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?