Jonah Berger: How to Go Viral

University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Jonah Berger says you can become the talk of the town—provided you have a compelling enough story to tell.

July 11, 2013

In your book Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013), you write about why ideas and things go viral. Does anything catch on by accident anymore?

I don’t think it’s all driven by marketing. A lot of what goes viral is truly authentic, and a lot of what drives word-of-mouth is authentic. When you think about viral, you tend to think about [online video clips with millions of hits.] But if you’re a real estate agent, you  really just care about getting a few more clients. You don’t need 
10 million people to view your ad. You just want to sell the houses you’ve got and get more clients in the future. It’s really about turning customers into advocates—generating authentic word-of-mouth buzz and getting the people who like you and like your service to pass it on to others.

You describe the way to create viral impact through STEPPS (social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, stories). How would an agent use STEPPS to create buzz around a new listing or a group of new properties?

With new units, for example, they often say, “Be the first to get access to this new thing.” It makes people feel like an insider. It gives them social currency because they have something not everyone else has. Send out some feelers and allow some people to register for early access to the property before anyone else has access to it. It will make people feel special, like they have something not everyone else has, and it’s going to make them want that thing a lot and make them talk about it and share it. You also see the same thing with “going fast” [signs]. Making people feel as if something is scarce is an aspect of  social currency. “Only two units left” suggests that many other people want this thing.

Part of STEPPS is telling a compelling story about your product. How would a real estate practitioner generate this?

The key is to build a story that carries your underlying message. Whether it’s about the property or the agent, the customer must take away an amazing [narrative] they just have to tell everyone else. When I found that my house had a master bedroom on the third floor, that feeling of awe made me want to talk about it. I also couldn’t stop talking about my agent because he was fantastic. He helped me with everything from buying the place to referring repair people to painting the house. This is not about me trying to bring him new business; I’m just so amazed that he did these things, I have to tell others.

Over the ages, people 
have simultaneously grown fond of specific accoutrements—from avocado green appliances in the ’60s to today’s bamboo floors. What drives this obsession with certain styles? Is it viral marketing, pure and simple?

People are always looking to others for signals about  the right thing to do. If you walk into enough places with avocado green appliances, you go, “Wow, people must think that’s pretty good, and maybe I should try that.” If a place sells for more than  you thought it would, then you would naturally begin to think about why—and you may attribute it to the bamboo floors or appliances. Then suddenly those catch on. It’s about people looking to others to inform their own behavior.

You say that one point of making something viral is to create conversation that is shared in real time, often face to face. Why not just keep it all online?

Yes, we live in the social media age. But only about 7 percent of word of mouth is online. Most of word of mouth is offline in face-to-face conversations. For real estate agents, it doesn’t hurt to have potential clients talking about you to others through social media, but it’s not clear that most of those conversations are happening online. Most of it happens at, for instance, a party for a new person in town. Or a friend of yours calls and asks if you know anyone good. And you give them the agent’s name.

I think posting something on Yelp or writing an online review is helpful but that’s not someone you personally know. I can go on Yelp and see a restaurant has four stars instead of five, and I’m going to use that information—but one comment from my friends is going to have a bigger impact than a few comments from people I don’t know at all. This is because I don’t know if our preferences are the same.

Word of mouth is so much more effective than advertising. It’s over 10 times as effective. I may get a flyer from somebody, but if I’ve never heard of them, I’m not going to suddenly give them my business. I’m not going to trust them with selling my house, something that will affect my livelihood.

What is the strangest fad you uncovered in the course of researching this book—and did it eventually make sense once you applied STEPPS logic to it?

A number of the stories are quite surprising. The story of Blendtec and how they got people to talk about a blender [really surprised me]. You never would have thought people would share word of mouth about a blender. It’s one of the most mundane products there is. Yet hundreds of millions of people have shared their videos because the Blendtec company figured out how to get people talking. And after those videos, sales went up over 700 percent. It is interesting for me to see that even the most mundane product really can catch on by harnessing these principles.

Kristin Kloberdanz, a California-based freelance writer, contributes to TIME Magazine and other publications.