These days I prefer reading non-fiction books because they are real stories about real people and/or they teach me something new that is useful in my life and/or my business. Many years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference which explained how simple social nuances contribute to our lives. Published in 2000, Gladwell’s book defined a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” which he describes as the reason why many seemingly small changes make the biggest differences. A journalist, author, and speaker, Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has written five books, the most popular of which being The Tipping Point, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), and Outliers: The Story of Success (2008).
Although Gladwell is referenced in the book I’m reviewing, this blog isn’t about him – it’s about someone he’s inspired: Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. In addition to being an author, Berger is a Marketing professor at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Like Gladwell, his interest in sociological tendencies and how they influence consumers, brands, and businesses has spawned a fascinating book about why people are drawn to certain commercials, brands, products, and taglines, and why others get ignored. By using examples that include a $100 cheesesteak, a bar that only takes reservations via a random payphone in a hot dog diner, and an advertising campaign for Dove soap, Berger demonstrates why certain ideas catch on (and why others don’t) and how to apply these concepts to successfully sell or promote a product, skill, business, or brand.
Even though my degree is in English, I took as many Sociology classes in college as I could because people, and more specifically why they do what they do, intrigues me. When I was a student, the University of Colorado at Boulder did not offer a minor in Sociology, but if that had been an option I would have definitely taken it because understanding how and why people think and behave really is the core of how our society works both socially and financially.
A few things I learned from Jonah Berger:
- By creating a $100 cheesesteak, Barclay Prime restaurant owner Howard Wein “didn’t create just another cheesesteak, he created a conversation piece.”
- “People share more than 16,000 words per day and every hour there are more than 100 million conversations about brands.”
- “Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”
- “Virality isn’t born, it’s made.”
- Berger defines “contagious” as “likely to spread” or as a way “to diffuse from person to person via word of mouth and social influence.”
- The “desire to share our thoughts, opinions, and experiences is one reason social media and online social networks have become so popular.”
- “Choices signal identity” – meaning that people assume a variety of things about others based on the types of cars they drive, which drinks they order at a bar, the music they like, and the clothes they choose to wear.
- “Emphasize what’s remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk.” Why? Because people discuss certain situations, products, and experiences as a way to “show off their achievements.” From a business perspective, the key is making sure the brand is part of the story.
- “Exclusivity isn’t just about money or celebrity. It’s also about knowledge” because “having insider knowledge is social currency.”
- Since “top of mind means tip of the tongue,” companies need to have more than a catchy slogan – they must provide a reason (or trigger) that reminds people to talk about something again and again.
- Although it sounds obvious, Berger points out that people are most likely to share things that are interesting and useful. If we’re impressed by something, we assume that someone else will be too so we pass along the information.
- “Susan Boyle’s first appearance on Britain’s Got Talent is one of the most viral videos ever. In just nine short days, the clip accumulated more than 100 million views.”
- Whether its anger, happiness, or sadness, “emotions drive people to action” which makes people “more likely to pass things on to others.”
- By providing a reminder of where a message comes from, the most successful products advertise themselves. For example, emails saying “Sent from my iPhone” reminds people of Apple, knowing Christian Louboutin shoes have red-lacquered soles triggers brand recognition, and Lululemon giving customers durable and reusable shopping bags is like advertising the company doesn’t pay for because people keep them and carry them around. In short, “if something is built to show, it’s built to grow.”
- “People don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives. But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.”
- “There’s a big difference between people talking about content and people talking about the company, organization, or person that created that content.”
- “Rather than being caused by a handful of special ‘influential’ people, social epidemics are driven by the products and ideas themselves.”
If you’re a fan of sociology, are interested in why certain ideas are popular and why others fail, or wonder about the reasons behind the success of seemingly simple business ideas, you’ll find this book captivating as well. Berger’s explanations are clear and concise and he uses carefully chosen examples that grab the reader’s attention. I hope his students at Wharton are getting as much out of his classes as I did from his book.