Book Review: Contagious


Book Review: Contagious

At SES London this year in one of the content marketing/social sharing sessions which featured Matt Roberts from Lindex, he mentioned Contagious by Jonah Berger as one item on a list of resources and items that they had found useful in evaluating whether or not they were producing “shareable content”.

Intrigued, I ordered a copy during the session (thank you conference Wi-Fi!) and thought I would share my thoughts on the book for anyone else who may find it useful.

What is the book about?

The book is a great insight into some of the science and psychology behind why people share and what makes content popular. It focuses on online sharing – why does some content go viral and not others? Is there a pattern behind the “most read” and “most shared” articles on news sites? It then talks about how we as marketers can leverage this same phenomenon to help our products/ideas get more “buzz”.

About the author

Jonah Berger is a marketer who was sat in a traditional science class one day and wondered whether the same logical approach and research techniques could be applied to psychology and sociology. A PhD, ten years of research and a career as a professor of marketing later, we have Contagious!

Breaking down social sharing

The book kicks off with an intro about why some things just catch on. In some cases it’s because they’re better/cheaper/more widely advertised, but there’s often more to it than that.

“Social Transmission”, or social sharing is the single biggest common factor. Berger provides us with plenty of interesting stats and examples demonstrating social transmission in action. For example, did you know that only 7% of all word of mouth happens online? A sobering thought when you consider the focus we give to making things “go viral” on the web.

On that point of going viral, only one-third of 1 percent of all YouTube videos have more than 1 million views. Why these videos? Is there a science behind social sharing and if so, how can we harness it to deliver the right results for our businesses, even if our product isn’t inherently exciting or naturally shareable?

Contagiousness can be distilled into six key principles and these comprise the bulk of the book. Berger goes into detail about and provides actionable STEPPS for:

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

Contagious shares six key steps for social sharing.

Six key STEPPS to help make your content Contagious!

You see, STEPPS!

Berger packs the book full of lots of great examples that you’ll recognise, which really helps drive home the principles he’s discussing. We’ve almost all heard of “Will It Blend”, or Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent. These are fantastic examples of Social Currency and Emotion in action.

Blendtec got started with a meagre $ 50 marketing budget. I’m so glad it went viral, as without those early first videos, we would never have gotten this:

Who should read this book?

Anyone whose role touches on social media or content marketing could learn a lot from this book. Bloggers, community managers, planners, strategists – I think everyone could draw something from it. Even if you’re just interested in the psychology behind why people do what they do – I think you’ll find it a great read. Anything that helps us understand our customers can only be a good thing.

Why read it?

The book is a great way to formulate a checklist when writing any content to understand whether it’s likely to become contagious. There’s a handy table at the back of the book which summarises some of the key points and is a great refresher when looking to analyse your own content.

Questions to ask when writing to create shareable content

A handy list of questions to ask yourself when drafting content.

The book can help you conduct research on what works – score content you’ve previously shared based on the six STEPPS using a scale, of 1-5 for example. Does your most contagious content happen when your total score across the six STEPPS is greater than 15? 20? Or does your audience respond best to content that has a high Social Currency or Practical Value? You may find using just one principle is enough, or you may need to combine two or more to get the effect you want.

An example of a graph that lets you visualise how contagious your content might be.

An example of a graph that lets you visualise how contagious your content might be.

Happy reading!


Arianne Donoghue is SEM & Social Marketing Manager at Mamas & Papas. Having started off her digital career client side in 2006, she moved on to working in agencies managing PPC teams. She is now back client side working mainly on biddable media and social media strategy.

State of Digital


Disney fills blog with ‘highly contagious and shareable’ content

“Ideas come from curiosity,” said Walt Disney.

In terms of social media, that translates to giving readers what they’re most curious about: exclusive video and behind-the-scenes stories at Disney—and not relying on reporters to do the job.

“We’re using our channels to cover ourselves like a news organization coming to Disney,” Thomas Smith, social media director of Disney Parks, told attendees at Ragan Communications’ second annual Social Media for PR and Corporate Communicators Conference. “We’re using those same channels to announce our biggest campaigns and events.”

For instance, Disney gained a lot of press recently when it gathered 140 movie characters in the shape of a hashtag and tweeted the photo. It launched first on Twitter, then on the Disney Parks blog, which is the hub of Disney’s social media efforts. The blog represents all the business units, and it features seven-plus stories a day from more than 100 bloggers.

“Blogging is alive and well at Disney parks,” Smith said. Social media is “where people create [and] share, and where we listen.”

Central to the success of its blog, Smith said, are personalities: “People drive our social program. Everything we do revolves around people.”

The blog centers on the following tenets: remarkable experiences, purposeful storytelling, and humanizing Disney. Here’s a look:

Remarkable experiences

The key is to give readers an experience they can’t get anywhere else.

One way Disney does that is through meet-ups, which it usually holds monthly and which “fill up in minutes.”

“We create experiences that you cannot get in the park,” Smith said.

Last year it held a nighttime meet-up. “We created one blog post and wrote a post an hour for 24 hours,” Smith said.

Disney also hosts Disney blog “takeovers.” Ghosts and pirates have both taken over blogging duties in the past. For a day, all content was posted in “pirate-speak.” The takeover also includes a new logo and blog design.

“Blog readers ate it up, and they kept on going back to it,” Smith said.

Purposeful storytelling

“You want them to talk about what you’re talking about—you.” Smith said.

A storyteller must know a few things:

First, its audience.

You must “get your messages out in front of right people at the right time.”

For instance, the “blog rush hour” is different from that of Twitter or Facebook, and it can even be seasonal. The busiest time for Disney’s Twitter page is later at night. Disney’s SEO team studies what and when people search for annual events. They discovered that people searched for Christmas-related events in July. “It changed the way we did content in Disney parks.”

Second, a ‘good storyteller knows how people are reading their content.’

Most Disney Park blog readers access the site via their desktops, but 25 percent are mobile readers. “This is how people are checking us; they’re in the parks, looking at their phones.”

Third, good storytellers must know ‘what their readers want.’

For Disney, readers love behind-the-scenes videos, images, and stories.

“We get into places that others can’t. That’s our bread and butter,” Smith said.

Disney tells those stories in different ways. Live chats have become a very popular way to engage with readers. In February, during a live chat with an Imagineer about the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, it released never-before-seen video.

Focus on stories that are “highly contagious and shareable,” Smith urged.

A recent post that attracted mainstream media was that of Toby the Bear. Major websites ran the story, and there’s talk of doing a short film about Toby’s adventure, he said.

Humanize Disney

Disney encourages bloggers to share their expertise and their personal stories. “We’re creating characters on the blog” that readers love and follow.

For instance, blogger Gary Buchanan has a side character, Concerned Bystander Rob, within his video posts. Rob knows whatever Gary is about to do, may not be a good idea.

A few bonus storytelling tips to follow

If anyone knows how to tell a story, it’s Disney. Smith offered some basic guidelines in terms of video, which it relies on more and more on the Disney Parks blog.

The subject always tells the story. It’s more powerful and authentic this way.

Great audio. “If it’s horrible, people tune out.”

Concise video. Most shared videos tend to be shorter in length.

First looks. Images. Readers want to see images

Offer a unique perspective. People like something a little different…

Feature iconic/familiar content. … But the familiar sure feels like home. 

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