Contagious by Jonah Berger: Level Up Word of Mouth Marketing

Contagious by Jonah Berger: Level Up Word of Mouth Marketing

Tori Barrington

Written by: Tori Barrington | Snoball Editorial Team

Last Updated: Jan 30, 2024


Download Guide Apply Principles: Intro & Social Currency


Marketers, growth managers, and business owners, you're listening to the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast by Snoball.  

Welcome to our Marketing Playbook series. Today, Tori and I are going to summarize the book Contagious: Why things catch on by Jonah Berger. You're going to love it. You'll learn specifically how your company and your message can catch on and enjoy the best of word of mouth marketing. So let's jump in.  

Todd: Hey, hey, this is Todd with the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast. It's great to be here. I've got a special guest, my colleague, Tori. Welcome to the podcast, Tori.

Tori: Thanks, Todd. It's good to be here.

Todd: Awesome. Today we are going to tackle a book that Tori and I just read, and it's Contagious by Jonah Berger.

And I'm really excited to go through this. We're going to distill some of the principles down and give some examples. And so you can either spend hours and hours listening or reading the book, or you can just listen to us and we'll give you a nice synopsis here, but to start out with the book, I just really want to pose a couple of questions. 

Like, honestly, why do some things catch on and others don't? Like we all kind of have a gut reaction. Like we kind of know why some things go viral and others don't. We've all shared videos. We've all seen videos that nobody's watching. We've seen restaurants that are always crowded and we've seen right across the street, a restaurant where no matter what they do, they can't get people to come in.

Well, we want to be one of those companies that is attracting the people obviously. Right? Well, Jonah Berger covers these types of questions in his book Contagious. How do you make something contagious? And most people think, well, you just rely on big ad budgets. In fact, Jonah attacks this right at the get-go when he says, “Most…don't have the resources to spend on lots of advertising and marketing. They depend on people talking about them to be successful.”

WOMM Statistics

So it's not about the money. It's about word of mouth marketing. And he throws some statistics at us. One of my favorites, he says, “While traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth from everyday Joes and Janes is at least 10 times more effective.”

And that blew my mind. 10 times more effective. So anything that stood out to you as far as some of the statistics he shares, Tori?

Tori: Yeah, I actually think my favorite one super surprised me. He said, “Every day, the average American engages in more than 16 word of mouth episodes. Separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an organization, brand, product, or service.”

And I think the reason this surprised me, 16 just feels like a really big number for an average person to just have a conversation about a company. I feel like that feels formal, but ever since I read this statistic, I catch myself just randomly mentioning a company to my husband or to a coworker or a friend.

I think it just comes up. You talk about the brand of your shirt or the brand of your shoes or,  I don't know, it just naturally comes up and we don't realize it, but it happens a lot.

Todd: I agree. And that's why this final statistic really resonates with me where he says, “Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.”

And I see that in my day to day life, between my wife and I, between colleagues, we're always talking about brands. If we're anything in the United States, we're professional consumers and we like to talk about brands. And so how do we get others to be talking about our brand?


And Jonah Berger breaks this up into six steps. In fact, he calls them steps. S T E P P S. And these are: 

  1. Social currency
  2. Triggers
  3. Emotions
  4. Public
  5. Practical value
  6. Stories

And we're going to take a quick dive into each one of these. So, social currency.

Social Currency

Tori: Okay, yeah, so social currency is a term that I was not familiar with, so I'm gonna start by basically just breaking down what it even is.

So Berger says that just like we use money to purchase products or items, things like that, “People use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends, and colleagues.” So, what companies need to be doing, they need to give their customers a way to make themselves look good when they're talking to their friends, while at the same time promoting your brand and products.

Tip #1: Find Inner Remarkability

So he suggests a couple different ways that we can kind of give social currency to our customers. The first is to find the inner remarkability of your product or service, which honestly, at first when I read it, I thought, felt kind of vague. Like, we all think that our product is good, but what is inner remarkability?

But he mentions that every industry has their own expectations. Customers sense a pattern when they're in that industry of the way that they're going to be treated, what the experience is going to be like. So if you defy those expectations or you break that pattern, you're going to actually be surprising people. And they're going to be really impressed and they're going to want to tell their friends. 

Todd: Well, I was just thinking of this exact principle the other day. And my wife Annie, she's the best, and she, almost every day of her life, is giving an Amazon commercial at our house of why she loves Amazon. And so I've kind of become accustomed to it and kind of callous to it.

But just a couple of days ago, she's like, Todd, seriously, Amazon's the best. Let me tell you why. And it turns out, like in our area, it's like tip culture is everywhere. They're asking you to tip for everything, every restaurant you go to, every service. They're like, how much do you want to tip? And so we're just tipping all the time.

Well, Annie gets her package and then she looks on her phone and it says, and it was asking for another tip. And at first she's rolling her eyes and she's like, oh no, another place where I've got a tip now is our delivery driver. But instead it says we at Amazon will tip this driver and we'll cover the cost to help them through the holidays.

And she was so excited. She told me that day, I heard her tell her sister over the phone that day, this is something Amazon was doing to just be remarkable. And we use that phrase all the time, but it's really, it's literally, being, like doing something that is worthy of remark. And so anyway, it stood out against the industry expectation and created some word of mouth.

Tori: That's super cool. Because like you said, Amazon totally broke that expectation. She was not expecting them to offer to pay the tip. And so, yeah, she's going to share that. ‘Cause it surprised her, so I think that's really cool. 

Tip #2: Leverage Game Mechanics

The next thing that Berger suggests that we can do to give that social currency to our customers, get them to talk about us, is leverage game mechanics.

So this means giving customers points, encouraging them to earn a status,  anything that feels like a game where you're earning something, you're advancing. And the reason this works is because people want to brag about themselves. They want to brag, even if it's a humble brag, to their family and friends.

And I think a really great example of this is with airlines. I mean, they're encouraging you to advance in a status and you do that by earning miles or points. And I think it's kind of funny 'cause my dad actually, he just got a new job and he switched airlines 'cause he flies a lot. And they encouraged him to switch an airline.

And now, because he has flown so much for his job, he's slowly earned these miles and these points. And he is at whatever the top tier is of his airline, and he loves to talk about it. And I don't think you would naturally say he's bragging about it, but he just loves his company, and he loves the airline that he flies with, and he loves that because he earned miles, he's kind of in this top status. So it really is these game mechanics, I think, that have made him want to tell us about it. Anyways, I just think it's really fun. 

Tip #3: Make People Feel Like Insiders

The last suggestion that Berger gives is to make someone feel like an insider. So you want your product or your service to feel exclusive. You want somebody to be proud that they know information, or that they have your product because nobody else does, and so they want to share that knowledge that they have or whatever makes them feel like they're exclusive, like they're the insider.

Todd: I've got a perfect example for this, Tori. So, I love my Nikes. And I was watching on Instagram a video of a guy that did exactly this. He says, do you know that your Nikes have either a 30 or a 60 day return policy?

And he says, but there is actually a hidden place on their site in their help center, where you can go in up to two years. Like this tip that he was about to give made me feel like an inside and here I am sharing it right now. So the listener, now I'm giving you actual inside information. 

He said if you look on the tongue of your Nike, it will have a manufacturer's date. If you're within two years of that manufacturer's date, you can actually file a claim with Nike and say, they've had some unusual wear or tear. They're dysfunctional for any reason, and you can actually send them in and get a voucher for brand new Nikes. I literally did that with a year and a half old pair of running shoes, sent them in, and they just sent me a voucher.

And here I am now talking about it because I felt like I had insider information. So that absolutely works. 


All right. So now let's pivot over to another concept that Jonah Berger highlights here, and that's triggers.  He starts it out with a phrase, top of mind means tip of tongue.

Meaning, if you're in someone's head, then you're more likely to be talked about. It's that straightforward. So what you want to do is essentially link your product or service to something that someone else sees or talks about all the time. So it's not rocket science here, but the trigger will remind you of that brand and you'll actually be talking about it.

So how do we do that? He gives us three specific ways. 

Tip #1: Trigger Frequency

The first is frequency.  How can we make, how can we link our brand to something that people see all the time? Is there some kind of a link that we can have to something? That behavior or something that they see or talk about all the time? 

Tip #2: Strength of Link

The next is the strength of this link. You can't have some kind of random arbitrary link to your brand. The more tightly it is connected to your brand, the more somebody is going to talk about it. And so you want that trigger to be directly, to remind somebody of your brand. 

Tori: I actually really like the example that Jonah gives in the book about the strength of the link. I think he talks about Kit Kats and coffee and how they linked those two. So obviously, naturally they're separate. They wanted to tie that into like, when you take a break, then you have a Kit Kat. Well, what else do you do when you take a break? You drink coffee. 

And so they created a series of videos that basically created that link. Where people were, I want to take a coffee break. Well, let's also take a KitKat break. And so they were able to kind of tie those two things together, which I think is a really good example that the link that you have for your company doesn't necessarily have to be, have to exist already. You can actually create it from scratch as long as they are related.

Todd: So that's perfect. The strength of that link has to be really strong. So when you think of break, you now think of a KitKat with your coffee. 

Tip #3: Distance Between Trigger and Behavior

The other thing that he talks about is the distance, the distance between when the trigger hits and how close your customer is to a behavior where they can actually act on that.

And so the shorter that distance is, the more likely this trigger is to get them to take action that benefits your brand. 

Tori: Okay, I gotta jump in here one more time 'cause I actually have a story. This just happened to me the other day. Our grocery store here is trying to encourage everybody to bring their own grocery bags.

And I always forget. So again, I went to the grocery store, I get out of the car and I realize, shoot, I forgot my grocery bags. And then I look up and I see a sign that says, don't forget to bring your grocery bags. And immediately I thought, like, why aren't you reminding me this while I'm home? And that's where my grocery bags are.

And I think that's the perfect example here because there's this distance where they're reminding me at the grocery store when really I left them at home. There's this gap that kind of needs to be closed there. So make sure that your link is near where you want that desired behavior to take place. So people actually do the action you're wanting them to do. 

Todd: I love that example, Tori, because they could give you refrigerator magnets or something like that, that you're now putting on your refrigerator before you leave the house. Or there's a grocery, like on our refrigerator, we have a magnet that's a grocery list that anyone in the family can go and write on.

What if at the very top of that it was, hey, remember your cloth grocery bags, and then boom, you've got a trigger closer to the behavior. That's a perfect example. All right. So I'll toss it back to you for the next principle. 


Tori: Now let's talk about emotions. That's the next in the STEPPS.

So I think we might all think that this is pretty obvious. I know when I read it, I thought, well, yeah, if something makes me happy, I guess I'm going to tell somebody about it. But it's actually not as obvious as it seems. 

Berger says that it's not all emotions that make people share. It's not just any emotion, it's actually the high-arousal emotions, both positive and negative, that are actually going to drive people to an action.

So this includes emotions like excitement, amusement, anger, anxiety, I'm sure you can name several others. But you have to be in that high-arousal state to take an action. So just being plain old happy or plain old sad isn't enough. You need to be excited about something to share. Or you need to be really angry.

And so as a company, you want to obviously evoke these kind of emotions in people. If you make them angry, probably by accident, they're going to talk, they're going to share, and that's not good for you. Which is why you want to actually make them excited instead. Not just satisfied, not just happy, but excited.

You want to make them laugh, you want to make them really in that high-arousal state so that they want to share about your company. 

Todd: Well, I think of an example that we just talked about as a team and I can't remember if one of us shared this being passed around the internet, but it was a lady who was in a horrific car accident and the car lit up in flames and she was shocked.

So it brings in this fear or this horror of just like this awful thing. Well, she's doing this video afterwards and she's like, oh, look at this. And she pulls out her Stanley mug and inside of it, it's still got like, and you help remind me, Tori. It was still like, there was still ice in her drink or something.

It was like crazy that amidst this inferno, her Stanley mug had still kept her drink safe and cold. And here's the cool thing. So not only does that invoke all this anxiety or this like, this is crazy or this surprise and this amusement. But then Stanley swoops in and says, hey, this lady that’s sharing this video, we're going to buy her a new car to pay for the one that was torched.

And how cool is that? So it's like, it's bringing in all these emotions. And so of course, this thing was just getting passed around the internet. It was just a wonderful story that people could share. And it came up right there in our marketing meeting. So I love that example. 


Excellent. Let's pivot over to public.

And this is a principle that he highlights here. And really, essentially what he's saying is publicly visible. The psychology of imitation being really powerful. Where when people see something, they obviously are more likely to imitate that. So the more your brand can be tied to positive public visibility, the better.

So when people aren't sure what to do, they look to others and other people to help them out. It just in our brains. Actually, it's less work for our brain to do. We've kind of outsourced a little bit of that decision making to things that we see around us. And I think this is really prevalent. 

The example he gives in the book is Apple. It does this with their Apple logo on their laptop, where they put it on the outside. So anytime you're using it, they are now publicly visible and you are now an advocate for their brand. And making it so much easier for other people to decide to use that. 

I think of the swag that I see at trade shows. People know me because I literally go around trade shows and I'm like trying to get swag while I'm there because I'll wear it. I'll wear swag and I wear it at home and I wear it around. And people love that because now I'm a walking, talking billboard for them. 

But additionally, those are some of the obvious places that we see, oh, of course we need to be visible. But I really like the thought of being visible where people with high intent are actually searching. And I think of search engines. When someone's typing in, home security system, what do you look like on that search results page? And what are the reviews about your company?

What does it look like? What does your public persona and that public reputation look like? And so really being cognizant of this, I think is just critical when you look at making your brand public.  

Practical Value

Tori: Alright, let's move on to practical value. I really like the idea of practical value because it's basically like sharing advice.

People like to give advice to their friends and their families and their neighbors. They want to feel like they're helping people. They want to feel like they're making a difference in their lives, and it also makes you feel good when you're sharing things. So, think of practical value like advice. You want to give your customers advice to share. 

Tip #1: Promote Good Deals

Well, something that Berger points out is that the thing that is the most practical and the most valuable to a lot of people is saving money. And so a lot of practical value comes from a great deal. Well, everybody loves a great deal. I mean, I know this, you know this, we all want a good deal. And your competitors know this, too.

And that's kind of where the issue comes in, because if everyone's offering a deal, then it really doesn't stand out, it doesn't make a difference. So, how do you make your deal good? How do you make it something worth sharing. Well, Berger gives us five different ways that our deal can kind of cut through that clutter and be shareable.

First, you can offer surprising promotions. Next, you can put a time restriction on the deal. You can also put a quantity limit on the sale and restrict who qualifies for the deal. And then lastly, you're going to want to make sure that that practical value is visible. 

Todd: You know, after finishing this book, Tori, I realized where I see this everywhere.

Literally last night, Annie's looking for a new pair of shoes. I'm on the Nike app, but we're thinking after Christmas, you know, a month down the road, she'll get these shoes. Well I'm looking at the Nike app and it has a promotional price. It says 25 percent off. Well, they have that all the time.

So I was like, okay, no big deal. But then I select her size and it says, yeah, we're almost out of this size. We've only got a few left. All of a sudden I run in and I say, Annie, we got to get these now. They got a promotional price and there's limited quantity. Like we may not be able to get these for months.

So sure enough, last night, literally, we buy her new walking shoes because this principle was being exercised. I wouldn't have opened my mouth and gone in there and told her about it. We wouldn't have taken action had they not been rolling this all out. So I think this is absolutely applicable every day of our lives. 

Tori: That's the perfect example, I think, to sum up all five of those factors that he shares. 

So another thing he talks about as far as making sure your deal stands out is the Rule of 100. The rule basically states that if the price of the product is over $100, the discount should be in dollar amounts. And if the product price is under $100, the discount should be listed at a percentage.

So for example, your product is thousands of dollars, two thousand dollars, then you're going to want to list the discount in dollar amounts. You're going to want to say it's $500 off. Because that's going to look better than any percentage you can put on there. And if the product price is under $100, so let's say you're selling a $15 cheeseburger, you're going to want to say that it's 25 percent off, because that looks a lot better than saying it's just a couple of dollars off. 

Tip #2: Showcase Problem Solving

Another thing that Burger points out, is that if it's useful, people are going to share it. So your product doesn't have to necessarily fill all these other criteria that we think of when you see some really, really, really cool product being shared. It just needs to be useful. And so another way that you can kind of cut through the clutter and prove that you are valuable is by showcasing how your product or service can solve a problem.

So think about the problems that your service solves and then showcase, however you want to showcase it, exactly how you solve that problem. Because it's actually going to remind people of other people they know That have that problem and then they're going to share it. 


Todd: I love that. The final principle is my favorite and it's stories.

I love this because as humans we love to tell stories, and we love to hear stories. Our brain is so wired to actually respond so well to stories. We remember things in stories. We love sharing them. It's just the perfect packaged thing to pass along to somebody else. 

Tip #1: Package as Trojan Horse

But he adds something in here that we want to have this Trojan horse idea.

Where inside of our story, there's kind of a surprise or there's a moral or a lesson or a little nugget of interesting information. This will make our story more likely to be shared and, but that little nugget, the story, has to be directly tied to our brand. And he gives a great example of the Olympics of some brand that paid a gazillion dollars for a guy to run out in a speedo and jump into an Olympic pool.

People remembered that event and that story, but nobody associates it, I can't even remember right now what was actually printed on the butt of his speedo of the brand that he was supposed to represent because it had nothing to do with a man jumping in the water. 

Tip #2: Directly Relate to Brand

So you want to take this story and then weave it in with your brand so it's relevant to that brand. And so it has to relate to that. 

Tip #3: Use Customer Testimonials

And the perfect venue for doing this are customer testimonials. Customer testimonials, where they actually bring out, they'll tell a story about how this company delighted them or surprised them. It can be a, so it can be a customer testimonial, but it can also be an entertaining little story that has a nice little moral that relates to the brand's mission.

Tori: I actually think Chick-Fil-A does a really good job of telling stories in both of those ways. They take their customer testimonial, and the story actually really is entertaining, but it literally points to Chick-Fil-A and it also points to kind of their morals and their mission. I don't know if you've seen those commercials, the people like sitting on a red couch, And they're talking about my tire was flat and the Chick-Fil-A employee came out and helped me change my tire, or whatever, there's a million of them.

But I think first of all, it's a Chick-Fil-A employee that is, you know, saves the day. And so we know it's about Chick-Fil-A,  but also their whole mission, everything they say is always my pleasure. They're supposed to be this very service-oriented restaurant. And so it's proof that they actually do what they say, that they really do serve people.

So one, the customer testimonial is saying Chick-Fil-A is great, but also that we should be serving, and that kind of points to their mission as well. So I think they do a great job with that. 


So now that we've gone through all the STEPPS, Berger kind of puts it into one sentence of what you need to do to get people to talk about you.

He says you need to “Build a social currency laden, triggered, emotional, publicly visible, practically valuable story with your message inside.” And that's how you get people to talk about you. That's how you can level up your word of mouth marketing strategy. 

Todd: Awesome. Thanks for the discussion, Tori. That was a lot of fun.

As you can see, these are foundational principles to any marketing strategy. So, in the description, you're going to see a link over to a resource where we break down all of these principles, but we also bring in some insights and some direct, practical things that you can do every single day for your org as well as some questions you can ask yourself to pull out and fold in some of these principles into your marketing strategy. So not just the high level principles. Are you aware of these? And great. That's nice to have in my back pocket, but stuff you can actually, you can take and actually apply into your marketing strategy right away.

So thank you so much for joining the Word of Mouth Marketing podcast. And thanks Tori for joining and from us here at the Snoball team, we'll see you later. 

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