6 Ways to Make Your Idea Contagious

How has Korean singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video managed to generate more than 1.5 billion views on YouTube? Why did the video clip from a small non-profit organization calling to capture Joseph Kony become a media sensation, making it one of the 20 most shared ads on social media in 2012?

Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at Wharton School identifies six ingredients that make ideas, products, and campaigns become contagious. In his new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger summarizes his framework in an easy-to-remember acronym STEPPSsocial currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories. When you understand and harness the factors in the right way, this can push an idea to millions: millions of shares, millions of viewers, millions of dollars, millions of products.


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Social Currency

We share things that make us look good or help us compare favorably to others. We want to look bright, funny, entertaining, knowledgeable or prestigious in the eyes of others. Therefore we are more likely to mention those things that make us appear so.  For instance, exclusive restaurants utilize social currency all the time to create demand.


For example, peanut butter is highly associated with jelly, and so the mention of the former often “triggers” the thought of the latter. Ideas, products, and campaigns that are naturally associated with triggers that we encounter more often are more likely to be brought to mind than others which increases the likelihood for greater virality. For example, Mars bar sales spiked when in 1997 when NASA’s Pathfinder mission explored the red planet. Cheerios gets more words of mouth than Disney World because so many more people eat the cereal every day than they go to Disney World. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he says, interesting does not always trump boring.


When we care, we share. Naturally contagious content generally evokes some sort of emotion. The more the content highly arouses emotions, both positive and negative (such as awe, excitement, anger and anxiety), these ideas are more likely to be shared. Less arousing emotions (such as sadness and contentment) are less likely to be shared. Berger analyzed over six months of data from the New York Times most emailed list to discover that certain high arousal emotions can dramatically increase our needs to share ideas – like the outrage triggered by Dave Caroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” video. Another example is the viral video from Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent which evoked highly arousing emotions.


People tend to follow others and something, but only when they know how prevalent something is in the public eye. So, things that are highly public and visible are more likely to be talked about and imitated than those that are more private. There is a reason why baristas put money in their own tip jar at the beginning of a shift. Another example is donations to charity which tend to be more of a private affair. However, campaigns like Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign (featuring the yellow wristband) manages to bring charitable support into the public sphere. Thus, ideas need to be public to be copied.

Practical Value

Humans crave the opportunity to give advice and offer tips, but especially if they offer practical value. It’s why we ‘pay it forward’ and help others. Sharing is way of caring. Berger calls sharing practically valuable content a “modern day barn raising.” This helps explain why so many articles on health and education matters are so widely shared.


People don’t just share information, they tell stories. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. Embed your products and ideas in stories that people want to tell. Berger says stories are like Trojan horses, vessels that carry ideas, brands, and information. Albert Camus also echoed this thought. “A novel is not anything, but philosophy put into images.” Google’s ‘Parisian love commercial, The Dove ‘Evolution commercial, and Panda’s ‘Never say no to Panda campaign are all good examples of products being wrapped in compelling narratives. Therefore, to benefit the brand, stories must not only be shared, but also it has to relate to a sponsoring product of the company.

Interestingly, Berger points out in his book that people think that most word of mouth happens online. But research finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online. Often, face to face conversations, breakfast with family, lunch with colleagues from work, or grabbing a drink with friend are potentially even more impactful than online ones.

Whether you consider yourself a leader, author, blogger, or marketer, you’ll find Jonah Bergin’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On a compelling read in which you can immediately apply the STEPPS principle into the very idea you want to share. 

If you want a 30 minute lecture that highlights most of the key points of the book, check out Jonah Bergin’s recent talk at Google below. 

Question: What is one idea you’d like to make it contagious?

  • Passion = Contagious. The reason I say that is because if you are running from a Burning building all excited to be out, and you should to someone run!!! They will start to run without asking you why you are running. Its contagious, our actions, moods and resources are contagious.

    I would like to make the idea of jumping off the balance beam to your greatest work contagious.

    • Yes, you’re’ right. Passion is contagious my friend. No wonder I was attracted by your passion in the first place! =) Thanks for reading brother.

      • Kevin R Naylor

        Thanks for sharing. Look forward to reading your book . When do you think your book will be ready?

  • Excellent, Paul,
    A new subscriber here, but after spending 40+ years of helping folks build their thought marketing businesses (both consultants and business coaches), I continue to be a student of the culture–only with eternity’s values in view.

    This is a tremendous lecture and I’m looking forward to the book. BTW, my son is the ‘Head Coach’ at a large Nike store in California. When he first shared the ‘Find Your Greatness’ ad, he said, “Wasn’t this your business, Dad?” (I didn’t know he was paying attention–ha!)

    • Hey Steve – thanks for joining the conversation! I love your humility and how you see things with an “eternity’s” perspective. Your son must be proud of your awesome work with the Nike ad! 😉 As a blogger and writer, I find Berger’s principles very interesting. I’m in the process of writing a book that I hope will be contagious. The theme is around “living intentionally as a twenty-something.”

  • DS

    That you really were created for a reason, can positively impact the world, and that you don’t have to be boxed into anyone’s definition for you.

    • Love it. I resonate with your idea. Mine is similar. Intentional living.
      Living today with a Christ-centered perspective, stewarding your life, resources, calling with kingdom-minded intentionality in order to turn the world upside down.

  • This books looks great! It’s amazing how are emotions can drive our actions. It’s why a leader should make it a point to touch their peoples heart and emotional strings. Great post!

    • You’re right Dan. I always believe that a leader needs to capture the hearts and minds of his or her employees/team members/ followers. This can happen when the leader really understands WIIFM for each individual. At the heart of it, as you said, people are emotional and they want a reason that transcends them work with passion. I believe it’s the leader’s job to provide this.

  • Charles S Areson

    Reading to your children at night. Starting with THE BEE IN THE BLACKBERRY BUSH

  • Just having the above factors baked into your content or project won’t make it go viral or become contagious.

    Great insights overall, but I think it misses out on one critical factor (perhaps it is covered in the actual book), but you need the right influencers (Seth Godin calls them Sneezers). That’s why brand are paying people to go to bars and order certain drinks. Or product placement is a huge marketing business today — getting celebrities, influencers to be seen with your product or at your place of business can do wonders.

    There is a practical side to becoming viral. It isn’t just a build-it-and-they-will-come world anymore.

    What do you think?