• Alex Vikner

Contagious: 6 Ways to Generate Word of Mouth

Jonah Berger explains why some things go viral while others flop in his book Contagious—the central idea being that word of mouth is the key to allowing your product/idea to catch on in the digital world.


I. Word of mouth drives $6T of annual consumer spending (13% of consumer sales).

II. People are 90% more likely to trust and buy from a brand recommended by a friend.


These 6 principles or STEPPS for virality will get people to share your message. Remember: virality isn't born; it's made!


1. Social Currency

How do we get people talking and make our products and ideas viral? One way is to leverage social currency. People like to make a good impression on others so we need to find a way to make people look good while promoting our product or idea. Berger recommends 3 ways of doing this.


Find inner remarkability

Something can be remarkable because it's novel, surprising, or just interesting. Remarkable things provide social currency since they make the people who talk about them seem more remarkable.


One way to generate surprise, is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect. Think of a restaurant that gets buzz from selling a golden steak. It defied expectations and thereby gets people talking.


Leverage game mechanics

Game mechanics are the elements of a game that make it fun. And often they make it fun by encouraging social comparison. We care about our performance compared to others. When playing a game, we don't strive to be good but best or at least better than others.


Leveraging game mechanics involves helping people publicise their achievements.  Foursquare did this by letting users check in at bars and restaurants with their phones. This helps people find their friends, but the company also awards special badges to users based on their check-in history.


Make people feel like insiders

Word of mouth can also be boosted via scarcity and exclusivity. If you have something that few others have, you will feel special. You are also more likely to tell others about it. Why? Because it makes you look good. Having insider knowledge is social currency.


Remember: people share things that make them look good to others.


2. Triggers

Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose and use. Social currency gets people talking, but triggers keep them talking.


Virtually everything we do in life is a matter of habit. Each habit is a loop composed of a cue (a.k.a. a trigger), a routine, and a reward.


By modifying the routine associated with a certain trigger, you can keep people talking about your product or idea for a long time. We call this ongoing word of mouth and it is far more desirable. Not all word of mouth is created equal!


Moreover, different locations contain different triggers. In one study, voters were shown to be more likely to vote in favour of school funding when the polling place was a school.


So when crafting a message, consider the context. Products and ideas have habitats or sets of triggers that cause people to think about them. Growing an idea’s habitat by creating new links to stimuli in the environment will help generate ongoing word of mouth.


KitKat does this by associating their chocolate bars with coffee in some of their ad campaigns.


Remember: top of mind means tip of tongue.


3. Emotion

Positive articles are more likely to be highly shared than negative ones and articles evoking high arousal emotions (awe, excitement, amusement, anger, anxiety) were more likely to be shared.


Some emotions kindle the fire inside you more than others. Activating those high arousal emotions is the key to transmission. We need to make people excited or make them laugh. We need to make people angry rather than sad if we want to generate word of mouth.


Remember: when we care, we share.


4. Public

Another characteristic that impacts your ability to generate word of mouth is observability. Indeed, more observable things are more likely to become contagious. Why? Because the more public something becomes, the more it triggers people to take action.


Self-advertisement is one way to make things more public. For example, when you send an email from an iPhone, the default signature is "Sent from my iPhone".


The reason this works is because of the psychology of imitation. People often imitate those around them. Don't believe me? Imagine you are in an unfamiliar city and want to go to a restaurant. You go out on the street and are faced with a choice between two Italian restaurants. The only difference is that one is full and the other is empty. Which one do you choose? If you are like most people, you would enter the restaurant that is full because you assume that if lots of people are eating there, it must be good.


Many daily decisions that we make are similar to choosing a restaurant in a foreign city. What book is good to take on vacation? Well, Alex said he read Contagious so I'll give it a go.


Another method is to create behavioural residue, discernible evidence that sticks around even after people have used our product or engaged with our idea. Lululemon did this by creating durable bags that shoppers could reuse for a long time. So they essentially became walking advertisements for the company.


Remember: if something is built to show, it’s built to grow.


5. Practical Value

Another characteristic that increases word of mouth is practicality. People like to pass along practical information to others. Just like social currency is about sharing makes information senders look, practical value is about the information receiver.


Out of these 6 principles of contagiousness, this one is probably the easiest to apply. Almost every product or idea has something useful about it. The difficulty is to effectively highlight the value so that people see and share it.


To highlight value of products, it's useful to understand the psychology of deals. This comes back to prospect theory which I described in my last post. It basically shows that people don't evaluate things in absolute terms, but rather relative to a reference point. €50 for a phone may be cheap in New York but expensive in rural Burundi . Another important tenet of prospect theory is diminishing sensitivity. It reflects the idea that the same change has a smaller impact the farther it is from the reference point. You can see this in thee following graph.


Now how can we apply this? Well, think of the reference point as our expectations. One way to highlight incredible value is to make a promotional offer that surpasses expectations. In turn, that would make it more likely to be shared.


Another factor that affects whether deals seem valuable is their availability. Making promotions more restrictive can make them more effective. However, don't exaggerate! The Internet is full of sites with incredibles deals with 90% off if you make a purchase in the next 10 minutes. This just makes your product look like a scam...


When it comes to deals, framing is also important. Berger recommends the Rule of 100 which says that for products under the price of $100, percentage discounts seem larger than absolute ones, and over $100, absolute discounts seem larger than percentage ones.


Remember: people like to pass along practical, useful information.


6. Stories

Stories are the original form of entertainment and to this day, narratives are inherently more engaging than basic facts. They are also much easier to remember and therefore share.


But stories are not only for entertainment purposes, they are also vessels for valuable information. So creating stories around your product or idea is a great way to generate word of mouth. However, for it to work, the story has to be entertaining and it needs to be built like a Trojan Horse. That is to say that your brand, idea or product needs to be integral to the story. By weaving it deep into the narrative, people will not be able to tell the story without mentioning it.


In trying to craft contagious content, valuable virality is critical. Berger puts it like this: "When trying to generate word of mouth, many people forget one detail. They focus so much on getting people to talk that they forget what really matters: what people are talking about."


Building Trojan Horses is the key to not falling prey to this trap.


Remember: information travels under the guise of idle chatter.


In sum

Try building your own Social Currency-laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan Horse with your message hidden inside (FYI, not all 6 attributes need to be applied together).