Sunday, October 30, 2016

On "Contagious" by Jonah Berger *****

The subtitle of this book promises much--it says the book is going to tell readers "How Things Catch On." And Berger does a great job doing just that, combining conversation recountings of studies and analysis and setting out a book of interest both to psychologists and marketers.

The book reads like many a self-help or marketing guide, a trade book. But what makes this one different is that the author really knows his stuff--the load of examples and the use of footnotes shows it.

Basically, Berger points to what some things go viral or catch on as being related to six factors. Viral things will sometimes have all six going for them but not always; however, they will always have some of these factors going for them.

The first factor is social currency. The idea here is that people like to appear hip or knowledgeable. Being able to talk to someone about an oddball restaurant or a cool movie shows that you are a person worth talking with--one who has something to share. An interesting example is a bar modeled after a speakeasy called Please Don't Tell Anyone. You have to go through the back of a hot dog stand and dial a special phone; only seventy or so people are allowed in each night. There isn't any advertising other than word of mouth. This does indeed sound like a cool secret folks would want to hear about. I was left, however, wondering how such a place starts. If secrecy is your gimmick, how is it those first hundred or so customers find you in order to spread the secret? I suppose an invitation to a select crowd might work to get the buzz going.

The second factor is triggers. These are essentially items that remind you of something that is being marketed. The key here is frequency and the context. If somehow you can align what you're selling with something that folks think about regularly, you're more likely to stay on their minds. Write a song about Fridays, for example, and you'll probably be on folks' minds once a week. And that in turn will spur word of mouth.

A third factor is emotion. People are more likely to share things that stir particular feelings. Interestingly, Berger finds that contentment and sadness do not cause people to want to share. However, emotions that stir people a lot are anger and awe. That makes sense, though, when I think about articles that I might myself want to talk about with someone else: something unjust or something amazing.

A fourth factor is something Berger calls public--or making the private public. I'd call this the sheep or crowd factor. Basically, we are more likely to try something or to use a certain product if others are doing so as well. Hence, if there are two restaurants to choose from and one is crowded and one empty, we're more likely to think the crowded one is better, irregardless of the actual quality. So many people, we think, can't be wrong. This is, I've long thought, one of the most frustrating facts about marketing--success breeds more success. It's like money: the more you have, the easier it is to make more. Much of the chapter focuses on how brands attempt to get their logos and message out for folks to see. Berger looks particularly at the "residual" effect--we might look at them as souvenirs. These are things like bags we take home from a store and then reuse, which then show off the product's identity to others. The crowd factor might seem contradictory to the social currency factor, but it isn't when one really thinks about it. Take something as popular as the Super Bowl. If one watches it or the ads that run during it, one has the ability to discuss them with folks then next day. Being knowledgeable, even about something that most people already know about, still makes for one being a potentially good conversationalist.

A fifth factor is practical value, which is exactly what it sounds like. If something is useful, it's more likely to catch on. I guess my big question here would be why some things seem to be more useful than others. That, I suppose, comes down to ability or technique and also to branding. If you create something that is easier to understand than other things that do the same, your instructions or product will get more use--or so the theory would go. But branding has much to do with success here too--people will gravitate toward practical products from others who are already familiar. That's the reason for the success of the Dummies books, though some such books are better written than others. Much of Berger's chapter, however, focuses on price points and how we tend to buy things contrary to actual sense. If something is “on sale,” for example, we more likely buy it--even if it's not actually discounted. For products under one hundred dollars, it's best to give a percentage for how much one is saving; for over that amount, it's best to give a dollar figure. Ten percent seems a lot more than five dollars, for example; but $200 seems a lot more than five percent.

The last factor is story--basically, products are best marketed as some sort of narrative. When one looks at the first five factors, word of mouth is most likely to spread if a good story is attached to the technique involved. Hence, we tell someone about the great deal we got on something or how amazing some product is or something like that. Some attention here is given to advertising and how that can be counterproductive if the story told as part of the ad is not inherently connected to the product. You might catch someone's eyes with dancing penguins, for example, but if you're selling laundry detergent, the two narratives likely won't have much of a connection and thus won't remain part of the same story. It's essential that the attention grabber and the product have some relation so that they both become part of the story told.

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