Context Book Assignment – Contagious – by Jonah Berger

The author, the book

Brief Synopsis: Contagious:  Why Things Catch On is a brief popular marketing title written by Jonah Berger, Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.  Published in 2013, it is one of a number of similarly oriented titles that describe consumer behavior since the advent of the Internet and viral marketing. Contagious is a quick read with short chapters focusing on situations, experiments, and case studies that will be familiar to all marketing professionals and to observers and analysts of social media. The Notes section contains scholarly and popular citations to enable further exploration.  Given the book’s brevity, the highly detailed index is almost superfluous.

Berger’s contends that 6 principles govern word-of-mouth and social transmission.  Those principles are:

  • Social Currency-making people feel that they are cool insiders
  • Triggers-everyday reminders of an item or idea
  • Emotion-making people want to share the experience with friends
  • Public-that is, a highly visible item advertises itself with inherent or engineered  popularity
  • Practical Value-people like to share practical or helpful information
  • Stories-embedding a product or an idea in a narrative enhances its power

Indeed, he even provides his followers with visual aid to keep these principles top of mind.

STEPPS Word of Mouth Strategy

STEPPS Word of Mouth Strategy

I think these “STEPPS” were chosen to fit the acronym as opposed to being carefully considered principles.  As a grammarian, I am also discomfited that each STEPP is not grammatically and stylistically aligned!  Each STEPP should either be a single-word noun, or all should be adjectival two-word phrases.  The grammatical confusion creates lack of clarity.

I would suggest:  social currency, habitual triggers, emotional impact, public visibility, practical value, and remarkable stories.  These two-word phrases better help me keep their content in mind.   Contagious reviewers such as Zalud and Kakutani point out that these observations are not remarkable in many ways, having been known to anthropologists and advertisers for many years.    What Berger does do well is build the action steps based on data-driven science.

Alignment with Course Content: The findings in Contagious are most congruent with the course materials in Modules 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7 and 10. Berger is focused on consumer behaviors and company actions that align to build participation, engagement and the user experience.  A better user experience should be the driver for all our work!

What LIS professionals can gain from this work:  I chose this book to read because I am keenly aware of the role of word-of-mouth in building service success.  I was looking for both a conceptual planning framework and tips that I could use in our library system to build word of mouth in hybrid situations.

I’ve noted some items below that I think are applicable to our work.

Berger surprised me in his introduction, when he asked the following question:  ”What percent of word-of-mouth do you think happens online? (10).”   Most people respond with ranges from 40-70%.  Berger’s response is 7%, based on research conducted by the Keller Fay group.  As Berger notes, ‘People may spend a lot of time online (2 hours per day), but they spend even more time offline.  We also tend to overestimate online word of mouth because it’s easier to see and track. (11)”.    LIS professionals need to take this finding, test it, and design word of mouth campaigns that focus on likely interpersonal real time interactions.

Further Berger notes that “Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline requires understanding why people talk and why some things get talked about and shared more than others.  The psychology of sharing.  The science of social transmission” (12).  In Berger’s section on social currency he talks about the power of ‘self-sharing’, providing the hard science that demonstrates this innate human activity. [Self sharing activates the brain circuits connected to rewards such as food and money.] This section helped me place in perspective the social media sharing that I am observing and participating in.  It emphasizes the priority to build emotional stories about users to build our business.

LIS professionals can use Berger’s social currency tools to foster positive word of mouth.  Accordingly, “Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression…Think of it as a kind of currency, social currency.  …So to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency.  Give people a way to make themselves look good, while promoting their products and ideas along the way.  There are three ways to do that:  (1) find inner remarkability, (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make people feel like insiders” (36).

In my experience, marketing in public libraries focuses most on game mechanics and less on inner remarkability and the creation of insider experiences.  The sheer remarkability of our collections and their access tools needs to be presented in ways that make people feel good, rather than ‘helped’ or ‘instructed’.  As Berger notes, “The best thing about remarkability, though, is that it can be applied to anything…by thinking about what makes that thing stand out” and that thinking does not require a huge marketing budget.

Most of Berger’s game mechanics examples come from the airline industry and its frequent flyer programs which promote exclusivity (47-49).  Public libraries pride themselves in being places for ‘every man’ and indeed many also follow ‘same service for all’.  As Berger notes, “One way game mechanics motivate is internally (46).”

I’ve seen this principle at work in my own collection of MOOC badges.  What if library customers were flagged, thanked, touted when they read 100 items, watched 100 movies, listened to 100 items?  We have the technical capacity to do this without compromising privacy.  More badges  could be developed for reviews of library materials, program attendance, recommending friends or becoming Mayor of the library (49).    We could also harness the power of our read-alike knowledge to spur social sharing and community caché.

Using a game mechanics model, Berger cites “The Art of the Trench” where Burberry trench coat wearers competed to get their photos on the website (50).  Oak Park Public Library, Ill.  accomplished the same ‘playful insider’ content with its photos of you with your library card.

Because this MOOC has a tribe called “Shelfies”, photos of you with your book shelves, I think libraries could use this self-sharing theme to both engage their users as well as leverage the subsequent social sharing to build our brand.  These and similar activities can work as social currency and triggers whose behavioral residue (147)  build the library brand.

Here’s another library example of triggers and behavioral residue.  Even though recyclable grocery bags are ubiquitous, it’s possible to ‘stand out’ as the King County Library System does with its bags.  Bright, varied, and media-rich, the bags invite….”Where did you get that?” and then an enthusiastic response about the library system, the owner’s last visit and what the conversationalists both like to read, view, listen, to  search for. I know that I will be thinking about triggers and behavioral residue when I next procure library giveaways!

In the second chapter, Triggers, Berger provides a section of commentary on the work of BzzAgent (63-69). It’s a social marketing firm with over 800,000 ‘agents’ or volunteer early adapters that receive free products, blog and talk about them, and log their conversations.  I can’t help but think that libraries could certainly try this type of approach with new services.  It would engage our users and add to their social currency.  I would recommend, as well, that LIS professionals look at Resources on the BzzAgent website.  I’ve looked at a small slice of their client list and will contact them asking about any nonprofit results.

Library systems need to generate both immediate and on-going word of mouth. Berger has a lot to say in this area:

  • Interesting products garner immediate word of mouth.
  • Interesting products, however, do not sustain high levels of word of mouth activity over time.

So Berger asks, “What keeps people talking?”  Contextual triggers in the environment drive top of mind discussions.  I would assume that something as simple as a library road sign would queue conversation or action.  What if the sign changed frequently so that familiarity did not erase impact?   Aaron Schmidt in walkingpaper has some interesting concepts about the use of this symbol.

Libraries are naturally ready to capitalize on the power of ‘story’, Berger’s final STEPP and the topic of MOOC Module 11.  We’ve seen the power of library stories captured in many national, state and local campaigns.  One most recent example is Library Snapshot Day.  Locally, all staff in my library system know that I collect those powerful library stories to use them in many advocacy situations.  Those stories build a sense of community between staff and customers as many are wonderful testimonies to our work.  To move those stories to viral stages requires users to become our megaphones.  More research needs to be done in this area to understand the psychology that would prompt users to share.

Surprisingly, Berger’s experiments indicates that ‘practicality’ and ‘awe’ are the main drivers for social sharing (100).

He also notes “If Social Currency is about information senders, and how sharing makes them look, Practical Value is mostly about the information receiver.  It’s about saving people time or money or helping them have good experiences.  Sure, sharing useful things benefits the sharer as well.  Helping others feels good.  It even reflects positively on the sharer, providing a bit of Social Currency.  But at its core, sharing practical value is about helping others.  The Emotions chapter noted that when we care, we share.  But the opposite is also true.  Sharing is caring” (159).

Sharing practical value builds community.   It seems to me that this is a good ethos for public library service and indicates how these individual values are transformed into a community service.  We need to share more practical news, leading our users to continue that sharing.

Berger provides some cautionary information when he introduces prospect theory and behavioral economics in chapter 4.  He notes, as the work of  Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Economics prize, indicates.  ”People don’t evaluate things in absolute terms.  They evaluate them relative to a reference point” (163).  Librarians implementing word-of-mouth marketing will need to match their messages to the many different contexts of the receivers.

How this work’s focus impacts library services and users:  Contagious may be used as one of series of works introducing librarians to more effective ways to increase participative programming and library market awareness.  It could bolster a marketing plan by providing the background research for the action steps.

Using intentional marketing techniques to promote library services enables customers to be more aware and interested in the range of services and has the potential to increase users as word of mouth is shared.

How this work’s findings affect the way we exchange and share information:  In this small book, Berger attempts to explain the motivation behind word of mouth exchanges.   Understanding the motivation for human communication and keeping up with the research and applied science in this area can be used to deliberately ‘plan’ word of mouth campaigns.

As these popular social science books multiply, it would be my personal contention, that we need to balance directional and deliberative messages with opportunities for serendipity.   Both librarians and social scientists also need to watch for behavioral changes in communications motivations as human beings are quick to ‘wise-up’ and avoid “pavlovian” responses.

Should LIS professionals read this popular work and/or the scholarly research?

I would specifically recommend reading the book in a group with other information professionals and/or using it to engage young entrepreneurs.  If the LIS professionals were embedded in the group, I think they would learn from retail marketing colleagues. There is an excellent reading group guide which includes exercises to explore.

Those exercises ask the group to examine their email and recent media experiences through the STEPP lens; to discuss and analyze a situation through game mechanics and to explore ‘remarkability, novelty and sensationalism’.  Additional questions focus on scarcity, exclusivity, on-going and immediate word-of-mouth and triggers.   Berger suggests the group expand the book club experience by performing some media experiments and keeping a transmission journal.  I think these thoughtful approaches to Contagious will produce dividends in terms of marketing insights for LIS professionals.

I think LIS professionals would profit from reading Contagious and doing the reading group exercises.  The time will be of greater value if it’s accompanied by a close reading of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  As Berger notes, Made to Stick ‘weaves together clever stories with academic research on cognitive psychology and human memory” (21) and as a student of the Heaths’ his work builds on theirs.

Who should read this work and follow Jonah Berger: Berger, himself is a master of marketing as his website, newsletter and agency attest!  As soon as I had logged in to get some ‘free’ content, I received a helpful note from Jonah that is personally engaging:

Dear Amy,

“You might have thought it was random why some things succeed and some fail.  That you have to get lucky.  But in the last decade, researchers have uncovered some amazing secrets about the science behind social influence. Want to get more people talking about your stuff?  Your product?  Your idea?  Your blog?  Even you? I can help.  Every few weeks I’ll send you tips, strategies, and groundbreaking research that will show you how to make your own products and ideas catch on.

I will not have had enough posts from Jonah’s newsletter during the MOOC period to evaluate its usefulness for my LIS work, but I will be a subscriber for a few months to assess that usefulness.    Here is the subscription link for any interested readers -

By getting involved on the website, I got a free copy of Contagious and a call from his speaker bureau.  Because I got a personal message when I joined Berger’s community, I found the ‘connectiveness’ of this experience something that libraries could consider emulating when we add members to our community of customers. dandelion2 Reception by the field:

There is a lot to merit reading in the selections below.  Certainly, this title is recommended for both public and academic libraries.  What’s also discussed in the articles and reviews below is the ‘marketing of Jonah Berger’ and what I might call the false dichotomy he has initiated between his ideas and that of Malcolm Gladwell.  Have fun!

Clark, S.D. (2013).  Berger, Jonah. Contagious: why things catch on. CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries July 2013: 2065. Retrieved on October 1 from Biography In Context Database. .  A pdf may be accessed here.  Choice review.

Geek, C. (2013). Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Library Journal138(1), 96.

Kakutani, Michiko.  (2013).  Mapping out the Path to Viral Fame.  The New York Times February 26, 2013. p.C1(L).   Retrieved October 1, 2013 from

Oswald, H.  (2013).  The biology of a marketplace sensation. Marketing News47(9), 30-35.  A pdf may be accessed here.

Sacks, D. (2013).  Jonah Berger. Fast Company, (174), 100.  Retrieved October 1, 2013 from database.  A pdf may be accessed here.

Zalud, B. (2013).  From Paradigm Shift to Tipping to Sticky to Contagious.  Security: Solutions For Enterprise Security Leaders,50(4), 94.  Retrieved October 1, 2013 from BusinessSource Premier Database.  A pdf may be accessed here.

Other related works read,reviewed and recommended:

Berger, J., & Iyengar, R. (2013). Communication Channels and Word of Mouth: How the Medium Shapes the Message. Journal Of Consumer Research40(3), 567-579. Retrieved October 11, 2013 from JStor doi:10.1086/671345.

Learning Extensions:

Berger has developed a workbook, available for downloading here.  It is titled The Crafting Contagious Workbook.

The STEPPS Word of Mouth Strategy may be found here.

The Contagious Reading Group Guide may be found here.

Short Introductory Videos featuring each of the STEPPS may be found here.

Compelling video case studies of viral marketing successes cited in Contagious may be found here.

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