Contagious: 6 Reasons Things Catch On

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger spent the last 10 years looking into what makes things popular. Questions like: Why are some stories, ads, and rumors more infectious than others? Why do some things go viral? The result is his interesting book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Aristotle pondered something similar. Of course he wasn’t worried about viral content but he did wonder what makes speech persuasive and memorable, lacking a retweet button, that was the only way it would pass from person to person. He believed the answer was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos.

Discussing this, Maria Konnikova writes:

Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic—it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.

(Although there is a nuance. Ethos is about appealing to people’s character.)

This is rather broad and Aristotle never had the advantage/curse of big data. Berger did. Together with Katherine Milkman, they analyzed about 7,000 articles that appeared in the Times to determine what made some pieces catch on more than others. They identified two key features: how positive the message was and how much it excited the reader.

Since this initial look, Berger has continued to study and refine why things catch on. He’s come up with a formula of sorts: the six key steps to drive people to talk and share. In an interview, summarizing the book, he described the STEPPS as:

  1. Social currency: It’s all about people talking about things to make themselves look good, rather than bad
  2. Triggers: which is all about the idea of “top of mind, tip of tongue.” We talk about things that are on the top of our heads.
  3. Ease for emotion: When we care, we share. The more we care about a piece of information or the more we’re feeling physiologically aroused, the more likely we pass something on.
  4. Public: When we can see other people doing something, we’re more likely to imitate it.
  5. Practical value: Basically, it’s the idea of news you can use. We share information to help others, to make them better off.
  6. Stories: or how we share things that are often wrapped up in stories or narratives.

The irony is the better people get at headlines to make us click the less effective this formula becomes. “If everyone is perfectly implementing the best headline to pass on, it’s not as effective any more,” Berger says. “What used to be emotionally arousing simply isn’t any longer.”

Contagious: Why Things Catch On will help you understand why things go viral and how people rope you into clicking on sexy headlines.