Everything popular is wrong.
-Oscar Wilde

Well that depends on your acquired level of cynicism, but there are moments in popular culture which set you wondering, how in the name of all that is evolved, could this be popular? Well that’s the question marketing gurus, students and advertisers are trying to answer, what makes people love stuff and ignore it. Jonah Berger  is an Associate Professor at the Wharton Business School. His work has focused on word of mouth and how ideas catch on. His book, Contagious is a culmination of his several papers and a decade of research.

I approach books on marketing and entrepreneurship with a small dose of skepticism. There is good advice and always good insights available in such texts but they somehow stem from hindsight. A large number of celebrated success stories a few fabled failures explained using the authors theories. Success is not easy to predict and at under 10$ a book, damn hard to ensure. So authors often resort to suggestions of improvement in current business models based on what has worked for other firms. I always end up wondering what I have learnt after reading such a book? Apart from who started out of a garage and now is worth billions or what was the biggest mistake Starbucks ever made? I want something generic, something not concrete but which at least sounds scientific. Which can be applied to things within my purview. Contagious, introduced me to the STEPPS model. Its a 6 point framework which Berger propounds as the collection of parameters that can define the infectiousness of an idea or enterprise. I have tried to make sense of this as best as I can and have thrown in a few examples to exhibit why reading this book might be interesting. These points may not all be necessary for something to be infectious but can be exploited by marketers.

  1. Social Currency : We share stuff that makes us look good or shapes how we are perceived. Some people are considered high in social currency, they might be more amicable or just plain cool. We all desire to mold our social images. For example, reading this kind of a book and sharing the fact that I have read it might be an attempt to notify my social circles of the kind of content that interests me. I read books on marketing and social decision making, I must be more evolved or involved than the average reader of comic strips or Dan Brown. If being associated with a product or club is to be worn as a social badge then this is what you are peddling. In return you get free canvassing for your product by people who are proud to be associated with it.
  2. Triggers Sherlock’s mind palace, remember that? The IPhone carrying modern interpretation of the beloved sleuth shows him accessing parts of his memory based on images and visual recollections. We all associate things with images, looking at a sandwich or salami may invoke a yearning for a Subway sandwich, now that is a trigger. It could be less direct, imagery, colors, music and any other stimuli that we are exposed to define our immediate choices. The more frequently visible and relevant a trigger is for a product, the higher its consumption.
  3. Emotion : When something generates an emotional response in an audience, it sticks. If its something that made people happy, they’d share it and they’d share it even more if it made them angry. Look at blogs, the term comes from web log. Its a diary essentially where the majority vent out their emotions to strangers. Travel blogs, life’s problems, food and recipes, the success of these is defined by what they inspire in their readers. A post by a young teenager coming out online gets mega views, for we want to feel for the kid, express support or disapproval. Blog anniversaries, awards and culmination of journeys often get rave site visits when compared to usual posts. Readers generate a fair amount of joy, warmth and even envy at such occasions.
  4. Public : There is an arguable need for differentiation in us humans, we want our choices to be unique. In an initial experiment in the book the author establishes that when informed of what is a popular choice the majority shift towards other options. Now that begs the question that if the majority has shifted, hasn’t popularity? But there is also the fact that things gain mass approval due to a herd mentality. Why do most Indians my age, if they can afford to, become engineers? Why do they then strive for an MBA? The financial and social benefits not withstanding, career choice is often a lack of effort. Choice is not simple especially when it is life defining, so when you see a majority taking a route you are assured that it will lead somewhere half decent. Bands, brands, ballots and books, everywhere you see this effect.
  5. Practical Value : We tend to share and talk about things  which we believe are useful. Not only does this elevate you from the ranks of a gossiper it establishes you as a person of knowledge. Zomato ,  a restaurant review site spawned in this nation shot to great popularity very soon. For while general social media postings are about the temperature of your favorite kitten, this one had some value. You have a profile, you review places in your city where you have had dinner. You’d add photos, your profile gets ratings. Comments and thanks for your reviews elevate you to the list of the city’s top foodies. They sure did cash on social currency as people who wrote very little but ate a lot started posting and sharing their reviews. But the reason audiences warmed to the concept, was cause its useful. You get restaurant phone numbers, what items to eat, what to expect at a new restaurant. Its information of great value to anyone planning a night out.
  6. Stories : A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, said Mary Poppins and how right was she. When morals and values were being shoved down our throats as kids they were stuffed inside stories and fables. We love a great yarn and warm to an anecdote. Contagious and books like it don’t throw concepts straight at you. That’s what academic papers and journals are for. They tell you a story about the guy who ate only subway sandwiches for months or about a film shot entirely on a handheld camera. These things stick, they are what you are likely to share with friends and family perhaps along with where you read it.

There is rarely anything out there which we find hard to explain with common sense.  The successes of others seem so explicable and our own failures so perplexing. Contagious is short book ( took me 4 hours to read it) but gives you a structure  that seem so intuitive and obvious after reading the book but still fascinating as you read. Once you do read it and find yourself thirsting for something a little stronger, Jonah Berger’s research papers would be an excellent place to start. I started the other way round and found quite a few common examples and studies explained with greater thoroughness than the book. There is also the resources section which anyone looking to put STEPPS into action might be interested in.  We might not ever know for sure everything that makes stuff go viral but this book shall set a few cogs churning the next time you decide to share something on social media or wear a brand instead of an opinion.


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