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The Secrets of Going Viral: An Interview with Jonah Berger

Darko March 20, 2019


Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch Onand Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behaviour.

Dr. Berger has spent over 15 years studying how social influence works and how it drives products and ideas to catch on. He’s taught Wharton’s top-ranked online course, published dozens of articles in top-tier academic journals, consulted for a variety of Fortune 500 companies, and popular outlets like the New York Times and Harvard Business Review often cover his work.

What is contagious?

Contagious is all about the science of word of mouth, lots of companies from big to small want to see things catch on and we see examples of things that catch on. However, underneath that, there is a question — Why?

Why do some things catch on, and others fail?

It’s not about high budgets or even having the best product. It’s about Word of mouth and social influence. Advertising and paid media are expensive and not very effective. A dollar spent on word of mouth goes 10 times as far as a dollar spent on advertising.

How do we get people talking about and sharing our stuff?

We often think it’s luck or chance but it’s not, it’s a science behind it. We’ve looked at thousands of online content, tens of thousands of brands, millions of purchases across the US and the world. The same 6 ‘STEPPS’, keep coming up again and again.

The ‘STEPPS’ Framework (credit:

1. Social Currency

People care about how they look to others. They want to seem smart, cool, and in-the-know. So be sure to find the inner-remarkability (e.g. Will it Blend?) and make people feel like insiders.


Top-of-mind means tip-of-tongue. So consider the context and grow your habitat so that people are frequently triggered to think about your product or idea. Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ music video is a great example of this.


When we care, we share. Emotional content often goes viral, so focus on feelings rather than function. And kindle the fire using high arousal emotions.


Built to show, built to grow. The more public something is, the more likely people will imitate it. Design products and initiatives that advertise themselves (e.g. red bottom shoes) and create some visible behavioral residue.

5.Practical Value

News you can use. Useful things get shared. So highlight incredible value and expertise so that people can easily pass it on.


Information travels under what seems like idle chatter. Stories are vessels — so build a Trojan Horse. Create a narrative or story that people want to tell which carries your idea along for the ride.

Each of these explains why people talk and share and why all sorts of products and services catch on.

What is the best way to gain social currency at a time when people like Instagram influencers are on the rise?

Much more important than the technology, it’s the psychology. One platform is not more important than the other, it’s about understanding why people are sharing on platforms. Companies change platforms because they hear that’s where their users are. Foursquare was big, then it wasn’t. Vine was a big thing, then it wasn’t. It’s really easy to focus on the technology, but to be successful, you need to focus on psychology.

Why do some accounts do better than others?

It’s not about having social connections, it’s about getting those connections to share and engage with your content. To get social currency: the better you make someone look, the more likely they are to talk about it and share it.

Example: Please don’t tell — a hidden bar in NYC.

‘Please don’t tell’ is an NYC bar hidden inside of a hot dog restaurant. You can have whatever hotdog you want, but at the back of the restaurant, there’s a rotary dial phone, when you pick up the phone you dial the number and if you’re lucky and they have space the back door of the phone booth will open and you’ll be led into a secret bar.

What’s interesting about ‘Please don’t tell’ is that when we think about Marketing and communications, we think it’s about telling people how great we are, we think it’s really important to be really out there. In some cases, however, secrets are interesting — think about the last time someone told you a secret and told you not to tell anyone else. What’s the first thing you do with that information, you tell someone! Having access to information that not everyone has, makes you look smart. You look in the know.

Social Media and Instagram Influencers focus heavily on their lifestyle of flying first class, taking pics with celebs, on vacation. Nobody posts about being in the office working on Excel spreadsheets! Why? Because it doesn’t make them look good.

Two things are important:

  1. People like sharing things that make them look good.
  2. To get people to share our stuff, we need to make them look good.

Accounts too often focus on the user having a good time, but there’s no incentive for a viewer to share that information. Nobody cares about you, they care about how it makes them look.

Interesting Example: Beyonce released an album a couple of years ago. No advertising, all she did was put a picture up of it on Instagram. Why? She knew how her followers would be the first people to tell everyone else about it. Being ahead of the curve, makes you look smart.

If you go to YouTube and look at the first comment, it literally says: “First” (I was there before everyone). It’s not about us, it’s about our audience, how can we make them look smart?

When we give people social currency, they talk about us, but we get to come along for the ride.

The importance of triggers:

All of the above is about talking about things we like. However, there are many things we like, that we don’t talk about. It’s like having a restaurant you love in your town or city where you love the food, and it’s great, you really like it, but you don’t go because you forget about it. However, if someone says: “Hey! Let’s go to that Restaurant” you often don’t hesitate. The challenge is that you don’t think about that particular restaurant.

70% of the purchase is the consideration. Most people only say what’s at the top of their mind they are filling voids in conversation, so they talk about all sorts of things such as the weather, what they’re doing on the weekend, their kids, etc. Why? Because this is at the top of their mind. However, what we need to trigger is what’s going to get people to talk about us. Therefore, Triggers are little environmental reminders that remind users of a product or service that isn’t there.

For example, when we say: “PB and”… you think “J” as in Jelly.

When I say “Rum and…”, you think “coke”.

When you watch a movie, you often eat popcorn. These two things have no correlation other than a complimentary association.

The question we need to ask ourselves is, what are our triggers? What’s reminds people of our product or service?

All companies have a great message, but will the message get people to think about the company? If people like you, but they don’t think about you, it’s going to matter very much.

There’s “Kit Kat and Coffee”, there’s “Popcorn and Movies”, there’s “PB & J”. However, what about a SaaS platform that’s not tangible – how do you create triggers for these?

The principles are exactly the same. When thinking about Triggers, there are 4 main questions that need answering:

  1. Who? — Who’s the audience? Who should think about our product or service? This is the target demographic.
  2. When? When do we want people to think about us? It’s unlikely that people will think about us all the time, so if you’re a service, for example, you need to ask yourself: “When do I want people to think about me?” or better yet, “What problem are they having where my product can be the peanut butter service”.
  3. What’s around at that time?
  4. How can we create that link?

A study was done at Stanford where we wanted to get undergraduates to eat more fruits. Undergrads say they want to eat more fruits and vegetables, but they just don’t do it.

So they tried two slogans:

  1. Live the healthy way, eat 5 fruits and veggies a day: a traditional nice sounding slogan that many companies would use.
  2. Each and every dining hall tray needs 5 fruits and veggies a day.

Interestingly, people liked the first slogan but didn’t really like the second slogan. We showed them the font and slogan a few times and over a two-week study, we looked at the fruit and veggie consumption and found something interesting. The first slogan (they liked), sounded very good but didn’t change behavior. The second slogan (which they related a 1/10) and didn’t like actually made them eat 25% more fruits and veg a day.

Why? We followed the 4 questions:

  1. Who? Students at Stanford University.
  2. What’s the ‘when’? We don’t want them to think about fruits and veggies all the time, just when the behavior is taking place.
  3. What’s in the environment at these times? A dining tray.
  4. How did we create a link to it? That silly slogan.

So when we think of a SaaS slogan, or if you’re an influencer looking to increase your following, then think about the “when” — i.e when you want people to think about you, and think about what will be around at that time. What’s the sense? What’s that tray? What’s missing? This will help identify our triggers for us to come to mind at the right time.

What’s the secret to making virality a regular occurence?

The reason why this question was asked is because, after the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, many people tried to “copycat” actions that were all for a good cause, however this was to no avail, even though it followed the exact same model as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — so why did the Ice Bucket Challenge work and why didn’t the copycat versions work?

Jonah mentioned that we think things are the same, however, we don’t actually understand why they’re working. Two things may look very similar, however actually may be quite different on the inside. What’s important is the Inside (what’s driving the behavior, but not how it looks).

After the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Jonah received a flood of emails with ideas from organisations on ideas to go viral like spraying ketchup and mustard on each other (not the worst idea he’s heard), for a good cause!

Too often companies think that if they just copy what people did to be successful then it will also be successful. Doing the same thing as someone has done before isn’t going to be enough. Think about if someone jumped from behind the wall and spooked you, yeah it may work well the first time, but if you do it again and again, it’s not going to be scary, because it’s not surprising, novel or different and therefore it’s not going to work in the same way.

The key thing is why. Figure out why something is successful and how you can make something new, interesting or novel.

People often talk about having 1,000 true fans, but how many people do you need to start a trend like Movember? Is there a minimum number of people required to make something catch on?

It’s not about the number, no matter whether this is 1,000 or 2,000. Going viral isn’t even the goal. When you want to create a “viral video” you work with an ad agency, often at times they go out and pay a bunch of people to watch your content so that they can say it went viral.

However, the goal isn’t to get 1000 people to watch your stuff, it’s to get 1000 people to share and engage with your stuff.

Example: Warby Parker

Warby Parker often got questions about various topics and they realised they didn’t have space on Twitter to answer the questions properly. So they started creating videos. The videos were getting between 100–150 views, and this doesn’t seem much. It’s definitely a far figure from the 10 million views a viral video would get, however, each person sharing it and getting 150 views is much more powerful than the piece of content shared 1m times.

The goals not to be a flash in the pan, the goal is each one for each one. The goal is to get each person to share our content. Anything your customer does on your platform is an opportunity to bake word of mouth into the service.

At a time in society where attention is so limited, how do we increase sharing and engagement as we go into 2019?

It’s important to understand that the principles of Contagious were around way before the times of Social Media. Often at times, users think that 80–95% of word of mouth is done online, when in fact only 7% of the world of mouth actually is. People will always share what will make them look good. Any opportunity when a user is on your platform is your opportunity (irrespective of time) is your opportunity to give them a reason to tell others about your product or service.

What would you say are the top 3 latest hacks that companies need to implement going into 2019?

The science is the same. Start with understanding your customers. What do they need? Why are they doing what they’re doing and use that to build word of mouth?

The second part is actually understanding the “STEPPS”. What’s the social currency that will bring your brand for the ride, how can you put a trigger in the environment that reminds people of your product/service?

How can you make your product more observable? What’s an emotional story that users can carry along for the ride? Following the 6 STEPPS in Contagious will really help with word of mouth.

Last but not least, be authentic. It’s really easy to talk about us, but it’s much harder to talk to our customers in a way they’ll understand. Brands that do this very well are very successful.

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