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The Science behind getting Word of Mouth recommendations

Revelations from New York Times bestseller Contagious

Do you know someone who owns a Thermomix kitchen appliance?

Around half a million Australians own one, yet you can’t buy one in a shop.   

And have you seen the Dumb Ways to Die video that improved safety around Metro Trains in Melbourne?

It cheerily shows cute animated characters meeting their end in a variety of ways, until the last three, Stumble, Bonehead and Putz, are killed by trains due to unsafe behavior. The YouTube video was downloaded 2.5 million times in its first 48 hours.  

These success stories rely on viral word of mouth recommendation - the nirvana of marketing, and the holy grail of companies wanting to spread the word about their product, idea, service or story.  

But exactly how did these things catch on? What makes people rush to tell others about them?

According to Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, it’s because each of them follows at least one of the 6 principles of contagiousness.  

In his book Contagious, he shares his findings, many of which have been published in top-tier academic journals including Journal of Marketing Research and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, about why certain stories get shared, e-mails get forwarded and videos go viral.

6 Principles of Contagiousness (the STEPPS):

  1. Social currency. Just like the clothes we wear and the car we drive, what we talk about influences how others see us. Knowing about cool things makes us appear sharp and in the know. Being an “insider” and knowing about the availability of a scarce or secret product or service makes us look even cooler.

  2. Triggers. People talk about whatever comes to mind. Triggers are stimuli that prompt people to think about related things. This is why more people bought Mars (chocolate) bars when NASA’s Pathfinder touched down on planet Mars. Link your product or idea with something seen or experienced often (like coffee, or weekends, or local landmarks).

  3. Emotion.  Rather than harping on function, focus on feelings.  One of the best feelings to evoke is awe. In a study of news articles, awe-inspiring articles were 30% more likely to be shared. Funny (Dumb Ways to Die video, for example) or exciting stories also share well. But, sad stories had the opposite effect.  Anger and anxiety also ranked low for sharing.

  4. Public. Next time you look at someone working in a café, check out the logo on their open laptop. If it’s Apple brand, the apple logo will appear right side up to you – the public. This was a deliberate decision to prompt “monkey see, monkey do” imitation. People do what others do.  That’s why we enter a restaurant full of people and not the empty one.

  5. Practical Value. Sharing something useful with others is a quick and easy way to help them out, and strengthens social bonds. Helping others feels good, and it reflects positively on the sharer. Studies show “SALE” signs increase demand for products, even without reducing existing pricing.

  6. Stories. Stories give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas. They provide a Trojan horse to push a product or idea without seeming like an ad. Dove’s Evolution YouTube video campaign is at more than 19 million views and started a conversation about beauty norms. Ensure the link between story and product makes sense though.

    More interesting facts from Contagious:

  • Only 7% of word of mouth recommendations happen online. Most are offline.

  • Fifty percent of YouTube videos have fewer than 500 views. Fewer than 1% get more than 1 million views

  • Observe yourself to understand the psychology of sharing. Why do you talk about what you talk about with others?

    So the Dumb Ways to Die video (now at 170 million views) is cool, funny, top of mind when using a train, tells a story through song, and is practical. It's  also pretty awesome as a concept.
    The "cult" of Thermomix* could be explained by its scarcity and the awe expressed by users around its usefulness. Perhaps also the trigger of preparing dinner.

    So, next time you're writing content, designing a product, making a video, rebranding something, tweaking your website, remember the STEPPS. 

    About Contagious author Jonah Berger: Jonah Berger has been recognised with awards for both scholarship and teaching. He is the James G. Campbell assistant Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Popular accounts of his work have appeared in places like The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Science, Harvard Business Review, Wired, Businessweek, and Fast Company.

Become a member to watch Dr. Jonah Berger’s interview as our SEPTEMBER guest on our On Demand Business Book Club. TUESDAY 18 SEPTEMBER — 9:45AM AEST
(*Note: the author of this article does not own a Thermomix!) 

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