Virality isn’t born, it’s made

That's the core premise of Jonah Berger's awesome book on why some ideas spread like wildfire through networks and why others don't. Berger questions the premise of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point core thesis that it's influential, connected people who spread big ideas. It's not the messenger, he says, it's the message. Or's that the message has one or more of six core "ingredients" that makes it something that people - influencers and 'regular folks' - like to talk about.


The ingredients Berger points to are:

  1. Social Currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotion
  4. Public
  5. Practical Value
  6. Stories

The more of these ingredients a message or an idea has baked in, the more likely it is to travel like wildfire through a network. And he should know, he and others were the team who presented us with the amazing 2010 research behind the most emailed articles from and have done scientific experiments and deep analysis of many other zeitgeists since then.

Social Currency is the first ingredient Berger describes in great detail, using examples like NYC's Please Don't Tell (hidden bar that has grown popular through WOM only as there is no sign), airline loyalty systems and RueLaLa. Social currency is all about how the person will come across to their friends and network if they share this information. Remarkable information that makes the sharer look smarter and 'in-the-know' as well as limited access that makes the user feel special are part of social currency. It's all about the status symbols.

Triggers are "stimuli that prompt people to think about related things." In this section, Berger discusses how Kit Kat tied itself so closely to taking a break that we can't help but think of eating one every time we take a coffee break, how that darned Rebecca Black song leaps into our brains every time Friday rolls around and that a grocery store playing French music sold more French wine. "Top of mind leads to tip of tongue" indeed. As I read this section, I realized I associate brands with many daily routines.

Emotion is my personal favorite type of content. "Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion." Whether it's laughter, anger or awe inspiring, we are more likely to share in a heightened state of arousal. There is some pretty awesome science behind people sharing when aroused emotionally. I think of the engagement proposals, the vets returning from war or touching stories of people and their pets. I don't even stop to think about it. I share those instantly.

Public refers to ways that others can see their peers use your product. The most famous of the examples are the white headphones on an iPod, making the wearer instantly recognizable as an ambassador for the brand. But lots of private use type products have public announcing built in. Spotify automatically posts what you are listening to your FB wall. Nike+ alerts the world you have just gone out for a run. In this chapter, Berger covers the psychology of imitation and social proof to show why every product should have a way to be publicly visible.

Practical Value is the low hanging fruit of the ingredients. These are the YouTube videos you go back to time and time again to nail that victory roll. Or the DIY posts you re-pin on Pinterests because of course you will build your own treehouse someday. If it will help someone save time, money or teach them something that they are better for knowing, they'll share it (which takes us back to Social Currency as well).

The last one, Stories, is the most difficult and nuanced. Berger uses the analogy of the Trojan Horse to ask what narrative can you couch your idea or product in that will get through the door? People don't talk about products like a company - a friend talking about a all of the awesome benefits to a product sounds like a plant. But they do talk about products. A LOT. We tell stories of how we interacted with that product. I've talked about this in terms of the Heroes Journey - where the Hero is the customer and you are the Mentor. But Berger warns that the story needs to have the product or idea as integral to the story as stories shift as they are passed along.

If you want really great insight into the elements of great content, Contagious: Why Things Catch On will become your go-to bible. And as an interesting closing note, one mind-blowing factoid that Berger tells us in the books prologue is:

only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online.

Crazy. Just imagine how much of the offline conversation you could be influencing with your online content.