The Science of Virality: A Summary of Contagious by Jonah Berger


In “Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age,” Jonah Berger delves into the mysterious realm of social contagion. Berger, a renowned social scientist and marketing professor at the Wharton School, draws on extensive research to unravel the secrets behind why certain products, ideas, and behaviors spread like wildfire, while others fizzle out. With captivating stories and compelling insights, Berger provides readers with practical strategies to craft contagious content and harness the power of word-of-mouth in the fast-paced digital landscape.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Contagious

Chapter 1 of “Contagious” by Jonah Berger introduces the concept of what makes things go viral and spread like wildfire. Berger asserts that the decision to share something is driven by human psychology and emotions, and not simply by luck or chance. He sets out to explain why some ideas, products, or content becomes contagious while others fade into obscurity.

According to Berger, contagiousness is not solely determined by the quality or value of the content but relies more on factors like social influence, emotions, and practical value. When people encounter something new and exciting, they feel compelled to share it with others. Berger refers to this as “social currency” – the idea that people talk about things that make them look good, smart, or cool in the eyes of their peers.

The author introduces the concept of “triggers,” which are subtle cues that remind people of a particular idea or product and stimulate them to share it. By leveraging these triggers, businesses and individuals can increase the likelihood of their content going viral. Berger uses the example of how a brand like KitKat effectively triggers thoughts of taking a break, which prompts people to buy and share their product.

Berger also touches on the importance of emotions in driving contagiousness. He explains that content that arouses high arousal emotions like awe, excitement, surprise, or anger tends to be shared more frequently. These emotions prime people to take action and spread the message to others.

In this chapter, Berger sets the foundation for understanding what drives people to share content. By focusing on social currency, triggers, and emotions, businesses and individuals can increase the likelihood of their ideas and products becoming contagious and reaching a wider audience.

Chapter 2: Social Currency – Making People Look Good

In Chapter 2 of “Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age” by Jonah Berger, the focus is on the concept of social currency and how people’s desire to be seen in a positive light influences their behavior and sharing habits. Berger argues that people are driven by the need to improve their social standing and reputation, and they often rely on what they share with others to achieve this.

Berger introduces the idea of six key principles that determine the shareability of content, and social currency is the first one. He explains that individuals strive to gain social currency by sharing information that makes them look good in the eyes of their peers. This can be achieved by possessing insider knowledge, being aware of valuable deals or experiences, or even sharing content that is entertaining or humorous. The underlying motivation is to be perceived as knowledgeable, well-connected, or someone with unique access to certain resources or experiences.

To illustrate the concept of social currency, Berger presents several real-life examples. One is the restaurant “Barbecue,” which created an exclusive element by asking customers to keep their reservations secret. Sharing this information added social currency to those who were in the know, making them feel special and important. Another example is the launch of the Mini Cooper car in the United States, where the company used scarcity as social currency by initially limiting the number of cars available, thereby increasing the perceived value and desirability.

Berger emphasizes that understanding the value of social currency is crucial for businesses and individuals seeking to create contagious content. By tapping into people’s desire to look good and be perceived positively, they can increase the likelihood of their message being shared and their brand being promoted. In summary, social currency is about using information and experiences to enhance one’s reputation, and leveraging this knowledge can significantly boost the shareability and spread of ideas or products.

Chapter 3: Triggers – Top of Mind, Tip of Tongue

Chapter 3 of “Contagious” by Jonah Berger delves into the concept of triggers and their impact on making things viral. Triggers are stimuli that remind individuals of a particular product, idea, or behavior, making it top of mind and easy to remember and talk about.

Berger starts by highlighting the importance of word-of-mouth recommendations and how triggers play a crucial role in sparking conversations. He explains that triggers can be external, like sights, sounds, or smells, as well as internal, like thoughts or emotions. The key is to find triggers that link naturally or logically to the idea or product you want to promote.

The author introduces the concept of “breakout” triggers that initiate a positive memory or association. By associating a product with commonly occurring triggers, such as certain days of the week or activities, one can increase its likelihood of becoming top of mind. Berger shares various examples from successful marketing campaigns, such as KitKat’s partnership with coffee breaks or Blendtec’s viral video series “Will It Blend?” that incorporated triggers like popular items and relatable scenarios.

Additionally, Berger emphasizes the importance of frequency in using triggers. The more frequently people encounter a trigger, the more likely they are to think about and mention the associated idea or product. Moreover, diverse triggers can reach a wider audience and increase the chances of people bringing up the topic in different situations.

In summary, Chapter 3 of “Contagious” highlights triggers as stimuli that make ideas or products top of mind and easily remembered. By strategically linking triggers to these concepts and ensuring frequent exposure, marketers can increase the likelihood of their messages being shared and talked about, leading to greater viral potential.

Chapter 4: Emotion – When We Care, We Share

Chapter 4 of “Contagious” by Jonah Berger focuses on the role of emotions in making ideas and content contagious. Berger begins by explaining that emotions play a crucial role in shaping human behavior, particularly in the context of sharing. He introduces the concept of “high-arousal” emotions, such as awe, anger, and happiness, which have a significant impact on our level of engagement and likelihood of sharing.

One key insight from this chapter is that when we care about something deeply, we are more likely to share it. Whether it is a heartwarming story or a cause we advocate for passionately, our emotions fuel our desire to spread the word and involve others. Berger points out that by understanding the emotions our content evokes, we can craft more effective messages that resonate with our audience.

The chapter also delves into the idea that not all emotions are created equal when it comes to virality. Positive emotions, like happiness and awe, are more likely to be shared compared to negative ones, such as anger or sadness. Berger highlights various examples and studies that support this claim, noting that people prefer to spread joy and excitement rather than negative feelings.

Additionally, the chapter explores the notion of social currency, which refers to the value individuals gain from sharing content that portrays them in a positive light or makes them seem knowledgeable or caring. By understanding how emotional content can enhance someone’s social currency, marketers and content creators can design campaigns that tap into these emotions and encourage sharing.

In summary, Chapter 4 of “Contagious” emphasizes the important role of emotions in driving sharing behavior. By engaging people’s emotions through positive, high-arousal content, marketers and individuals can increase the likelihood of their ideas, messages, and stories going viral.


Chapter 5: Public – Built to Show, Built to Grow

Chapter 5: Public – Built to Show, Built to Grow of the book “Contagious” by Jonah Berger explores the concept of public visibility and its impact on making ideas or products contagious. Berger argues that making things more observable and publicly visible can greatly increase their social influence and word-of-mouth transmission.

The chapter begins by discussing the power of social proof, which is the tendency to rely on other people’s behavior as a guide for our own actions. Public visibility makes it easier for people to observe what others are doing and imitate their behavior, leading to greater adoption and spread of ideas. Berger cites various examples, such as the growth of the anti-drug campaign “Above the Influence” and the popularity of fashion trends like the Livestrong wristbands, to illustrate the role of public display in making ideas contagious.

The chapter also delves into the concept of triggers, which are environmental cues that prompt people to think about a particular idea or product. Public triggers are particularly effective because they can reach a large audience simultaneously, increasing the likelihood of word-of-mouth transmission. Berger uses the example of the “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” campaign, where men walk in high heels to raise awareness about sexual assault, to illustrate how public triggers can evoke conversations and generate contagiousness.

To create public visibility, Berger emphasizes the importance of making the private public, aiming for conspicuous consumption and using social currency effectively. By using these tactics, individuals and businesses can significantly enhance the visibility of their ideas or products, leading to increased social influence and contagiousness.

In conclusion, Chapter 5 of “Contagious” highlights the crucial role of public visibility and observation in making ideas and products contagious. By making things more observable and creating triggers in public spaces, individuals and businesses can amplify the social influence and word-of-mouth transmission, ultimately leading to greater adoption and spread.

Chapter 6: Practical Value – News You Can Use

Chapter 6 of Jonah Berger’s book “Contagious” titled “Practical Value – News You Can Use” delves into how practical and useful information can contribute to the contagiousness of an idea or product. The author highlights the importance of providing valuable content that can be put to use by individuals in their everyday lives.

Berger starts by presenting an interesting finding – people tend to share information that is both surprising and useful. Practical value enhances the likelihood of transmission because people want to be helpful to others. He explains that useful content provides social currency, as sharing it makes individuals look knowledgeable and resourceful in their social circles.

The author introduces a framework called STEPPS, which stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. This framework helps to understand why certain ideas or products are talked about more than others. In this chapter, he focuses on the practical value aspect of the framework.

Practical value can be achieved by providing information that is not only applicable but also easy to understand and implement. Berger explains that when people find value in a particular idea or product, they are more likely to share it with others. The chapter explores a variety of examples, from useful life hacks to practical financial advice, to demonstrate how practical value leads to increased word-of-mouth sharing.

Berger concludes the chapter by emphasizing the importance of incorporating practical value into marketing strategies. By focusing on the usefulness of the product or message, marketers can tap into the inherent desire of individuals to share valuable information with others.

Chapter 7: Stories – Information Travels Under the Guise of Idle Chitchat

Chapter 7 of “Contagious” by Jonah Berger explores the power of storytelling as a form of communication that facilitates the transmission of information. Berger asserts that stories are more effective than traditional modes of information delivery, such as statistics or straightforward facts, because they allow the audience to engage with the material at a deeper level and make it easier for the information to be shared.

The chapter begins with an example of how a simple story about a South African diamond mine captivated people’s attention and ultimately became a widespread and shared piece of information. Berger highlights the key elements of successful stories, emphasizing the importance of relatability, coherence, and a compelling narrative structure. He argues that stories have the ability to evoke emotions and create suspense, making them memorable and influential.

Furthermore, Berger explains that stories are not only effective in transmitting information, but they can also influence people’s behavior. By providing relatable characters and relaying a moral message, stories have the power to shape individuals’ decisions and actions. The author shares research studies demonstrating the influence of storytelling on topics such as health behaviors, crime prevention, and charitable donations.

Berger concludes the chapter by providing practical advice on how to craft contagious stories. He emphasizes the importance of identifying the core message, structuring the narrative effectively, and utilizing social currency to increase the likelihood of sharing. By employing these storytelling techniques, individuals and organizations can leverage the contagious nature of stories to disseminate information more effectively and engage their audience in a meaningful way.


Chapter 8: The Power of Word of Mouth

Chapter 8 of “Contagious” by Jonah Berger delves into the concept of word-of-mouth marketing and how influential it can be in spreading ideas and generating buzz.

The chapter starts by emphasizing the importance of social influence in driving word-of-mouth. Berger discusses a study conducted by Stanley Milgram, highlighting how people are connected to one another through a series of social ties, and how these ties facilitate the flow of information. He introduces the term “social currency,” which refers to the value individuals place on the information they share. People tend to talk about things that make them look good, feel knowledgeable, or be part of a certain group. Berger notes that by understanding social currency, one can make information more shareable and increase its chances of being spread through word of mouth.

Berger introduces the term “inner remarkability” as a key driver of word-of-mouth. Inner remarkability represents how exceptional a product or idea is in the eyes of the consumer. Berger claims that the more remarkable something is, the more likely people are to talk about it. He offers practical tips for businesses to make their product or service remarkable, such as finding novel triggers and incorporating metaphors or stories that make the idea more memorable and shareable.

Another important aspect of word-of-mouth emphasized in this chapter is the power of influencers. Berger explains the concept of “social proof,” where people tend to rely on the actions of others to determine their own behavior. He introduces the term “influentials” to describe individuals who have a significant impact on others’ decisions. However, he also points out that everyday people hold substantial influence as well and provides strategies for businesses to engage with both types of influencers.

In summary, Chapter 8 of “Contagious” explores the dynamics of word-of-mouth marketing. By understanding the concept of social currency, inner remarkability, and the power of influencers, individuals and businesses can harness the potential of word-of-mouth to promote their ideas or products effectively.

After Reading

In conclusion, “Contagious” by Jonah Berger provides a fascinating exploration of why certain ideas, products, or messages go viral while others fizzle out. By analyzing real-world examples and conducting extensive research, Berger uncovers the six key principles that contribute to contagiousness: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories. He presents practical strategies and techniques that can be applied to make our own ideas and products more contagious, ultimately helping us achieve greater influence in our personal and professional lives. With its insightful analysis and actionable advice, “Contagious” offers a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand and harness the power of contagiousness in today’s interconnected world.

More books like Contagious by Jonah Berger:

1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini

“Influence” is a classic book that explores the psychology behind persuasion and how it affects our decision-making. Just like “Contagious,” this book delves into the factors that make certain ideas or products more influential than others. It offers valuable insights into the principles of persuasion, such as reciprocity, scarcity, and authority, providing a deeper understanding of how to make your ideas contagious in different contexts.

2. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

If you enjoyed learning about what makes ideas contagious in “Contagious,” then “Made to Stick” is a perfect follow-up read. The Heath brothers analyze why some ideas remain memorable and impactful, while others are easily forgotten. The book uncovers six key principles that help make ideas stick: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. It’s a highly practical guide that will equip you with tools to craft messages and ideas that resonate long after they are shared.

3. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Building upon the concepts of persuasion and contagious ideas, “Nudge” explores how subtle changes in the way choices are presented can significantly impact decision-making. Thaler and Sunstein introduce the concept of “choice architecture” and explain how it can be used to nudge individuals towards better decisions. This insightful book will challenge your assumptions about human behavior and provide strategies on influencing and shaping people’s choices on a daily basis.

4. Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman delves into the two systems that drive our thinking: the fast-moving and intuitive System 1, and the slower and more deliberate System 2. Kahneman’s masterpiece explores the cognitive biases and heuristics that influence our decision-making processes. Reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” will not only deepen your understanding of human behavior but also equip you with valuable insights to create more compelling and contagious ideas.

5. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg

Understanding and leveraging habits is a critical aspect of crafting contagious messages and products. Duhigg examines the science behind habits, exploring how they form and shape our behaviors. Drawing from numerous case studies, he provides practical guidance on how to break bad habits and establish positive ones. This book will expand your knowledge on the power of habits and enable you to design more effective, habit-forming experiences for your audiences.

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