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Why Things Catch On

Jonah Berger

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eBook - ePub


Why Things Catch On

Jonah Berger

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About This Book

The New York Times bestseller that explains why certain products and ideas become popular. "Jonah Berger knows more about what makes information 'go viral' than anyone in the world." —Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness What makes things popular? If you said advertising, think again. People don't listen to advertisements, they listen to their peers. But why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others? Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And what makes online content go viral?Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger has spent the last decade answering these questions. He's studied why New York Times articles make the paper's own Most E-mailed list, why products get word of mouth, and how social influence shapes everything from the cars we buy to the clothes we wear to the names we give our children.In Contagious, Berger reveals the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transmission. Discover how six basic principles drive all sorts of things to become contagious, from consumer products and policy initiatives to workplace rumors and YouTube videos. Learn how a luxury steakhouse found popularity through the lowly cheesesteak, why anti-drug commercials might have actually increased drug use, and why more than 200 million consumers shared a video about one of the most boring products there is: a blender. Contagious provides specific, actionable techniques for helping information spread—for designing messages, advertisements, and content that people will share. Whether you're a manager at a big company, a small business owner trying to boost awareness, a politician running for office, or a health official trying to get the word out, Contagious will show you how to make your product or idea catch on.

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1. Social Currency

Among the brownstones and vintage shops on St. Mark’s Place near Tompkins Square Park in New York City, you’ll notice a small eatery. It’s marked by a large red hot-dog-shaped sign with the words “eat me” written in what looks like mustard. Walk down a small flight of stairs and you’re in a genuine old hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurant. The long tables are set with all your favorite condiments, you can play any number of arcade-style video games, and, of course, order off a menu to die for.
Seventeen varieties of hot dogs are offered. Every type of frankfurter you could imagine. The Good Morning is a bacon-wrapped hot dog smothered with melted cheese and topped with a fried egg. The Tsunami has teriyaki, pineapple, and green onions. And purists can order the New Yorker, a classic grilled all-beef frankfurter.
But look beyond the gingham tablecloths and hipsters enjoying their dogs. Notice that vintage wooden phone booth tucked into the corner? The one that looks like something Clark Kent might have dashed into to change into Superman? Go ahead, peek inside.
You’ll notice an old-school rotary dial phone hanging on the inside of the booth, the type that has a finger wheel with little holes for you to dial each number. Just for kicks, place your finger in the hole under the number 2 (ABC). Dial clockwise until you reach the finger stop, release the wheel, and hold the receiver to your ear.
To your astonishment, someone answers. “Do you have a reservation?” a voice asks. A reservation?
Yes, a reservation. Of course you don’t have one. What would you even need a reservation for? A phone booth in the corner of a hot dog restaurant?
But today is your lucky day, apparently: they can take you. Suddenly, the back of the booth swings open—it’s a secret door!—and you are let into a clandestine bar called, of all things, Please Don’t Tell.
In 1999, Brian Shebairo and his childhood friend Chris Antista decided to get into the hot dog business. The pair had grown up in New Jersey eating at famous places like Rutt’s Hut and Johnny & Hanges and wanted to bring that same hot dog experience to New York City. After two years of R & D, riding their motorcycles up and down the East Coast tasting the best hot dogs, Brian and Chris were ready. On October 6, 2001, they opened Crif Dogs in the East Village. The name coming from the sound that poured out of Brian’s mouth one day when he tried to say Chris’s name while still munching on a hot dog.
Crif Dogs was a big hit and won the best hot dog award from a variety of publications. But as the years passed, Brian was looking for a new challenge. He wanted to open a bar. Crif Dogs had always had a liquor license but had never taken full advantage of it. He and Chris had experimented with a frozen margarita machine, and kept a bottle of Jägermeister in the freezer every once in a while, but to do it right they really needed more space. Next door was a struggling bubble tea lounge. Brian’s lawyer said that if they could get the space, the liquor license would transfer. After three years of consistent prodding, the neighbor finally gave in.
But now came the tough part. New York City is flush with bars. In a four-block radius around Crif Dogs there are more than sixty places to grab a drink. A handful are even on the same block. Originally, Brian had a grungy rock-and-roll bar in mind. But that wouldn’t cut it. The concept needed be something more remarkable. Something that would get people talking and draw them in.
One day Brian ran into a friend who had an antique business. A big outdoor flea market selling everything from art deco dressers to glass eyes and stuffed cheetahs. The guy said he had found a neat old 1930s phone booth that he thought would work well in Brian’s bar.
Brian had an idea.
When Brian was a kid, his uncle worked as a carpenter. In addition to helping to build houses and the usual things that carpenters do, the uncle built a room in the basement that had secret doors. The doors weren’t even that concealed, just wood that meshed into other wood, but if you pushed in the right place, you could get access to a hidden storage space. No secret lair or loot concealed inside, but cool nonetheless.
Brian decided to turn the phone booth into the door to a secret bar.
Everything about Please Don’t Tell suggests that you’ve been let into a very special secret. You won’t find a sign posted on the street. You won’t find it advertised on billboards or in magazines. And the only entrance is through a semihidden phone booth inside a hot dog diner.
Of course, this makes no sense. Don’t marketers preach that blatant advertising and easy access are the cornerstones of a successful business?
Please Don’t Tell has never advertised. Yet since opening in 2007 it has been one of the most sought-after drink reservations in New York City. It takes bookings only the day of, and the reservation line opens at 3:00 p.m., sharp. Spots are first-come, first-served. Callers madly hit redial again and again in the hopes of cutting through the busy signals. By 3:30 all spots are booked.
Please Don’t Tell doesn’t push market. It doesn’t try to hustle you in the door or sell you with a flashy website. It’s a classic “discovery brand.” Jim Meehan, the wizard behind Please Don’t Tell’s cocktail menu, designed the customer experience with that goal in mind. “The most powerful marketing is personal recommendation,” he said. “Nothing is more viral or infectious than one of your friends going to a place and giving it his full recommendation.” And what could be more remarkable than watching two people disappear into the back of a phone booth?
In case it’s not already clear, here’s a little secret about secrets: they tend not to stay secret very long.
Think about the last time someone shared a secret with you. Remember how earnestly she begged you not to tell a soul? And remember what you did next?
Well, if you’re like most people, you probably went and told someone else. (Don’t be embarrassed, your secret is safe with me.) As it turns out, if something is supposed to be secret, people might well be more likely to talk about it. The reason? Social currency.
People share things that make them look good to others.


Kids love art projects. Whether drawing with crayons, gluing elbow macaroni to sheets of construction paper, or building elaborate sculptures out of recyclables, they revel in the joy of making things. But whatever the type of project, media, or venue, kids all seem to do the same thing once they are finished.
They show someone else.
“Self-sharing” follows us throughout our lives. We tell friends about our new clothing purchases and show family members the op-ed piece we’re sending to the local newspaper. This desire to share our thoughts, opinions, and experiences is one reason social media and online social networks have become so popular. People blog about their preferences, post Facebook status updates about what they ate for lunch, and tweet about why they hate the current government. As many observers have commented, today’s social-network-addicted people can’t seem to stop sharing—what they think, like, and want—with everyone, all the time.
Indeed, research finds that more than 40 percent of what people talk about is their personal experiences or personal relationships. Similarly, around half of tweets are “me” focused, covering what people are doing now or something that has happened to them. Why do people talk so much about their own attitudes and experiences?
It’s more than just vanity; we’re actually wired to find it pleasurable. Harvard neuroscientists Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. In one study, Mitchell and Tamir hooked subjects up to brain scanners and asked them to share either their own opinions and attitudes (“I like snowboarding”) or the opinions and attitudes of another person (“He likes puppies”). They found that sharing personal opinions activated the same brain circuits that respond to rewards like food and money. So talking about what you did this weekend might feel just as good as taking a delicious bite of double chocolate cake.
In fact, people like sharing their attitudes so much that they are even willing to pay money to do it. In another study, Tamir and Mitchell asked people to complete a number of trials of a basic choice task. Participants could choose either to hang out for a few seconds or answer a question about themselves (such as “How much do you like sandwiches?”) and share it with others. Respondents made hundreds of these quick choices. But to make it even more interesting, Tamir and Mitchell varied the amount that people got paid for choosing a particular option. In some trials people could get paid a couple of cents more for choosing to wait for a few seconds. In others they could get paid a couple of cents more for choosing to self-disclose.
The result? People were willing to forgo money to share their opinions. Overall, they were willing to take a 25 percent pay cut to share their thoughts. Compared with doing nothing for five seconds, people valued sharing their opinion at just under a cent. This puts a new spin on an old maxim. Maybe instead of giving people a penny for their thoughts, we should get paid a penny for listening.
It’s clear that people like to talk about themselves, but what makes people talk about some of their thoughts and experiences more than others?
Play a game with me for a minute. My colleague Carla drives a minivan. I could tell you many other things about her, but for now, I want to see how much you can deduce based solely on the fact that she drives a minivan. How old is Carla? Is she twenty-two? Thirty-five? Fifty-seven? I know you know very little about her, but try to make an educated guess.
Does she have any kids? If so, do they play sports? Any idea what sports they play?
Once you’ve made a mental note of your guesses, let’s talk about my friend Todd. He’s a really cool guy. He also happens to have a Mohawk. Any idea what he’s like? How old he is? What type of music he likes? Where he shops?
I’ve played this game with hundreds of people and the results are always the same. Most people think Carla is somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old. All of them—yes, 100 percent—believe she has kids. Most are convinced those kids play sports, and almost everyone who believes that guesses that soccer is the sport of choice. All that from a minivan.
Now Todd. Most people agree that he’s somewhere between fifteen and thirty. The majority guess that he’s into some sort of edgy music, whether punk, heavy metal, or rock. And almost everyone thinks he buys vintage clothes or shops at some sort of surf/skate store. All this from a haircut.
Let’s be clear. Todd doesn’t have to listen to edgy music or shop at Hot Topic. He could be fifty-three years old, listen to Beethoven, and buy his clothes at any other place he wanted. It’s not like Gap would bar the door if he tried to buy chinos.
The same thing is true of Carla. She could be a twenty-two-year-old riot grrrl who plays drums and believes kids are for the boring bourgeoisie.
But the point is that we didn’t think those things about Carla and Todd. Rather, we all made similar inferences because choices signal identity. Carla drives a minivan, so we assumed she was a soccer mom. Todd has a Mohawk, so we guessed he’s a young punk-type guy. We make educated guesses about other people based on the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the music they listen to.
What people talk about also affects what others think of them. Telling a funny joke at a party makes people think we’re witty. Knowing all the info about last night’s big game or celebrity dance-off makes us seem cool or in the know.
So, not surprisingly, people prefer sharing things that make them seem entertaining rather than boring, clever rather than dumb, and hip rather than dull. Consider the flip side. Think about the last time you considered sharing something but didn’t. Chances are you didn’t talk about it because it would have made you (or someone else) look bad. We talk about how we got a reservation at the hottest restaurant in town and skip the story about how the hotel we chose faced a parking lot. We talk about how the camera we picked was a Consumer Reports Best Buy and skip the story about how the laptop we bought ended up being cheaper at another store.
Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression—as potent as that new car or Prada handbag. Think of it as a kind of currency. Social currency. Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.
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.


Imagine it’s a sweltering day and you and a friend stop by a convenience store to buy some drinks. You’re tired of soda but you feel like something with more flavor than just water. Something light and refreshing. As you scan the drink case, a pink lemonade Snapple catches your eye. Perfect. You grab it and take it up to the cash register to pay.
Once outside, you twist the top off and take a long drink. Feeling sufficiently revitalized, you’re about to get in your friend’s car when you notice something written on the inside of the Snapple cap.
Real Fact # 27: A ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber.
Wow. Really?
You’d probably be pretty impressed (after all, who even knew glass could bounce), but think for a moment about what you’d do next. What would you do with this newfound tidbit of information? Would you keep it to yourself or would you tell your friend?
In 2002, Marke Rubenstein, executive VP of Snapple’s ad agency, was trying to think of new ways to entertain Snapple customers. Snapple was already known for its quirky TV ads featuring the Snapple Lady, a peppy, middle-aged woman with a thick New York accent, who read and answered letters from Snapple fans. She was a real Snapple employee, and the letter writers ranged from people asking for dating advice to people soliciting Snapple to host a soiree at a senior citizens home. The ads were pretty funny, and Snapple was looking for something similarly clever and eccentric.
During a marketing meeting, someone suggested that the space under the cap was unused real estate. Snapple had tried putting jokes under the cap with little success. But the jokes were terrible (“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”), so it was hard to tell if it was the strategy or the jokes that were failing. Rubenstein and her team wondered whether real facts might work better. Something “out of the ordinary that [Snapple drinkers] wouldn’t know and wouldn’t even know they’d want to know.”
So Rubenstein and her team came up with a long list of clever trivia facts and began putting them under the caps—visible only after customers have purchased and opened the bottles.
Fact #12, for example, notes that kangaroos can’t walk backward. Fact #73 says that the average person spends two weeks over his/her lifetime waiting for traffic lights to change.
These facts are so surprising and entertaining that it’s hard not to want to share them with someone else. Two weeks wait...

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