SXSW 2013: Contagious – Why Things Catch On

I sat down this afternoon to a talk that arguably took the cake at SXSW 2013. Jonah Berger, graduate of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, talked to our crowd about the science behind true virality, which he explores in his book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

The regrettably brief panel began with a story of a New York-based friend with a clandestine bar, accessible only by a reservation uttered over an old school rotary phone booth connection. The lesson being that everyone loves secrets and being let in on them. If you are feeling intrigued, it’s a spot called Please Don’t Tell in NYC. Jonah’s message was concise (thank goodness).

Word of Mouth

The studies he talked about showed time and again that word of mouth trumps paid advertising any day. His suggested focus was on psychology, as opposed to technology. According to research, only 7% of word of mouth takes place online, and the rest is person-to-person.interactions. So how does this knowledge manifest in an agency setting? What makes people talk about and share content?

It’s Not Luck, It’s Science

One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Berger’s talk was his insistence that virality isn’t a product of happenstance; it’s a quantifiable scientific process that can be engineered ahead of time. The same principles guide everyone in what they share with others. There is a logical way to crack contagious content that is likely to spread from person to person. It’s not luck, it’s science: Lesson #1.

Focusing on the Message

The next order of business was focusing on the message, not the messenger. You have to engineer your content to this purpose, without relying on the character who delivers your message. There is actually no data that proves that specific people consistently deliver good messages; so, crafting contagious content is up to the writer.

Steps to Achieve Virality

Berger’s quintessential steps to acheive virality went as follows: Social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories. For example, why is Rebecca Black’s atrocious song such a hit online? How does something that sucks so much become so popular? People search for it on Friday more so than any other day of the week because it’s a time-specific trigger that reminds people to share the video.

Another example presented itself. Cheerios is a really boring product, said Berger; but you’ll still see a spike in conversation around 8 a.m. because people eat cereal in the morning, so it’s top-of-mind. The more you use a product, the more you talk about it. There can be contextual clues, as well. Whether or not it’s intended, peanut butter is always a little advertisement for jelly. That type of helpless association is what brand ambassadors should be going for.

Words of wisdom included “apply the concept,” “consider the context,” and “grow your habitat.” A good hit on these premises is Kit Kat’s association of their candy bars with coffee breaks, a semi-universal habit of people. Working off of such a a prevalent cue in the environment inevitably helps your brand in the long run.

Bottom Line

Make your brand or benefit integral to people’s everyday lives. The Panda Cheese commercials Berger showed at the end of the presentation did a good job of wrapping his points into an overarching theme – make it funny, make it worth it, and never say no to Panda!

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