Contagious by Jonah Berger

Practically everyone has seen this dress.

the dress.png

But regardless of the science behind tricky lighting and ambiguous angles, what we’re more interested in is why this dress went viral. We’re interested in what made this dress the topic of people’s dinner-time chats, why people were excited to show their friends, and, ultimately, how this dress stumbled upon internet glory.

But we’re not just interested in the dress. We’re interested in the performance of your Facebook ads, your social media content, and anything else that you put on the internet, intending for it to catch people’s attention.

We’re interested in how you can replicate the effects of a viral sensation.

How can you create an ad or a social media post that is guaranteed to go viral? How can you make your brand or business the talk of the town? How can you put yourself at the front of the prospect’s mind?

How can your business be what everyone is dying to tell their friends about?

Jonah Berger researched viral sensations and why people can’t wait to share certain things. Here’s what he learned and how you can apply it to your marketing.

1. Social Currency

Here’s the deal. Everyone loves knowing stuff that other people don’t know. In fact, when I first heard about what Jonah Berger calls “Social Currency,” I immediately wanted to tell my friends.


Because it makes me look smart.

That might sound a bit conceited, but it’s the truth. I want people to think I’m smart and talking about unique information that other people aren’t aware of is a way to accomplish that.

But I don’t just want to be smart. I want to be sexy. I want people to like me. I want justification for my faults. I want reassurance that I’m right about my opinions.

Obviously, I’m talking about humans as a whole. We all think this way, whether we like it or not. But there’s something even more important: We all want to be liked.

Because of this over-arching desire, many of our conversations are a series of telling people things that will make us look good — whether it’s a funny story, a success story, a justification for our actions, or fascinating information.

Thus, if you can create an ad or a piece of content that gives people social currency — it makes them look good when they tell their friends about it — they’ll likely share it. Everyone wants to look good. Help your prospects do so.

“How does it make people look to talk about a product or idea? Most people would rather look smart than dumb, rich than poor, and cool than geeky. Just like the clothes we wear and the cars we drive, what we talk about influences how others see us. It’s social currency. Knowing about cool things—like a blender that can tear through an iPhone—makes people seem sharp and in the know. So to get people talking we need to craft messages that help them achieve these desired impressions. We need to find our inner remarkability and make people feel like insiders.”


Can you make a blender famous? Evidently, yes. Blendtec got nearly 1 million subscribers with it’s wildly famous show, “Will It Blend?,” where they blend everything from Apple watches to iPhones. Who doesn’t love telling their friends about a show that blends iPhones? It’s hard not to talk about.

2. Triggers

It’s one thing to watch a Facebook ad and show it to a friend.

It’s another thing to bring that Facebook ad up at dinner the next day with your family and talk about it a week later because something reminded you of it, and then make it a running “inside-joke” between you and your friends for the months to come.

That’s the dream of every marketer, isn’t it?

While some companies have stumbled upon an ad that consistently triggers the prospect to think about the product, many have started to intentionally implement this tactic into their marketing.

Here’s how.

Think about the setting that your ideal client lives in. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When does your ideal client use your product? Where are they? Who are they with? What are they doing?
  • In order to purchase again, when’s the best time for them to remember you? Where are they? Who are they with? What are they doing?

Then, replicate that scenario in your marketing campaign. Basically, you want people to associate the appropriate things with your product.

If they are with friends, watching football, and your product is beer, show them a beer that’s for friends watching football.

If they are on vacation, sitting on the couch, and your product is a book, show them a book that’s perfect for vacation.

If you trigger your audience to think about your product when they’re with their friends and when they’re most likely to buy, you’ve won.

“We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment and create new triggers by linking our products and ideas to prevalent cues in that environment. Top of mind leads to tip of tongue.”


This not particularly creative Budweiser commercial received 1.7 million views and became the inside-joke of beer-drinking buddies around the world — making Budweiser the beer to rule all football games.

3. Emotion

It’s no secret that emotional investment is one of the powerful human experiences. But it’s also one of the most shareable.

When people care about what you created, they share it.

Although, when it comes to marketing, not all emotions are created equal. According to Jonah Berger’s research, some emotional stimulation that you’d think would be perfectly shareable, wasn’t.

For example, people who are sad don’t share nearly as often. Similarly people who are content don’t share either. Jonah Berger calls contentment and sadness “low arousal” emotions. In other words, they don’t release adrenaline, get the blood pumping, and encourage action.

And action on the part of the viewer is exactly what viral attention requires.

On the other hand, awe, excitement, amusement, anger, and anxiety are all high-arousal emotions — meaning they’re more shareable.

If you want people to share your stuff, use high-arousal emotions to do so.

“Some emotions kindle the fire more than others. As we discussed, activating emotion is the key to transmission. Physiological arousal or activation drives people to talk and share. We need to get people excited or make them laugh. We need to make them angry rather than sad. Even situations where people are active can make them more likely to pass things on to others.”


Consider the awe that this Apple video creates when you watch it. That feeling made this video receive nearly 1.5 million views.

4. Publicity

This might be obvious.

If people don’t know your product exists, than they won’t talk about it, they won’t tell their friends about it, and they won’t buy it. Not because they don’t want to, but because they literally can’t.

Publicity is key to a successful business. It’s critical to your success that people know about your brand, regularly think about your brand, and that non-adopters see your brand without even meaning to.

But how can you make sure people know about your brand?

By creating what Jonah Berger calls “behavioral residue” — the public evidence and reminder that someone made a purchase.

Think of practically every mall store that gives you a shopping bag with their name on it. Or the free keychain you received from that car salesman. Or the free tee-shirts, mugs, pens, and hats that businesses gave away as a kind gesture for your purchase.

While it’s nice to think about these items as “gifts,” they aren’t.

Each one is an attempt on the part of the company to create residue of your purchase so that your friends, family, and coworkers will all see the brand name.

You can do the same thing with your business by creating a keychain, shirt, bookmark, bracelet, or shopping bag that consistently reminds people of your brand and brings in leads you didn’t even know existed.

Get your brand in front of more people and more people will buy.

“Behavioral residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake… When publicly visible, these remnants facilitate imitation and provide chances for people to talk about related products or ideas.”


In 1996, Hotmail gained one million subscribers in half a year without spending any money on advertising. How? By using publicity to their advantage. They added this simple line to their email signature.


Image via ReferralCandy

5. Practical Value

People love to share things that are helpful.

Have you ever learned something online about an easier way to do your job or a genius marketing tactic that was so easy to implement, so brilliant in its simplicity, and so effective in its response that you couldn’t wait to runaway and implement it and then share the new information with your friends?

This is because — as we learned with “social currency” — people like to seem smart, and sharing something that helps others — some trick, tip, or piece of advice — does exactly that.

Websites like Lifehack and The Penny hoarder live and breathe their existence on practical value.

Know of a simple trick that will help your clients? Share it. When you do, they’ll not only appreciate it for themselves, but if it’s compelling enough, they’ll share it with their friends as well — of course referencing the place they learned it: your business.

Win, win.

“We need to make it clear why our product or idea is so useful that people just have to spread the word. News you can use.”


This video of Ken Craig, an 86 year-old man, shucking corn has received half a million views… simply because it’s so practically helpful.

6. Stories

Think about the products in your life that you’d go out of your way to recommend to a friend. The products that you’d intentionally bring up in a conversation.

That’s probably only a handful of products.

And each of those products impressed you in a way that most haven’t. The downside to trying to get people to talk about your brand is that, well, it’s crazy difficult. Getting people talking about your product without any additional narrative is difficult because it requires your merchandise to compete with the giants of product development.

But create a compelling story around your product — where your brand is an inseparable character — and people will have something to talk about regarding your business.

The truth is that most people won’t just recommend something. But we tell stories all the time. We tell simple and interesting stories as small-talk to strangers. We tell deeper and more meaningful stories to family and friends over a meal.

Stories that evoke the correct emotion, are easy to explain, and have your brand as a central character are practically guaranteed to get shared, simply because stories are the most human type of communication.

People love stories. Give them one to tell.

“Stories thus give people an easy way to talk about products and ideas. Subway might have low-fat subs, and Lands’ End might have great customer service, but outside of triggers in a conversation, people need a reason to bring that information up. And good stories provide that reason. They provide a sort of psychological cover that allows people to talk about a product or idea without seeming like an advertisement.”


This year’s super bowl commercial by 84 Lumber tells the story of a mother and daughter traveling from Mexico to America, where they encounter the wall proposed by Donald Trump. While highly controversial, this video received over 11 million views and was the talk of families all across the country.

Note: While this story got a lot of attention, it’s questionable as to whether the commercial helped 84 Lumber as much as it could have since their product was not a vital part of the story. The story can be told between friends without 84 Lumber being mentioned. Always make sure your story is compelling and your brand is a critical part of telling it. 

Be Creative And Take Your Time

It is possible to create a viral advertisement.

Jonah Berger thinks so.

Doing so is a matter of remembering these 6 principles from Contagious:

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

But not all ingredients need to be included. Simply include the appropriate ones for your marketing campaign, take your time to create it, and feel free to let your creative juices flow.

After all, if you can get people to share your product with their friends and family, why wouldn’t you?

Interested in reading more?

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