakhouse in Philly, which got a lot of people talking.
Pages 4 – 5: Berger here introduces the concept of “social epidemics” and “social contagion” – i.e. social proof interacting with path-dependency to allow some products to become vastly more popular than others.
Pages 7 -9: Berger discusses the breadth of social influence. We may not realize it, but we share a lot about brands and products in the course of conversation, and
“Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”
Berger goes on to note one of the obvious advantages of word of mouth: targeting. I’m sitting here watching an NFL game, and there are plenty of ads that are completely irrelevant to me. On the other hand, as Berger puts it,
“We don’t share a news story or recommendation with everyone we know. Rather, we tend to select particular people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant…
we’re not going to tell a friend who doesn’t have kids about the best way to change a diaper.”
Berger uses a publisher as an example: they sent him two copies of a book, one to read and one to send to someone who he thought would enjoy it.
Pages 10 – 12: While we assume that social media and online dominates word of mouth, Berger cites some research estimating that only 7% of word of mouth happens online. (Of course, this figure will likely grow, but it’s still a surprisingly low number.)
Berger attributes this (in other words) to salience bias – social media posts and emails are easy to see; we forget about a lot of the casual conversations we have waiting in line, in the car, etc.
Berger also highlights that:
“Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies” –
he observes that:
“fifty percent of YouTube videos have fewer than five hundred views.”
Pages 14 – 15: Berger disputes the social media era notion that “influencers” are all that matter. He focuses instead on the mass impact of the everyman sharing.
Berger also disputes the notion that “virality,” as he calls it, is completely random – as well as the notion that it’s completely predictable. He discusses survivorship bias (see inversion) – noting that:
“By merely looking at a handful of viral hits, people miss the fact that many of those features also exist in content that failed to attract any audience whatsoever.
To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and failures.”
Berger wants to figure out, by looking at the whole data set, what “characteristics are linked to success.”
Pages 16 – 18: Fascinating story behind how the Blendtec launched itself into my family’s kitchen cabinet (and millions of others). Apparently what got it famous is the Will It Blend campaign – a marketer, recognizing how remarkable the Blendtec’s ability to blend 2x4s and other hardy materials, suggesting videotaping it and putting it up on YouTube.
The videos proved popular and were widely shared – not bad for a low-budget ad campaign!
Page 21!: Here, Berger references a book called “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath – the former of whom was Berger’s graduate school mentor. It sounded interesting – it’s about what makes ideas “sticky” or memorable – so I ordered a copy (haven’t read it yet).
Pages 22 – 25: Berger briefly reviews the six key ingredients – “STEPPS” – he believes drive social contagion. They are:
- Social currency (does sharing this make someone look smart/cool?)
2) Triggers (yup, think Duhigg and Febreze and habit – we’ll get there)
3) Emotion (does this make us feel something?)
4) Public (can people see this / is it observable?)
5) Practical value (something like utility – is this helpful information?)
6) Stories (see storytelling)
The acronym is STEPPS.
Pages 32 – 34: I mention in my September 2018 mental models memo (If I Disappeared, Would You Notice I’m Not Here?) that in some senses, there’s nothing new under the sun: much of modern advertising theory appears to derive, in one way or another, from the Dale Carnegie classic How To Win Friends and Influence People ( HWFIP review + notes).
Berger, here, discussing a sort-of-secret bar called Please Don’t Tell, notes that we love sharing things that make us look cool… or things about ourselves: harken back to Carnegie noting the best way to get someone to like you is to listen to them talk about their own interests.
Berger updates the obvious social paradigms with some neuroscience: Harvard researchers Mitchell and Tamir found that:
“Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding… activat[ing] the same brain circuits that respond to rewards like food and money.”
Pages 37, 39: Berger notes that many products have “inner remarkability” that isn’t immediately obvious. “Remarkability” should, in some senses, be interpreted literally – is there something you can remark on? Fun/cool facts that make you the life of a party have social utility… and your product can hitch onto these.
Pages 40 – 41: Interesting bit about memory here that may be a bit tangential; in any event, Berger notes that – whether intentionally, accidentally, or a combination of both – extreme stories tend to get more extreme over time as we forget or inflate the details.
Page 42: Remarkability is, of course, relative – an economy airline experience that doesn’t feel like being in a sardine can might not have been remarkable once upon a time, but it is now.
Berger doesn’t mention it, but there is somewhat of a risk here in the sense of n-order impacts and contrast bias. Don Norman, in his landmark The Design of Everyday Things ( DOET review + notes), as well as others like Professor Youngme Moon in her “Different” discuss the perils of featuritis – one of the easiest ways to differentiate a product is just to tweak it a little (new, faster processor!) – but eventually consumers get tired of what seem like minor differences.
Page 45: Berger talks frequent flier programs and “gamification” – loyalty cards are applicable as well here.
Pages 46 – 47: Berger doesn’t go terribly deeply into the idea of “game mechanics” – but he does mention that loyalty cards at coffeeshops increase sales. Shawn Achor provides some further color on this on pages 117 – 120 of “Before Happiness” (BH review + notes).
Berger talks about status and notes that airline loyalty programs leverage this with exclusive lounges, check-in, etc (doesn’t hurt that these are publicly visible, too.)
Finally, Berger notes contrast bias, citing a Harvard study finding that (counterintuitively) we prefer making less money (absolute dollars) as long as it is more than our peers, rather than more money (absolute dollars) if it’s less than our peers.
Pages 48 – 50: Berger notes that it has to be clear / easy what the status is.
Page 51: Berger notes that awards and voting contests can spread word of mouth, and also help people identify with a brand.
Pages 52 – 55: Rue La La went from dud to star by leveraging scarcity bias – by making sales seem “exclusive” (as well as limited in time) – you give people transactional utility, as Thaler might put it (quality of the deal).
Similarly, if only a few people know about it, you feel like an “insider” – see the earlier discussion of Please Don’t Tell (the phonebooth bar).
Page 57: A similar story is the McRib, which wasn’t popular until McDOnald started making it a limited-time offer.
Pages 58 – 59: Berger here mentions an interesting twist on incentives and intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: paying people for things that are intrinsically motivating can sometimes crowd out intrinsic interest.
Berger notes that social incentives, rather than monetary ones, can be more effective in driving behavior in the long-term.
Page 62: Moving on, Berger highlights a surprising analogy: Cheerios are more talked about than Disney World. Obviously the latter is more remarkable, but people eat Cheerios way more frequently than they visit Disney – so every breakfast is potentially a “trigger” to think about Cheerios.
Pages 64 – 65: DIscussing the consumer word-of-mouth marketing firm BzzAgent, which basically gives consumers free items and mail-in rebates to give to their friends for the same items, Berger notes that we mention brands way more frequently than we think we do.
There’s also a brief reference to the March of Dimes here, which (at least historically, during the polio era) is a fascinating example of advertising. See, of course, Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky ( PaaS review + notes) for a thorough and engaging exploration thereof.
Pages 68 – 69: Triggers are also important, Berger points out, because stuff that is interesting (but doesn’t have a frequent trigger) has an initial spike, but it may not persist. (I’d call this the “fifteen minutes of fame” phenomenon – how many viral stars have failed to build a long term brand?)
For most products, ongoing discussion and awareness is perhaps more important than initial discussion, so finding a way to create frequent triggers is helpful.
Page 70: I mentioned Charles Duhigg earlier; another related concept that ties in to Berger’s discussion of triggers here is Laurence Gonzales talking about recall cues in “Surviving Survival”(SvSv review + notes).
Our brains are actually wired to mistake correlation vs. causation; Gonzales as well as Shawn Achor, in “ Before Happiness” ( BH review + notes), discusses how people with Botox have trouble feeling happy. Why?
Smiling is a “recall cue” (or trigger) for feeling happy… and vice versa.
Berger notes that sales of Mars Bars went up when NASA did an expedition to Mars. It also reminds me a little bit (though driven by different phenomena) of Richard Thaler’s findings in the stock market – for example, the CUBA closed-end fund jumping on Obama discussing Cuba, despite that fund having no relationship to Cuba.
Pages 71 – 73: Here’s the classic discussion of music triggering wine purchases… that’s less unique than some interesting research cited by Berger (that he did) on how a specific slogan that students found corny actually influenced behavior more than a generic one they liked more.
Page 80: We’re getting to takeaways here in a minute, but an interim conclusion by Berger is that often, a frequent trigger is more important than initial interest. Contrasting Budweiser’s “wassup” with Geico’s “caveman,” Berger notes the former is a much more frequent trigger among the target demographic than the latter.
Also cross-reference here Ogilvy’s discussion of humor and sex in advertising: it’s great if related to the product, but often if it’s not directly tied to the product, it’ll be remembered… while your product is forgotten. See Ogilvy on Advertising (OnA review + notes).
Pages 82 – 83: “Kit Kat and coffee” is highlighted by Berger as a great use of triggers: coffee is something that many of us think about very frequently, so if we learn to associate Kit-Kats with coffee, there are very frequent triggers for thinking about Kit Kats.
Page 85: Berger doesn’t go super deep into it here, but he brings up how one famous antismoking campaign mimicked Marlboro’s cowboy ads to “hijack” the Marlboro brand awareness and make Marlboro ads a trigger for people thinking about the dangers of cigarette smoking. (Berger says researchers call this a “poison parasite” strategy.)
In the real world, now-giant cloud CRM leader Salesforce used this strategy to hijack brand and media awareness of Siebel Systems. Founder Marc Benioff discusses in the engaging “ Behind the Cloud” ( BtC review + notes) how Salesforce effectively made all Sibel announcements a trigger for thinking about Salesforce – they made press releases around the same time, staged stunts at Siebel events, and just generally put themselves (via advertising) in the same conversation as Siebel, even though they were a total upstart.
Page 86: Berger notes that strength is important in addition to frequency – he uses peanut butter and jelly as an example of a strong link (it’s nearly impossible to think of peanut butter without thinking of jelly). For many people (me included), Sunday is a strong trigger for football… for others, it may be a strong trigger for church. There is one specific piece of music that is a strong trigger for “a wedding is going on.” At least for me, a certain kind of wood smoke scent is a strong trigger for “BBQ.” Etcetera.
On the other hand, some triggers are very weak – Berger uses the example of a color (red).
Page 89: Berger talks about how sometimes triggers can be misplaced (locationally or temporally) – we often remember we needed to take the reusable grocery bag once we’re already in the parking lot of the grocery store.
He doesn’t go deep into it; for a more thorough exploration of memory, see either Don Norman’s “ The Design of Everyday Things” ( DOET review + notes) – which contains helpful practical solutions like “forcing functions” to these sorts of challenges – or Daniel Schacter’s “ The Seven Sins of Memory” ( 7SOM review + notes).
Page 91*: This is completely off-topic vis-a-vis advertising and social contagion, but Till Roenneberg – author of “ Internal Time” ( IntTm review + notes) – would have something to say about the graph at the top of page 91.
Mentions of “Cheerios” on Twitter (a proxy for what time people are eating breakfast… and thus also a reasonable proxy for what time they woke up) spike meaningfully later on weekends than the do on weekdays.
Why? Work start times are, on average, much too early for our chronotypes in modern society; many of us are sleep-deprived during the week.
Pages 96 – 97: Some image. Also, with regards to the most-shared lists, again of course see the MusicLab experiment in Michael Mauboussin’s “ The Success Equation” ( TSE review + notes) – it’s a great example of path-dependency.
Page 98: This description of “brutalist” architecture perfectly describes my college campus at the time I attended… now, of course, after I’ve left, it’s actually somewhat pretty.
Pages 101 – 102: Things that are interesting, useful, and those that provoke awe turn out to be some of the most-shared articles.
Pages 107 – 109: In news that would make Shawn Achor happy, positive articles are more likely to be shared than negative ones.
Berger makes the point – similar to Shawn Achor in “ The Happiness Advantage” ( THA review + notes) and “ Before Happiness” ( BH review + notes) – that we don’t have to worry about being eaten, but we still have the same automatic responses in new circumstances ( trait adaptivity).
Page 112: It would’ve been cheaper for United to fix the broken guitar. Reminds me a little bit of Ogilvy here.
Page 113: I like Berger’s observation here about most people knowing that the food they eat isn’t healthy… but there’s no emotional reason to do otherwise.
From an advertising perspective, Berger notes that you thus have to create some emotional linkage.
Page 116: Referencing the aforementioned “Made to Stick” here, Berger advocates using “three whys” – in other words, disaggregation – to find the emotional impact. He references the Google Parisian Love ad here (worth watching).
Pages 121 – 122: One of the more interesting takeaways here is that physiological arousal increases sharing… so having someone do something as simple as jogging (rather than sitting and relaxing) can get them to share. There are, elsewhere, parallels to how walking might stimulate thoughts.
Pages 128 – 129: On the adaptive basis for social proof: other people’s behavior, on average, provides useful information. That can cause us to do silly things in certain situations… but most of the time is helpful
Page 141: Those annoying “sent from my iPhone” footers apparently actually worked to launch Hotmail… although in that case, they included a link people could use to sign up.
Page 146: Similarly, the yellow Lance Armstrong bands stood out…
Pages 147 – 149: Berger here brings up the concept of “behavioral residue” – which is interesting:
“The physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake. Mystery lovers have shelves full of mystery novels… runners have trophies, t-shirts, or medals from participating in 5Ks.”
“On the other hand, social scientists generally find less conformity… when people are asked to give anonymous answers.
People become more likely to conform when they know that other people will see what they have to say.”
Via inversion, if you can find a way to make virtuous private behavior public, social proof kicks in. Berger here uses “I voted” stickers as an example. I’d also point to fitbits, or Weight Watchers before that…
A lesson here for designing swag: make it swag that people will use in public!
Pages 151 – 153: On n-order impacts: anti-drug commercials, paradoxically, increased drug use by normalizing it via social proof: kids who wouldn’t have thought about doing drugs now realized drugs were a thing people could be doing.
Berger cites the Cialdini Petrified Forest example with a better explanation than Sunstein/Thaler (hey, I’m unbiased!) – Berger clearly delineates that focusing on previous theft socially reinforced that it’s OK to pick up wood from the forest; focusing on preserving the forest didn’t do this.
Page 158: This is an outstanding quote:Q: What one book would you take to a desert island? A: A book on shipbuilding. – William F. Buckley Jr. Click To Tweet
Page 159: Berger differentiates his “practical value” dimension from the “social currency” dimension by arguing the former is more about the receiver’s benefit; the latter is more about the giver’s benefit. I’m not so sure you can draw a bright line. But anyway.
Pages 161 – 163: On contrast bias as it relates to evaluating saving $10 in the context of a small or large purchase. See, of course, Richard Thaler’s “ Misbehaving” ( M review + notes), or the product vs. packaging mental model. Berger cites Thaler, Tversky, and Kahneman here.
Pages 166 – 168: Mostly old hat discussion, but some neat proof that people respond to transactional utility: marking an item on sale without changing its price apparently spurs sales meaningfully (by more than 50%).
Page 171: The “Rule of 100” is, like Don Norman’s Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion trick, neat shorthand. For products less than $100, percentage discounts seem larger; for products greater than 100, dollars seem larger.
Framing applies here – see also Thaler, in Misbehaving ( M review + notes), on discounts on cars vs. cash back. By calling out the $1,000 cash back on its own, it’s being framed against 0, against which it seems bigger, instead of against a $30K car price, against which it seems smaller.
Page 172: Thaler would also have something to say about this. Berger notes that he is:
“Terrible at investing… my curiosity got the best of me. I frantically checked every day how each stock was doing… hopelessly despondent, [I] consider[ed] giving up investing ever again.”
Of course, one of Thaler’s best pieces of advice is: you’ll be better off the less frequently you check your portfolio! (As an individual investor anyway; I do have to be aware of what’s cheap, on a relatively frequent basis, so I can buy it.)
Page 176: Berger mentions how – unfortunately – some of the factors he’s discussed led to the spread of the vaccines-cause-autism conspiracy theory, and the subsequent, well-publicized decline in vaccination rates.
See, of course, Dr. Paul Offit’s “ Deadly Choices” ( VAX review + notes) for more on the backstory, and the tragic contemporary consequences, of parents’ misguided decision to not vaccinate their kids.
Page 181: Berger goes into storytelling a bit here,
Great quote:People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride. – Jonah Berger Click To Tweet
Page 187: He goes further:
“Stories provide a quick and easy way for people to acquire lots of knowledge in a vivid and engaging fashion.”
He also notes:
“People are also less likely to argue against stories than against advertising claims.”
Pages 190 – 193: The discussion of photoshopping a model reminds me a bit of Brene Brown’s discussion of literally cut-and-pasting the perfect body. I think it’s in “I Thought It Was Just Me.” Berger notes that the campaign is a compelling story and a Trojan Horse for Dove.
Page 195: Here is another clear Ogilvy parallel. Like Ogilvy’s naked woman (see “Ogilvy on Advertising” – OnA review + notes), a casino’s stunt of sponsoring someone to crash the Olympics failed… because a dude in a tutu doing a belly flop off the Olympic diving board has nothing to do with a casino. (Interestingly, I couldn’t even find the video on Google after a few search terms.)
The lesson? Stunt marketing only works when the stunt involves your brand as an integral part of the story. Sam Walton pulled this off particularly effectively at Wal-Mart, as discussed several times in “ Made in America” ( WMT review + notes).
Pages 196 – 197: Berger extends the discussion by noting that Evian’s “Roller Babies” commercial was famous, but didn’t really have anything to do with Evian, and from that perspective was a massive flop.
See, again, Ogilvy on creativity vs. the cash register ringing – he discusses how many advertisements that win awards are not actually effective ads.
Pages 204 – 205: A fascinating example of the interaction of path-dependency and social proofthat I’d noticed in high school, well before I read about it here and elsewhere: the ethnic clustering of certain professions. (Vietnamese nail salons, Indian hotels and gas stations, Korean donut shops, etc.)
The idea is that – often by chance – a few people get started, and then there’s massive imitation thereafter (which is rational – you have a support network, etc.)
N-order impacts and complexity also relevant here.
Page 206: As much as I like Berger’s book, I do think that he may underplay the importance of “Influencers” given what he just said about path-dependency… if what’s popular is popular (see MusicLab), then helping things get popular is probably helpful.
Page 207: To review: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, Stories. That’s what makes things get shared.
First Read: summer 2018
Last Read: summer 2018
Number of Times Read: 1
Planning to Read Again?: no
Review Date: fall 2018
Notes Date: fall 2018