Why do some things catch on?
How does a steak sandwich from a Philadelphia restaurant, for example, become so famous that it gets a slot on the David Letterman show? Why did Rebecca Black’s whiny pop song “Friday” become a viral hit on YouTube? Why have there been more than 300 million views of a video series about a blender?
And why do so many other videos, marketing campaigns and products — with perhaps more money, more creatives and even more clever ideas behind them — fail to get noticed?
The answers are not obvious, according to Jonah Berger in his new book, “Contagious: Why Things Catch On,” published by Simon & Schuster. Being noticed on the Internet is certainly not about cute kittens and babies, or classic advertising.
An assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Berger has spent years trying to understand why things go viral. His research has included analyzing the New York Times’ most emailed articles and conducting psychological experiments on undergraduate volunteers to figure out what goes on when an email is forwarded or when a word-of-mouth recommendation is given.
Some of his findings are basic. People like to share information that is unusual — the steak sandwich was on Letterman’s show because the item, filled with Kobe beef and lobster tail, cost an eye-watering $100. The video of the blender showed it grinding marbles, iPhones and a garden rake into a fine powder.
People also like things that are exclusive — like a bar hidden behind a secret door in a New York basement or a limited-time offer on a bargain shopping site.
People share news items that make them excited or angry, but not ones that arouse sadness. They remember stories and narrative. None of this is likely to be news to the advertising industry.
But some factors behind making things go viral are more surprising. Sales of Mars bars saw an unexpected uptick in 1997 during NASA’s Pathfinder mission because of the unconscious association of the confectionery with the planet from which the probe was collecting soil samples.
Views of Black’s vacuous hit “Friday” peaked every week on — you guessed it — Friday.
Berger calls these phenomena “triggers,” the prompts that get people to talk about and remember products.
Triggers are the reason that a breakfast cereal such as Honey Nut Cheerios gets more mentions on Twitter than Disneyland (usually peaking from 7.30 a.m. to 8 a.m. every day). Aligning a message to the appropriate trigger is something the advertising industry, despite its decades of experience, often gets wrong.
That Berger is a professor shows. At times you are right there in the classroom with him as he asks you to “play a game with me for a minute.” And there is perhaps a bit too much hammering home of the six “STEPPS” (social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value and stories) to creating the perfect viral campaign.
But the book is an easy, breezy read, peppered with absorbing examples, from the McRib sandwich to the unexpected link between Vietnamese nail technicians and Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
Berger is clearly following his own advice, with plenty of storytelling and emotion to sell his message. It is difficult not to wonder whether even the bright orange dust jacket of the book has been chosen to be some kind of sales trigger. According to Berger’s analysis, association with pumpkins makes all kinds of orange merchandise sell well at Halloween.
This book is unlikely to offer anything startlingly new for the serious marketing professional. But for nonexperts who puzzle about the best way to make an impact in a world of social media addicts with short attention spans, it provides plenty to think about.
If nothing else, it is lightly intellectual and engaging in the same way as popular economics books such as “The Underground Economist” and “Freakonomics.” If there were a “like” button underneath it, you’d probably find yourself clicking it.
Maija Palmer is a technology writer at the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.