Contagious Book Summary – Why Things Go Viral

Up until recently, one of the most influential books that’s helped in ALL aspects of my life (work, family and social) was Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion.

Once I started learning about why we do the things that we do, I’ve become fascinated with behavioral psychology.

Contagious Book

Recently I joined one of Patrick Bet-David’s mastermind groups.

After the first session, we were asked to read, Contagious by Wharton marketing professor and author Jonah Berger.

It too is about psychology, but mainly focuses on why some things go viral and others fail to catch on.

The book breaks down the 6 (STEPPS) or ingredients for creating viral content that are more likely to spread via word-of-mouth.

Why would this be relevant to you?

It would if you’re the type of person that wants to build awareness (or brand), spread ideas or grow a patient or customer base more effectively.

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Contagious Book Summary

Most people think ideas and products obtain success due to 3 factors:

  • quality
  • price
  • advertising

If this was always the case, then the best product at the cheapest price with the best advertising campaign should be guaranteed to win. But it’s not.

Yes, these factors are relevant, but they also don’t tell the full story.

Social influences and word-of-mouth drive 20-50% of all purchasing decisions.


Because people love to share news, stories, and information with other people such as reviews and recommendations. Doing this is more effective than traditional advertising because it’s both more persuasive and more targeted.

The book breaks down what makes stories, information, products, ideas, messages, or videos become contagious.

In other words, the factors that make them more likely to spread via word of mouth and social influence.  

The 6 STEPPS to Creating Contagious Content

The book’s author, Jonah Berger, holds a Ph.D. in marketing. During the many years he spent studying various types of content, he set out to uncover what spread and what didn’t.

In the book, he breaks down his idea of viral social transmission into 6 steps, or “6 STEPPS Formula” as the acronym suggests from readingraphics.com:

Principle #1: Social Currency

Most people are walking around with their antenna up listening to the same radio station, WIIFM, or What’s In It For Me.

They mostly care about themselves and want to do and buy things that make themselves look good to others.

Berger states that, “Just as people use money to buy products or services, they use a form of social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues. So to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency. Give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way.” 

By doing this, they’re more likely to share it to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.

Especially on social media platforms.

How do people want to look when they tell you something? Good, right? Typically we tell people things not because we think it’ll help them, but because it makes us look good. 

Most people will  “check-in” to the coolest clubs, Instagram extravagant meals, and share the latest viral video via Facebook. 

Again, this is done in an effort to form positive images of themselves.

So to get people talking, give them a good way to make themselves look good while promoting your products or ideas.

The book’s author states there are three ways to do this:

#1 Find inner remarkability

Something worthy of attention that’s extraordinary or unusual is defined as remarkable. 
They provide social currency because they make the people who talk about them seem, you guess it, more remarkable or entertaining.
One of the examples mentioned was about breaking a pattern people have come to expect.
For instance, Barclay Prime, a Philly-based luxury steakhouse, got attention by selling a $100 cheesesteak.  It defied expectations and, thus, got people talking. Why? Because most think of this type of food as a only a lowly cheese-steak sandwich yet this one was much different. 

#2 Leverage game mechanics

Game mechanics are the rules and elements that simulate a competitive scenario. The rule-based systems of gameplay deliver the feelings of excitement and addiction that are found in quality games.

What’s interesting is they motivate on an interpersonal level by encouraging social comparison.

We don’t just care about what others are doing; we care about our performance compared to others.  For this reason, game mechanics generate social currency because doing well makes us look good.

In order to leverage game mechanics, performance must be measured with levels of status, and then publicized. This will then motivate people as it brings social comparison to the forefront.

An example is Marriott’s loyalty program (which I’m a member of) which has gamified travel. 

Today, versions of this type of loyalty program can be found with just about any hotel brand, and for good reason.

For every night you stay with a certain hotel, you’ll receive a loyalty point that counts toward rewards, such as free nights and levels of elite status.

These programs became a hit because they did everything right in the gamification of travel.

The amount of traveling is quantified by nights stayed, and the levels of status can be used for social comparison. 

#3 Make people feel like insiders

Everyone likes to feel like an insider. I know I do. Being part of a select group or obtaining something limited makes people feel important.

This “status” boosts word of mouth as it makes people share with others.

Here’s a perfect example of something our family experienced a few years ago while visiting Universal Studios in Orlando.

Upon arrival, we signed up for one of their “exclusive” VIP tours. 

There’s nothing like seeing the look on people’s faces as you’re allowed to cut in front of them on some of the most popular rides.

It made us feel like important and this is one of those remarkable things people like to tell others.

There are two components that make people feel like insiders:

  • exclusivity
  • scarcity

Scarcity means there’s a limited number of what’s being offered, whereas exclusivity is about limited accessibility to something.

The VIP tour hits on both components. It’s only allowed for a certain number of people and you have to be in the “know” in order to book it. 

Both factors make items difficult to obtain, which leads people to assume it is worth the effort to get them.

Principle #2: Triggers

If I mention the word “insurance”, what comes to mind? This happened to me recently and I couldn’t help think of the “Nationwide is by your side” jingle that triggered instantly. 

It seems that certain things that pop into your mind will cause you to think of an idea. Case in point, let’s use the Mars candy bar as an example.

The Mars Corporation found that there was an unexpected increase in sales of their candy bar in 1997.

Of course they were excited about the rise in sales, but they set out to figure out why it was happening. 

It turns out that in July 1997, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars. Because this was such a significant event, there were constant articles and news reports for several weeks afterwards. 

This constant barrage for people to see ‘Mars’ everywhere triggered them to buy more of the candy bar whenever they saw it at the supermarket. 

Whatever product or service you’re trying to sell more of, think about how to build in ‘triggers’ so that people will be prompted to think about you more often. 

Also, when choosing a trigger, pick one that occurs frequently and happens near when the desired behavior is taking place.

Make sure you choose a new one instead of one already linked to a product or idea that’s associated with many things. 

Remember, triggers get people to talk, choose, and use. Social currency gets people talking, but Triggers keep them talking

Principle #3: Emotion

Most of the time when we care enough about something, we tend to share it to others as it sparks our emotions.

Social media platforms know this all too well as their research shows that content that causes “high arousal” drive people to both share and act on those emotions.

Examples of this type of content are feelings of:

  • Awe, excitement and humor (positive)
  • Anger, anxiety (negative)

Rather than only discussing facts and features, consider also focusing on feelings.

And not just any feelings, but those that are most likely to motivate people to take action and share our message.

Principle #4: Public

If we see other people do something, it makes it more likely that we’ll do it too.


Well if others are doing it then it must be a good idea, right?

Psychologists, such as Dr. Robert Cialdini, call this idea “social proof”.

Since 95% of the people are imitators and only 5% initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” – Dr. Robert Cialdini Influence book

Ads show which of your friends like a page or are going to an event because marketers know people will do things they see others doing. 

This is where the phrase, “monkey see monkey do” comes from.

If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.

Berger states that, “Making things more observable, makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular.”

Remember that people imitate actions, because other’s choices provide information that helps them decide how to do something.

Take for example, running shoes. My wife and I love to take our dog on daily walks.

Because I have flat feet, I’m constantly on the look out for a good pair of shoes. 

A few month ago I noticed my nurse anesthetist wearing a “cool” pair of shoes.

These turned out to be On running shoes which I’d never heard of but because he claimed they were comfortable and came in different styles for flat feet, I bought a pair.

Actually I’m now the proud owner of 5 pairs (don’t tell my wife). 

Remember, the easier it is to see other people using something, the more likely it is that we’ll notice it, spread the word, and consider imitating their behavior.

This is the reason I’m now a proud On running shoes owner.

 Observability plays a huge role in what products or ideas catch on. Consider adding something to your product or service making it easy to share so the word gets out much quicker.

Principle #5: Practical Value

Of the six principles of contagiousness, Practical Value may be the easiest to apply. That’s because almost every product or idea has something useful about it.

People like to pass along practical, useful information such as news others can use.

Offering practical value not only helps make things contagious, but it also helps others save:

  • time
  • energy
  • money
  • resources

Where Social Currency is primarily about making the sender look good, Practical Value is more about helping others.

Giving practical value lets our friends see that we care, makes us feel helpful, and causes everyone to feel more connected. 

I realize now as a parent, the real reason I often send useful articles and advice to our kids – it strengthens our social bonds.

The key to being successful for businesses and companies is to position this useful information in a way that stands out to consumers.

An example is when I started this blog and YouTube channel.  At the time, there wasn’t much information about passive real estate investing in syndications via someone that was personally doing it.

Because I feel so strongly about investing in this manner (for passive income now instead of the stock market for later), I wanted to present the information in a way that leads to a higher connection.

And YouTube videos was the answer.

Principle #6: Stories

Legendary marketer Dan Kennedy taught me over ten years ago that stories sell. And if I want to sell more then learn to tell good stories.

He was right.

One of the most effective ways we can share information and ideas is via storytelling.  Berger states that we should “embed our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell… [by making] our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.”

I’ve noticed that when I try to explain procedures to patients, occasionally their eyes will gloss over. Too many facts tend to overload their brain.

But when I tell them about a story of how another patient had the same procedure and how it improved their lives, the information tends to “stick” better.

People don’t think in terms of facts. They think in terms of stories as they have a beginning, middle, and end. 

If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. And, while people focus on the story, information comes along for the ride.

Possibly the most powerful aspect we get out of telling our customers stories is that it makes it easy for them to talk about our products or ideas without sounding like an advertisement. 

As a relatively new dog owner, Budweiser’s “Don’t Drink and Drive” story hit home with me.

Click on the short one minute video to check it out.

People don’t think in terms of facts. They think in terms of stories, because narratives are more engrossing than facts alone. They have a beginning, middle, and end.  If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. And, while people focus on the story, information comes along for the ride.  One powerful aspect of stories is that they make it easy for people to talk about products or ideas without sounding like advertisements.  Plus, it’s harder for listeners to argue against a specific customer’s story than against advertising claims. They’re so engaged in the narrative that they’re less likely to question what is being said.  For businesses, the goal is not only to make a story go viral, but to also make it valuable to the company or brand.  Therefore, stories are most valuable when the brand or product is integral to the narrative. When it’s woven so deeply that people can’t spread the story without mentioning it.

This video is a great way for Budweiser to tell a story about the negative effects drinking and driving can have without having to discuss a bunch of statistics and facts.

Most people miss out on some of the details that we try to get across to them when discussing our product or ideas. So to get them engaged, it helps to weave them into a story form which will make it more likely to be shared with others. 

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