Review: Contagious - Why Things Catch On


As we take businesses or projects to launch, it is critical that we think about how they’ll “catch on”. How do we get this brand or big idea to spread like wildfire through word of mouth, the internet, and social media sharing? If only we could grab a guaranteed ticket on the virality bus, we’ll ride a smooth and steady wave to success…

But, of course, it’s not that easy. Many great ideas, marketing ploys, and products never gain social traction, while others seem to achieve it in an instant. Why?

Why do some things take off while others fall by the wayside? Viral, by definition, “involves the spreading of information and opinions about a product or service from person to person”. Since Malcolm Gladwell’s, Tipping Point, the study of “the secret sauce” (characteristics make a product, commercial, or idea spread) has been a topic of much discussion. Is it grabbing the attention of a few, “Influential People”? It is the “Stickiness Factor”? The “Power of Context”?

Recently, I picked up a copy of Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger. Berger argues that virality comes down to 6 simple principles, acronym STEPPS, to crafting contagious content, products, and ideas. Flipping through this bright-orange bad boy, I found myself constantly highlighting and YouTube-ing use cases and stories. Berger’s research has altered the way I interact and think about the brands and products I enjoy (and share), my clients’ goals, and the success of own my passion projects. Here are the STEPPS to social sharing and contagion.

Social Currency: 

People want to look smart, rich, or otherwise, “in the know”. We share things that make us look interesting, exclusive, or otherwise remarkable – boosting our own social status in using or sharing. Unique experiences and brands, like hidden eateries or ‘speakeasies’ (Berger uses Please Don’t Tell in NYC). I still remember discovering flash sites like Rue La La and Gilt… Mom, friend, aunt, cousin, you can thank me later, I’ve tapped into a secret universe of sales – invite, share, invite! How can we create ideas that give the user / shared social currency by virtue of sharing?


‘When we care, we share’. Effective ideas get to the emotional core of what really matters. A tip: ask the ‘3 Whys’. Why is this product important, why is that important, and why is that important? Even a seemingly emotionless product like a search engine can trigger our emotions (see Google Parison Love ad). How about Susan Boyle? Why did this video get shared all across the globe and obtain viral status? This video evoked awe, the sense of wonder and amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity. Berger cautions, it isn’t just inspiring any sort of emotion to drive sharing - but high arousal emotions (awe, excitement, humor, anger, anxiety). Emotions such as contentment or sadness do not inspire activity (or sharing). Think about how little you’re inspired to do when simply sad or content. How can we evoke high arousal emotions with our ideas?

Practical value:

People share ‘news to be used’ or practical information that helps people out – it strengthens our social bonds. Whether it saves time, money, or ensures a good experience – we share – and it feels good! For instance, my friend recently shared this Revlon Blow Dryer, and now I’ve shared it with countless other ladies in my life (you included..). Why? It is a good price and it works! Less time, better result, what great value! How we assess value is interesting – limited time offers, promos, or quantity purchase limits are appealing because of restriction, reference points (this is regularly $200!), scarcity and exclusivity. Does our idea create practical and perceived value? It should!


Top of mind = tip of tongue. Associating our products with ideas and everyday environmental cues gives us a better chance of sharing. What product do you think of when you see red? Coca Cola. What about orange? Reeses. How about two viral videos that come to top of mind on specific days of the week? Wednesday, “What day is it?” enter obnoxious camel strutting through the office. Friday, Rebecca Black, I can still hear the ear-pinching sound of that ballad now. How can we associate our products or ideas with regularly occurring cues?


‘Built to show = built to grow’. If our products provide ‘social proof’ (we see other people doing or adopting) we are more likely to copy it. Think Livestrong bracelets, Lululemon shopping turned lunch bags, Movember mustache campaign, or “I Voted” stickers. All of these products or campaigns advertise themselves in their use and generate behavioral residue that can be seen in public. How can we make the use of our product or idea publicly visible?


We remember and share things that are tied to a narrative or start a conversation. Humans are storytellers, and stories are easier to remember. Think Jared Fogle’s Subway story, lost 26” eating Subway sandwiches! Or, Dove’s real people campaign or “Evolution”, both tapping into unrealistic beauty norms that people wanted to talk about. But caution, the product must be an integral part of the story, or it will get lost in translation. Berger dubs this valuable virality. When telling people about the Evolution commercial, Dove is inevitably a part of the story. Sharing hilarious Panda cheese, requires mentioning of, well, Panda cheese. How can our ideas tie into a larger story or social conversation?

Has Berger found the secret sauce to viral content and sharing? Certainly some key ingredients. Learn more .