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Introduction: Why Things Catch On
Why $100 is a good price for a cheesesteak . . . Why do some things become popular? . . .
Which is more important, the message or the messenger? . . . Can you make anything
contagious? . . . The case of the viral blender . . . Six key STEPPS.
1. Social Currency
When a telephone booth is a door . . . Ants can lift fifty times their own weight. . . . Why frequent
flier miles are like a video game . . . When it’s good to be hard to get . . . Why everyone wants a
mix of tripe, heart, and stomach meat . . . The downside of getting paid . . . We share things that
make us look good.
Which gets more word of mouth, Disney or Cheerios? . . . Why a NASA mission boosted candy
sales . . . Could where you vote affect how you vote? . . . Consider the context . . . Explaining
Rebecca Black . . . Growing the habitat: Kit Kat and coffee . . . Top of mind, tip of tongue.
Why do some things make the Most E-Mailed list? . . . How reading science articles is like
standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon . . . Why anger is like humor . . . How breaking guitars
can make you famous . . . Getting teary eyed about online search . . . When we care, we share.
Is the Apple logo better upside down than right side up? . . . Why dying people turn down kidney
transplants . . . Using moustaches to make the private public . . . How to advertise without an
advertising budget . . . Why anti-drug commercials might increase drug use . . . Built to show,
built to grow.
5. Practical Value
How an eighty-six-year-old made a viral video about corn . . . Why hikers talk about vacuum
cleaners . . . E-mail forwards are the new barn raising . . . Will people pay to save money? . . .
Why $100 is a magic number . . . When lies spread faster than the truth . . . News you can use.
How stories are like Trojan horses . . . Why good customer service is better than any ad . . .
When a streaker crashed the Olympics . . . Why some story details are unforgettable . . . Using a
panda to make valuable virality . . . Information travels under the guise of idle chatter.
Why 80 percent of manicurists in California are Vietnamese . . . Applying the STEPPS.
Readers Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
Expand Your Book Club
A Conversation with Jonah Berger
About Jonah Berger
To my mother, father, and grandmother.
For always believing in me.
Introduction: Why Things Catch On
By the time Howard Wein moved to Philadelphia in March 2004, he already had lots of experience
in the hospitality industry. He had earned an MBA in hotel management, helped Starwood Hotels
launch its W brand, and managed billions of dollars in revenue as Starwood’s corporate director of
food and beverage. But he was done with “big.” He yearned for a smaller, more restaurant-focused
environment. So he moved to Philly to help design and launch a new luxury boutique steakhouse
called Barclay Prime.
The concept was simple. Barclay Prime was going to deliver the best steakhouse experience
imaginable. The restaurant is located in the toniest part of downtown Philadelphia, its dimly lit entry
paved with marble. Instead of traditional dining chairs, patrons rest on plush sofas clustered around
small marble tables. They feast from an extensive raw bar, including East and West Coast oysters and
Russian caviar. And the menu offers delicacies like truffle-whipped potatoes and line-caught halibut
FedExed overnight directly from Alaska.
But Wein knew that good food and great atmosphere wouldn’t be enough. After all, the thing
restaurants are best at is going out of business. More than 25 percent fail within twelve months of
opening their doors. Sixty percent are gone within the first three years.
Restaurants fail for any number of reasons. Expenses are high—everything from the food on the
plates to the labor that goes into preparing and serving it. And the landscape is crowded with
competitors. For every new American bistro that pops up in a major city, there are two more right
around the corner.
Like most small businesses, restaurants also have a huge awareness problem. Just getting the word
out that a new restaurant has opened its doors—much less that it’s worth eating at—is an uphill battle.
And unlike the large hotel chains Wein had previously worked for, most restaurants don’t have the
resources to spend on lots of advertising or marketing. They depend on people talking about them to
Wein knew he needed to generate buzz. Philadelphia already boasted dozens of expensive
steakhouses, and Barclay Prime needed to stand out. Wein needed something to cut through the clutter
and give people a sense of the uniqueness of the brand. But what? How could he get people talking?
How about a hundred-dollar cheesesteak?
The standard Philly cheesesteak is available for four or five bucks at hundreds of sandwich shops,
burger joints, and pizzerias throughout Philadelphia. It’s not a difficult recipe. Chop some steak on a
griddle, throw it on a hoagie (hero) roll, and melt some Provolone cheese or Cheez Whiz on top. It’s
delicious regional fast food, but definitely not haute cuisine.
Wein thought he could get some buzz by raising the humble cheesesteak to new culinary heights—
and attaching a newsworthy price tag. So he started with a fresh, house-made brioche roll brushed
with homemade mustard. He added thinly sliced Kobe beef, marbleized to perfection. Then he
included caramelized onions, shaved heirloom tomatoes, and triple-cream Taleggio cheese. All this
was topped off with shaved hand-harvested black truffles and butter-poached Maine lobster tail. And
just to make it even more outrageous, he served it with a chilled split of Veuve Clicquot champagne.
The response was incredible.
People didn’t just try the sandwich, they rushed to tell others. One person suggested that groups get
it “as a starter . . . that way you all get the absurd story-telling rights.” Another noted that the
sandwich was “honestly indescribable. One does not throw all these fine ingredients together and get
anything subpar. It was like eating gold.” And given the sandwich’s price, it was almost as expensive
as eating gold, albeit far more delicious.
Wein didn’t create just another cheesesteak, he created a conversation piece.
It worked. The story of the hundred-dollar cheesesteak was contagious. Talk to anyone who’s been
to Barclay Prime. Even if people didn’t order the cheesesteak, most will likely mention it. Even
people who’ve never been to the restaurant love to talk about it. It was so newsworthy that USA
Today, The Wall Street Journal , and other media outlets published pieces on the sandwich. The
Discovery channel filmed a segment for its Best Food Ever show. David Beckham had one when he
was in town. David Letterman invited Barclay’s executive chef to New York to cook him one on the
Late Show. All that buzz for what is still, at its heart, just a sandwich.
The buzz helped. Barclay Prime opened nearly a decade ago. Against the odds, the restaurant has
not only survived but flourished. It has won various food awards and is listed among the best
steakhouses in Philadelphia year after year. But more important, it built a following. Barclay Prime
WHY DO PRODUCTS, IDEAS, AND BEHAVIORS CATCH ON?
There are lots of examples of things that have caught on. Yellow Livestrong wristbands. Nonfat Greek
yogurt. Six Sigma management strategy. Smoking bans. Low-fat diets. Then Atkins, South Beach, and
the low-carb craze. The same dynamic happens on a smaller scale at the local level. A certain gym
will be the trendy place to go. A new church or synagogue will be in vogue. Everyone will get behind
a new school referendum.
These are all examples of social epidemics. Instances where products, ideas, and behaviors diffuse
through a population. They start with a small set of individuals or organizations and spread, often
from person to person, almost like a virus. Or in the case of the hundred-dollar cheesesteak, an over-
the-top, wallet-busting virus.
But while it’s easy to find examples of social contagion, it’s much harder to actually get something
to catch on. Even with all the money poured into marketing and advertising, few products become
popular. Most restaurants bomb, most businesses go under, and most social movements fail to gain
Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail?
One reason some products and ideas become popular is that they are just plain better. We tend to
prefer websites that are easier to use, drugs that are more effective, and scientific theories that are
true rather than false. So when something comes along that offers better functionality or does a better
job, people tend to switch to it. Remember how bulky televisions or computer monitors used to be?
They were so heavy and cumbersome that you had to ask a couple of friends (or risk a strained back)
to carry one up a flight of stairs. One reason flat screens took off was that they were better. Not only
did they offer larger screens, but they weighed less. No wonder they became popular.
Another reason products catch on is attractive pricing. Not surprisingly, most people prefer paying
less rather than more. So if two very similar products are competing, the cheaper one often wins out.
Or if a company cuts its prices in half, that tends to help sales.
Advertising also plays a role. Consumers need to know about something before they can buy it. So
people tend to think that the more they spend on advertising, the more likely something will become
popular. Want to get people to eat more vegetables? Spending more on ads should increase the
number of people who hear your message and buy broccoli.
But although quality, price, and advertising contribute to products and ideas being successful, they
don’t explain the whole story.
Take the first names Olivia and Rosalie. Both are great names for girls. Olivia means “olive tree”
in Latin and is associated with fruitfulness, beauty, and peace. Rosalie has Latin and French origins
and is derived from the word for roses. Both are about the same length, end in vowels, and have
handy, cute nicknames. Indeed, thousands of babies are named Olivia or Rosalie each year.
But think for a moment about how many people you know with each name. How many people
you’ve met named Olivia and how many people you’ve met named Rosalie.
I’ll bet you know at least one Olivia, but you probably don’t know a Rosalie. In fact, if you do
know a Rosalie, I’ll bet you know several Olivias.
How did I know that? Olivia is a much more popular name. In 2010, for example, there were
almost 17,000 Olivias born in the United States but only 492 Rosalies. In fact, while the name
Rosalie was somewhat popular in the 1920s, it never reached the stratospheric popularity that Olivia
When trying to explain why Olivia became a more popular name than Rosalie, familiar
explanations like quality, price, and advertising get stuck. It’s not like one name is really “better” than
the other, and both names are free, so there is no difference in price. There is also no advertising
campaign to try to get everyone to name their kids Olivia, no company determined to make that name
the hottest thing since Pokémon.
The same thing can be said for videos on YouTube. There’s no difference in price (all are free to
watch), and few videos receive any advertising or marketing push. And although some videos have
higher production values, most that go viral are blurred and out of focus, shot by an amateur on an
inexpensive camera or cell phone.*
So if quality, price, and advertising don’t explain why one first name becomes more popular than
another, or why one You-Tube video gets more views, what does?
Social influence and word of mouth. People love to share stories, news, and information with those
around them. We tell our friends about great vacation destinations, chat with our neighbors about
good deals, and gossip with coworkers about potential layoffs. We write online reviews about
movies, share rumors on Facebook, and tweet about recipes we just tried. People share more than
16,000 words per day and every hour there are more than 100 million conversations about brands.
But word of mouth is not just frequent, it’s also important. The things others tell us, e-mail us, and
text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do. We try websites our neighbors
recommend, read books our relatives praise, and vote for candidates our friends endorse. Word of
mouth is the primary factor behind 20 percent to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.
Consequently, social influence has a huge impact on whether products, ideas, and behaviors catch
on. A word-of-mouth conversation by a new customer leads to an almost $200 increase in restaurant
sales. A five-star review on Amazon.com leads to approximately twenty more books sold than a one-
star review. Doctors are more likely to prescribe a new drug if other doctors they know have
prescribed it. People are more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit and get fatter if their friends
become obese. In fact, while traditional advertising is still useful, word of mouth from everyday Joes
and Janes is at least ten times more effective.
Word of mouth is more effective than traditional advertising for two key reasons. First, it’s more
persuasive. Advertisements usually tell us how great a product is. You’ve heard it all—how nine out
of ten dentists recommend Crest or how no other detergent will get your clothes as clean as Tide.
But because ads will always argue that their products are the best, they’re not really credible. Ever
seen a Crest ad say that only one out of ten dentists prefers Crest? Or that four of the other nine think
Crest will rot your teeth?
Our friends, however, tend to tell it to us straight. If they thought Crest did a good job, they’ll say
that. But they’d also tell us if Crest tasted bad or failed to whiten their teeth. Their objectivity,
coupled with their candidness, make us much more likely to trust, listen to, and believe our friends.
Second, word of mouth is more targeted. Companies try to advertise in ways that allow them to
reach the largest number of interested customers. Take a company that sells skis. Television ads
during the nightly news probably wouldn’t be very efficient because many of the viewers don’t ski.
So the company might advertise in a ski magazine, or on the back of lift tickets to a popular slope. But
while this would ensure that most people who see the ad like skiing, the company would still end up
wasting money because lots of those people don’t need new skis.
Word of mouth, on the other hand, is naturally directed toward an interested audience. We don’t
share a news story or recommendation with everyone we know. Rather, we tend to select particular
people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant. We’re not going to tell
a friend about a new pair of skis if we know the friend hates skiing. And we’re not going to tell a
friend who doesn’t have kids about the best way to change a diaper. Word of mouth tends to reach
people who are actually interested in the thing being discussed. No wonder customers referred by
their friends spend more, shop faster, and are more profitable overall.
A particularly nice example of how word of mouth improves targeting came to me in the mail a few
years ago. Every so often publishers will send me free books. Usually they’re related to marketing
and the publisher hopes that if I’m given a free copy, I’ll be more likely to assign the book to my
students (and sell them a bunch of copies in the process).
But a few years ago, one company did something slightly different. It sent me two copies of the
Now, unless I’m mistaken, there’s no reason for me to read the second copy, once I’ve read the
first. But these publishers had a different goal in mind. They sent a note explaining why they thought
the book would be good for my students, but they also mentioned that they sent a second copy so that I
could pass it along to a colleague who might be interested.
That’s how word of mouth helps with targeting. Rather than sending books to everyone, the
publishers got me, and others, to do the targeting for them. Just like a searchlight, each recipient of the
double mailing would look through his or her personal social network, find the person that the book
would be most relevant for, and pass it along.
GENERATING WORD OF MOUTH
But want to know the best thing about word of mouth? It’s available to everyone. From Fortune 500
companies trying to increase sales to corner restaurants trying to fill tables. And from nonprofits
trying to fight obesity to newbie politicians trying to get elected. Word of mouth helps things catch on.
Word of mouth even helps B2B companies get new clients from existing ones. And it doesn’t require
millions of dollars spent on advertising. It just requires getting people to talk.
The challenge, though, is how to do that.
From start-ups to starlets, people have embraced social media as the wave of the future. Facebook,
Twitter, YouTube, and other channels are seen as ways to cultivate a following and engage
consumers. Brands post ads, aspiring musicians post videos, and small businesses post deals.
Companies and organizations have fallen over themselves in their rush to jump on the buzz marketing
bandwagon. The logic is straightforward. If they can get people to talk about their idea or share their
content, it will spread through social networks like a virus, making their product or idea instantly
popular along the way.
But there are two issues with this approach: the focus and the execution.
Help me out with a quick pop quiz. What percent of word of mouth do you think happens online? In
other words, what percent of chatter happens over social media, blogs, e-mail, and chat rooms?
If you’re like most people you probably guessed something around 50 or 60 percent. Some people
guess upward of 70 percent and some guess much lower, but after having asked this question of
hundreds of students and executives, I find that the average is around 50 percent.
And that number makes sense. After all, social media have certainly exploded as of late. Millions
of people use these sites every day, and billions of pieces of content get shared every month. These
technologies have made it faster and easier to share things quickly with a broad group of people.
But 50 percent is wrong.
Not even close.
The actual number is 7 percent. Not 47 percent, not 27 percent, but 7 percent. Research by the
Keller Fay Group finds that only 7 percent of word of mouth happens online.
Most people are extremely surprised when they hear that number. “But that’s way too low,” they
protest. “People spend a huge amount of time online!” And that’s true. People do spend a good bit of
time online. Close to two hours a day by some estimates. But we forget that people also spend a lot of
time offline. More than eight times as much, in fact. And that creates a lot more time for offline
We also tend to overestimate online word of mouth because it’s easier to see. Social media sites
provide a handy record of all the clips, comments, and other content we share online. So when we
look at it, it seems like a lot. But we don’t think as much about all the offline conversations we had
over that same time period because we can’t easily see them. There is no recording of the chat we
had with Susan after lunch or the conversation we had with Tim while waiting for the kids to be done
with practice. But while they may not be as easy to see, they still have an important impact on our
Further, while one might think that online word of mouth reaches more people, that’s not always the
case. Sure, online conversations could reach more people. After all, while face-to-face conversations
tend to be one-on-one, or among a small handful of people, the average tweet or Facebook status
update is sent to more than one hundred people. But not all of these potential recipients will actually
see every message. People are inundated with online content, so they don’t have the time to read
every tweet, message, or update sent their way. A quick exercise among my students, for example,
showed that less than 10 percent of their friends responded to a message they posted. Most Twitter
posts reach even fewer. Online conversations could reach a much larger audience, but given that
offline conversations may be more in-depth, it’s unclear that social media is the better way to go.
So the first issue with all the hype around social media is that people tend to ignore the importance
of offline word of mouth, even though offline discussions are more prevalent, and potentially even
more impactful, than online ones.
The second issue is that Facebook and Twitter are technologies, not strategies. Word-of-mouth
marketing is effective only if people actually talk. Public health officials can tweet daily bulletins
about safe sex, but if but no one passes them along, the campaign will fail. Just putting up a Facebook
page or tweeting doesn’t mean anyone will notice or spread the word. Fifty percent of YouTube
videos have fewer than five hundred views. Only one-third of 1 percent get more than 1 million.
Harnessing the power of word of mouth, online or offline, requires understanding why people talk
and why some things get talked about and shared more than others. The psychology of sharing. The
science of social transmission.
The next time you’re chatting at a party or grabbing a bite to eat with a coworker, imagine being a
fly on the wall, eavesdropping on your conversation. You might end up chatting about a new movie or
gossiping about a colleague. You might trade stories about vacation, mention someone’s new baby, or
complain about the unusually warm weather.
Why? You could have talked about anything. There are millions of different topics, ideas, products,
and stories you could have discussed. Why did you talk about those things in particular? Why that
specific story, movie, or coworker rather than a different one?
Certain stories are more contagious, and certain rumors are more infectious. Some online content
goes viral while other content never gets passed on. Some products get a good deal of word of mouth,
while others go unmentioned. Why? What causes certain products, ideas, and behaviors to be talked
That’s what this book is about.
One common intuition is that generating word of mouth is all about finding the right people. That
certain special individuals are just more influential than others. In The Tipping Point, for example,
Malcolm Gladwell argues that social epidemics are driven “by the efforts of a handful of exceptional
people” whom he calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. Others suggest that “one in 10 Americans
tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy.” Marketers spend millions of dollars
trying to find these so-called opinion leaders and get them to endorse their products. Political
campaigns look for the “influentials” to support their side.
The notion is that anything these special people touch will turn to gold. If they adopt or talk about a
product or idea, it will become popular.
But conventional wisdom is wrong. Yes, we all know people who are really persuasive, and yes,
some people have more friends than others. But in most cases that doesn’t make them any more
influential in spreading information or making things go viral.
Further, by focusing so much on the messenger, we’ve neglected a much more obvious driver of
sharing: the message.
To use an analogy, think about jokes. We all have friends who are better joke tellers than we are.
Whenever they tell a joke the room bursts out laughing.
But jokes also vary. Some jokes are so funny that it doesn’t matter who tells them. Everyone laughs
even if the person sharing the joke isn’t all that funny. Contagious content is like that—so inherently
viral that it spreads regardless of who is doing the talking. Regardless of whether the messengers are
really persuasive or not and regardless of whether they have ten friends or ten thousand.
So what about a message makes people want to pass it on?
Not surprisingly, social media “gurus” and word-of-mouth practitioners have made lots of guesses.
One prevalent theory is that virality is completely random—that it’s impossible to predict whether a
given video or piece of content will be highly shared. Other people conjecture based on case studies
and anecdotes. Because so many of the most popular YouTube videos are either funny or cute—
involving babies or kittens—you commonly hear that humor or cuteness is a key ingredient for
But these “theories” ignore the fact that many funny or cute videos never take off. Sure, some cat
clips get millions of views, but those are the outliers, not the norm. Most get less than a few dozen.
You may as well observe that Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Bill Cosby are all famous and conclude
that changing your name to Bill is the route to fame and fortune. Although the initial observation is
correct, the conclusion is patently ludicrous. By merely looking at a handful of viral hits, people miss
the fact that many of those features also exist in content that failed to attract any audience whatsoever.
To fully understand what causes people to share things, you have to look at both successes and
failures. And whether, more often than not, certain characteristics are linked to success.
ARE SOME THINGS JUST BORN WORD-OF-MOUTH WORTHY?
Now at this point you might be saying to yourself, great, some things are more contagious than others.
But is it possible to make anything contagious, or are some things just naturally more infectious?
Smartphones tend to be more exciting than tax returns, talking dogs are more interesting than tort
reform, and Hollywood movies are cooler than toasters or blenders.
Are makers of the former just better off than the latter? Are some products and ideas just born
contagious while others aren’t? Or can any product or idea be engineered to be more infectious?
Tom Dickson was looking for a new job. Born in San Francisco, he was led by his Mormon faith to
attend school at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, where he graduated in 1971 with a
degree in engineering. He moved home after graduation, but the job market was tough and there
weren’t many opportunities. The only position he could find was at a company making birth control
and intrauterine devices. These devices helped prevent pregnancy, but they could also be seen as
abortives, which went against Tom’s Mormon beliefs. A Mormon helping to develop new methods of
birth control? It was time to find something new.
Tom had always been interested in bread making. While practicing his hobby, he noticed that there
were no good cheap home grinders with which to make flour. So Tom put his engineering skills to
work. After playing around with a ten-dollar vacuum motor, he cobbled together something that
milled finer flour at a cheaper price than anything currently on the market.
The grinder was so good that Tom started producing it on a larger scale. The business did
reasonably well, and playing around with different methods of processing food got him interested in
more general blenders. Soon he moved back to Utah to start his own blender company. In 1995 he
produced his first home blender, and in 1999 Blendtec was founded.
But although the product was great, no one really knew about it. Awareness was low. So in 2006,
Tom hired George Wright, another BYU alum, as his marketing director. Later, George would joke
that the marketing budget at his prior company was greater than all of Blendtec’s revenues.
On one of his first days on the job, George noticed a pile of sawdust on the floor of the
manufacturing plant. Given that no construction was in progress, George was puzzled. What was
It turned out that Tom was in the factory doing what he did every day: trying to break blenders. To
test the durability and power of Blendtec blenders, Tom would cram two-by-two boards, among other
objects, into the blenders and turn them on—hence the sawdust.
George had an idea that would make Tom’s blender famous.
With a meager fifty-dollar budget (not fifty million or even fifty thousand), George went out and
bought marbles, golf balls, and a rake. He also purchased a white lab coat for Tom, just like what a
laboratory scientist would wear. Then he put Tom and a blender in front of a camera. George asked
Tom to do exactly what he had done with the two-by-twos: see if they would blend.
Imagine taking a handful of marbles and tossing them into your home blender. Not the cheap kind of
marbles made of plastic or clay, but the real ones. The half-inch orbs made out of solid glass. So
strong that they could withstand a car driving over them.
That is exactly what Tom did. He dropped fifty glass marbles in one of his blenders and hit the
button for slow churn. The marbles bounced furiously around the blender, making rat-tat-tat noises
like a hailstorm on the roof of a car.
Tom waited fifteen seconds and then stopped the blender. He cautiously lifted the top as white
smoke poured out: glass dust. All that was left of the marbles was a fine powder that looked like
flour. Rather than cracking from the punishment, the blender had flexed its muscles. Golf balls were
pulverized, and the rake was reduced to a pile of slivers. George posted the videos on YouTube and
crossed his fingers.
His intuition was right. People were amazed. They loved the videos. They were surprised at the
blender’s power and called it everything from “insanely awesome” to “the ultimate blender.” Some
couldn’t even believe that what they were seeing was possible. Others wondered what else the
blender could pulverize. Computer hard drives? A samurai sword?
In the first week the videos racked up 6 million views. Tom and George had hit a viral home run.
Tom went on to blend everything from Bic lighters to Nintendo Wii controllers. He’s tried glow
sticks, Justin Bieber CDs, and even an iPhone. Not only did Blendtec blenders demolish all these
objects, but their video series, titled Will It Blend?, received more than 300 million views. Within
two years the campaign increased retail blender sales 700 percent. All from videos made for less
than a few hundred dollars apiece. And for a product that seemed anything but word-of-mouth worthy.
A regular, boring old blender.
The Blendtec story demonstrates one of the key takeaways of contagious content. Virality isn’t
born, it’s made.
And that is good news indeed.
Some people are lucky. Their ideas or initiatives happen to be things that seem to naturally
generate lots of excitement and buzz.
But as the Blendtec story shows, even regular everyday products and ideas can generate lots of
word-of-mouth if someone figures out the right way to do it. Regardless of how plain or boring a
product or idea may seem, there are ways to make it contagious.
So how can we design products, ideas, and behaviors so that people will talk about them?
STUDYING SOCIAL INFLUENCE
My path to studying social epidemics was anything but direct. My parents didn’t believe in sweets or
television for their children, and instead gave us educational rewards. One holiday season I
remember being particularly excited to get a book of logic puzzles, which I explored incessantly over
the next few months. These experiences fostered an interest in math and science, and after doing a
research project in high school on urban hydrology (how the composition of a stream’s watershed
affects its shape), I went to college thinking I would become an environmental engineer.
But something funny happened in college. While sitting in one of my “hard” science classes, I
started to wonder if I could apply the same toolkit to study complex social phenomena. I had always
liked people-watching, and when I did happen to watch TV, I enjoyed it more for the ads than the
programs. But I realized that rather than just abstractly musing about why people did things, I could
apply the scientific method to find out the answers. The same research tools used in biology and
chemistry could be used to understand social influence and interpersonal communication.
So I started taking psychology and sociology courses and got involved in research on how people
perceive themselves and others. A few years in, my grandmother sent me a review of a new book she
thought I might find interesting. It was called The Tipping Point.
I loved the book and read everything related I could find. But I kept being frustrated by a singular
issue. The ideas in that book were amazingly powerful, but they were mainly descriptive. Sure some
things catch on, but why? What was the underlying human behavior that drove these outcomes? These
were interesting questions that needed answers. I decided to start finding them.
After completing my PhD and more than a decade of research, I’ve discovered some answers. I’ve
spent the last ten years, most recently as a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University
of Pennsylvania, studying this and related questions. With an incredible array of collaborators I’ve
examined things like
• Why certain New York Times articles or YouTube videos go viral
• Why some products get more word of mouth
• Why certain political messages spread
• When and why certain baby names catch on or die out
• When negative publicity increases, versus decreases, sales
We’ve analyzed hundreds of years of baby names, thousands of New York Times articles, and
millions of car purchases. We’ve spent thousands of hours collecting, coding, and analyzing
everything from brands and YouTube videos to urban legends, product reviews, and face-to-face
conversations. All with the goal of understanding social influence and what drives certain things to
A few years ago, I started teaching a course at Wharton called “Contagious.” The premise was
simple. Whether you’re in marketing, politics, engineering, or public health, you need to understand
how to make your products and ideas catch on. Brand managers want their products to get more buzz.
Politicians want their ideas to diffuse throughout the population. Health officials want people to cook
rather than eat fast food. Hundreds of undergraduates, MBAs, and executives have taken the class and
learned about how social influence drives products, ideas, and behaviors to succeed.
Every so often I’d get e-mails from people who couldn’t take the class. They’d heard about it from
a friend and liked the material but had a scheduling conflict or didn’t find out about it in time. So they
asked if there was a book they could read to catch them up on what they missed.
There are certainly some great books out there. The Tipping Point is a fantastic read. But while it
is filled with entertaining stories, the science has come a long way since it was released over a
decade ago. Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is another favorite of mine (full disclosure: Chip
was my mentor in graduate school, so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). It weaves together
clever stories with academic research on cognitive psychology and human memory. But although the
Heaths’ book focuses on making ideas “stick”—getting people to remember them—it says less about
how to make products and ideas spread, or getting people to pass them on.
So whenever people asked to read something about what drives word of mouth, I would direct
them to the various academic papers I and others had published in the area. Inevitably, some people
would e-mail back to say thanks but request something more “accessible.” In other words, something
that was rigorous but less dry than the typical jargon-laden articles published in academic journals. A
book that provided them with research-based principles for understanding what makes things catch
This is that book.
SIX PRINCIPLES OF CONTAGIOUSNESS
This book explains what makes content contagious. By “content,” I mean stories, news, and
information. Products and ideas, messages and videos. Everything from fund-raising at the local
public radio station to the safe-sex messages we’re trying to teach our kids. By “contagious,” I mean
likely to spread. To diffuse from person to person via word of mouth and social influence. To be
talked about, shared, or imitated by consumers, coworkers, and constituents.
In our research, my collaborators and I noticed some common themes, or attributes, across a range
of contagious content. A recipe, if you will, for making products, ideas, and behaviors more likely to
Take Will It Blend? and the hundred-dollar cheesesteak at Barclay Prime. Both stories evoke
emotions like surprise or amazement: Who would have thought a blender could tear through an
iPhone, or that a cheesesteak would cost anywhere near a hundred dollars? Both stories are also
pretty remarkable, so they make the teller look cool for passing them on. And both offer useful
information: it’s always helpful to know about products that work well or restaurants that have great
Just as recipes often call for sugar to make something sweet, we kept finding the same ingredients
in ads that went viral, news articles that were shared, or products that received lots of word of mouth.
After analyzing hundreds of contagious messages, products, and ideas, we noticed that the same six
“ingredients,” or principles, were often at work. Six key STEPPS, as I call them, that cause things to
be talked about, shared, and imitated.
Principle 1: Social Currency
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. We need to leverage game
mechanics to give people ways to achieve and provide visible symbols of status that they can show to
Principle 2: Triggers
How do we remind people to talk about our products and ideas? Triggers are stimuli that prompt
people to think about related things. Peanut butter reminds us of jelly and the word “dog” reminds us
of the word “cat.” If you live in Philadelphia, seeing a cheesesteak might remind you of the hundred-
dollar one at Barclay Prime. People often talk about whatever comes to mind, so the more often
people think about a product or idea, the more it will be talked about. 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.
Principle 3: Emotion
When we care, we share. So how can we craft messages and ideas that make people feel something?
Naturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion. Blending an iPhone is surprising.
A potential tax hike is infuriating. Emotional things often get shared. So rather than harping on
function, we need to focus on feelings. But as we’ll discuss, some emotions increase sharing, while
others actually decrease it. So we need to pick the right emotions to evoke. We need to kindle the fire.
Sometimes even negative emotions may be useful.
Principle 4: Public
Can people see when others are using our product or engaging in our desired behavior? The famous
phrase “Monkey see, monkey do” captures more than just the human tendency to imitate. It also tells
us that it’s hard to copy something you can’t see. Making things more observable makes them easier to
imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular. So we need to make our products and
ideas more public. We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create
behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.
Principle 5: Practical Value
How can we craft content that seems useful? People like to help others, so if we can show them how
our products or ideas will save time, improve health, or save money, they’ll spread the word. But
given how inundated people are with information, we need to make our message stand out. We need
to understand what makes something seem like a particularly good deal. We need to highlight the
incredible value of what we offer—monetarily and otherwise. And we need to package our
knowledge and expertise so that people can easily pass it on.
Principle 6: Stories
What broader narrative can we wrap our idea in? People don’t just share information, they tell
stories. But just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as
morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So we need to
build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell.
But we need to do more than just tell a great story. We need to make virality valuable. We need to
make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.
These are the six principles of contagiousness: products or ideas that contain Social Currency and
a r e Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable , and wrapped into Stories. Each chapter
focuses on one of these principles. These chapters bring together research and examples to show the
science behind each principle and how individuals, companies, and organizations have applied the
principles to help their products, ideas, and behaviors catch on.
These principles can be compacted into an acronym. Taken together they spell STEPPS. Think of
the principles as the six STEPPS to crafting contagious content. These ingredients lead ideas to get
talked about and succeed. People talked about the hundred-dollar cheesesteak at Barclay Prime
because it gave them Social Currency, was Triggered (high frequency of cheesesteaks in
Philadelphia), Emotional (very surprising), Practically Valuable (useful information about high-
quality steakhouse), and wrapped in a Story. Enhancing these components in messages, products, or
ideas will make them more likely to spread and become popular. I hope that ordering the principles
this way will make them easier to remember and use.**
The book is designed with two (overlapping) audiences in mind. You may have always wondered
why people gossip, why online content goes viral, why rumors spread, or why everyone always
seems to talk about certain topics around the water cooler. Talking and sharing are some of our most
fundamental behaviors. These actions connect us, shape us, and make us human. This book sheds light
on the underlying psychological and sociological processes behind the science of social transmission.
This book is also designed for people who want their products, ideas, and behaviors to spread.
Across industries, companies big and small want their products to become popular. The
neighborhood coffee shop wants more customers, lawyers want more clients, movie theaters want
more patrons, and bloggers want more views and shares. Nonprofits, policy makers, scientists,
politicians, and many other constituencies also have “products” or ideas that they want to catch on.
Museums want more visitors, dog shelters want more adoptions, and conservationists want more
people to rally against deforestation.
Whether you’re a manager at a big company, a small business owner trying to boost awareness, a
politician running for office, or a health official trying to get the word out, this book will help you
understand how to make your products and ideas more contagious. It provides a framework and a set
of specific, actionable techniques for helping information spread—for engineering stories, messages,
advertisements, and information so that people will share them. Regardless of whether those people
have ten friends or ten thousand. And regardless of whether they are talkative and persuasive or quiet
This book provides cutting-edge science about how word of mouth and social transmission work.
And how you can leverage them to make your products and ideas succeed.
* When I use the word “viral” in this book, I mean something that is more likely to spread from one person to another. The analogy to
diseases is a good one, but only up to a point. Diseases also spread from person to person, but one key difference is the expected length
of the transmission chain. One person can easily be the initiator of a disease that spreads to a few people, and then from them to a few
more people, and so on, until a large number of people have been infected, solely due to that initial individual. Such long chains, however,
may be less common with products and ideas (Goel, Watts, and Goldstein 2012). People often share products and ideas with others, but
the likelihood that one person generates an extremely long chain may be small. So when I say that doing X will make an idea more viral,
for example, I mean that it will be more likely to spread from one person to another, regardless of whether it eventually generates a long
chain or “infects” an entire population.
** Note, however, that the recipe analogy breaks down in one respect. The principles are unlike a recipe because not all six ingredients
are required to make a product or idea contagious. Sure, the more the better, but it’s not as though a product that is Public will fail
because it’s not wrapped in a Story. So think of these principles less like a recipe and more like tasty salad toppings. Cobb salads, for
example, often come with chicken, tomato, bacon, egg, avocado, and cheese. But a salad with just cheese and bacon is still delicious. The
principles are relatively independent, so you can pick and choose whichever ones you want to apply.
Some of the principles are easier to apply to certain types of ideas or initiatives. Nonprofits usually have a good sense of how to
evoke Emotion, and it’s often easier to play up Public visibility for products or behaviors that have a physical component. That said,
contagious content often comes from applying principles that originally might have seemed unlikely. Heavy-duty blenders already have
Practical Value, but Will It Blend? went viral because it found a way to give a blender Social Currency. The video showed how a
seemingly regular product was actually quite remarkable.
1. Social Currency
Among the brownstones and vintage shops on St. Mark’s Place near Tompkins Square Park in New
York City, you’ll notice a small eatery. It’s marked by a large red hot-dog-shaped sign with the words
“eat me” written in what looks like mustard. Walk down a small flight of stairs and you’re in a
genuine old hole-in-the-wall hot dog restaurant. The long tables are set with all your favorite
condiments, you can play any number of arcade-style video games, and, of course, order off a menu to
Seventeen varieties of hot dogs are offered. Every type of frankfurter you could imagine. The Good
Morning is a bacon-wrapped hot dog smothered with melted cheese and topped with a fried egg. The
Tsunami has teriyaki, pineapple, and green onions. And purists can order the New Yorker, a classic
grilled all-beef frankfurter.
But look beyond the gingham tablecloths and hipsters enjoying their dogs. Notice that vintage
wooden phone booth tucked into the corner? The one that looks like something Clark Kent might have
dashed into to change into Superman? Go ahead, peek inside.
You’ll notice an old-school rotary dial phone hanging on the inside of the booth, the type that has a
finger wheel with little holes for you to dial each number. Just for kicks, place your finger in the hole
under the number 2 (ABC). Dial clockwise until you reach the finger stop, release the wheel, and
hold the receiver to your ear.
To your astonishment, someone answers. “Do you have a reservation?” a voice asks. A
Yes, a reservation. Of course you don’t have one. What would you even need a reservation for? A
phone booth in the corner of a hot dog restaurant?
But today is your lucky day, apparently: they can take you. Suddenly, the back of the booth swings
open—it’s a secret door!—and you are let into a clandestine bar called, of all things, Please Don’t
In 1999, Brian Shebairo and his childhood friend Chris Antista decided to get into the hot dog
business. The pair had grown up in New Jersey eating at famous places like Rutt’s Hut and Johnny &
Hanges and wanted to bring that same hot dog experience to New York City. After two years of R &
D, riding their motorcycles up and down the East Coast tasting the best hot dogs, Brian and Chris
were ready. On October 6, 2001, they opened Crif Dogs in the East Village. The name coming from
the sound that poured out of Brian’s mouth one day when he tried to say Chris’s name while still
munching on a hot dog.
Crif Dogs was a big hit and won the best hot dog award from a variety of publications. But as the
years passed, Brian was looking for a new challenge. He wanted to open a bar. Crif Dogs had always
had a liquor license but had never taken full advantage of it. He and Chris had experimented with a
frozen margarita machine, and kept a bottle of Jägermeister in the freezer every once in a while, but to
do it right they really needed more space. Next door was a struggling bubble tea lounge. Brian’s
lawyer said that if they could get the space, the liquor license would transfer. After three years of
consistent prodding, the neighbor finally gave in.
But now came the tough part. New York City is flush with bars. In a four-block radius around Crif
Dogs there are more than sixty places to grab a drink. A handful are even on the same block.
Originally, Brian had a grungy rock-and-roll bar in mind. But that wouldn’t cut it. The concept needed
be something more remarkable. Something that would get people talking and draw them in.
One day Brian ran into a friend who had an antique business. A big outdoor flea market selling
everything from art deco dressers to glass eyes and stuffed cheetahs. The guy said he had found a neat
old 1930s phone booth that he thought would work well in Brian’s bar.
Brian had an idea.
When Brian was a kid, his uncle worked as a carpenter. In addition to helping to build houses and
the usual things that carpenters do, the uncle built a room in the basement that had secret doors. The
doors weren’t even that concealed, just wood that meshed into other wood, but if you pushed in the
right place, you could get access to a hidden storage space. No secret lair or loot concealed inside,
but cool nonetheless.
Brian decided to turn the phone booth into the door to a secret bar.
Everything about Please Don’t Tell suggests that you’ve been let into a very special secret. You
won’t find a sign posted on the street. You won’t find it advertised on billboards or in magazines.
And the only entrance is through a semihidden phone booth inside a hot dog diner.
Of course, this makes no sense. Don’t marketers preach that blatant advertising and easy access are
the cornerstones of a successful business?
Please Don’t Tell has never advertised. Yet since opening in 2007 it has been one of the most
sought-after drink reservations in New York City. It takes bookings only the day of, and the
reservation line opens at 3:00 p.m., sharp. Spots are first-come, first-served. Callers madly hit redial
again and again in the hopes of cutting through the busy signals. By 3:30 all spots are booked.
Please Don’t Tell doesn’t push market. It doesn’t try to hustle you in the door or sell you with a
flashy website. It’s a classic “discovery brand.” Jim Meehan, the wizard behind Please Don’t Tell’s
cocktail menu, designed the customer experience with that goal in mind. “The most powerful
marketing is personal recommendation,” he said. “Nothing is more viral or infectious than one of your
friends going to a place and giving it his full recommendation.” And what could be more remarkable
than watching two people disappear into the back of a phone booth?
In case it’s not already clear, here’s a little secret about secrets: they tend not to stay secret very
Think about the last time someone shared a secret with you. Remember how earnestly she begged
you not to tell a soul? And remember what you did next?
Well, if you’re like most people, you probably went and told someone else. (Don’t be
embarrassed, your secret is safe with me.) As it turns out, if something is supposed to be secret,
people might well be more likely to talk about it. The reason? Social currency.
People share things that make them look good to others.
MINTING A NEW TYPE OF CURRENCY
Kids love art projects. Whether drawing with crayons, gluing elbow macaroni to sheets of
construction paper, or building elaborate sculptures out of recyclables, they revel in the joy of making
things. But whatever the type of project, media, or venue, kids all seem to do the same thing once they
They show someone else.
“Self-sharing” follows us throughout our lives. We tell friends about our new clothing purchases
and show family members the op-ed piece we’re sending to the local newspaper. This desire to share
our thoughts, opinions, and experiences is one reason social media and online social networks have
become so popular. People blog about their preferences, post Facebook status updates about what
they ate for lunch, and tweet about why they hate the current government. As many observers have
commented, today’s social-network-addicted people can’t seem to stop sharing—what they think,
like, and want—with everyone, all the time.
Indeed, research finds that more than 40 percent of what people talk about is their personal
experiences or personal relationships. Similarly, around half of tweets are “me” focused, covering
what people are doing now or something that has happened to them. Why do people talk so much
about their own attitudes and experiences?
It’s more than just vanity; we’re actually wired to find it pleasurable. Harvard neuroscientists
Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir found that disclosing information about the self is intrinsically
rewarding. In one study, Mitchell and Tamir hooked subjects up to brain scanners and asked them to
share either their own opinions and attitudes (“I like snowboarding”) or the opinions and attitudes of
another person (“He likes puppies”). They found that sharing personal opinions activated the same
brain circuits that respond to rewards like food and money. So talking about what you did this
weekend might feel just as good as taking a delicious bite of double chocolate cake.
In fact, people like sharing their attitudes so much that they are even willing to pay money to do it.
In another study, Tamir and Mitchell asked people to complete a number of trials of a basic choice
task. Participants could choose either to hang out for a few seconds or answer a question about
themselves (such as “How much do you like sandwiches?”) and share it with others. Respondents
made hundreds of these quick choices. But to make it even more interesting, Tamir and Mitchell
varied the amount that people got paid for choosing a particular option. In some trials people could
get paid a couple of cents more for choosing to wait for a few seconds. In others they could get paid a
couple of cents more for choosing to self-disclose.
The result? People were willing to forgo money to share their opinions. Overall, they were willing
to take a 25 percent pay cut to share their thoughts. Compared with doing nothing for five seconds,
people valued sharing their opinion at just under a cent. This puts a new spin on an old maxim. Maybe
instead of giving people a penny for their thoughts, we should get paid a penny for listening.
It’s clear that people like to talk about themselves, but what makes people talk about some of their
thoughts and experiences more than others?
Play a game with me for a minute. My colleague Carla drives a minivan. I could tell you many
other things about her, but for now, I want to see how much you can deduce based solely on the fact
that she drives a minivan. How old is Carla? Is she twenty-two? Thirty-five? Fifty-seven? I know you
know very little about her, but try to make an educated guess.
Does she have any kids? If so, do they play sports? Any idea what sports they play?
Once you’ve made a mental note of your guesses, let’s talk about my friend Todd. He’s a really
cool guy. He also happens to have a Mohawk. Any idea what he’s like? How old he is? What type of
music he likes? Where he shops?
I’ve played this game with hundreds of people and the results are always the same. Most people
think Carla is somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old. All of them—yes, 100 percent—
believe she has kids. Most are convinced those kids play sports, and almost everyone who believes
that guesses that soccer is the sport of choice. All that from a minivan.
Now Todd. Most people agree that he’s somewhere between fifteen and thirty. The majority guess
that he’s into some sort of edgy music, whether punk, heavy metal, or rock. And almost everyone
thinks he buys vintage clothes or shops at some sort of surf/skate store. All this from a haircut.
Let’s be clear. Todd doesn’t have to listen to edgy music or shop at Hot Topic. He could be fifty-
three years old, listen to Beethoven, and buy his clothes at any other place he wanted. It’s not like
Gap would bar the door if he tried to buy chinos.
The same thing is true of Carla. She could be a twenty-two-year-old riot grrrl who plays drums and
believes kids are for the boring bourgeoisie.
But the point is that we didn’t think those things about Carla and Todd. Rather, we all made similar
inferences because choices signal identity. Carla drives a minivan, so we assumed she was a soccer
mom. Todd has a Mohawk, so we guessed he’s a young punk-type guy. We make educated guesses
about other people based on the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the music they listen to.
What people talk about also affects what others think of them. Telling a funny joke at a party makes
people think we’re witty. Knowing all the info about last night’s big game or celebrity dance-off
makes us seem cool or in the know.
So, not surprisingly, people prefer sharing things that make them seem entertaining rather than
boring, clever rather than dumb, and hip rather than dull. Consider the flip side. Think about the last
time you considered sharing something but didn’t. Chances are you didn’t talk about it because it
would have made you (or someone else) look bad. We talk about how we got a reservation at the
hottest restaurant in town and skip the story about how the hotel we chose faced a parking lot. We talk
about how the camera we picked was a Consumer Reports Best Buy and skip the story about how the
laptop we bought ended up being cheaper at another store.
Word of mouth, then, is a prime tool for making a good impression—as potent as that new car or
Prada handbag. Think of it as a kind of currency. Social currency. Just as people use money to buy
products or services, they use social currency to achieve desired positive impressions among their
families, friends, and colleagues.
So to get people talking, companies and organizations need to mint social currency. Give people a
way to make themselves look good while promoting their products and ideas along the way. There
are three ways to do that: (1) find inner remarkability; (2) leverage game mechanics; and (3) make
people feel like insiders.
Imagine it’s a sweltering day and you and a friend stop by a convenience store to buy some drinks.
You’re tired of soda but you feel like something with more flavor than just water. Something light and
refreshing. As you scan the drink case, a pink lemonade Snapple catches your eye. Perfect. You grab
it and take it up to the cash register to pay.
Once outside, you twist the top off and take a long drink. Feeling sufficiently revitalized, you’re
about to get in your friend’s car when you notice something written on the inside of the Snapple cap.
Real Fact # 27: A ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber.
You’d probably be pretty impressed (after all, who even knew glass could bounce), but think for a
moment about what you’d do next. What would you do with this newfound tidbit of information?
Would you keep it to yourself or would you tell your friend?
In 2002, Marke Rubenstein, executive VP of Snapple’s ad agency, was trying to think of new ways
to entertain Snapple customers. Snapple was already known for its quirky TV ads featuring the
Snapple Lady, a peppy, middle-aged woman with a thick New York accent, who read and answered
letters from Snapple fans. She was a real Snapple employee, and the letter writers ranged from
people asking for dating advice to people soliciting Snapple to host a soiree at a senior citizens
home. The ads were pretty funny, and Snapple was looking for something similarly clever and
During a marketing meeting, someone suggested that the space under the cap was unused real
estate. Snapple had tried putting jokes under the cap with little success. But the jokes were terrible
(“If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why is it still #2?”), so it was hard to tell if it was the strategy
or the jokes that were failing. Rubenstein and her team wondered whether real facts might work
better. Something “out of the ordinary that [Snapple drinkers] wouldn’t know and wouldn’t even
know they’d want to know.”
So Rubenstein and her team came up with a long list of clever trivia facts and began putting them
under the caps—visible only after customers have purchased and opened the bottles.
Fact #12, for example, notes that kangaroos can’t walk backward. Fact #73 says that the average
person spends two weeks over his/her lifetime waiting for traffic lights to change.
These facts are so surprising and entertaining that it’s hard not to want to share them with someone
else. Two weeks waiting for the light to change? That’s unbelievable! How do they even calculate
something like that? Think of what else we could do with that time! If you’ve ever happened to drink
a Snapple with a friend, you’ll find yourself telling each other which fact you received—similar to
what happens when your family breaks open fortune cookies after a meal at a Chinese restaurant.
Snapple facts are so infectious that they’ve become embedded in popular culture. Hundreds of
websites chronicle the various facts. Comedians poke fun at them in their routines. Some of the facts
are so unbelievable that people even debate back and forth whether they are actually correct. (Yes,
the idea that kangaroos can’t walk backward does seem pretty crazy, but it’s true.)
Did you know that frowning burns more calories than smiling? That an ant can lift fifty times its
own weight? You probably didn’t. But people share these and similar Snapple facts because they are
remarkable. And talking about remarkable things provides social currency.
Remarkable things are defined as unusual, extraordinary, or worthy of notice or attention.
Something can be remarkable because it is novel, surprising, extreme, or just plain interesting. But the
most important aspect of remarkable things is that they are worthy of remark. Worthy of mention.
Learning that a ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber is just so noteworthy that you
have to mention it.
Remarkable things provide social currency because they make the people who talk about them
seem, well, more remarkable. Some people like to be the life of the party, but no one wants to be the
death of it. We all want to be liked. The desire for social approval is a fundamental human
motivation. If we tell someone a cool Snapple fact it makes us seem more engaging. If we tell
someone about a secret bar hidden inside a hot dog restaurant, it makes us seem cool. Sharing
extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and
entertaining. It makes them more fun to talk to, more likely to get asked to lunch, and more likely to get
invited back for a second date.
Not surprisingly, then, remarkable things get brought up more often. In one study, Wharton
professor Raghu Iyengar and I analyzed how much word of mouth different companies, products, and
brands get online. We examined a huge list of 6,500 products and brands. Everything from big brands
like Wells Fargo and Facebook to small brands like the Village Squire Restaurants and Jack Link’s.
From every industry you can imagine. Banking and bagel shops to dish soaps and department stores.
Then we asked people to score the remarkability of each product or brand and analyzed how these
perceptions were correlated with how frequently they were discussed.
The verdict was clear: more remarkable products like Facebook or Hollywood movies were
talked about almost twice as often as less remarkable brands like Wells Fargo and Tylenol. Other
research finds similar effects. More interesting tweets are shared more, and more interesting or
surprising articles are more likely to make the New York Times Most E-Mailed list.
Remarkability explains why people share videos of eight-year-old girls flawlessly reciting rap
lyrics and why my aunt forwarded me a story about a coyote who was hit by a car, got stuck in the
bumper for six hundred miles, and survived. It even explains why doctors talk about some patients
more than others. Every time there is a patient in the ER with an unusual story (such as someone
swallowing a weird foreign object), everyone in the hospital hears about it. A code pink (baby
abduction) makes big news even if it’s a false alarm, while a code blue (cardiac arrest) goes largely
Remarkability also shapes how stories evolve over time. A group of psychologists from the
University of Illinois recruited pairs of students for what seemed like a study of group planning and
performance. Students were told they would get to cook a small meal together and were escorted to a
real working kitchen. In front of them were all the ingredients necessary to cook a meal. Piles of leafy
green vegetables, fresh chicken, and succulent pink shrimp, all ready to be chopped and thrown into a
But then things got interesting. Hidden among the vegetables and chicken, the researchers had
planted a small—but decidedly creepy—family of cockroaches. Eww! The students shrieked and
recoiled from the food.
After the bedlam subsided, the experimenter said that someone must be playing a joke on them and
quickly canceled the study. But rather than send people home early, he suggested that they go
participate in another study that was (conveniently) taking place just next door.
They all walked over, but along the way they were quizzed about what had happened during the
aborted experiment. Half were asked by the experimenter, while the other half were asked by what
seemed like another student (who was actually covertly helping the experimenter).
Depending on whom participants happened to tell the story to, it came out differently. If they were
talking to another student—that is, if they were trying to impress and entertain rather than simply
report the facts—the cockroaches were larger, more numerous, and the entire experience more
disgusting. The students exaggerated the details to make the story more remarkable.
We’ve all had similar experiences. How big was the trout we caught last time we went fishing in
Colorado? How many times did the baby wake up crying during the night?
Often we’re not even trying to exaggerate; we just can’t recall all the details of the story. Our
memories aren’t perfect records of what happened. They’re more like dinosaur skeletons patched
together by archeologists. We have the main chunks, but some of the pieces are missing, so we fill
them in as best we can. We make an educated guess.
But in the process, stories often become more extreme or entertaining, particularly when people
tell them in front of a group. We don’t just guess randomly, we fill in numbers or information to make
us look good rather than inept. The fish doubles in size. The baby didn’t wake just twice during the
night—that wouldn’t be remarkable enough—she woke seven times and required skillful parenting
each time to soothe her back to sleep.
It’s just like a game of telephone. As the story gets transmitted from person to person, some details
fall out and others are exaggerated. And it becomes more and more remarkable along the way.
The key to finding inner remarkability is to think about what makes something interesting,
surprising, or novel. Can the product do something no one would have thought possible (such as blend
golf balls like Blendtec)? Are the consequences of the idea or issue more extreme than people ever
could have imagined?
One way to generate surprise is by breaking a pattern people have come to expect. Take low-cost
airlines. What do you expect when you fly a low-cost carrier? Small seats, no movies, limited snacks,
and a generally no-frills experience. But people who fly JetBlue for the first time often tell others
because the experience is remarkably different. You get a large, comfortable seat, a variety of snack
choices (from Terra Blues chips to animal crackers), and free DIRECTV programming from your
own seat-back television. Similarly, by using Kobe beef and lobster, and charging one hundred
dollars, Barclay Prime got buzz by breaking the pattern of what people expected from a cheesesteak.
Mysteries and controversy are also often remarkable. The Blair Witch Project is one of the most
famous examples of this approach. Released in 1999, the film tells the story of three student
filmmakers who hiked into the mountains of Maryland to film a documentary about a local legend
called the Blair Witch. They supposedly disappeared, however, and viewers were told that the film
was pieced together from “rediscovered” amateur footage that was shot on their hike. No one was
sure if this was true.
What do we do when confronted with a controversial mystery like this? Naturally, we ask others to
help us sort out the answer. So the film garnered a huge buzz simply from people wondering whether
it depicted real events or not. It undermined a fundamental belief (that witches don’t exist), so people
wanted the answer, and the fact that there was disagreement led to even more discussion. The buzz
drove the movie to become a blockbuster. Shot on a handheld camera with a budget of about $35,000,
the movie grossed more than $248 million worldwide.
The best thing about remarkability, though, is that it can be applied to anything. You might think that
a product, service, or idea would have to be inherently remarkable—that remarkability isn’t
something you can impose from the outside. New high-tech gadgets or Hollywood movies are
naturally more remarkable than, say, customer service guidelines or toasters. What could be
remarkable about a toaster?
But it’s possible to find the inner remarkability in any product or idea by thinking about what
makes that thing stand out. Remember Blendtec, the blender company we talked about in the
Introduction? By finding the product’s inner remarkability, the company was able to get millions of
people to talk about a boring old blender. And they were able to do it with no advertising and a fifty-
dollar marketing budget.
Toilet paper? Hardly seems remarkable. But a few years ago I made toilet paper one of the most
talked-about conversation topics at a party. How? I put a roll of black toilet paper in the bathroom.
Black toilet paper? No one had ever seen black toilet paper before. And that remarkability provoked
discussion. Emphasize what’s remarkable about a product or idea and people will talk.
LEVERAGE GAME MECHANICS
I was short by 222 miles.
A few years ago I was booking a round-trip flight from the East Coast to California. It was late
December, and the end of the year is always slow, so it seemed like a perfect time to visit friends. I
went online, scanned a bunch of options, and found a direct flight that was cheaper than the connecting
ones. Lucky me! I went to go find my credit card.
But as I entered my frequent flier number, information about my status tier appeared on the screen. I
fly a decent amount, and the previous year I had flown enough on United Airlines to achieve Premier
status. Calling the perks I was receiving “Premier” seemed like a marketing person’s idea of a sick
joke, but it was slightly better treatment than you usually get in economy class. I could check bags for
free, have access to seats with slightly more leg room, and theoretically get free upgrades to business
class (though that never actually seemed to happen). Nothing to write home about, but at least I didn’t
have to pay to check a bag.
This year had been even busier. I tend to stick with one airline if I can, and in this case, it seemed it
might just pay off. I had almost achieved the next status level: Premier Executive.
But the key word here is “almost.” I was 222 miles short. Even with the direct flights to California
and back, I wouldn’t have enough miles to make it to Premier Executive.
The perks for being a Premier Executive were only slightly better than those for Premier. I’d get to
check a third bag for free, have access to special airline lounges if I flew internationally, and board
the plane seconds earlier than I would have before. Nothing too exciting.
But I was so close! And I had only a few days left to fly the required extra miles. This trip to San
Francisco was my last chance.
So I did what people do who are so focused on achieving something that they lose their common
sense. I paid more money to book a connecting flight.
Rather than take a direct flight home, I flew a circuitous route, stopping in Boston for two hours
just to make sure I had enough miles to make it over the threshold.
The first major frequent flier program was created in 1981 by American Airlines. Originally
conceptualized as a method to give special fares to frequent customers, the program soon morphed
into the current system of rewards. Today, more than 180 million people accumulate frequent flier
miles when they travel. These programs have motivated millions of people to pledge their loyalty to a
single airline and stop over in random cities or fly at inopportune times just to ensure that they accrue
miles on their desired carrier.
We all know that miles can be redeemed for free travel, hotel stays, and other perks. Still, most
people never cash in the miles they accumulate. In fact, less than 10 percent of miles are redeemed
every year. Experts estimate that as many as 10 trillion frequent flier miles are sitting in accounts,
unused. Enough to travel to the moon and back 19.4 million times. That’s a lot of miles.
So if they’re not actually using them, why are people so passionate about racking up miles?
Because it’s a fun game.
Think about your favorite game. It can be a board game, a sport, or even a computer game or an
app. Maybe you love solitaire, enjoy playing golf, or go crazy for Sudoku puzzles. Ever stopped to
think about why you enjoy these games so much? Why you can’t seem to stop playing?
Game mechanics are the elements of a game, application, or program—including rules and
feedback loops—that make them fun and compelling. You get points for doing well at solitaire, there
are levels of Sudoku puzzles, and golf tournaments have leaderboards. These elements tell players
where they stand in the game and how well they are doing. Good game mechanics keep people
engaged, motivated, and always wanting more.
One way game mechanics motivate is internally. We all enjoy achieving things. Tangible evidence
of our progress, such as solving a tough Solitaire game or advancing to the next level of Sudoku
puzzles, makes us feel good. So discrete markers motivate us to work harder, especially when we get
close to achieving them. Take the buy-ten-get-one-free coffee punch cards that are sometimes offered
at local cafés. By increasing motivation, the cards actually spur people to buy coffee more frequently
as they get closer to their tenth cup and claiming their reward.
But game mechanics also motivate us on an interpersonal level by encouraging social comparison.
A few years ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward
choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they
made $100,000 a year (option B)?
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option
A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000. In option B,
they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So option B would make the
students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them.
What did the majority of people choose?
Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They
chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms.
People don’t just care about how they are doing, they care about their performance in relation to
others. Getting to board a plane a few minutes early is a nice perk of achieving Premier status. But
part of what makes this a nice perk is that you get to board before everyone else. Because levels work
on two, well, levels. They tell us where we are at any time in absolute terms. But they also make
clear where we stand relative to everyone else.
Just like many other animals, people care about hierarchy. Apes engage in status displays and dogs
try to figure out who is the alpha. Humans are no different. We like feeling that we’re high status, top
dog, or leader of the pack. But status is inherently relational. Being leader of the pack requires a
pack, doing better than others.
Game mechanics help generate social currency because doing well makes us look good. People
love boasting about the things they’ve accomplished: their golf handicaps, how many people follow
them on Twitter, or their kids’ SAT scores. A friend of mine is a Delta Airlines Platinum Medallion
member. Every time he flies he finds a way to brag about it on Facebook. Talking about how a guy he
saw in the Delta Sky Club lounge is hitting on a waitress. Or mentioning the free upgrade he got to
first class. After all, what good is status if no one else knows you have it?
But every time he proudly shares his status, he’s also spreading the word about Delta.
And this is how game mechanics boosts word of mouth. People are talking because they want to
show off their achievements, but along the way they talk about the brands (Delta or Twitter) or
domains (golf or the SAT) where they achieved.
Building a Good Game
Leveraging game mechanics requires quantifying performance. Some domains like golf handicaps and
SAT scores have built-in metrics. People can easily see how they are doing and compare themselves
with others without needing any help. But if a product or idea doesn’t automatically do that, it needs
to be “gamified.” Metrics need to be created or recorded that let people see where they stand—for
example, icons for how much they have contributed to a community message board or different
colored tickets for season ticket holders.
Airlines have done this nicely. Frequent flier programs didn’t always exist. True, people have
flown commercially for more than half a century. But flying was gamified relatively recently, with
airlines recording miles flown and awarding status levels. And because this provides social
currency, people love to talk about it.
Leveraging game mechanics also involves helping people publicize their achievements. Sure,
someone can talk about how well she did, but it’s even better if there is a tangible, visible symbol
that she can display to others. Foursquare, the location-based social networking website, lets users
check in at bars, restaurants, and other locations using their mobile devices. Checking in helps people
find their friends, but Foursquare also awards special badges to users based on their check-in history.
Check in to the same venue more than anyone else in a sixty-day period and you’ll be crowned the
mayor of that location. Check in to five different airports and get a Jetsetter badge. Not only are these
badges posted on users’ Foursquare accounts, but because they provide social currency, users also
prominently display them on their Facebook pages.
Just like my Platinum Medallion friend, people display their badges to show off or because they’re
proud of themselves. But along the way they are also spreading the Foursquare brand.
Great game mechanics can even create achievement out of nothing. Airlines turned loyalty into a
status symbol. Foursquare made it a mark of distinction to be a fixture at the corner bar. And by
encouraging players to post their achievements on Facebook, online game makers have managed to
convince people to proclaim loudly—even boast—that they spend hours playing computer games
Effective status systems are easy to understand, even by people who aren’t familiar with the
domain. Being the mayor sounds good, but if you asked most people on the street, I bet they couldn’t
tell you whether that is better or worse than having a School Night badge, a Super User badge, or any
one of the more than one hundred other badges Foursquare offers.
Credit card companies struggled with the same issue. Gold cards used to be restricted to people
who spent heavily and had a stellar credit history. But as companies started offering them to people
with all types of credit, the gold card lost its meaning. So companies came up with new options for
their truly wealthy customers: the platinum card, the sapphire card, and the diamond card, among
others. But which has more status, a diamond or a sapphire card? Is platinum better or worse than
sapphire? This bewildering mix of colors, minerals, and exclusive words creates a chaos of
consumer confusion such that people don’t know how well they are doing—much less how they
compare with anyone else.
Contrast that with medals given out at the Olympics or your local track meet. If entrants tell you
they won silver, you know exactly how well they did. Even someone who knows almost nothing about
track can tell right away whether an entrant is a star or just doing okay.
Many British supermarkets use a similarly intuitive labeling system. Just as with stoplights, they
use red, yellow, or green circles to denote how much sugar, fat, and salt are in different products.
Low-sodium sandwiches are marked with a green circle for salt while salty soups get a red circle.
Anyone can immediately pick up on the system and understand how to behave as a result.
Many contests also involve game mechanics. Burberry created a website called “Art of the
Trench” that is a montage of Burberry and all the people who wear it. Some photos were taken by the
world’s leading photographers, but people can also send in photos of themselves or their friends
wearing the iconic Burberry trench coat. If you’re lucky, Burberry posts your image on its website.
Your photo then becomes part of a set of images reflecting personal style from across the globe.
Imagine if your photo was picked for the site. What would be your first impulse? You’d tell
someone else! And not just one person. Lots of people.
As apparently everyone did. The Burberry site garnered millions of views from more than a
hundred different countries. And the contest helped drive sales up 50 percent.
Recipe websites encourage people to post photos of their finished meals. Weight loss or fitness
programs encourage before-and-after photos so people can show others how much better they look. A
new bar in D.C. even named a drink, the Kentucky Irby, after my best friend (his last name is Irby).
He felt so special he told everyone he knows about the drink and along the way helped spread the
word about this new establishment.
Giving awards works on a similar principle. Recipients of awards love boasting about them—it
gives them the opportunity to tell others how great they are. But along the way they have to mention
who gave them the award.
Word of mouth can also come from the voting process itself. Deciding the winner by popular vote
encourages contestants to drum up support. But in telling people to vote for them, contestants also
spread awareness about the product, brand, or initiative sponsoring the contest. Instead of marketing
itself directly, the company uses the contest to get people who want to win to do the marketing
And this brings us to the third way to generate social currency: making people feel like insiders.
MAKE PEOPLE FEEL LIKE INSIDERS
In 2005, Ben Fischman became CEO of SmartBargains.com. The discount shopping website sold
everything from apparel and bedding to home decor and luggage. The business model was
straightforward: companies wanting to offload clearance items or extra merchandise would sell them
cheap to SmartBargains, and SmartBargains would pass the deals on to the consumer. There was a
broad variety of merchandise, and prices were often up to 75 percent lower than retail.
But by 2007 the website was floundering. Margins had always been low, but excitement about the
brand had dissipated, and momentum was slowing. A number of related websites had also sprung up,
and SmartBargains was struggling to differentiate itself from similar competitors.
A year later Fischman started a new website called Rue La La. It carried high-end designer goods
but focused on “flash sales” in which the deals were available for only a limited time—twenty-four
hours or a couple of days at most. And the site followed the same model as sample sales in the
fashion industry. Access was by invitation only. You had to be invited by an existing member.
Sales took off, and the site did extremely well. So well, in fact, that in 2009 Ben sold both
websites for $350 million.
Rue La La’s success is particularly noteworthy, given one tiny detail.
It sold the same products as SmartBargains. The exact same dresses, skirts, and suits. The same
shoes, shirts, and slacks.
So what transformed what could have been a ho-hum website into one people were clamoring to
get access to? How come Rue La La was so much more successful?
Because it made people feel like insiders.
When trying to figure out how to save SmartBargains, Fischman noticed that one part of the
business was doing incredibly well. Its Smart Shopper loyalty club allowed people who signed up to
get reduced shipping fees and access to a private shopping area. Deals that no one else could see. It
was a small part of the site, but growth was through the roof.
At the same time, Fischman learned about a concept in France called vente privée, or private sale.
Online flash sales that were available only for a day. Fischman decided that this was the perfect way
to put a unique spin on his business.
And it was. Rue La La hit the ground running because it smartly leveraged the urgency factor. Part
of this started by accident. Every morning the site posted new deals at 11:00 a.m. But in the first
couple of months demand was so much higher than expected that by 11:03 a.m. everything would be
sold out. Gone. So customers learned that if they didn’t get there right away, they’d miss out.
As it has grown, Rue La La has maintained this limited availability. It still sells out 40 percent to
50 percent of items in the first hour. Sales have grown, but it’s not that revenue gets bigger across the
course of the day. The traffic spikes at 11:00 a.m. have simply reached higher and higher levels.
Going to a membership-only model also made the site’s members feel like insiders. Just as with the
velvet rope that prevents regular partygoers from just walking into an exclusive nightclub, people
assumed that if you had to be a member, the site must be really desirable.
Rue La La’s members are its best ambassadors. They proselytize better than any ad campaign ever
could. As Fischman noted:
It’s like the concierge at a hotel. You go down to the concierge to find out about a restaurant
and he tells you a name right away. The assumption is that he is getting paid to suggest that
place and the restaurant is probably mediocre. But if a friend recommends a place you can’t
wait to get there. Well when a friend tells you you’ve gotta try Rue La La, you believe them.
And you try it.
Rue La La unleashed the power of friends telling friends.
While it might not be obvious right away, Rue La La actually has a lot in common with Please
Don’t Tell, the secret bar we talked about at the beginning of the chapter. Both used scarcity and
exclusivity to make customers feel like insiders.
Scarcity is about how much of something is offered. Scarce things are less available because of
high demand, limited production, or restrictions on the time or place you can acquire them. The secret
bar Please Don’t Tell has only forty-five seats and doesn’t allow more people than that in. Rue La
La’s deals were available for only twenty-four hours; some are even gone within thirty minutes.
Exclusivity is also about availability, but in a different way. Exclusive things are accessible only
to people who meet particular criteria. When we think of exclusivity, we tend to think of flashy
$20,000 diamond-encrusted Rolexes or hobnobbing in St. Croix with movie stars. But exclusivity
isn’t just about money or celebrity. It’s also about knowledge. Knowing certain information or being
connected to people who do. And that is where Please Don’t Tell and Rue La La come in. You don’t
have to be a celebrity to get into Please Don’t Tell, but because it is hidden, only certain people know
it exists. Money can’t buy you access to Rue La La. Access is by invitation only, so you have to know
an existing user.
Scarcity and exclusivity help products catch on by making them seem more desirable. If something
is difficult to obtain, people assume that it must be worth the effort. If something is unavailable or
sold out, people often infer that lots of other people must like it, and so it must be pretty good
(something we’ll talk more about in the Public chapter). People evaluate cookbooks more favorably
when they are in limited supply, find cookies tastier when they are scarce, and perceive pantyhose as
higher end when it’s less available.
Disney uses this same concept to increase demand for decades-old movies. It takes prime animated
features like Snow White and Pinocchio off the market and puts them in the “Disney Vault” until it
decides to reissue them. This limited availability makes us feel like we have to act now. If we don’t
we might miss the opportunity even if we might not have otherwise wanted the opportunity in the first
Scarcity and exclusivity boost word of mouth by making people feel like insiders. If people get
something not everyone else has, it makes them feel special, unique, high status. And because of that
they’ll not only like a product or service more, but tell others about it. Why? Because telling others
makes them look good. Having insider knowledge is social currency. When people who waited hours
in line finally get that new tech gadget, one of the first things they do is show others. Look at me and
what I was able to get!
And lest you think that only exclusive categories like bars and clothes can benefit from making
people feel like insiders, let me tell you about how McDonald’s created social currency around a mix
that includes tripe, heart, and stomach meat.
In 1979, McDonald’s introduced Chicken McNuggets. They were a huge hit and every franchise
across the country wanted them. But at the time McDonald’s didn’t have an adequate system to meet
the demand. So Executive Chef Rene Arend was tasked with devising another new product to give to
the unlucky franchises that couldn’t get enough chicken. Something that would keep them happy
despite the shortages.
Arend came up with a pork sandwich called the McRib. He had just come back from a trip to
Charleston, South Carolina, and was inspired by Southern barbecue. He loved the rich, smoky flavor
and thought it would be a perfect addition to the McDonald’s menu.
But contrary to what the name suggests, there is actually very little rib meat on the McRib. Instead,
imagine a pork patty shaped into something that looks like a rack of ribs. Subtract the bones (and most
of the higher-quality meat), add barbecue sauce, top it off with onions and pickles, toss it in a bun,
and you pretty much have the McRib.
Lack of rib meat aside, the product test-marketed quite well. McDonald’s was excited and soon
added the product to the nationwide menu. McRibs were everywhere from Florida to Seattle.
But then the sales numbers came in. Unfortunately, they were much lower than expected.
McDonald’s tried promotions and features, but not much worked. So after a few years it dropped the
McRib, citing Americans’ lack of interest in pork.
A decade later, however, McDonald’s figured out a clever way to increase demand for the McRib.
It didn’t spend more money on advertising. It didn’t change the price. It didn’t even change the
It just made the product scarce.
Sometimes it would bring the product back nationally for a limited time; in other cases it would
offer it at certain locations but not others. One month it would be offered only at franchises in Kansas
City, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Two months later it would be offered only in Chicago, Dallas, and
And its strategy worked. Consumers got excited about the sandwich. Facebook groups started
popping up asking the company to “bring back the McRib!” Supporters used Twitter to proclaim their
love for the snack (“Lucky me, the McRib is back”) and to learn where they could find one (“I only
really use Twitter to find out when the McRib is available”). Someone even created an online McRib
locator so fans could share locations that offered the sandwich with others. All for what is mostly a
mix of tripe, heart, and stomach meat.
Making people feel like insiders can benefit all types of products and ideas. Regardless of whether
the product is hip and cool, or a mix of leftover pig parts. The mere fact that something isn’t readily
available can make people value it more and tell others to capitalize on the social currency of
knowing about it or having it.
A BRIEF NOTE ON MOTIVATION
A few years ago I went through a fundamental male rite of passage. I joined a fantasy football league.
Fantasy football has become one of America’s most popular unofficial pastimes. For those
unfamiliar with the game, it’s essentially like being the general manager of an imaginary team.
Millions of people spend countless hours scouting players, tweaking their rosters, and watching their
performance each week.
It always seemed funny to me that people spent so much time on what is essentially a spectator
sport. But when a group of friends needed one more person and asked me if I’d play, I said why not.
And sure enough, I got sucked in. I spent hours every week scanning through cheat sheets, reading
up on players I’d never heard of, and trying to find sleepers other people hadn’t drafted. Once the
season started I found myself watching football, something I had never done before. And it wasn’t to
see whether my local team won. I was watching teams I knew nothing about, checking out which of
my players were doing better, and tweaking my roster each week.
But the most interesting part?
I did this all for free.
No one paid me for the hours I spent, and my friends and I didn’t even have a bet riding on the
outcome. We were just playing for fun. And, of course, bragging rights. But since doing better than
others is social currency, everyone was motivated to do well. Even without a monetary incentive.
The moral? People don’t need to be paid to be motivated. Managers often default to monetary
incentives when trying to motivate employees. Some gift or other perk to get people to take action.
But that’s the wrong way to think about it. Lots of people will refer a friend if you pay them a hundred
dollars to do so. Offer people the chance to win a gold Lamborghini and they’ll do almost anything.
But as with many monetary incentives, handing out gold Lamborghinis is costly.
Furthermore, as soon as you pay people for doing something, you crowd out their intrinsic
motivation. People are happy to talk about companies and products they like, and millions of people
do it for free every day, without prompting. But as soon as you offer to pay people to refer other
customers, any interest they had in doing it for free will disappear. Customers’ decisions to share or
not will no longer be based on how much they like a product or service. Instead, the quality and
quantity of buzz will be proportional to the money they receive.
Social incentives, like social currency, are more effective in the long term. Foursquare doesn’t pay
users to check in to bars, and airlines don’t give discounts to frequent flier members. But by
harnessing people’s desire to look good to others, their customers did these things anyway—and
spread word of mouth for free.
PLEASE DON’T TELL? WELL, OKAY. MAYBE JUST ONE PERSON . . .
How do we get people talking and make our products and ideas catch on? One way is to mint social
currency. People like to make a good impression, so we need to make our products a way to achieve
that. Like Blendtec’s Will It Blend? we need to find the inner remarkability. Like Foursquare or
airlines with frequent flier tiers, we need to leverage game mechanics. Like Rue La La, we need to
use scarcity and exclusivity to make people feel as if they’re insiders.
The drive to talk about ourselves brings us back full circle to Please Don’t Tell. The proprietors
are smart. They understand that secrets boost social currency, but they don’t stop there. After you’ve
paid for your drinks, your server hands you a small business card. All black, almost like the calling
card of a psychic or wizard. In red script the card simply says “Please Don’t Tell” and includes a
So while everything else suggests the proprietors want to keep the venue under wraps, at the end of
the experience they make sure you have their phone number. Just in case you want to share their
* Note that making access difficult is different from making it impossible. Sure, getting a reservation at Please Don’t Tell is tough, but if
people call enough they should be able to snag a reservation. And while Rue La La is open only to members, it recently instituted a policy
where even nonmembers can get access by signing up with an e-mail address. Using scarcity and exclusivity early on and then relaxing
the restrictions later is a particularly good way to build demand.
Also be wary of how restricting availability can come off as snooty or standoffish. People are used to getting what they want and if
they hear “no” too much they may go elsewhere. Jim Meehan at Please Don’t Tell addresses this problem explicitly by instructing his
staff that if they need to say “no” they should try to figure out a way to say “no, but.” Such as, “No, we are all booked up at eight-thirty,
unfortunately, but how about eleven?” or “No, we don’t have brand X but we have brand Y, would you like to try it?” By managing the
disappointment, they maintain the allure while also maintaining customer satisfaction.
Walt Disney World. Say those words to children under the age of eight and just wait for their
excited screams. More than 18 million people from all over the world visit the Orlando, Florida,
theme park annually. Older kids love the frightening plummet down Space Mountain and the Tower of
Terror. Younger ones savor the magic of Cinderella’s castle and the thrill of exploring the rivers of
Africa in the Jungle Cruise. Even adults beam joyously when shaking hands with beloved Disney
characters like Mickey Mouse and Goofy.
Memories of my own first visit in the early 1990s still make me smile. My cousin and I were
picked from the audience to play Gilligan and the Skipper in a reenactment of Gilligan’s Island. The
look of wild triumph on my face when I successfully steered the boat to safety—after being doused
with dozens of buckets of water—is still family lore.
Now compare these exhilarating images with a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. Yes, the classic
breakfast cereal with a bee mascot that “packs the goodness of Cheerios with the irresistible taste of
golden honey.” Considered reasonably healthy, Honey Nut Cheerios is still sugary enough to appeal
to children and anyone with a sweet tooth and has become a staple of many American households.
Which of these products—Disney World or Honey Nut Cheerios—do you think gets more word of
mouth? The Magic Kingdom? The self-described place where dreams come true?
Or Cheerios? The breakfast cereal made of whole grain oats that can help reduce cholesterol?
Clearly, the answer is Disney World, right? After all, talking about your adventures there is much
more interesting than discussing what you ate for breakfast. If word-of-mouth pundits agree on
anything, it’s that being interesting is essential if you want people to talk. Most buzz marketing books
will tell you that. So will social media gurus. “Nobody talks about boring companies, boring
products, or boring ads,” argues one prominent word-of-mouth advocate.
Unfortunately, he’s wrong. And so is everyone else who subscribes to the interest-is-king theory.
And lest you think this contradicts what we talked about in the previous chapter about Social
Currency, read on. People talk about Cheerios more than Disney World. The reason? Triggers.
BUZZING FOR BZZAGENT
No one would mistake Dave Balter for a Madison Avenue shark as portrayed in the popular TV
series Mad Men. He’s young—just forty—and looks even younger, with downy cheeks, wire-rimmed
glasses, and a wide-open grin. He’s also genuinely passionate about marketing. Yes, marketing. To
Dave, marketing isn’t about trying to convince people to purchase things they don’t want or need.
Marketing is about tapping into their genuine enthusiasm for products and services that they find
useful. Or fun. Or beautiful. Marketing is about spreading the love.
Dave started out as a so-called loyalty marketer figuring out ways to reward customers for sticking
with a particular brand. He then created and sold two promotional agencies before founding his
current firm, BzzAgent.
Here’s how BzzAgent works. Say you’re Philips, the maker of the Sonicare electric toothbrush.
Sales are good, but the product is new and most people aren’t aware of what it is or why they would
want to buy one. Existing Sonicare customers are beginning to spread the word, but you want to
accelerate things, get more people talking.
That’s where BzzAgent comes in.
Over the years, the company has assembled a network of more than 800,000 BzzAgents, people
who have said that they are interested in learning about and trying new products. Agents span a broad
range of ages, incomes, and occupations. Most are between eighteen and fifty-four years old, are well
educated, and have a reasonable income. Teachers, stay-at-home moms, working professionals,
PhDs, and even CEOs are BzzAgents.
If you wonder what type of person would be a BzzAgent, the answer is you. Agents reflect the U.S.
population at large.
When a new client calls, Dave’s team culls through its large database to find BzzAgents who fit the
desired demographic or psychographic profile. Philips believes its toothbrush will primarily appeal
to busy professionals aged twenty-five to thirty-five from the East Coast? No problem, Dave has
several thousand on call. You’d prefer working moms who care about dental hygiene? He’s got them,
BzzAgent then contacts the appropriate agents in its network and invites them to join a campaign.
Those who agree get a kit in the mail containing information about the product and coupons or a free
trial. Participants in the Sonicare campaign, for example, received a free toothbrush and ten-dollar
mail-in rebates for additional toothbrushes to give to others. Participants in a Taco Bell campaign
received free taco coupons. Because actual tacos are difficult to send in the mail.
Then, over the next few months, BzzAgents file reports describing the conversations they had about
the product. Importantly, BzzAgents are not paid. They’re in it for the chance to get free stuff and
learn about new products before the rest of their friends and families. And they’re never pressured to
say anything other than what they honestly believe, whether they like the product or not.
When people first hear about BzzAgent, some argue that it can’t possibly work. People don’t just
spontaneously mention products in everyday conversations, they protest. It just wouldn’t seem natural.
But what most people don’t realize is that they naturally talk about products, brands, and
organizations all the time. Every day, the average American engages in more than sixteen word-of-
mouth episodes, separate conversations where they say something positive or negative about an
organization, brand, product, or service. We suggest restaurants to coworkers, tell family members
about a great sale, and recommend responsible babysitters to neighbors. American consumers
mention specific brands more than 3 billion times a day. This kind of social talk is almost like
breathing. It’s so basic and frequent that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
If you want to get a better sense for yourself, try keeping a conversation diary for twenty-four
hours. Carry pen and paper with you and write down all the things you mention over the course of a
day. You’ll be surprised at all the products and ideas you talk about.
Curious about how a BzzCampaign worked, I joined. I’m a big fan of soy milk, so when Silk did a
campaign for almond milk, I had to try it. (After all, how can they get milk from an almond?) I used a
coupon, got the product from the store, and tried it. It was delicious.
Not only was the product good, it was so good I simply had to tell others about it. I mentioned Silk
almond milk to friends who don’t drink regular milk and gave them coupons to try it themselves. Not
because I had to. No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I talked. I just liked the product
and thought others might as well.
And this is exactly why BzzAgent and other word-of-mouth marketing firms are effective. They
don’t force people to say nice things about products they hate. Nor do they entice people to insert
product recommendations artificially into conversations. BzzAgent simply harnesses the fact that
people already talk about and share products and services with others. Give people a product they
enjoy, and they’ll be happy to spread the word.
WHY DO PEOPLE BUZZ ABOUT SOME PRODUCTS MORE THAN OTHERS?
BzzAgent has run hundreds of campaigns for clients as diverse as Ralph Lauren, the March of Dimes,
and Holiday Inn Express. Some campaigns were more successful at generating word of mouth than
others. Why? Did some products or ideas just get lucky? Or were there some underlying principles
driving certain products to get talked about more?
I offered to help find the answer. Enthusiastic at the prospect, Dave gave my colleague Eric
Schwartz and me access to data from the hundreds of campaigns he’d run over the years.
We started by testing an intuitive idea: interesting products get talked about more than boring ones.
Products can be interesting because they’re novel, exciting, or confound expectations in some way. If
interest drives talking, then action flicks and Disney World should be talked about more than
Cheerios and dish soap.
Intuitively this makes sense. As we discussed in the Social Currency chapter, when we talk to
others, we’re not only communicating information; we’re also saying something about ourselves.
When we rave about a new foreign film or express disappointment with the Thai restaurant around the
corner, we’re demonstrating our cultural and culinary knowledge and taste. Since we want others to
think we’re interesting, we search for interesting things to tell them. After all, who’d want to invite
people to a cocktail party if all they talked about was dish soap and breakfast cereal?
Based on this idea, advertisers often try to create surprising or even shocking ads. Dancing
monkeys or ravenous wolves chasing a marching band. Guerrilla and viral marketing campaigns are
built on the same notion: Have people dress in chicken suits and hand out fifty-dollar bills on the
subway. Do something really different or people won’t talk.
But is this actually true? Do things have to be interesting to be discussed?
To find out, we took the hundreds of products that had taken part in BzzCampaigns and asked
people how interesting they found each of them. An automatic shower cleaning device? A service that
preserves newborn babies’ umbilical cords? Both seemed pretty interesting. Mouthwash and trail
mix? Not so interesting.
Then we looked at the relationship between a product’s interest score and how frequently it was
talked about over the ten-week campaign.
But there was none. Interesting products didn’t receive any more word of mouth than boring ones.
Puzzled, we took a step back. Maybe “interest” was the wrong term, potentially too vague or
general a concept? So we asked people to score the products on more concrete dimensions, like how
novel or surprising they were. An electronic toothbrush was seen as more novel than plastic storage
bags; dress shoes designed to be as comfortable as sneakers were seen as more surprising than bath
But there was still no relationship between novelty or surprise scores and overall word of mouth.
More novel or surprising products didn’t get more buzz.
Maybe it was the people scoring the products. We had first used undergraduate college students, so
we recruited a new set of people, of all ages and backgrounds.
Nope. Again the results remained the same. No correlation between levels of interest, novelty, or
surprise and the number of times people talked about the products.
We were truly bewildered. What were we doing wrong?
Nothing, as it turned out. We just weren’t asking the right questions.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN IMMEDIATE AND ONGOING WORD OF MOUTH
We had been focused on whether certain aspects matter—specifically, whether more interesting,
novel, or surprising products get talked about more. But as we soon realized, we also should have
been examining when they matter.
Some word of mouth is immediate, while some is ongoing. Imagine you’ve just gotten an e-mail
about a new recycling initiative. Do you talk about it with your coworkers later that day? Mention it
to your spouse that weekend? If so, you’re engaging in immediate word of mouth. This occurs when
you pass on the details of an experience, or share new information you’ve acquired, soon after it
Ongoing word of mouth, in contrast, covers the conversations you have in the weeks and months
that follow. The movies you saw last month or a vacation you took last year.
Both types of word of mouth are valuable, but certain types are more important for certain products
or ideas. Movies depend on immediate word of mouth. Theaters are looking for success right off the
bat, so if a film isn’t doing well right away, they’ll replace it with something else. New food products
are under similar pressure. Grocery stores have limited shelf space. If consumers don’t immediately
start buying a new anticholesterol spread, the store may stop stocking it. In such cases, immediate
word of mouth is critical.
For most products or ideas, however, ongoing word of mouth is also important. Antibullying
campaigns not only want to get students talking right after the campaign is introduced, they want them
to keep spreading the word until bullying is eradicated. New policy initiatives certainly benefit from
huge discussion when they are proposed, but to sway voter opinion, people need to keep mentioning
them all the way up until Election Day.
But what leads someone to talk about something soon after it occurs? And are these the same things
that drive them to keep talking about it for weeks or months after?
To answer these questions, we divided the data on each BzzCampaign into two categories:
immediate and ongoing word of mouth. Then we looked at how much of each type of buzz different
types of products generated.
As we suspected, interesting products received more immediate word of mouth than boring
products. This reinforces what we talked about in the Social Currency chapter: interesting things are
entertaining and reflect positively on the person talking about them.
But interesting products did not sustain high levels of word-of-mouth activity over time. Interesting
products didn’t get any more ongoing word of mouth than boring ones.
Imagine I walked into work one day dressed as a pirate. A bright red satin bandana, long black
waistcoat, gold earrings, and a patch over one eye. It would be pretty remarkable. People in my office
would probably gossip about it all day. (“What in the world is Jonah doing? Casual Friday is
supposed to be relaxed, but this is taking it too far!”)
But while my pirate getup would get lots of immediate word of mouth, people probably wouldn’t
keep talking about it every week for the next two months.
So if interest doesn’t drive ongoing word of mouth, what does? What keeps people talking?
FROM MARS BARS TO VOTING: HOW TRIGGERS AFFECT BEHAVIOR
At any given moment, some thoughts are more top of mind, or accessible, than others. Right now, for
example, you might be thinking about the sentence you are reading or the sandwich you had for lunch.
Some things are chronically accessible. Sports fanatics or foodies will often have those subjects
top of mind. They are constantly thinking of their favorite team’s latest stats, or about ways to
combine ingredients in tasty dishes.
But stimuli in the surrounding environment can also determine which thoughts and ideas are top of
mind. If you see a puppy while jogging in the park, you might remember that you’ve always wanted to
adopt a dog. If you smell Chinese food while walking past the corner noodle shop, you might start
thinking about what to order for lunch. Or if you hear an advertisement for Coke, you might remember
that you ran out of soda last night. Sights, smells, and sounds can trigger related thoughts and ideas,
making them more top of mind. A hot day might trigger thoughts about climate change. Seeing a sandy
beach in a travel magazine might trigger thoughts of Corona beer.
Using a product is a strong trigger. Most people drink milk more often than grape juice, so milk is
top of mind more often. But triggers can also be indirect. Seeing a jar of peanut butter not only
triggers us to think about peanut butter, it also makes us think about its frequent partner, jelly. Triggers
are like little environmental reminders for related concepts and ideas.
Why does it matter if particular thoughts or ideas are top of mind? Because accessible thoughts and
ideas lead to action.
Back in mid-1997, the candy company Mars noticed an unexpected uptick in sales of its Mars bar.
The company was surprised because it hadn’t changed its marketing in any way. It wasn’t spending
additional money on advertising, it hadn’t changed its pricing, and it hadn’t run any special
promotions. Yet sales had gone up. What had happened?
NASA had happened. Specifically, NASA’s Pathfinder mission.
The mission was designed to collect samples of atmosphere, climate, and soil from a nearby
planet. The undertaking took years of preparation and millions of dollars in funding. When the lander
finally touched down on the alien landscape, the entire world was rapt, and all news outlets featured
Pathfinder’s destination? Mars.
Mars bars are named after the company’s founder, Franklin Mars, not the planet. But the media
attention the planet received acted as a trigger that reminded people of the candy and increased sales.
Perhaps the makers of Sunny Delight should encourage NASA to explore the sun.
Music researchers Adrian North, David Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick examined how
triggers might affect supermarket buying behavior more broadly. You know the Muzak you’re used to
hearing while you shop for groceries? Well, North, Hargreaves, and McKendrick subtly replaced it
with music from different countries. Some days they played French music while other days they
played German music—what you’d expect to hear outside a French café on the banks of the Seine and
what you might expect to hear at Oktoberfest. Then they measured the type of wine people purchased.
When French music was playing, most customers bought French wine. When German music was
playing most customers bought German wine. By triggering consumers to think of different countries,
the music affected sales. The music made ideas related to those countries more accessible, and those
accessible ideas spilled over to affect behavior.
Psychologist Gráinne Fitzsimons and I conducted a related study on how to encourage people to eat
more fruits and vegetables. Promoting healthy eating habits is tough. Most people realize they should
eat more fruits and vegetables. Most people will even say that they mean to eat more fruits and
vegetables. But somehow when the time comes to put fruits and vegetables into shopping carts or onto
dinner plates, people forget. We thought we’d use triggers to help them remember.
Students were paid twenty dollars to report what they ate every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
at their nearby dining hall. Monday: a bowl of Frosted Flakes cereal, two helpings of turkey lasagna
with a side salad, and a pulled pork sandwich with spinach and fries. Tuesday: yogurt with fruit and
walnuts, pepperoni pizza with Sprite, and shrimp pad thai.
Halfway through the two weeks we’d designated for the study, the students were asked to
participate in what seemed like an unrelated experiment from a different researcher. They were asked
to provide feedback on a public-health slogan targeting college students. Just to be sure they
remembered the slogan, they were shown it more than twenty times, printed in different colors and
One group of students saw the slogan “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.”
Another group saw “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” Both
slogans encouraged people to eat fruits and vegetables, but the tray slogan did so using a trigger. The
students lived on campus, and many of them ate in dining halls that used trays. So we wanted to see if
we could trigger healthy eating behavior by using the dining room tray to remind students of the
Our students didn’t care for the tray slogan. They called it “corny” and rated it as less than half as
attractive as the more generic “live healthy” slogan. Further, when asked whether the slogan would
influence their own fruit and vegetable consumption, the students who had been shown the “tray”
slogan were significantly more likely to say no.
But when it came to actual behavior, the effects were striking. Students who had been shown the
more generic “live healthy” slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the
“tray” slogan and used trays in their cafeterias markedly changed their behavior. The trays reminded
them of the slogan and they ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables as a result. The trigger worked.
We were pretty excited by the results. Getting college students to do anything—let alone eat more
fruits and vegetables—is an impressive feat.
But when a colleague of ours heard about the study he wondered whether triggers would impact an
even more consequential behavior: voting.
Where did you cast your ballot in the last election?
Most people will answer this question with the name of their city or state. Evanston. Birmingham.
Florida. Nevada. If asked to clarify, they might add “near my office” or “across from the
supermarket.” Few will be more specific. And why should they be? Although geography clearly
matters in voting—the East Coast leans Democratic while the South skews Republican—few people
would think that the exact venue in which they vote matters.
But it does.
Political scientists usually assume that voting is based on rational and stable preferences: people
possess core beliefs and weigh costs and benefits when deciding how to vote. If we care about the
environment, we vote for candidates who promise to protect natural resources. If we’re concerned
about health care, we support initiatives to make it more affordable and available to greater numbers
of people. In this calculating, cognitive model of voting behavior, the particular kind of building
people happen to cast their ballot in shouldn’t affect behavior.
But in light of what we were learning about triggers, we weren’t so sure. Most people in the United
States are assigned to vote at a particular polling location. They are typically public buildings—
firehouses, courthouses, or schools—but can also be churches, private office buildings, or other
Different locations contain different triggers. Churches are filled with religious imagery, which
might remind people of church doctrine. Schools are filled with lockers, desks, and chalkboards,
which might remind people of children or early educational experiences. And once these thoughts are
triggered, they might change behavior.
Could voting in a church lead people to think more negatively about abortion or gay marriage?
Could voting in a school lead people to support education funding?
To test this idea, Marc Meredith, Christian Wheeler, and I acquired data from each polling place in
Arizona’s 2000 general election. We used the name and address of each polling location to determine
whether it was a church, a school, or some other type of building. Forty percent of people were
assigned to vote in churches, 26 percent in schools, 10 percent in community centers, and the rest in a
mix of apartment buildings, golf courses, and even RV parks.
Then we examined whether people voted differently at different types of polling places. In
particular, we focused on a ballot initiative that proposed raising the sales tax from 5.0 percent to 5.6
percent to support public schools. This initiative had been hotly debated, with good arguments on
both sides. Most people support education but few people enjoy paying more taxes. It was a tough
If where people voted didn’t matter, then the percent supporting the initiative should be the same at
schools and other polling locations.
But it wasn’t. More than ten thousand more people voted in favor of the school funding initiative
when the polling place was a school. Polling location had a dramatic impact on voting behavior.
And the initiative passed.
This difference persisted even after we controlled for things like regional differences in political
preferences and demographics. We even compared two similar groups of voters to double-check our
findings. People who lived near schools and were assigned to vote at one versus people who lived
near schools but were assigned to vote at a different type of polling place (such as a firehouse). A
significantly higher percentage of the people who voted in schools were in favor of increasing
funding for schools. The fact that they were in a school when they voted triggered more school-
A ten-thousand-vote difference in a statewide election might not seem like much. But it was more
than enough to shift a close election. In the 2000 presidential election the difference between George
Bush and Al Gore came down to less than 1,000 votes. If 1,000 votes is enough to shift an election,
10,000 certainly could. Triggers matter.
So how do triggers help determine whether products and ideas catch on?
SEARCHING FOR “FRIDAY” ON . . . FRIDAY
In 2011, Rebecca Black accomplished a momentous achievement. The thirteen-year-old released
what many music critics dubbed the worst song ever.
Born in 1997, Rebecca was just a kid when she released her first full-length song. But this was far
from her first foray into music. She had auditioned for shows, had attended music summer camp, and
had sung publicly for a number of years. After hearing from a classmate who had turned to outside
help for her music career, Rebecca’s parents paid four thousand dollars to ARK Music Factory, a Los
Angeles label, to write a song for their daughter to sing.
The result was decidedly, well, awful. Entitled “Friday,” the tune was a whiny, overproduced
number about teenage life and the joys of the weekend. The song starts with her getting up in the
morning and getting ready to go to school:
Seven a.m., waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Then she hustles down to the bus stop, sees her friends drive by, and ponders whether to sit in the
front seat or the back. Finally, after all those tough decisions, she hits the chorus, an ode to her
excitement about the impending two days of freedom:
It’s Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend.
All in all, the piece sounds more like a monologue of the random thoughts going through an
especially vacant teenager’s head than a real song.
Yet this song was one of the most viral videos of 2011. It was viewed more than 300 million times
on YouTube, and many millions more listened to it over other channels.
Why? The song was terrible, but lots of songs are terrible. So what made this one a success?
Take a look at the number of daily searches for “Rebecca Black” on YouTube in March 2011, soon
after the song was first released. See if you notice a pattern.
Searches for “Rebecca Black” on YouTube March 2011
Notice the spike once every week? Look closer and you’ll see that the spike happens on the same
day every week. There was one on March 18, seven days later on March 25, and seven days later, on
The particular day of the week? You guessed it. Friday—just like the name of Rebecca Black’s
So while the song was equally bad every day of the week, each Friday it received a strong trigger
that contributed to its success.
TRIGGERED TO TALK
As discussed in the Social Currency chapter, some word of mouth is motivated by peoples’ desire to
look good to others. Mentioning clever or entertaining things makes people seem clever and
entertaining. But that isn’t the only factor that drives us to share.
Most conversations can be described as small talk. We chat with parents at our kids’ soccer games
or schmooze with coworkers in the break room. These conversations are less about finding interesting
things to say to make us look good than they are about filling conversational space. We don’t want to
sit there silently, so we talk about something. Anything. Our goal isn’t necessarily to prove that we
are interesting, funny, or intelligent. We just want to say something to keep the conversation going.
Anything to prove that we’re not terrible conversationalists.
So what do we talk about? Whatever is top of mind is a good place to start. If something is
accessible, it’s usually relevant to the situation at hand. Did you read about the new bridge
construction? What did you think about the game last night?
We talk about these topics because they are going on in the surrounding environment. We saw the
bulldozers on our drive in, so construction is on our mind. We bump into a friend who likes sports, so
we think about the big game. Triggers boost word of mouth.
Returning to the BzzAgent data, triggers helped us answer why some products get talked about
mor e. More frequently triggered products got 15 percent more word of mouth. Even mundane
products like Ziploc bags and moisturizer received lots of buzz because people were triggered to
think about them so frequently. People who use moisturizer often apply it at least once a day. People
often use Ziploc bags after meals to wrap up leftovers. These everyday activities make those products
more top of mind and, as a result, lead them to be talked about more.
Furthermore, not only did triggered products get more immediate word of mouth, they also got
more word of mouth on an ongoing basis.
In this way, Ziploc bags are the antithesis of me going to teach dressed like a pirate. The pirate
story is interesting, but it’s here today, gone tomorrow. Ziploc bags may be boring, but they get
mentioned week in and week out because they are frequently triggered. By acting as reminders,
triggers not only get people talking, they keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.
So rather than just going for a catchy message, consider the context. Think about whether the
message will be triggered by the everyday environments of the target audience. Going for interesting
is our default tendency. Whether running for class president or selling soda, we think that catchy or
clever slogans will get us where we need to go.
But as we saw in our fruits and vegetables study, a strong trigger can be much more effective than a
catchy slogan. Even though they hated the slogan, college students ate more fruits and vegetables
when cafeteria trays triggered reminders of the health benefits. Just being exposed to a clever slogan
didn’t change behavior at all.
A few years ago, auto insurance company GEICO ran ads that said switching to GEICO was so
simple that even a caveman could do it. On the cleverness dimension the ads were great. They were
funny and made the point that switching to GEICO was easy.
But judged on triggers, the ads fail. We don’t see many cavemen in our daily lives, so the ad is
unlikely to come to mind often, making it less likely to be talked about.
Contrast that with the Budweiser beer “Wassup?” campaign. Two guys are talking on the phone
while drinking Budweiser and watching a basketball game on television. A third friend arrives. He
yells, “Wassup?” One of the first two guys yells “Wassup?” back. This kicks off an endless cycle of
wassups between a growing number of Budweiser-drinking buddies.
No, it wasn’t the cleverest of commercials. But it became a global phenomenon. And at least part
of its success was due to triggers. Budweiser considered the context. “Wassup” was a popular
greeting among young men at the time. Just greeting friends triggered thoughts of Budweiser in
Budweiser’s prime demographic.
The more the desired behavior happens after a delay, the more important being triggered becomes.
Market research often focuses on consumers’ immediate reaction to an advertising message or
campaign. That might be valuable in situations where the consumer is immediately offered a chance to
buy the product. But in most cases, people hear an ad one day and then go to the store days or weeks
later. If they’re not triggered to think about it, how will they remember that ad when they’re at the
Public health campaigns would also benefit from considering the context. Take messages that
encourage college students to drink responsibly. While the messages might be really clever and
convincing, they’re posted at the campus health center, far away from the frat houses or other places
where students actually drink. So while students may agree with the message when they read it, unless
they are triggered to think about it when they are actually drinking, the message is unlikely to change
Triggers even shed light on when negative word of mouth has positive effects. Economist Alan
Sorensen, Scott Rasmussen, and I analyzed hundreds of New York Times book reviews to see how
positive and negative reviews affected book sales.
In contrast to the notion that any publicity is good publicity, negative reviews hurt sales for some
books. But for books by new or relatively unknown authors, negative reviews increased sales by 45
percent. A book called Fierce People, for example, got a terrible review. The Times noted that the
author “does not have a particularly sharp eye” and complained that “the change in tone is so abrupt
that the dissonance it creates is almost distasteful.” Yet sales more than quadrupled after the review.
Triggers explain why. Even a bad review or negative word of mouth can increase sales if it
informs or reminds people that the product or idea exists. That’s why a sixty-dollar Tuscan red wine
saw sales rise by 5 percent after a prominent wine website described it as “redolent of stinky socks.”
It’s also one reason why the Shake Weight, a vibrating dumbbell that was widely ridiculed by the
media and consumers, went on to do $50 million in sales. Even negative attention can be useful if it
makes products and ideas top of mind.
KIT KAT AND COFFEE: GROWING THE HABITAT
One product that used triggers brilliantly is Kit Kat.
“Give me a break, give me a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar!” Introduced in the
United States in 1986, the Kit Kat tune is one of the most iconic jingles ever made. Sing the first
couple of words to almost anyone over twenty-five and the person can finish the line. Researchers
even deemed it one of the top ten “earworms”—a melody that gets stuck in your head—of all time.
Even more memorable than “YMCA” (take that, Village People).
But in 2007, Colleen Chorak was tasked with reviving the Kit Kat brand. In the twenty-plus years
since the jingle was first introduced, the brand had run out of gas. Hershey produces everything from
Reese’s Pieces and Hershey’s Kisses to Almond Joy, Twizzlers, and Jolly Ranchers. With this huge
slate of different items, it’s not surprising that a brand can get lost. And that is exactly what had
happened with Kit Kat. Hershey had floundered with replacing the “give me a break” campaign.
Sales were declining around 5 percent a year, and the brand had contracted considerably. People still
loved the product, but consumer interest was way down.
Colleen needed a way to get consumers to start thinking about the brand again. To make Kit Kat
more top of mind. And given the years of failed new directions, upper management was unwilling to
spend the money to put the brand back on TV. Any financial support would be modest at best.
So she did some research. Colleen looked at when people actually consumed Kit Kats. She found
two things: consumers often ate Kit Kats to take a break, and many consumed it in coordination with a
She had an idea.
Kit Kat and coffee.
Colleen pulled the campaign together in a matter of months. Described as “a break’s best friend,”
the radio spots featured the candy bar sitting on a counter next to a cup of coffee, or someone grabbing
coffee and asking for a Kit Kat. Kit Kat and coffee. Coffee and Kit Kat. The spots repeatedly paired
the two together.
The campaign was a hit.
By the end of the year it had lifted sales by 8 percent. After twelve months, sales were up by a
third. Kit Kat and coffee put Kit Kat back on the map. The then-$300 million brand has since grown
to $500 million.
Many things contributed to the campaign’s success. “Kit Kat and coffee” has a nice alliteration, and
the idea of taking a break to have a Kit Kat fits well with the existing notion of a coffee break. But I’d
like to add one more reason to the list.
Triggers. “Kit Kat and cantaloupe” is equally alliterative, and break dancing would also have
fitted with the break concept. But coffee is a particularly good thing to link the brand to because it is a
frequent stimulus in the environment. A huge number of people drink coffee. Many drink it a number
of times throughout the day. And so by linking Kit Kat to coffee, Colleen created a frequent trigger to
remind people of the brand.
Biologists often talk about plants and animals as having habitats, natural environments that contain
all necessary elements for sustaining an organism’s life. Ducks need water and grasses to eat. Deer
thrive in areas that contain open spaces for grazing.
Products and ideas also have habitats, or sets of triggers that cause people to think about them.
Take hot dogs. Barbecues, summertime, baseball games, and even wiener dogs (dachshunds) are
just a few of the triggers that make up the habitat for hot dogs.
Compare that with the habitat for Ethiopian food. What triggers most people to think of Ethiopian
food? Ethiopian food is certainly delicious, but its habitat is not as prevalent.
Most products or ideas have a number of natural triggers. Mars bars and Mars the planet are
already naturally connected. The Mars company didn’t need to do anything to create that link.
Likewise, French music is a natural trigger for French wine, and the last day of the workweek is a
natural trigger for Rebecca Black’s song “Friday.”
But it’s also possible to grow an idea’s habitat by creating new links to stimuli in the environment.
Kit Kat wouldn’t normally be associated with coffee, but through repeated pairing, Colleen Chorak
was able to link the two. Similarly, our trays experiment created a link between dining-room trays
and a message to eat fruits and vegetables by repeatedly pairing the two ideas together. And by
increasing the habitat for the message, these newly formed links helped the desired behavior catch on.
Consider an experiment we conducted with BzzAgent and Boston Market. This fast-casual
restaurant is best known for home-style comfort food (rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes) and
was primarily viewed as a lunch place. Management wanted to generate more buzz. We thought we
could help by growing Boston Market’s habitat.
During a six-week campaign, some people were exposed to messages that repeatedly paired the
restaurant with dinner. “Thinking about dinner? Think about Boston Market!”. Other people received
a similar advertising campaign that contained a more generic message: “Thinking about a place to
eat? Think about Boston Market!” We then measured how often the respective groups talked about the
The results were dramatic. Compared to the generic message, the message that grew the habitat (by
associating Boston Market with dinner) increased word of mouth by 20 percent among people who
previously had associated the brand only with lunch. Growing the habitat boosted buzz.
Competitors can even be used as a trigger.
How can public health organizations compete against the marketing strength of better-funded rivals
like cigarette companies? One way to combat this inequality is to transform a weakness into a
strength: by making a rival’s message act as a trigger for your own.
A famous antismoking campaign, for example, spoofed Marlboro’s iconic ads by captioning a
picture of one Marlboro cowboy talking to another with the words: “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” So
now whenever people see a Marlboro ad, it triggers them to think about the antismoking message.
Researchers call this strategy the poison parasite because it slyly injects “poison” (your message)
into a rival’s message by making it a trigger for your own.
WHAT MAKES FOR AN EFFECTIVE TRIGGER?
Triggers can help products and ideas catch on, but some stimuli are better triggers than others.
As we discussed, one key factor is how frequently the stimulus occurs. Hot chocolate would also
have fitted really well with Kit Kat, and the sweet beverage might have even complemented the
chocolate bar’s flavor better than coffee. But coffee is a more effective trigger because people think
about and see it much more frequently. Most people drink hot chocolate only in the winter, while
coffee is consumed year-round.
Similarly, Michelob ran a successful campaign in the 1970s that linked weekends with the beer
brand (“Weekends are made for Michelob”). However, that wasn’t the slogan when the campaign
started out. Originally the slogan was “Holidays are made for Michelob.” But this proved ineffective
because the chosen stimuli—holidays—don’t happen that often. So Anheuser-Busch revised the
slogan to “Weekends are made for Michelob,” which was much more successful.
Frequency, however, must also be balanced with the strength of the link. The more things a given
cue is associated with, the weaker any given association. It’s like poking a hole in the bottom of a
paper cup filled with water. If you poke just one hole, a strong stream of water will gush out. But
poke more holes, and the pressure of the stream from each opening lessens. Poke too many holes and
you’ll get barely a trickle from each.
Triggers work the same way. The color red, for example, is associated with many things: roses,
love, Coca-Cola, and fast cars, to name just a few. As a result of being ubiquitous, it’s not a
particularly strong trigger for any of these ideas. Ask different people to say the word that first comes
to their mind when they think of red and you’ll see what I mean.
Compare that with how many people think “jelly” when you say “peanut butter” and it will be clear
why stronger, more unusual links are better. Linking a product or idea with a stimulus that is already
associated with many things isn’t as effective as forging a fresher, more original link.
It is also important to pick triggers that happen near where the desired behavior is taking place.
Consider a clever but ultimately ineffective public service ad from New Zealand. A handsome,
muscular man is taking a shower. In the background you hear a catchy jingle about HeatFlow, a new
temperature-control system that ensures you’ll always have sufficient hot water for long, luxurious
showers. The man turns off the water. When he opens the shower door, an attractive woman tosses
him a towel. He smiles. She smiles. He begins to step out of the shower stall.
Suddenly, he slips. Falling, he cracks his head on the tile floor. As he lies there, motionless, his
arm twitches slightly. A voice-over somberly intones: “Preventing slips around your home can be as
easy as using a bath mat.”
Wow. Definitely surprising. Extremely memorable. So memorable, I think about it every time I take
a shower in a bathroom that doesn’t have a mat on the floor.
But there’s only one problem.
I can’t buy a bath mat in a bathroom. The message is physically removed from the desired
behavior. Unless I leave the bathroom, turn on my laptop, and buy a mat online, I have to remember
the message until I get to a store.
Contrast that with a New York City Department of Health (DOH) antisoda campaign. While soda
might seem like a relatively low-calorie item compared to all the food we eat during the course of a
day, drinking sugary beverages actually has a big impact on weight gain. But the DOH didn’t just
want to tell people how much sugar was in soda, it wanted to make sure people would remember to
change their behavior and spread the message to others.
So the DOH made a video showing someone opening what seems like a normal soda can. But when
he starts to pour it into a glass, out spills fat. Blob after blob of white, chunky fat. The guy picks the
glass up and knocks the fat back just as one would a regular soda—chunks and all.
The “Man Drinks Fat” clip closes with a huge congealed chunk of fat being dropped on a dinner
plate. It oozes over the table as a message flashes up on the screen: “Drinking one can of soda a day
can make you 10 pounds fatter a year. So don’t drink yourself fat.”
The video is clever. But by showing fat pouring out of a can, the DOH also nicely leveraged
triggers. Unlike the bath mat ad, its video triggered the message (don’t consume sugary drinks) at
precisely the right time: when people are thinking of drinking a soda.
CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
These campaigns underscore how important it is to consider the context: to think about the
environments of the people a message or idea is trying to trigger. Different environments contain
different stimuli. Arizona is surrounded by desert. Floridians see lots of palm trees. Consequently,
different triggers will be more or less effective depending on where people live.
Similarly, the effectiveness of the hundred-dollar cheesesteak that we talked about in the
introduction depends on the city where it is introduced.
A hundred-dollar sandwich is pretty remarkable, wherever you are. But how frequently people
will be triggered to think about it depends on geography. In places where people eat lots of
cheesesteaks (Philadelphia), people would be triggered often, but in other places (such as Chicago)
not so much.
Even within a given city or geographic region, people experience different triggers based on the
time of day or year. One study we conducted around Halloween, for example, found that people were
much more likely to think about products associated with the color orange (such as orange soda or
Reese’s Pieces) the day before Halloween than a week later. Before Halloween, all the orange
stimuli in the environment (pumpkins and orange displays) triggered thoughts of orange products. But
as soon as the holiday was over, those triggers disappeared, and so did thoughts of orange products.
People moved on to thinking about Christmas or whatever holiday came next.
So when thinking about, say, how to remember to take your reusable grocery bags to the grocery
store, think about what will trigger you at exactly the right time. Using reusable grocery bags is like
eating more vegetables. We know we should do it. We even want to do it (most of us have bought the
bags). But when it comes time to take action, we forget.
Then, right as we pull into the grocery store parking lot, we remember. Argh, I forgot the reusable
grocery bags! But by then it’s too late. We’re at the store and the grocery bags are at home in the
It’s no accident that we think about reusable bags right when we get to the store. The grocery is a
strong trigger for the bags. But unfortunately it is a badly timed one. Just as with the bath mat public
service announcement, the idea is coming to mind, but at the wrong time. To solve this problem, we
need to be reminded to bring the bags right when we are leaving the house.
What’s a good trigger in this instance? Anything you have to take with you to buy groceries. Your
shopping list, for example, is a great one. Imagine if every time you saw your shopping list, it made
you think of your reusable bags. It would be much harder to leave the bags at home.
WHY CHEERIOS GETS MORE WORD OF MOUTH THAN DISNEY WORLD
To return to the example that started the chapter, triggers help explain why Cheerios get more word of
mouth than Disney World. True, Disney World is interesting and exciting. To use the language of
other chapters in the book, it has high Social Currency and evokes lots of Emotion (next chapter). But
the problem is that people don’t think about it very frequently. Most people don’t go to Disney World
unless they have kids. Even those who do go don’t go that often. Once a year if that. And there are few
triggers to remind them about the experience after the initial excitement evaporates.
But hundreds of thousands of people eat Cheerios for breakfast every day. Still more see the bright
orange boxes every time they push their shopping carts down the supermarket cereal aisle. And these
triggers make Cheerios more accessible, increasing the chance that people will talk about the product.
The number of times Cheerios and Disney are mentioned on Twitter illustrates this nicely.
Cheerios are mentioned more frequently than Disney World. But examine the data closely and you’ll
notice a neat pattern.
Mention of Cheerios on Twitter
Mentions of Cheerios spike every day at approximately the same time. The first references occur at
5:00 a.m. They peak between 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. And they diminish around 11:00 a.m. This
sharp increase and corresponding decline align precisely with the traditional time for breakfast. The
pattern even shifts slightly on weekends when people eat breakfast later. Triggers drive talking.
Triggers are the foundation of word of mouth and contagiousness. To use an analogy, think of most
rock bands. Social Currency is the front man or woman. It’s exciting, fun, and gets lots of attention.
Triggers could be the drummer or bassist. It’s not as sexy a concept as Social Currency, but it’s an
important workhorse that gets the job done. People may not pay as much attention to it, but it lays the
groundwork that drives success. The more something is triggered, the more it will be top of mind, and
the more successful it will become.
So we need to consider the context. Like Budweiser’s “wassup” or Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” our
products and ideas need to take advantage of existing triggers. We also need to grow the habitat. Like
Colleen Chorak’s Kit Kat and coffee, we need to create new links to prevalent triggers.
Triggers and cues lead people to talk, choose, and use. Social currency gets people talking, but
Triggers keep them talking. Top of mind means tip of tongue.
By October 27, 2008, Denise Grady had been writing about science for The New York Times for
more than a decade. With an eye for quirky topics and a deft narrative style, Grady won numerous
journalism prizes by making esoteric topics accessible to lay readers.
That day, one of Grady’s articles rocketed up the newspaper’s Most E-Mailed list. Within hours of
its publication thousands of people had decided to pass on the article to their friends, relatives, and
coworkers. Grady had scored a viral hit.
The topic? How fluid and gas dynamic theories were being used in medical research.
Grady’s article detailed something called schlieren photography, in which “a small, bright light
source, precisely placed lenses, a curved mirror, a razor blade that blocks part of the light beam and
other tools make it possible to see and photograph disturbances in the air.”
Sounds less than riveting, right? Join the club. When we asked people what they thought of this
article on a number of different dimensions, the scores were pretty low. Did it have lots of Social
Currency? No, they said. Did it contain a lot of practically useful information (something we’ll
discuss in the Practical Value chapter)? No again.
In fact, if you’d gone down the checklist of characteristics traditionally believed to be
prerequisites for viral content, Grady’s article, entitled “The Mysterious Cough, Caught on Film,”
would have lacked most of them. Yet Grady’s piece clearly had something special or so many people
wouldn’t have hit the e-mail button. What was it?
Grady’s interest in science started in high school. She was sitting in chemistry class when she read
about Robert Millikan’s famous experiment to determine the charge on a single electron. It was a
complicated idea and a complicated experiment. The study involved suspending tiny droplets of oil
between two metal electrodes, then measuring how strong the electric field had to be in order to stop
the droplets from falling.
Grady read it several times. Again and again until she finally understood. But when she did, it was
like a flash going off. She got it. It was thrilling. The thinking behind the experiment was so clever,
and being able to grasp it was enthralling. She was hooked.
After school Grady went to work at Physics Today magazine. Eventually she worked at Discover
and Time magazine and finally worked her way up to health editor at The New York Times. The goal
of her articles was always the same: to give people even just a little bit of that excitement that she had
felt back in chemistry class decades before. An appreciation for the magic of scientific discovery.
In her piece that October, Grady described how an engineering professor used a photographic
technique to capture a visible image of a seemingly invisible phenomenon—a human cough. The
schlieren technique had been used for years by aeronautics and military specialists to study how
shock waves form around high-speed aircraft. But the engineering professor had harnessed the
technique in a new way: to study how airborne infections like tuberculosis, SARS, and influenza
It made sense that most people thought the article wasn’t particularly useful. After all, they weren’t
scientists studying fluid dynamics. Nor were they engineers trying to visualize complex phenomena.
And while Grady is one of the best science writers out there, it made sense that the general
population would tend to be more interested in articles about sports or fashion. Finally, while coughs
would certainly be a nice trigger to remind people of the article, cold and flu season tends to peak
around February, four months after the article was released.
Even Grady was bemused. As a journalist, she’s delighted when something she writes goes viral.
And like most journalists, or even casual bloggers, she’d love to understand why some of her pieces
get widely shared while others don’t.
But while she could make some educated guesses, neither she nor anyone else really knew why one
piece of content gets shared more than another. What made this particular article go viral?
After years of analysis, I’m happy to report that my colleagues and I have some answers. Grady’s
2008 article was part of a multi-year study in which we analyzed thousands of New York Times
articles to better understand why certain pieces of online content are widely shared.
A clue comes from the picture that accompanied Grady’s piece. Earlier that October, she had been
scanning an issue of The New England Journal of Medicine when she came across a piece entitled
“Coughing and Aerosols.” As soon as she saw it she knew the research would be the perfect basis for
an article in the Times. Some of the piece was pretty technical, with discussions of infectious
aerosols and velocity maps. But above all the jargon was a simple image, an image that made Grady
decide to write her article.
Simply put, it was amazing. The reason people shared Grady’s article was emotion. When we
care, we share.
MOST E-MAILED LISTS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF SHARING
Humans are social animals. As discussed in the chapter on Social Currency, people love to share
opinions and information with others. And our tendency to gossip—for good or ill—shapes our
relationships with friends and colleagues alike.
The Internet has become increasingly engineered to support these natural inclinations. If people
come across a blog post about a new bike sharing program or find a video that helps kids solve tough
algebra problems, they can easily hit the Share button or copy and paste the link into an e-mail.
Most major news or entertainment websites take the extra step of documenting what has been
passed along most frequently. Listing which articles, videos, and other content have been most
viewed or shared over the past day, week, or month.
People often use these lists as shortcuts. There is way too much content available to sift through it
all—hundreds of millions of websites and blogs, billions of videos. For news alone, dozens of highly
reputable outlets continuously produce new articles.
Few people have time to seek out the best content in this ocean of information. So they start by
checking out what others have shared.
As a result, most-shared lists have a powerful ability to shape public discourse. If an article about
financial reform happens to make the list, while one about environmental reform barely falls short,
that initially small difference in interest can quickly become magnified. As more people see and share
the article about financial reform, citizens may become convinced that financial reform deserves more
governmental attention than environmental reform, even if the financial issue is mild and the
environmental issue severe.
So why does some content make the Most E-Mailed list while other content does not?
For something to go viral, lots of people have to pass along the same piece of content at around the
same time. You might have enjoyed Denise Grady’s cough article, and maybe you shared it with a
couple of friends. But for the piece to make the Most E-Mailed list, a large number of people had to
make the same decision you did.
Is this just random? Or might there be some consistent patterns underlying viral success?
SYSTEMATICALLY ANALYZING THE MOST E-MAILED LIST
The life of a Stanford graduate student is far from grand. My office, if you could call it that, was a
high-walled cubicle. It was tucked up in a windowless attic of a 1960s-era building whose
architectural style has often been described as “brutalist.” A short, squat structure with concrete
walls so thick they could probably withstand a direct hit from a small grenade launcher. Sixty of us
were clustered together in a cramped space, and my own ten-by-ten fluorescent-lit box was shared
with another student.
The one upside was the elevator. Graduate students were expected to be working at all times of
day and night, so the school gave us a keycard that allowed twenty-four-hour access to a special lift.
Not only did it take us up to our windowless workstations, it also gave us access to the library, even
after it closed. Not the most lavish perk, but a useful one.
Back then the distribution of online content was not as sophisticated as it is today. Content
websites now post their most e-mailed lists online, but some newspapers published these lists in their
print editions as well. Every day The Wall Street Journal published a list of the five most read
articles and the five most e-mailed articles from the previous day’s news. After scanning a couple of
these lists, I was enthralled. It seemed like the perfect data source to study why some things get
shared more than others.
So just as a stamp collector collects stamps, I began to collect the Journal’s Most Emailed list.
Once every couple of days I would use the special elevator to go hunting. I would take my trusty
scissors down to the library late at night, find a stack of the most recent print editions of the Journal,
and carefully clip out the Most Emailed lists.
After a few weeks, my collection had grown. I had a big stack of news clippings and was ready to
go. I entered the lists in a spreadsheet and began looking for patterns. One day “Dealing with the
Dead Zone: Spouses Too Tired to Talk” and “Disney Gowns Are for Big Girls” were two of the most
e-mailed articles. A few days later “Is an Economist Qualified to Solve Puzzle of Autism?” and
“Why Birdwatchers Now Carry iPods and Laser Pointers” made the list.
Hmm. On the face of it, these articles had few characteristics in common. What did tired spouses
have to do with Disney gowns? And what did Disney have to do with economists studying autism?
The connections were not going to be obvious.
Further, reading one or two articles at a time wasn’t going to cut it. To get a handle on things I
needed to work faster and more efficiently.
Luckily my colleague Katherine Milkman suggested a vastly improved method. Rather than pull this
information from the print newspaper by hand, why not automate the process?
With the help of a computer programmer, we created a Web crawler. Like a never tiring reader, the
program automatically scanned The New York Times home page every fifteen minutes, recording what
it saw. Not only the text and title of each article, but also who wrote it and where it was featured
(posted on the main screen or hidden in a trail of links). It also recorded in which section of the
physical paper (health or business, for example) and on what page the article appeared (such as the
front page or the back of the third section).
After six months we had a huge data set—every article published by The New York Times over that
period. Almost seven thousand articles. Everything from world news and sports to health and
technology, as well as which articles made the Most E-Mailed list for those same six months.
Not just what one person shared, but a measure of what all readers, regardless of their age, wealth,
or other demographics, were sharing with others.
Now our analysis could begin.
First, we looked at the general topic of each article. Things like health, sports, education, or
The results showed that education articles were more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list than
sports articles. Health pieces were more viral than political ones.
Nice. But we were more interested in understanding what drives sharing than in simply describing
the attributes of content that was shared. Okay, so sports articles are less viral than dining articles.
But why? It’s like saying people like to share pictures of cats or talk about paintball more than Ping-
Pong. That doesn’t really tell us much about why that is happening or allow us to make predictions
beyond the narrow domains of cat stuff or sports that start with the letter P.
Two reasons people might share things are that they are interesting and that they are useful. As we
discussed in the Social Currency chapter, interesting things are entertaining and reflect positively on
the person who shares them. Similarly, as we’ll discuss in the Practical Value chapter, sharing useful
information helps others and makes the sharer look good in the process.
To test these theories, we hired a small army of research assistants to score New York Times
articles on whether they contained useful information and how interesting they were. Articles about
things like how Google uses search data to track the spread of the flu were scored as highly
interesting, while an article about the change in the cast of a Broadway play was scored as less
interesting. Articles about how to control your credit score were scored as being very useful, while
the obituary of an obscure opera singer was scored as not useful. We fed these scores into a statistical
analysis program that compared them with the Most E-Mailed lists.
As we expected, both characteristics influenced sharing. More interesting articles were 25 percent
more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list. More useful articles were 30 percent more likely to make
These results helped explain why health and education articles were highly shared. Articles about
these topics are often quite useful. Advice on how to live longer and be happier. Tips for getting the
best education for your kids.
But there was still one topic that stood out like a sore thumb: science articles. For the most part,
these articles did not have as much Social Currency or Practical Value as articles from more
mainstream sections. Yet science articles, like Denise Grady’s piece about the cough, made the Most
E-Mailed list more than politics, fashion, or business news. Why?
It turns out that science articles frequently chronicle innovations and discoveries that evoke a
particular emotion in readers. That emotion? Awe.
THE POWER OF AWE
Imagine standing on the very edge of the Grand Canyon. The bloodred gorge stretches as far as you
can see in every direction. The canyon floor drops precipitously below your feet. You feel dizzy and
step back from the edge. Hawks circle through rock crevasses so barren and stripped of vegetation
you could as well be on the moon. You are amazed. You are humbled. You feel elevated. This is awe.
According to psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, awe is the sense of wonder and
amazement that occurs when someone is inspired by great knowledge, beauty, sublimity, or might. It’s
the experience of confronting something greater than yourself. Awe expands one’s frame of reference
and drives self-transcendence. It encompasses admiration and inspiration and can be evoked by
everything from great works of art or music to religious transformations, from breathtaking natural
landscapes to human feats of daring and discovery.
Awe is a complex emotion and frequently involves a sense of surprise, unexpectedness, or mystery.
Indeed, as Albert Einstein himself noted, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the
mysterious. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can
no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”
More than any other emotion, awe described what many readers felt after looking at science pieces
from The New York Times. Take “The Mysterious Cough, Caught on Film.” The photo of the cough
was stunning both as a visual spectacle and as an idea: that something as mundane as a cough could
produce this image and yield secrets capable of solving centuries-old medical mysteries.
We decided to test whether awe drove people to share. Our research assistants went back and
scored the articles based on how much awe they evoked. Articles about a new treatment for AIDS or
a hockey goalie who plays even though he has brain cancer evoked lots of awe. Articles about
holiday shopping bargains evoked little or no awe. We then used statistical analyses to compare these
scores with whether articles were highly shared.
Our intuition was right: awe boosted sharing.
Awe-inspiring articles were 30 percent more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list. Articles
previously judged to have low Social Currency and Practical Value—Grady’s cough piece or an
article suggesting that gorillas may, like humans, grieve when losing loved ones—nevertheless made
the Most E-Mailed list because of the awe they inspired.
Some of the Web’s most viral videos also evoke awe.
The snickering started as soon as the plump, matronly woman walked onto the stage. She looked
more like a lunch lady than a vocalist. First, she was too old to be competing on Britain’s Got
Talent. At forty-seven, she was more than twice the age of many of the other contestants.
But, more important, she looked, well, frumpy. The other competitors were already dressed to be
the next big thing. Sexy, ruggedly handsome, or hip. They wore form-fitting dresses, tailored vests,
and summer scarves. But this woman looked more like an example of what not to wear. Her outfit
looked like a cross between an old set of drapes and a secondhand Easter dress.
And she was nervous. When the judges started asking her questions she got stuck and stumbled on
her words. “What’s the dream?” they inquired. When she replied that she wanted to be a professional
singer you could just see the thoughts going through their heads. That’s rich! You? A professional
singer? The cameras zoomed in on members of the audience laughing and rolling their eyes. Even the
judges smirked. They clearly wanted her to get off the stage as soon as possible. All signs pointed to
her giving a terrible performance and being booted from the show, pronto.
But just as it seemed that it couldn’t get any worse, she started singing.
And time stopped.
It was breathtaking.
As the opening chords from “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables wafted over the speakers,
Susan Boyle’s exquisite voice shone through like a beacon. So powerful, so beautiful that it makes the
hair on the back of your neck stand up. The judges were awed, the audience screamed, and everyone
broke out into wild applause. Some started tearing up as they listened. The performance left people
Susan Boyle’s first appearance on Britain’s Got Talent is one of the most viral videos ever. In just
nine short days, the clip accumulated more than 100 million views.
It’s hard to watch this video and not be awed by her strength and heart. It’s not only moving, it’s
awe-inspiring. And that emotion drove people to pass it on.
DOES ANY EMOTION BOOST SHARING?
Our initial New York Times findings brought up other questions. What about awe makes people share?
Might other emotions have the same effect?
There are reasons to believe that experiencing any sort of emotion might encourage people to
share. Talking to others often makes emotional experiences better. If we get promoted, telling others
helps us celebrate. If we get fired, telling others helps us vent.
Sharing emotions also helps us connect. Say I watch a really awe-inspiring video, like Susan
Boyle’s performance. If I share that video with a friend, he’s likely to feel similarly inspired. And the
fact that we both feel the same way helps deepen our social connection. It highlights our similarities
and reminds us how much we have in common. Emotion sharing is thus a bit like social glue,
maintaining and strengthening relationships. Even if we’re not in the same place, the fact that we both
feel the same way bonds us together.
But these benefits of sharing emotion don’t just arise from awe alone. They happen for all sorts of
If you send a coworker a joke that cracks both of you up, it underscores your connection. If you
send your cousin an op-ed piece that makes you both angry, it strengthens the fact that you share the
So would any type of emotional content be more likely to be shared?
To answer this, we picked another emotion, sadness, and dove back into the data. We asked our
research assistants to score each article based on how much sadness it evoked. Articles about things
like someone paying tribute to his deceased grandmother were scored as evoking a good deal of
sadness, while articles about things like a winning golfer were scored as low sadness. If any emotion
boosted sharing, then sadness—like awe—should also increase sharing.
But it didn’t. In fact, sadness had the opposite effect. Sadder articles were actually 16 percent less
likely to make the Most E-Mailed list. Something about sadness was making people less likely to
The most obvious difference between different emotions is their pleasantness or positivity. Awe is
relatively pleasant, while sadness is unpleasant. Might positive emotions increase sharing, but
negative emotions decrease it?
People have long speculated about how positive and negative emotions influence what people talk
about and share. Conventional wisdom suggests that negative content should be more viral. Consider
the old news adage “If it bleeds, it leads.” This phrase is based on the notion that bad news generates
more attention and interest than good news. That’s why the nightly news always starts with something
like: “The hidden health hazard that’s lurking in your basement. Find out more, next, on the six
o’clock news.” Editors and producers believe that negative stories will help draw, and keep,
That said, you could also make a case for the opposite: that people prefer sharing good news. After
all, don’t most of us want to make others feel happy or positive rather than anxious or sad? Similarly,
as we discussed in the chapter on Social Currency, whether people share something often depends on
how it makes them look to others. Positive things may be shared more because they reflect positively
on the person doing the sharing. After all, no one wants to be Debbie Downer, always sharing things
that are sad and gloomy.
So which is it? Is positive information more likely to be shared than negative, or vice versa?
We went back to our database and measured the positivity of each article. This time we used a
textual analysis program developed by psychologist Jamie Pennebaker. The program quantifies the
amount of positivity and negativity in a passage of text by counting the number of times hundreds of
different emotional words appear. The sentence “I loved the card; that was so nice of her,” for
example, is relatively positive because it contains positive words like “love” and “nice.” The
sentence “That was so nasty of her; it really hurt my feelings,” on the other hand, is relatively negative
because of negative words like “hurt” and “nasty.” We scored each article based on its positivity or
negativity and then examined how that related to whether it made the Most E-Mailed list.
The answer was definitive: positive articles were more likely to be highly shared than negative
ones. Stories about things like newcomers falling in love with New York City were, on average, 13
percent more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list than pieces that detailed things like the death of a
Finally we were feeling confident that we understood how emotion shapes transmission. It seemed
like people share positive things and avoid sharing negative ones.
But just to be sure that we were correct that negative emotions decrease sharing, we gave our
research assistants one final task. We asked them to score each article on two other major negative
emotions: anger and anxiety.
Articles about things like Wall Street fat cats getting hefty bonuses during the economic downturn
induced lots of anger, while articles about topics like summer T-shirts evoked no anger at all.
Articles about things like the stock market tanking made people pretty anxious, while articles about
things like Emmy Award nominees evoked no anxiety. If it were true that people share positive
content and avoid sharing negative content, then anger and anxiety should, like sadness, reduce
But this wasn’t the case. In fact, it was the opposite. Articles that evoked anger or anxiety were
more likely to make the Most E-Mailed list.
Now we were really confused. Clearly, something more complicated than whether an article was
positive or negative determined how widely things were shared. But what?
KINDLING THE FIRE: THE SCIENCE OF PHYSIOLOGICAL AROUSAL
The idea that emotions can be categorized as positive or pleasant and negative or unpleasant has been
around for hundreds if not thousands of years. Even a child can tell you that happiness or excitement
feels good and anxiety or sadness feels bad.
More recently, however, psychologists have argued that emotions can also be classified based on a
second dimension. That of activation, or physiological arousal.
What is physiological arousal? Think about the last time you gave a speech in front of a large
audience. Or when your team was on the verge of winning a huge game. Your pulse raced, your palms
sweated, and you could feel your heart pounding in your chest. You may have had similar feelings the
last time you saw a scary movie or went camping and heard a weird noise outside your tent. Though
your head kept saying you weren’t really in danger, your body was convinced otherwise. Every sense
was heightened. Your muscles were tensed and you were alert to every sound, smell, and movement.
This is arousal.
Arousal is a state of activation and readiness for action. The heart beats faster and blood pressure
rises. Evolutionarily, it comes from our ancestors’ reptilian brains. Physiological arousal motivates a
fight-or-flight response that helps organisms catch food or flee from predators.
We no longer have to chase our dinner or worry about being eaten, but the activation arousal
provides still facilitates a host of everyday actions. When aroused we do things. We wring our hands
and pace back and forth. We pump our fists in the air and run around the living room. Arousal kindles
Some emotions, like anger and anxiety, are high-arousal. When we’re angry we yell at customer
service representatives. When we’re anxious we check and recheck things. Positive emotions also
generate arousal. Take excitement. When we feel excited we want to do something rather than sit still.
The same is true for awe. When inspired by awe we can’t help wanting to tell people what happened.
Other emotions, however, have the opposite effect: they stifle action.
Take sadness. Whether dealing with a tough breakup or the death of a beloved pet, sad people tend
to power down. They put on some cozy clothes, curl up on the couch, and eat a bowl of ice cream.
Contentment also deactivates. When people are content, they relax. Their heart rates slow, and their
blood pressure decreases. They’re happy, but they don’t particularly feel like doing anything. Think
of how you feel after a long hot shower or a relaxing massage. You’re more likely to relax and sit
still than leap into another activity.
Once we realized the important role that emotional arousal might play, we returned to our data. Just
to recap, so far we had found that awe increased sharing and that sadness decreased it. But rather than
finding a simple matter of positive emotions increasing sharing and negative emotions decreasing it,
we found that some negative emotions, like anger or anxiety, actually increased sharing. Would
physiological arousal be the key to the puzzle?
Understanding arousal helps integrate the different results we had found so far. Anger and anxiety
lead people to share because, like awe, they are high-arousal emotions. They kindle the fire, activate
people, and drive them to take action.
Arousal is also one reason funny things get shared. Videos about the aftereffects of a kid having
anesthesia at the dentist (“David After Dentist”), a baby biting his brother’s finger (“Charlie Bit My
Finger—Again!”), or a unicorn going to Candy Mountain and getting his kidney stolen (“Charlie the
Unicorn”) are some of the most popular on YouTube. Taken together they have been viewed more
than 600 million times.
But while it is tempting to say that these things went viral simply because they are funny, a more
fundamental process is at work. Think about the last time you heard a really hilarious joke or were
forwarded a humorous clip and felt compelled to pass it along. Just like inspiring things, or those that
make us angry, funny content is shared because amusement is a high-arousal emotion.
Low-arousal emotions, however, like sadness, decrease sharing. Contentment has the same effect.
Contentment isn’t a bad feeling. Being content feels pretty good. But people are less likely to talk
about or share things that make them content because contentment decreases arousal.
United Airlines learned the hard way that arousal can drive people to share. Dave Carroll was a
pretty good musician. His group, Sons of Maxwell, wasn’t a blockbuster act, but they made enough
money from album sales, touring, and merchandising to pull together a decent living. People weren’t
tattooing Dave’s name on their arms, but he was doing all right.
While traveling to a gig in Nebraska, Dave and his band had to take a connecting flight through
Chicago with United Airlines. It’s hard enough to find overhead space for even a small carry-on, but
musicians have it even tougher. Dave’s group couldn’t fit their guitars in the overhead, so they had to
check them with the rest of their baggage.
But as they were about to deplane at O’Hare Airport, a woman cried out, “My god, they’re
throwing guitars out there!” Dave looked out the window in horror just in time to see the baggage
handlers roughly tossing his treasured instruments through the air.
He jumped up and pleaded with the flight attendant for help, but to no avail. One flight attendant
told him to talk to the lead agent, but that agent said it wasn’t her responsibility. Another employee
gave him the run-around and told him to take up the matter with the gate agent when he landed in his
When Dave landed in Omaha at 12:30 a.m., he found the airport deserted. No employees in sight.
Dave made his way to baggage claim and carefully opened his guitar case. His worst fears were
confirmed. His $3,500 guitar had been smashed.
But that was only the start of Dave’s story. He spent the next nine months negotiating with United
for some kind of compensation. He filed a claim asking United to fix the guitar, but it denied his
request. Among a long list of justifications, United argued that it couldn’t help him because he had
missed the brief twenty-four-hour window for claiming damages described in the small print of his
Furious with the way he’d been treated, Dave channeled his emotions the way any good musician
would: he wrote a song about it. He described his experience, put it to music, and posted it as a short
clip on YouTube entitled “United Breaks Guitars.”
Within twenty-four hours of uploading the video, he’d received almost 500 comments, most of them
from other angry United customers who’d had similar experiences. In less than four days the video
had more than 1.3 million views. Within ten days, more than 3 million views and 14,000 comments.
In December 2009, Time magazine listed “United Breaks Guitars” as one of the Top 10 Viral Videos
United appears to have felt the negative effects almost immediately. Within four days of the video
being posted, its stock price fell 10 percent—the equivalent of $180 million. Although United
eventually donated $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as a “gesture of goodwill,” many
industry observers felt that it suffered permanent damage as a result of the incident.
FOCUS ON FEELINGS
Marketing messages tend to focus on information. Public health officials note how much healthier
teens will be if they don’t smoke or if they eat more vegetables. People think that if they just lay out
the facts in a clear and concise way, it will tip the scales. Their audience will pay attention, weigh
the information, and act accordingly.
But many times information is not enough. Most teens don’t smoke because they think it’s good for
them. And most people who scarf down a Big Mac and large fries and wash it down with a
supersized Coke are not oblivious to the health risks. So additional information probably won’t get
them to change their behavior. They need something more.
And that is where emotion comes in. Rather than harping on features or facts, we need to focus on
feelings; the underlying emotions that motivate people to action.
Some products or ideas may seem better suited than others for evoking emotion. It seems easier to
get people excited about a new, hip lounge than logistics management. Pets and babies seem to lend
themselves to emotional appeals more than banking or nonprofit financial strategy does.
But any product or service can focus on feelings, even those that don’t possess any obvious
Take online search engines. Search engines seem like one of the least emotional products you can
think of. People want the most accurate search results in the least time possible. And underneath those
results is a tangle of confusing technology: link weighting, indexing, and PageRank algorithms. A
difficult product to get people fired up or teary eyed about, right?
Well, Google did exactly that with its “Parisian Love” campaign.
When Anthony Cafaro graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 2009, he wasn’t
expecting to become a Googler. No one from Visual Arts had gone to work for Google before, and the
company was known as a place for techies, not designers. But when Cafaro learned Google was
interviewing graphic-design graduates, he thought he’d give it a shot.
The interview was a blast. By the end, the interviewers seemed less like examiners and more like
old friends. Cafaro turned down a slew of offers from traditional ad agencies to join a newly formed
Google design team called the Creative Lab.
After a few months, though, Anthony realized that the Creative Lab’s approach wasn’t exactly in
line with the company’s overall ethos. Great graphic design is visceral. Like art, it moves people and
evokes their innermost feelings. But Google was about analytics, not emotion.
In a telling story, a designer once suggested using a certain shade of blue for the toolbar based on
its visual appeal. But the product manager resisted using the color, asking the designer to justify that
choice with quantitative research. At Google, colors aren’t just colors, they’re mathematical
The same issues came up in one of Cafaro’s first projects. The Creative Lab was asked to create
content to highlight the functionality of Google’s new search interface. Features like finding flights,
autocorrect, and language translation. One potential solution was a little tutorial on how to search
better. A how-to of the different functions. Another was “A Google a Day,” an online trivia game that
involved using search features to solve complex puzzles.
Cafaro liked both ideas but felt something was missing. Emotion.
Google had a great interface and useful search results, but an interface doesn’t make you laugh. An
interface doesn’t make you cry. A demo would show how the interface worked, but that would be it.
Cafaro wanted to humanize the interface. He wanted not only to show features, but to move people.
Build an emotional connection.
So together with the Creative Lab team, Cafaro developed a video entitled “Parisian Love.” The
clip tells a budding love story, using Google searches that evolve over time. No images of people, or
even voices—just the phrases entered in the search bar and the results that emerge.
It starts when a guy enters “study abroad Paris France” and clicks on one of the top search results
to learn more. Later he searches for “cafés near the Louvre,” and scans to find one he thinks he’ll like.
You hear a female laugh in the background as his next entry is “translate tu es très mignon,” which he
soon learns is French for “you are very cute.” Quickly he then seeks advice on how to “impress a
French girl,” reads up on the suggestions, and searches for chocolate shops in Paris.
The music builds as the plot unfolds. We follow the searcher as he transitions from seeking long-
distance relationship advice to job hunting in Paris. We see him tracking a plane’s landing time and
then searching for Paris churches (to the accompaniment of church bells in the background). Finally,
as the music crescendos, we see him asking how to assemble a crib. The video ends with a simple
message. “Search on.”
You cannot watch this clip without having your heartstrings tugged. It’s romantic, joyous, and
inspiring all at once. I still feel tingles every time I see it, and I’ve watched it dozens of times.
When the Creative Lab presented the clip to the Google Search marketing team, everyone loved it.
Google’s CEO’s wife loved it. Everyone wanted to pass it on. In fact, the clip did so well internally
that Google decided to release it to the larger public. By focusing on feelings, Google turned a normal
ad into a viral hit.
It doesn’t require a costly ad agency or millions of dollars in focus groups to get people to feel
emotion. Cafaro created the clip with four other students who had been brought in from design
programs across the country. Rather than simply highlighting the latest gee-whiz feature, Cafaro’s
team reminded people what they love about Google Search. As one Creative Lab team member put it,
“The best results don’t show up in a search engine, they show up in people’s lives.” Well said.
In their wonderful book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about using the “Three Whys” to
find the emotional core of an idea. Write down why you think people are doing something. Then ask
“Why is this important?” three times. Each time you do this, note your answer, and you’ll notice that
you drill down further and further toward uncovering not only the core of an idea, but the emotion
Take online search. Why is search important? Because people want to find information quickly.
Why do they want to do that? So they can get answers to what they are looking for.
Why do they want those answers? So they can connect with people, achieve their goals, and fulfill
their dreams. Now that’s starting to get more emotional.
Want people to talk about global warming and rally to change it? Don’t just point out how big the
problem is or list key statistics. Figure out how to make them care. Talk about polar bears dying or
how their children’s health will be affected.
KINDLING THE FIRE WITH HIGH-AROUSAL EMOTIONS
When trying to use emotions to drive sharing, remember to pick ones that kindle the fire: select high-
arousal emotions that drive people to action.
On the positive side, excite people or inspire them by showing them how they can make a
difference. On the negative side, make people mad, not sad. Make sure the polar bear story gets them
Simply adding more arousal to a story or ad can have a big impact on people’s willingness to share
it. In one experiment we changed the details of a story to make it evoke more anger. In another
experiment, we made an ad funnier.
In both cases, the results were the same. More anger or more humor led to more sharing. Adding
these emotions boosted transmission by boosting the amount of arousal the story or ad evoked.
Negative emotions can also drive people to talk and share. Marketing messages usually try to paint
products and ideas in the most positive light possible. From razors to refrigerators, ads typically
show smiling customers who extol the benefits they derive from using the product. Marketers tend to
avoid negative emotions out of fear they could taint the brand.
But if used correctly, negative emotions can actually boost word of mouth.
BMW kindled the fire beautifully in a 2001 campaign. The German automobile company created a
series of short Internet films entitled The Hire. Rather than being typical feel-good commercials
showing BMWs driving down various idyllic country roads, the movies were riddled with
kidnappings, FBI raids, and near-death experiences. While the fear and anxiety they evoked were far
from positive, the clips so highly aroused viewers that the series racked up more than 11 million
views within four months. Over the same period, BMW sales increased 12 percent.
Or consider public health messages. It’s often hard to put a positive spin on things when you’re
trying to get people to realize that smoking causes lung cancer, or that obesity reduces life expectancy
by more than three years. But certain types of negative emotional appeals should be more effective in
getting people to spread the word than others.
Think back to the “Man Drinks Fat” public service announcement we talked about in the Triggers
chapter. A huge glob of white fat plopping down on a plate? Gross! But because disgust is a highly
arousing emotion, it encouraged people to talk about and share the PSA. Designing messages that
make people anxious or disgusted (high arousal) rather than sad (low arousal) will boost
transmission. Negative emotions, when used correctly, can be a powerful driver of discussion.
And that brings us to babywearing.
BABYWEARING, BOYCOTTS, AND BLUNTING BAD BUZZ
The year 2008 had many firsts. The first time China hosted the Olympics, the first African American
elected president of the United States, and one that you might not have been aware of. The inaugural
celebration of International Babywearing Week.
The practice of carrying your baby in a sling or similar carrier has been around for thousands of
years. Some experts have even argued that the practice strengthens the maternal bond, improving the
health of the baby and the mother. But as strollers and other gadgets have been popularized, many
parents have moved away from this practice. So in 2008, a celebration was held to raise awareness
and encourage people around the world to reconsider the benefits of babywearing.
McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the maker of painkiller Motrin, saw this swell of interest as a
perfect opportunity. Motrin’s motto at the time was “We feel your pain.” So in an attempt to show
solidarity with mothers, the company created an ad centered on the aches and pains mothers can suffer
from carrying their babies in slings. The ad noted that while babywearing can be great for the baby, it
can put a ton of strain on the back, neck, and shoulders of the mom.
The company was trying to be supportive. It wanted to show that it understood mom’s pain and
Motrin was there to help. But a number of so-called mommy bloggers saw things differently. The
mom’s voice-over in the ad said babywearing “totally makes me look like an official mom. And so if
I look tired and crazy, people will understand why.”
Deeply offended on two fronts—by the implication that they wore their babies as fashion
statements and that they looked crazy—mothers took to their blogs and Twitter accounts. The anger
Soon thousands of people were involved. “A baby will never be a fashion statement. How
outrageous is that thinking!” one cried. The posts multiplied. Many of the writers said they would
boycott the company. The topic started to trend on Twitter, and the movement got picked up by The
New York Times, Ad Age , and a host of other media outlets. Soon seven out of the top ten searches for
“Motrin” and “headache” on Google referred to the marketing debacle.
Finally, after too long a delay, Motrin took the advertisement down from its website and issued a
Technology has made it easier for people to organize behind a common interest or goal. By
allowing people to connect quickly and easily, social media enable like-minded individuals to find
one another, share information, and coordinate plans of action.
These technologies are particularly useful when people either live far apart or are dealing with an
issue that has delicate political or social meaning. Many people point to social media as the catalyst
behind the Arab Spring, the wave of antigovernment protests that broke out across the Arab world,
eventually toppling the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, among others.
Some of these burgeoning social movements are positive. Enabling citizens to rise up against
dictatorships or helping teens facing harassment to realize that life gets better.
But in other cases the comments and movements are negative in nature. False rumors may start to
gain traction. Vicious gossip may circulate and build. Is it possible to predict which flare-ups will
remain isolated comments and which will snowball?
Part of the answer comes back to physiological arousal. Certain types of negativity may be more
likely to escalate because they evoke arousal and are thus more likely to go viral. Angry tirades about
bad customer service, or anxious rumors about how a new health plan may take away benefits, should
be more likely to circulate than expressions of sadness or disappointment.
So teachers and principals should be particularly wary of hurtful rumors that carry an arousing
punch because they are more likely to get passed around. Similarly, Motrin’s maker could have
stemmed the boycott before it started by monitoring online chatter. By looking for words like “pissed
off,” “angry,” or “mad” in people’s posts, tweets, or status updates the company could have
addressed unsatisfied customers before the anger built. Fixing these high-arousal emotions early can
mitigate the negativity before it snowballs.
EXERCISE MAKES PEOPLE SHARE
Our emotional odyssey has one last stop.
At Wharton, we have a behavioral lab where people are paid to do various psychology and
marketing experiments. These tasks often involve clicking boxes in an online survey or circling items
on a sheet of paper.
But when people came in for an experiment of mine one November a few years ago, the
instructions were a bit more unusual.
Half the participants were asked to sit still in their chairs for sixty seconds and relax. Easy enough.
The other half, however, were asked to jog lightly in place for a minute. Regardless of whether
they were wearing sneakers or pumps, jeans or slacks, they were asked to run in place for sixty
seconds in the middle of the laboratory.
Okay. Sure. I guess. Some participants gave us a puzzled look when we made the request, but all
After they were done, they participated in what seemed like a second, unrelated experiment. They
were told the experimenters were interested in what people share with others and were given a recent
article from the school newspaper. Then, after reading it, they were given the option of e-mailing it to
anyone they liked.
In actuality, this “unrelated study” was part of my initial experiment. I wanted to test a simple but
intriguing hypothesis. At this point we knew that emotionally arousing content or experiences would
be more likely to be shared. But I wondered whether the effects of arousal might be even broader than
that. If arousal induces sharing, then might any physiologically arousing experience drive people to
share stories and information with others?
Running in place provided the perfect test. Running doesn’t evoke emotion, but it is just as
physiologically arousing. It gets your heart rate up, increases blood pressure, etc. So if arousal of any
sort boosts sharing, then running in place should lead people to share things with others. Even if the
things people are talking about or sharing have nothing to do with the reason they are experiencing
And it did. Among students who had been instructed to jog, 75 percent shared the article—more
than twice as many as the students who had been in the “relaxed” group. Thus any sort of arousal,
whether from emotional or physical sources, and even arousal due to the situation itself (rather than
content), can boost transmission.
Understanding that arousing situations can drive people to pass things on helps shed light on so-
called oversharing, when people disclose more than they should. Ever been stuck next to someone on
a plane who won’t stop sharing what seem like extremely personal details? Or find yourself in a
conversation where later on you realize that you may have shared way more than you meant to? Why
does this happen?
Sure, we may feel more comfortable with someone than we thought we would or we may have had
one too many margaritas. But there is also a third reason. If situational factors end up making us
physiologically aroused, we may end up sharing more than we planned.
So be careful the next time you step off the treadmill, barely avoid a car accident, or experience a
turbulent plane ride. Because you’ve been aroused by these experiences, you may overshare
information with others in the aftermath.
These ideas also suggest that one way to generate word of mouth is to find people when they are
already fired up. Exciting game shows like Deal or No Deal or anxiety-inducing crime dramas like
CSI are more likely to get people aroused than documentaries about historical figures. These shows
should get more chatter themselves, sure, but the boosted heart rate they induce should also spill over
and make people more likely to talk about the commercials that appear during the break. Ads at the
gym may provoke lots of discussion simply because people are already so amped. Work groups may
benefit from taking walks together because it will encourage people to share their ideas and opinions.
The same idea holds for online content. Certain websites, news articles, or YouTube videos evoke
more arousal than others. Blogs about financial markets, articles about political cronyism, and
hilarious videos are all likely to boost activation, which, in turn, should increase the transmission of
ads or other content that appears on those pages.
Ad timing also matters. Although a show may be generally arousing, a specific scene in that show
may be more activating than others. In crime shows, for example, the anxiety often peaks somewhere
in the middle. When the crime is solved at the end, all tension dissipates. In game shows, excitement
—and therefore arousal—is highest when contestants are about to find out how much they’ve won.
We may end up talking more about ads that show up close to these exciting moments.
Emotions drive people to action. They make us laugh, shout, and cry, and they make us talk, share,
and buy. So rather than quoting statistics or providing information, we need to focus on feelings. As
Anthony Cafaro, the designer who helped develop the “Parisian Love” video at Google, noted:
Whether it’s a digital product, like Google, or a physical product, like sneakers, you should
make something that will move people. People don’t want to feel like they’re being told
something—they want to be entertained, they want to be moved.
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.
Fluid dynamics and online search seem like two of the least moving topics out there. But by
relating these abstract topics to people’s own lives and evoking underlying emotion, Denise Grady
and Anthony Cafaro got us to care, and share.
Ken Segall was Steve Jobs’s right hand man. For twelve years, Ken worked as creative director at
Jobs’s ad agency. He started with Apple’s account in the early 1980s. When Jobs was fired and
started NeXT Computer, Ken moved to be part of the project. And when Jobs returned to Apple in
1997, Ken came along as well. Ken worked on the “Think Different” campaign, was on the team that
developed the “Crazy Ones” ad, and started the iCraze by naming Apple’s bulbous all-in-one egg-
looking desktop the iMac.
During those later years, Ken’s team would sit down with Jobs every two weeks. It was a status
meeting of sorts. Ken’s team would share everything they were working on advertisingwise:
promising ideas, new copy, and potential layouts. Jobs would do the same. He would update Ken’s
team on how Apple was doing, which products were selling, and whether anything new was coming
down the pipeline that they might need a campaign for.
One week, Jobs approached Ken’s team with a conundrum. Jobs was obsessed with the absolute
best possible user experience. He always put the customer first. Customers shelled out all that money;
they should be treated right. So Apple carried this mantra into all aspects of product design. From
opening the box to calling for tech support. Ever notice the slow delay when you first pull the cover
off the box of your new iPhone? That’s because Apple has been hard at work designing that
experience to provide the perfect feeling of luxury and heft.
The conundrum concerned the design of the new PowerBook G4. The laptop was going to be a
marvel of technology and design. Its titanium body was revolutionary—stronger than steel yet lighter
than aluminum. And, at less than one inch thick, it would be one of the thinnest laptops ever.
But Jobs wasn’t concerned about the laptop’s strength or weight. He was concerned about the
direction of the logo.
The cover of PowerBook laptops always had a small apple with a bite taken out of the side.
Consistent with their user focus, Apple wanted the logo to look right to the owner of the computer.
This was particularly important given the frequency with which laptops are opened and closed.
People stuff the laptops in their backpacks or bags only to pull them out later and start working. And
when you pull the laptop out it’s hard to know which way is up. Which side has the latch and so
should face toward you when you set the laptop down on a desk or table?
Jobs wanted this experience to be as fluid as possible, so he used the logo as a compass. It faced
the user when the computer was closed so that the user could easily orient the laptop when he set it
But the problem came when a person opened the laptop. Once the users had found a seat at the
coffee shop and sat down with their macchiato, they would open their computer to start working. And
once they opened the laptop the logo would flip. To everyone around them the logo would be upside
Jobs was a big believer in branding, and seeing all those upside-down logos wasn’t a great feeling.
He was even worried it might be hurting the brand.
So Jobs asked Ken’s team a question. Which is more important—to have the logo look right to the
customers before they opened their PowerBook, or to make it look right to the rest of the world when
the laptop was in use?
As you can see the next time you glance at an Apple laptop, Ken and Jobs reversed their long-held
beliefs and flipped the logo. The reason? Observability. Jobs realized that seeing others do something
makes people more likely to do it themselves.
But the key word here is “seeing.” If it’s hard to see what others are doing, it’s hard to imitate it.
Making something more observable makes it easier to imitate. Thus a key factor in driving products to
catch on is public visibility. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF IMITATION
Imagine you’re in an unfamiliar city. You’re out of town on a business trip or vacationing with a
friend and by the time you finally land, check into the hotel, and take a quick shower you’re famished.
It’s time for dinner.
You want to go somewhere good, but you don’t know the city that well. The concierge is busy and
you don’t want to spend a lot of time reading reviews on the Internet, so you decide to just find a
But when you step out onto the bustling street you’re struck by dozens of options. A cute Thai place
with a purple awning. A hip-looking tapas bar. An Italian bistro. How do you choose?
If you’re like most people you’d probably follow a time-tested rule of thumb: look for a restaurant
full of people. If lots of people are eating there, it’s probably good. If a place is empty, you should
probably keep on walking.
This is just one example of a much broader phenomenon. People often imitate those around them.
They dress in the same styles as their friends, pick entrées preferred by other diners, and reuse hotel
towels more when they think others are doing the same. People are more likely to vote if their spouse
votes, more likely to quit smoking if their friends quit, and more likely to get fat if their friends
become obese. Whether making trivial choices like what brand of coffee to buy or important
decisions like paying their taxes, people tend to conform to what others are doing. Television shows
use canned laugh tracks for this reason: people are more likely to laugh when they hear others
People imitate, in part, because others’ choices provide information. Many decisions we make on a
daily basis are like choosing a restaurant in a foreign city, albeit with a little more information.
Which one is the salad fork again? What’s a good book to take on vacation? We don’t know the right
answer, and even if we have some sense of what to do, we’re not entirely sure.
So to help resolve our uncertainty, we often look to what other people are doing and follow that.
We assume that if other people are doing something, it must be a good idea. They probably know
something we don’t. If our tablemates seem to be using the smaller fork to pick at the arugula, we do
the same. If lots of people seem to be reading that new John Grisham thriller, we buy it for our
Psychologists call this idea “social proof.” This is why baristas and bartenders seed the tip jar at
the beginning of their shift by dropping in a handful of ones and maybe a five. If the tip jar is empty,
their customers may assume that other people aren’t really tipping and decide not to tip much
themselves either. But if the tip jar is already brimming with money, they assume that everyone must
be tipping, and thus they should tip as well.
Social proof even plays a role in matters of life and death.
Imagine one of your kidneys fails. Your body relies on this organ to filter the toxins and waste
products from your blood, but when it stops working, your whole body suffers. Sodium builds up,
your bones weaken, and you’re at risk of developing anemia or heart disease. If not treated quickly,
you will die.
More than 40,000 people in the United States come down with end-stage renal disease every year.
Their kidneys fail for one reason or another and they have two options: either go through time-
consuming back-and-forth visits to a treatment center three times a week for five-hour dialysis
treatments, or get a kidney transplant.
But there are not enough kidneys available for transplant. Currently more than 100,000 patients are
on the wait list; more than 4,000 new patients are added each month. Not surprisingly, people on the
wait list for a kidney are eager to get one.
Imagine you are on that list. It is managed on a first-come, first-served basis, and available kidneys
are offered first to people at the top of the list, who usually have been waiting the longest. You
yourself have been waiting for months for an available kidney. You’re fairly low on the list, but
finally one day you’re offered a potential match. You’d take it, right?
Clearly, people who need a kidney to save their lives should take one when offered. But
surprisingly, 97.1 percent of kidney offers are refused.
Now, many of those refusals are based on the kidney not being a good match. In this respect, getting
an organ transplant is a bit like getting your car repaired. You can’t put a Honda carburetor in a
BMW. Same with a kidney. If the tissue or blood type doesn’t match yours, the organ won’t work.
But when she looked at hundreds of kidney donations, MIT professor Juanjuan Zhang found that
social proof also leads people to turn down available kidneys. Say you are the one hundredth person
on the list. A kidney would have first been offered to the first person on the list, then the second, and
so on. So to finally reach you, it must have been turned down by ninety-nine other people. This is
where social proof comes into play. If so many others have refused this kidney, people assume it must
not be very good. They infer it is low quality and are more likely to turn it down. In fact, such
inferences lead one in every ten people who refuse a kidney to do so in error. Thousands of patients
turn down kidneys they should have accepted. Even though people can’t communicate directly with
others on the list, they make their decisions based on others’ behavior.
Similar phenomena play out all the time.
In New York City, Halal Chicken and Gyro offers delicious platters of chicken and lamb, lightly
seasoned rice, and pita bread. New York magazine ranked it as one of the top twenty food carts in the
city, and people wait up to an hour to get one of Halal’s tasty but inexpensive meals. Go during
certain times of day and the line will stretch all the way down the block.
Now I know what you are thinking. People must wait that long because the food is really good. And
you’re partially right: the food is quite good.
But the same owners operate an almost identical food cart called Halal Guys right across the street.
Same food, same packaging, basically an identical product. But there is no line. In fact, Halal Guys
has never developed the same devout following as its sibling. Why?
Social proof. People assume that the longer the line, the better the food must be.
This herd mentality even affects the type of careers people consider. Every year I ask my second-
year MBA students to do a short exercise. Half the students are asked what they thought they wanted
to do with their life right when they started the MBA program. The other half are asked what they
want to do now. Neither group gets to see the question the other was asked and responses are
The results are striking. Before they start the MBA program, students have a broad range of
ambitions. One wanted to reform the health care system, another wanted to build a new travel
website, and a third wanted to get involved in the entertainment industry. Someone wanted to run for
political office and another student thought about becoming an entrepreneur. A handful say they want
to go into investment banking or consulting. Overall, they possess a diverse set of interests, goals, and
The responses from students when asked what they want to do a year into the program are much
more homogeneous and concentrated. More than two-thirds say they want to get into investment
banking or consulting, with a small sprinkling of other careers.
The convergence is remarkable. Sure, people may learn about different opportunities during the
MBA program, but part of this herding is driven by social influence. People aren’t sure what career
to choose, so they look to others. And it snowballs. While less than 20 percent of people might have
been interested in investment banking and consulting going into the program, that number is larger than
any other career. A few people see that 20 percent and switch. A few more see those people switch,
and they follow along. Soon the number is 30 percent. Which makes other people even more likely to
switch. Soon that 20 percent has become much larger. So through social influence this initially small
advantage gets magnified. Social interaction led students who originally preferred different paths to
go in the same direction.
Social influence has a big effect on behavior, but to understand how to use it to help products and
ideas catch on, we need to understand when its effects are strongest. And that brings us to Koreen
THE POWER OF OBSERVABILITY
Koreen Johannessen started at the University of Arizona as a clinical social worker. Originally, she
was hired by the mental health group to help students deal with problems like depression and drug
abuse. But after years of treating students, Johannessen realized that she was working on the wrong
end of the problem. Sure, she could try to fix the ongoing issues that afflicted students, but it would be
much better to prevent them before they started. So Johannessen moved over to the campus health
group and took over health education, eventually becoming the director of health promotion and
As at most universities in the United States, one of the biggest issues at Arizona was alcohol abuse.
More than three-quarters of American college students under the legal drinking age report drinking
alcohol. But the bigger concern was the quantity that students consume. Forty-four percent of students
binge-drink, and more than 1,800 U.S. college students die every year from alcohol-related injuries.
Another 600,000 are injured while under the influence of alcohol. It’s a huge issue.
Johannessen addressed the problem head-on. She papered the campus with flyers detailing the
negative consequences of bingeing. She placed ads in the school paper with information about how
alcohol affects cognitive functioning and performance in school. She even set up a coffin at the
student center with statistics about the number of alcohol-related deaths. But none of these initiatives
seemed to put much of a dent in the problem. Simply educating students about the risks of alcohol
didn’t seem to be enough.
So Johannessen tried asking the students how they felt about drinking.
Surprisingly, she found that most students said they were not comfortable with the drinking habits
of their peers. Sure, they might enjoy a casual drink once in a while, just like most adults. But they
weren’t into the heavy binge drinking they saw among other students. They spoke distastefully about
the times they nursed a hungover roommate or held someone’s hair while she threw up in the toilet.
So while their peers seemed fine with the drinking culture, they weren’t.
Johannessen was pleased. The fact that most students were against binge drinking seemed to bode
well for eliminating the drinking problem—until she thought about it closely.
If most students were uncomfortable with the drinking culture, then why was it happening in the
first place? Why were students drinking so much if they don’t actually like it?
Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.
Put yourself in a college student’s situation. When you look around, you’d see a lot of drinking.
You’d see tailgates at the football games, keg parties at the frat house, and open bars at the sorority
formal. You’d witness your peers drinking and seeming happy about it, so you’d assume that you are
the outlier and that everyone else likes drinking more than you do. So you’d have another drink.
But what students don’t realize is that everyone is having similar thoughts. Their peers are having
the same experience. They see others drinking, so they drink, too. And the cycle continues because
people can’t read one another’s thoughts. If they could, they’d realize that everyone felt the same way.
And they wouldn’t feel all this social proof compelling them to drink as much.
For a more familiar example, think about the last time you sat through a bewildering PowerPoint
presentation. Something about equity diversification or supply chain reorganization. At the end of the
talk, the speaker probably asked the audience if anyone had any questions.
But not because everyone else understood the presentation. The others were probably just as
bewildered as you were. But while they would have liked to raise their hands, they didn’t because
each one is worried that he or she is the only person who didn’t understand. Why? Because no one
else was asking questions. No one saw any public signal that others were confused so everyone keeps
his doubts to him- or herself. Because behavior is public and thoughts are private.
The famous phrase “Monkey see, monkey do” captures more than just the human penchant for
imitation. People can imitate only when they can see what others are doing. College students may
personally be against binge drinking, but they binge because that is what they observe others doing. A
restaurant might be extremely popular, but if it’s hard to see inside (e.g., the front windows are
frosted), there is no way passersby can use that information to inform their own choices.
Observability has a huge impact on whether products and ideas catch on. Say a clothing company
introduces a new shirt style. If you see someone wearing it and decide you like it, you can go buy the
same shirt, or something similar. But this is much less likely to happen with socks.
Because shirts are public and socks are private. They’re harder to see.
The same goes for toothpaste versus cars. You probably don’t know what kind of toothpaste your
neighbors use. It’s hidden inside their house, inside their bathroom, inside a cabinet. You’re more
likely to know what car they drive. And because car preferences are easier to observe, it’s much
more likely that your neighbors’ purchase behavior can influence yours.
My colleagues Blake McShane, Eric Bradlow, and I tested this idea using data on 1.5 million car
sales. Would a neighbor buying a new car be enough to get you to buy a new one?
Sure enough, we found a pretty impressive effect. People who lived in, say, Denver, were more
likely to buy a new car if other Denverites had bought new cars recently. And the effect was pretty
big. Approximately one out of every eight cars sold was because of social influence.
Even more impressive was the role of observability in these effects. Cities vary in how easy it is to
see what other people are driving. People in Los Angeles tend to commute by car, so they are more
likely to see what others are driving than New Yorkers, who commute by subway. In sunny places
like Miami, you can more easily see what the person next to you is driving than in rainy cities like
Seattle. By affecting observability, these conditions also determined the effect of social influence on
auto purchases. People were more influenced by others’ purchases in places like Los Angeles and
Miami, where it is easier to see what others were driving. Social influence was stronger when
behavior was more observable.
Observable things are also more likely to be discussed. Ever walked into someone’s office or
home and inquired about a weird paperweight on the desk or a colorful art print on the living room
wall? Imagine if those items were locked in a safe or tucked away in the basement. Would they get
talked about as much? Probably not. Public visibility boosts word of mouth. The easier something is
to see, the more people talk about it.
Observability also spurs purchase and action. As we discussed in the Triggers chapter, cues in the
environment not only boost word of mouth but also remind people about things they already wanted to
buy or do. You may have meant to eat healthier or visit that new website your friend mentioned, but
without a visible trigger to jog your memory, you’re more likely to forget. The more public a product
or service is, the more it triggers people to take action.
So how can products or ideas be made more publicly observable?
MAKING THE PRIVATE PUBLIC . . . WITH MOUSTACHES
Every fall I teach about sixty MBA students at the Wharton School, and by the end of October I’ve
gotten some sense of most of the students in the class. I know who is going to be five minutes late
every day, who will be the first to raise a hand, and who will be dressed like a prima donna.
So I was a bit surprised a few years ago when I walked into class in early November to see what
I’d thought was a pretty buttoned-down guy sporting a big moustache. It wasn’t simply that he had
forgotten to shave; he had a full handlebar with ends almost ready to curl up on the sides. He looked
like a cross between Rollie Fingers and a villain in an old black-and-white movie.
At first I thought he must be trying a facial hair experiment. But then when I looked around the room
I noticed two other new moustache devotees. A trend seemed to be catching on. What precipitated the
sudden outburst of moustaches?
Every year, cancer claims the lives of more than 4.2 million men worldwide. More than 6 million
new cases are diagnosed each year. Thanks to generous donations, great headway has been made in
research and treatment. But how can organizations that work to fight this disease leverage social
influence to increase donations?
Unfortunately, as with many causes, whether you support a particular cancer fund is typically a
private matter. If you’re like most people, you probably have little idea which of your neighbors,
coworkers, or even friends have donated to help fight this disease. So there is no way for their
behavior to influence yours or vice versa.
And that is where the moustaches come in.
It all started one Sunday afternoon in 2003. A group of friends from Melbourne, Australia, were
sitting around drinking beers. The conversation meandered in various directions and finally ended up
on 1970s and 80s fashion. “What ever happened to the moustache?” one guy asked. A few beers more
and they came up with a challenge: to see who could grow the best moustache. The word spread to
their other friends, and eventually they had a small group of thirty people. All grew moustaches for
the thirty days of November.
Everyone had so much fun that the next November they decided to do it again. But this time they
decided to put a cause behind their efforts. Inspired by the work being done with breast cancer
awareness, they wanted to do something similar for men’s health. So they formed the Movember
Foundation and adopted the tagline “Changing the face of men’s health.” That year 450 guys raised
$54,000 for the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia.
It grew from there. Next year there were more than 9,000 participants. The following year, more
than 50,000. Soon the annual event started spreading around the world. In 2007, events were launched
everywhere from Ireland and Denmark to South Africa and Taiwan. The organization has since raised
more than $174 million worldwide. Not bad for a few tufts of facial hair.
Now, every November, men pledge to raise awareness and money by growing moustaches. The
rules are simple. Start the first of the month with a clean-shaven face. For the rest of the month, grow
and groom a moustache. Oh—and along the way, conduct yourself like a true country gentleman.
The Movember Foundation succeeded because they figured out how to make the private public.
They figured out how to take support for an abstract cause—something not typically observable—and
make it something that everyone can see. For the thirty days of November people who sport a
moustache effectively become walking, talking billboards for the cause. As noted on Movember’s
Through their actions and words they [participants] raise awareness by prompting private
and public conversations around the often-ignored issue of men’s health.
And start conversation it does. Seeing someone you know suddenly sprout a moustache generates
discussion. People usually gossip a bit among themselves until someone gets up the courage to ask the
wearer what prompted the new facial hair. And when he explains, he shares the social currency and
generates new devotees. Each year I see more and more of my students sporting moustaches come
November. Making the cause public helped it catch on more quickly than it ever could have
Most products, ideas, and behaviors are consumed privately. What websites do your coworkers
like? Which ballot initiatives do your neighbors support? Unless they tell you, you may never know.
And though that might not matter to you personally, it matters a lot for the success of organizations,
businesses, and ideas. If people can’t see what others are choosing and doing, they can’t imitate them.
And, like the binge-drinking college students, people might change their behavior for the worse
because they feel their views aren’t supported.*
Solving this problem requires making the private public. Generating public signals for private
choices, actions, and opinions. Taking what was once an unobservable thought or behavior and
transforming it into a more observable one.
Koreen Johannessen was able to reduce Arizona students’ drinking by making the private public.
She created ads in the school newspaper that merely stated the true norm. That most students had only
one or two drinks, and 69 percent have four or fewer drinks, when they party. She didn’t focus on the
health consequences of drinking, she focused on social information. By showing students that the
majority of their peers weren’t bingeing, she helped them realize that others felt the same way. That
most students didn’t want to binge. This corrected the false inferences students had made about
others’ behavior and led them to reduce their own drinking as a result. By making the private public,
Johannessen was able to decrease heavy drinking by almost 30 percent.
ADVERTISING ITSELF: SHARING HOTMAIL WITH THE WORLD
One way to make things more public is to design ideas that advertise themselves.
On July 4, 1996, Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith introduced a new e-mail service called Hotmail. At
the time, most people got their e-mail through Internet service providers like AOL. You’d pay a
monthly fee, dial up from home using a phone line, and access your messages through the AOL
interface. It was restricting. You could connect only from the place where you had the service
installed. You were chained to one computer.
But Hotmail was different. It was one of the first Web-based e-mail services, which allowed
people to access their inbox from any computer anywhere in the world. All they needed was an
Internet connection and a Web browser. Independence Day was chosen for the announcement to
symbolize how the service freed people from being locked into their current provider.
Hotmail was a great product, and it also scored well on a number of the word-of-mouth drivers
we’ve talked about so far. At the time, it was quite remarkable to be able to access e-mail from
anywhere. So early adopters liked talking about it because it gave them Social Currency. The product
also offered users significant benefits over other e-mail services (for starters, it was free!), so many
people shared it for its Practical Value.
But the creators of Hotmail did more than just create a great product. They also cleverly leveraged
observability to help their product catch on.
Every e-mail sent from a Hotmail account was like a short plug for the growing brand. At the
bottom was a message and link that simply said “Get Your Private, Free E-mail from Hotmail at
www.hotmail.com.” Every time current Hotmail customers sent an e-mail, they also sent prospective
customers a bit of social proof—an implicit endorsement for this previously unknown service.
And it worked. In a little over a year Hotmail signed up more than 8.5 million subscribers. Soon
after, Microsoft bought the burgeoning service for $400 million. Since then more than 350 million
users have signed up.
Apple and BlackBerry have adopted the same strategy. The signature lines at the bottom of their e-
mails often say “Sent using BlackBerry” or “Sent from my iPhone.” Users can easily change this
default message to something else (one of my colleagues changed his signature to say “Sent by Carrier
Pigeon”), but most people don’t, in part because they like the Social Currency the notes provide. And
by leaving these notes on their e-mail, people also help spread awareness about the brand and
influence others to try it.
All these examples involve products that advertise themselves. Every time people use the product
or service they also transmit social proof or passive approval because usage is observable.
Many companies apply this idea through prominent branding. Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike, and
Burberry all garnish their products with brand names or distinctive logos and patterns. For Sale signs
broadcast which Realtor the seller is working with.
Following the notion that more is better, some companies have increased the size of their logos.
Ralph Lauren has always been known for its characteristic polo player, but its Big Pony shirts made
this famous emblem sixteen times larger. Not to be outdone in the escalation for logo supremacy,
Lacoste made a similar move. The alligator on its Oversized Croc polo shirt is so large it looks as if
it will bite the arm off of any person wearing it.
But large logos aren’t the only way products can advertise themselves. Take Apple’s decision to
make iPod headphones white. When Apple first introduced the iPod, there was lots of competition in
the digital music player space. Diamond Multimedia, Creative, Compaq, and Archos all offered
players, and music on one company’s device couldn’t easily be transferred to another. Further, it
wasn’t clear which, if any, of these competing standards would stick around, and whether it was
worth switching from a portable CD player or Walkman to buy this new, expensive device.
But because most devices came with black headphones, Apple’s white headphone cords stood out.
By advertising themselves, the headphones made it easy to see how many other people were
switching away from the traditional Walkman and adopting the iPod. This was visible social proof
that suggested the iPod was a good product and made potential adopters feel more comfortable about
purchasing it as well.
Shapes, sounds, and a host of other distinctive characteristics can also help products advertise
themselves. Pringles come in a unique tube. Computers using the Microsoft operating system make a
distinctive sound when they boot up. In 1992, French footwear designer Christian Louboutin felt his
shoes lacked energy. Looking around, he noticed the striking red Chanel nail polish an employee was
wearing. That’s it! he thought, and applied the polish to his shoes’ soles. Now Louboutin shoes
always come with red-lacquered soles, making them instantly recognizable. They’re distinctive and
easy to see, even for people who know little about the brand.
Similar ideas can be applied to a host of products and services. Tailors give away suit bags
imprinted with the tailor’s name. Nightclubs use sparklers to broadcast when someone pays to get
bottle service. Tickets usually sit in people’s pockets, but if theater companies and minor league
teams could use buttons or stickers as the “ticket” instead, “tickets” would be much more publicly
Designing products that advertise themselves is a particularly powerful strategy for small
companies or organizations that don’t have a lot of resources. Even when there is no money to buy
television ads or a spot in the local paper, existing customers can act as advertisements if the product
advertises itself. It’s like advertising without an advertising budget.
A product, idea, or behavior advertises itself when people consume it. When people wear certain
clothes, attend a rally, or use a website, they make it more likely that their friends, coworkers, and
neighbors will see what they are doing and imitate it.
If a company or organization is lucky, people consume its product or service often. But what about
the rest of the time? When consumers are wearing other clothes, supporting a different cause, or doing
something else entirely? Is there something that generates social proof that sticks around even when
the product is not being used or the idea is not top of mind?
Yes. And it’s called behavioral residue.
LIVESTRONG WRISTBANDS AS BEHAVIORAL RESIDUE
Scott MacEachern had a tough decision to make. In 2003, Lance Armstrong was a hot commodity. As
his sponsor at Nike, MacEachern was trying to figure out the best way to harness all the attention
Lance was getting.
Lance had a powerful story. Diagnosed with life-threatening testicular cancer seven years earlier,
Lance had been given only a 40 percent chance of survival. But he surprised everyone not only by
returning to cycling, but by coming back stronger than ever. Since his return, he had won the Tour de
France an astounding five times in a row and inspired millions of people along the way. From fifteen-
year-olds dealing with cancer to college students trying to stay in shape, Lance helped people to
believe. If he could come back from cancer, they could overcome the challenges in their own lives.
(Note that in the decade since 2003, it has become apparent that Armstrong may have achieved his
success through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But given the powerful success of
Livestrong wristbands, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation more generally, it is worth considering
how they became popular, outside of whether Armstrong’s personal story is tainted or not.)
MacEachern wanted to capitalize on this enthusiasm. Lance had transcended sports. He had
become not only a hero, but a cultural icon. MacEachern wanted to recognize Lance’s achievements
and celebrate his upcoming attempt at a record sixth Tour de France victory. He also wanted to use
the outpouring of interest and support to raise funds and awareness for the Lance Armstrong
MacEachern developed two potential ideas.
The first idea was a bike ride across America. People would set a mileage goal for themselves and
get friends or family members to sponsor their ride. It would get more people to exercise, boost
interest in cycling, and raise money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Lance might even do part of
the trip. The event would take weeks and likely garner significant media coverage both nationally and
locally in all the cities the ride covered.
The second idea was a wristband. Nike had recently begun selling Baller Bands, silicone rubber
bands with inspirational messages like “TEAM” or “RESPECT” on the inside. Basketball players
wore them to stay focused and increase motivation. Why not make a wristband focused on
Armstrong? Nike could make 5 million of the bands, sell them for a dollar each, and give all the
proceeds to the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
MacEachern liked the wristband idea, but when he pitched it to Lance’s advisors they weren’t
convinced. The foundation thought the bands would be a dud. Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s agent,
thought they had no chance of success and called them “a stupid idea.” Even Armstrong was
incredulous, saying, “What are we going to do with the 4.9 million that we don’t sell?”
MacEachern was stuck. While he liked the wristband idea, he wasn’t sure it would fly. But then he
made one seemingly innocuous decision that had a big impact on the product’s success. MacEachern
made the wristbands yellow.
Yellow was chosen because it is the color of the race leader’s jersey in the Tour de France. It’s
also not strongly associated with either gender, making it easy for both men and women to wear.
But it was also a smart decision from an observability perspective. Yellow is a color people
almost never see.
And it is striking. Yellow stands out against almost anything people wear, making it easy to see a
Livestrong wristband from far away.
This public visibility helped make the product a huge success. Not only did Nike sell the first 5
million bands, but it did so within the first six months of release. Production couldn’t keep up with
demand. The wristbands were such a hot item that people started bidding ten times the retail price to
snag them on eBay. In the end, more than 85 million wristbands were sold. You might even know
someone who wears one to this day. Not bad for a little piece of plastic.
It’s hard to know how well the ride across America would have done if Nike had implemented it.
And it’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback a successful strategy and say it was obviously the
better choice. But regardless, one thing is clear: the wristband creates more behavioral residue than
the cross-country ride ever could have. As MacEachern keenly noted:
The nice thing about a wristband is that it lives on. The bike ride doesn’t. There’ll be pictures
of the bike ride and people will talk about the bike ride, but unless it goes on every year—
even if it does go on every year, it doesn’t live on as a reminder every day of this sort of stuff.
But the wristband does.
Behavioral residue is the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their
wake. Mystery lovers have shelves full of mystery novels. Politicos frame photos of themselves
shaking hands with famous politicians. Runners have trophies, T-shirts, or medals from participating
As discussed in the chapter on Social Currency, items like the Livestrong wristband provide
insight into who people are and what they like. Even things that would otherwise be difficult to
observe, like whether a person donates to a particular cause or prefers mysteries to historical fiction.
But when publicly visible, these remnants facilitate imitation and provide chances for people to
talk about related products or ideas.
Take voting. It’s hard to get people to turn out to vote. They have to figure out where their polling
stations are located, take the morning off from work, and stand in line, sometimes for hours, until they
get the chance to cast their ballots. But these hurdles are compounded by the fact that voting is a
private act. Unless you actually happen to see all the people who go to the polls, you have no idea
how many other people decided voting was worth the effort. So there is not much social proof.
But in the 1980s election officials came up with a nice way to make voting more observable: the “I
Voted” sticker. Simple enough, but by creating behavioral residue, the sticker made the private act of
voting much more public, even after people left the polling station. It provided a ready reminder that
today is the day to vote, others are doing it, and you should too.
Behavioral residue exists for all types of products and ideas. Tiffany, Victoria’s Secret, and a host
of other retailers give customers disposable shopping bags to carry their purchases home. But
because of the Social Currency associated with some of these retailers, many consumers reuse the
bags rather than tossing them. They use the Victoria’s Secret bags to carry their gym clothes, toss their
lunch into a Tiffany bag, or use Bloomingdale’s famous medium brown bag to carry papers around
town. People even reuse bags from restaurants, discount stores, and other places that are not status
Clothing retailer Lululemon takes this idea one step further. Rather than make paper bags that are
relatively durable, it makes shopping bags that are hard to throw away. Made of sturdy plastic like
reusable grocery bags, these bags are clearly meant to be reused. So people use them to carry
groceries or do other errands. But along the way this behavioral residue helps provide social proof
for the brand.
Giveaways can also provide behavioral residue. Go to any conference, job fair, or large meeting
where presenters have set up booths and you’ll be stunned by the amount of swag they give away.
Mugs, pens, and T-shirts. Beverage cozies, stress balls, and ice scrapers. A couple of years ago the
Wharton School even gave me a tie.
But some of these giveaways provide better behavioral residue than others. Giving away a makeup
carrying case is fine, but women usually apply makeup in the privacy of their bathrooms, so it doesn’t
make the brand that observable. Coffee mugs and gym bags might be used less frequently, but their use
is more publicly visible.
People posting their opinions and behavior online also provide behavioral residue. Reviews,
blogs, posts, or other sorts of content all leave evidence that others can find later. For this reason,
many businesses and organizations encourage people to Like them—or their content—on Facebook.
By simply clicking the Like button, people not only show their affinity with a product, idea, or
organization, they also help spread the word that something is good or worth paying attention to. ABC
News found that installing these buttons boosted its Facebook traffic by 250 percent.
Other sites push, or automatically post, what people do to their social networking pages. Music has
always been a somewhat social activity, but Spotify takes this a step further. The system allows you
to listen to whatever songs you like but also posts what you’re listening to on your Facebook page,
making it easier for your friends to see what you like (and letting them know about Spotify). Many
other websites do the same.
But should we always try to make things public? Are there ever instances when making something
public could be a bad idea?
A sprightly, dark-haired teenager walks down the stairs of her apartment building. She’s wearing a
pretty silver necklace and carrying a sweater in her hand. She could be on her way to work or to meet
up with a friend for coffee. Suddenly a neighbor’s door opens and a voice whispers, “I got some good
pot for you.”
“No!” She scowls and hurries down the stairs.
A fresh-faced kid is sitting outside. He is wearing a blue sweatshirt and sports a bowl haircut that
used to be popular among boys. He appears deeply engrossed in a video game when a voice
interrupts him. “Cocaine?” the voice asks. “No thanks,” the kid replies.
A young man is standing against a wall chewing gum. “Yo, my man, want some ’ludes?” the voice
inquires. “No way!” the man exclaims, glaring back.
“Just Say No” is one of the most famous anti-drug campaigns of all time. Created by First Lady
Nancy Reagan during her husband’s presidency, the campaign ran public service announcements as
part of a national effort to discourage teens from recreational drug use in the 1980s and 1990s.
The logic was simple. One way or another, kids are going to be asked if they want to use drugs.
Whether by a friend, a stranger, or somebody else. And they needed to know how to say no. So the
government spent millions of dollars on anti-drug public service announcements. It hoped that the
messages would teach kids how to react in these situations and, as a result, decrease drug use.
More recent campaigns have relied on the same idea. Between 1998 and 2004, Congress
appropriated almost $1 billion for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. The goal was to
educate kids ages twelve to eighteen to enable them to reject drugs.
Communications professor Bob Hornik wanted to see whether anti-drug ads were actually
effective. So he collected data on the drug use of thousands of teens over the time the anti-drug ads
ran. Whether teens had seen the ads and whether they had ever smoked marijuana. Then he looked at
whether the public service announcements seemed to decrease marijuana use.
In fact, the messages actually seemed to increase drug use. Kids aged twelve and a half to eighteen
who saw the ads were actually more likely to smoke marijuana. Why?
Because it made drug use more public.
Think about observability and social proof. Before seeing the message, some kids might never have
thought about taking drugs. Others might have considered it but have been wary about doing the wrong
But anti-drug ads often say two things simultaneously. They say that drugs are bad, but they also say
that other people are doing them. And as we’ve discussed throughout this chapter, the more others
seem to be doing something, the more likely people are to think that thing is right or normal and what
they should be doing as well.
Imagine you’re a fifteen-year-old who has never considered using drugs. You’re sitting at home
watching cartoons one afternoon when a public service announcement comes on telling you about the
dangers of drug use. Someone’s going to ask you if you want to try drugs and you need to be ready to
say no. Or even worse, the cool kids are going to be the ones asking. But you shouldn’t say yes.
You never see public service announcements for avoiding cutting off your hand with a saw or not
getting hit by a bus, so if the government spent the time and money to tell you about drugs, a lot of
your peers must be doing them, right? Some of them are apparently the coolest kids in school. And
you had no idea!
As Hornik said,
Our basic hypothesis is that the more kids saw these ads, the more they came to believe that
lots of other kids were using marijuana. And the more they came to believe that other kids
were using marijuana, the more they became interested in using it themselves.
As with many powerful tools, making things more public can have unintended consequences when
not applied carefully. If you want to get people not to do something, don’t tell them that lots of their
peers are doing it.
Take the music industry. It thought it could stop illegal downloads by showing people how big the
problem is. So the industry association’s website sternly warns people that “only 37 percent of music
acquired by U.S. consumers . . . was paid for” and that in the past few years “approximately 30
billion songs were illegally downloaded.”
But I’m not sure that message has the desired effect. If anything, it may have the opposite effect.
Less than half of people are paying for their music? Wow. Seems like you’d have to be an idiot to pay
for it then, right?
Even in cases where most people are doing the right thing, talking about the minority who are doing
the wrong thing can encourage people to give in to temptation.
Rather than making the private public, preventing a behavior requires the opposite: making the
public private. Making others’ behavior less observable.
One way is to highlight what people should be doing instead. Psychologist Bob Cialdini and
colleagues wanted to decrease the number of people who stole petrified wood from Arizona’s
Petrified Forest National Park. So they posted signs around the park that tried different strategies.
One asked people not to take the wood because “many past visitors have removed petrified wood
from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” But by providing social proof that
others were stealing, the message had a perverse effect, almost doubling the number of people taking
Highlighting what people should do was much more effective. Over a different set of trails they
tried a different sign that stated, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to
preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” By focusing on the positive effects of not taking the
wood, rather than on what others were doing, the park service was able to reduce theft.
It’s been said that when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another. We
look to others for information about what is right or good to do in a given situation, and this social
proof shapes everything from the products we buy to the candidates we vote for.
But as we discussed, the phrase “Monkey see, monkey do” captures more than just our tendency to
follow others. If people can’t see what others are doing, they can’t imitate them. So to get our
products and ideas to become popular we need to make them more publicly observable. For Apple
this was as easy as flipping its logo. By cleverly leveraging moustaches, Movember drew huge
attention and donations for men’s cancer research.
So we need to be like Hotmail and Apple and design products that advertise themselves. We need
to be like Lululemon and Livestrong and create behavioral residue, discernible evidence that sticks
around even after people have used our product or engaged with our ideas. We need to make the
private public. If something is built to show, it’s built to grow.
* Making the public private is particularly important for things that people may not have originally felt comfortable talking about. Take
online dating. Many people have tried it, but it is still somewhat stigmatized in the culture at large. And part of this stigma is due to the
fact that people are unaware that many people they know have tried it. Online dating is relatively private behavior, so to help it catch on,
online dating companies need to make people more aware how many others are doing it. Similar issues pop up in other domains. The
makers of Viagra coined the term “ED” (erectile dysfunction) to get people more comfortable talking about what was once a private
issue. Many colleges started a “wear jeans if you’re gay” day, in part just to raise awareness and discussion for the LGBT community.
5. Practical Value
If you had to pick someone to make a viral video, Ken Craig probably wouldn’t be your first
choice. Most viral videos are made by adolescents and watched by adolescents. Crazy tricks
someone did on his motorcycle or cartoon characters edited to look as if they are dancing to rap
songs. Things young people love.
But Ken Craig is eighty-six years old. And the video that went viral? It’s about shucking corn.
Ken was born on a farm in Oklahoma, one of five brothers and sisters. His family’s livelihood was
built around growing cotton. They also kept a garden to grow things for the family to eat. And among
those things was corn. Ken’s been eating corn since the 1920s. He’s eaten everything from corn
casserole and corn chowder to corn fritters and corn salad. One of his favorite ways to eat corn is
straight off the cob. Nice and fresh.
But if you’ve ever eaten corn on the cob you know that there are two problems. In addition to
kernels getting stuck in your teeth, there are those pesky threadlike strands (called corn silk) that
always seem stuck to the corn. A couple of strong pulls and you can easily peel the husk off, but the
silk seems to cling on for dear life. You can rub the corn, carefully pick at it with tweezers, or try
almost anything else you like, but whatever you do there always seem to be a couple of wayward silk
strands left over.
And this is where Ken comes in.
Like most eighty-six-year-olds, Ken’s not really into the Internet. He doesn’t have a blog, a channel
on YouTube, or any sort of online presence. In fact, to this day he has made only one YouTube video.
A couple of years ago, Ken’s daughter-in-law was over at his house making dinner. She had almost
finished cooking the main dish, and when it got close to time to eat, she told him that the corn was
ready to be shucked. Okay, Ken said, but let me show you a little trick.
He took unshucked ears of corn and tossed them in a microwave. Four minutes an ear. Once they
were done, he took a kitchen knife and cut a half inch or so off the bottom. Then he grabbed the husk
at the top of the corn, gave it a quick couple of shakes, and out popped the ear of corn. Clean as a
whistle. No silk.
His daughter-in-law was so impressed she said they’d have to make a video to send to her daughter
who was teaching English in Korea. So the next day she shot a clip of Ken in his kitchen, talking
through his trick for clean ears of corn. To make it easier for her daughter to see, she posted it on
YouTube. And along the way she sent the clip to a couple of friends.
Well, those friends sent it to a couple of friends, who also sent it to a couple of friends. Soon
Ken’s “Clean Ears Everytime” video took off. It collected more than 5 million views.
But unlike most viral videos that skew toward young people, this one skewed in the opposite
direction. Topping the charts of the videos viewed most by people above the age of fifty-five. In fact,
the video might have spread even faster if more senior citizens were online.
Why did people share this video?
A couple of years ago I went hiking with my brother in the mountains of North Carolina. He was
wrapping up a tough year of medical school, and I needed a break from work, so we met at Raleigh-
Durham Airport and drove west. Past the Tar Heel blue of Chapel Hill, past the once tobacco-
saturated city of Winston-Salem, and all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains that hug the
westernmost portion of the state. The next morning we woke up early, packed food for the day, and
set out on a winding mountain ridge path that led to the top of a majestic plateau.
The main reason people go hiking is to get away from it all. To escape from the hustle and bustle of
the city and to immerse themselves in nature. No billboards, no traffic, no advertising, just you and
But that morning while we were hiking in the woods, we came across the most peculiar thing. As
we rounded the bend on a downhill portion of the trail there was a group of hikers in front of us. We
walked behind them for a couple of minutes, and being a curious guy, I happened to eavesdrop on
their conversation. I thought they might be talking about the beautiful weather, or the long descent we
had just covered.
But they weren’t.
They were talking about vacuum cleaners.
Whether one particular model was really worth its premium price, and whether another model
would do the job just as well.
Vacuum cleaners? There were thousands of other things these hikers could have talked about.
Where to stop for lunch, the rushing sixty-foot falls they had just passed, even politics. But vacuum
It’s not easy to explain Ken Craig’s viral corn video using the dimensions we’ve talked about so
far in this book, but it’s even harder to explain the hikers chatting about vacuum cleaners. They
weren’t talking about anything particularly remarkable, so Social Currency wasn’t playing much of a
role. While there are lots of cues for vacuums in the home, or even in a city, there aren’t many
Triggers for vacuum cleaners in the forest. Finally, while a clever campaign could figure out how to
make vacuum cleaners more Emotional, the hikers were just having a basic conversation about
features different vacuums offered. So what was driving them to talk?
The answer is simple. People like to pass along practical, useful information. News others can use.
In the context of Triggers or hidden bars like Please Don’t Tell, practical value may not seem like
the sexiest or most exciting concept. Some might even say it’s obvious or intuitive. But that doesn’t
mean that it’s not consequential. When writer and editor William F. Buckley Jr. was asked which
single book he would take with him to a desert island, his reply was straightforward: “A book on
Useful things are important.
Further, as the stories of Ken’s corn and the vacuum-discussing hikers illustrate, people don’t just
value practical information, they share it. Offering practical value helps make things contagious.
People share practically valuable information to help others. Whether by saving a friend time or
ensuring a colleague saves a couple of bucks next time he goes to the supermarket, useful information
In this way, sharing practically valuable content is like a modern-day barn raising. Barns are large
and costly structures that are difficult for one family to pay for or to assemble by itself. So in the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, communities would collectively build a barn for one of their
members. People would get together, volunteer their time, and help their neighbor. Next time around,
the barn would be built for someone else. You can think of it as an early version of the current
prosocial ideal of “pay it forward.”
Today, these direct opportunities to help others are fewer and farther between. Modern suburban
life has distanced us from our friends and neighbors. We live at the end of long driveways or high up
in apartment buildings, often barely getting to know the person next door. Many people move away
from their families for work or school, reducing face-to-face contact with our strongest social ties.
Hired labor has taken the place of community barn raising.
But sharing something useful with others is a quick and easy way to help them out. Even if we’re
not in the same place. Parents can send their kids helpful advice even if they are hundreds of miles
away. Passing along useful things also strengthens social bonds. If we know our friends are into
cooking, sending them a new recipe we found brings us closer together. Our friends see we know and
care about them, we feel good for being helpful, and the sharing cements our friendship.
If Social Currency is about information senders and how sharing makes them look, Practical Value
is mostly about the information receiver. It’s about saving people time or money, or helping them
have good experiences. Sure, sharing useful things benefits the sharer as well. Helping others feels
good. It even reflects positively on the sharer, providing a bit of Social Currency. But at its core,
sharing practical value is about helping others. The Emotions chapter noted that when we care, we
share. But the opposite is also true. Sharing is caring.
You can think about sharing practical value as akin to advice. People talk about which retirement
plan is cheapest and which politician will balance the budget. Which medicine cures a cold and
which vegetable has the most beta carotene. Think about the last time you made a decision that
required you to gather and sift through large amounts of information. You probably asked one or more
people what you should do. And they probably either shared their opinion or sent you a link to a
website that helped you out.
So what makes something seem practically valuable enough to pass along?
SAVING A COUPLE OF BUCKS
When most people think about practical value, saving money is one of the first things that comes to
mind—getting something for less than its original price or getting more of something than you usually
would for the same price.
Websites like Groupon and LivingSocial have built business models around offering consumers
discounts on everything from pedicures to pilot lessons.
One of the biggest drivers of whether people share promotional offers is whether the offer seems
like a good deal. If we see an amazing deal we can’t help but talk about it or pass it on to someone
we think would find it useful. If the offer is just okay, though, we keep it to ourselves.
So what determines whether or not a promotional offer seems like a good deal?
Not surprisingly, the size of the discount influences how good a deal seems. Saving a hundred
dollars, for example, tends to be more exciting than saving one dollar. Saving 50 percent is more
exciting than saving 10 percent. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realize that people like (and
share) bigger discounts more than smaller ones.
But it’s actually more complicated than that. Consider what you would do in the following
Scenario A: Imagine you’re at a store looking to buy a new barbecue grill. You find a Weber Q
320 grill that looks pretty good, and to your delight it’s also on sale. Originally priced at $350, it
is now marked down to $250.
Would you buy this barbecue grill or drive to another store to look at others? Take a second to
think about your answer. Got it? Okay, let’s do the exercise again for a different retailer.
Scenario B: Imagine you’re at a store looking to buy a new barbecue grill. You find a Weber Q
320 grill that looks pretty good and to your delight it’s also on sale. Originally priced at $255, it
is now marked down to $240.
What would you do in this case? Would you buy this barbecue grill or drive to another store to
look at others? Wait until you have an answer and then read on.
If you’re like most people, scenario A looked pretty good. One hundred dollars off a barbecue grill
and it’s a model you like? Seems like a good deal. You probably said you’d buy it rather than keep
Scenario B, however, probably didn’t look so good. After all, it’s only fifteen dollars off, nowhere
near as good as the first deal. You probably said you’d keep looking rather than buy that one.
I found similar results when I gave each scenario to one hundred different people. While 75
percent of the people who received scenario A said they’d buy the grill rather than keep looking, only
22 percent of people who received scenario B said they’d buy the grill.
This all makes perfect sense—until you think about the final price at each store. Both stores were
selling the same grill. So if anything, people should have been more likely to say they would buy it at
the store where the price was lower (scenario B). But they weren’t. In fact, the opposite happened.
More people said they would purchase the grill in scenario A, even though they would have had to
pay a higher price ($250 rather than $240) to get it. What gives?
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF DEALS
On a cold, wintry day in December 2002, Daniel Kahneman walked onstage to address a packed
lecture hall at Sweden’s Stockholm University. The audience was filled with Swedish diplomats,
dignitaries, and some of the world’s most prominent academics. Kahneman was there to give a talk on
bounded rationality, a new perspective on intuitive judgment and choice. He had given related talks
over the years, but this one was slightly different. Kahneman was in Stockholm to accept the Nobel
Prize in Economics.
The Nobel Prize is one of the world’s most prestigious awards and is given to researchers who
have contributed great insight to their disciplines. Albert Einstein received a Nobel Prize for his
work on theoretical physics. Watson and Crick received a Nobel in medicine for their work on the
structure of DNA. In economics, the Nobel Prize is awarded to a person whose research has had a
large impact on advancing economic thinking.
But Kahneman isn’t an economist. He is a psychologist.
Kahneman received the Nobel for his work with Amos Tversky on what they called “prospect
theory.” The theory is amazingly rich, but at its core, it’s based on a very basic idea. The way people
actually make decisions often violates standard economic assumptions about how they should make
decisions. Judgments and decisions are not always rational or optimal. Instead, they are based on
psychological principles of how people perceive and process information. Just as perceptual
processes influence whether we see a particular sweater as red or view an object on the horizon as
far away, they also influence whether a price seems high or a deal seems good. Along with Richard
Thaler’s work, Kahneman and Tversky’s research is some of the earliest studying what we now think
of as “behavioral economics.”
One of the main tenets of prospect theory is that people don’t evaluate things in absolute terms.
They evaluate them relative to a comparison standard, or “reference point.” Fifty cents for coffee
isn’t just fifty cents for coffee. Whether that seems like a fair price or not depends on your
expectations. If you live in New York City, paying fifty cents for a cup of coffee seems pretty cheap.
You’d chuckle at your good luck and buy coffee from that place every day. You might even tell your
If you live in rural India, though, fifty cents might seem hugely expensive. It would be way more
than you would dream of paying for coffee and you’d never buy it. If you told your friends anything it
would be your outrage at the price gouging.
You see the same phenomenon at work if you go to the movies or the store with people in their
seventies or eighties. They often complain about the prices. “What?” they exclaim. “No way am I
paying eleven dollars for a movie ticket. That’s such a rip-off!”
It might seem that old people are stingier than the rest of us. But there is a more fundamental reason
that they think the prices are unfair. They have different reference points. They remember the days
when a movie ticket was forty cents and steak was ninety-five cents a pound, when toothpaste was
twenty-nine cents and paper towels cost a dime. Because of that, it’s hard for them to see today’s
prices as fair. The prices seem so much higher than what they remember, so they balk at paying them.
Reference points help explain the barbecue grill scenarios we discussed a few pages ago. People
use the price they expect to pay for something as their reference point. So the grill seemed like a
better deal when it was marked down from $350 to $250 rather than when it was discounted from
$255 to $240, even though it was the same grill. Setting a higher reference point made the first deal
seem better even though the price was higher overall.
Infomercials often use the same approach.
The amazing Miracle Blade knives last forever! Watch them slice through a pineapple, soda
can, or even a penny! You might expect to pay $100 or even $200 for a set of knives like these,
but right now you can get this incredible knife set for only $39.99!
Sound familiar? It should. Most infomercials use this technique to make whatever they are offering
seem like a great deal. By mentioning $100 or $200 as the price you might expect to pay, the
infomercial sets a high reference point, making the final price of $39.99 seem like a steal.
This is also why retailers often list a “regular” or manufacturer’s standard retail price even when
something is on sale. They want consumers to use those prices as the reference price, making the sale
price look even better. Consumers are so focused on getting a good deal that, as the barbecue grill
example showed, they sometimes even end up paying more to get it.
Reference points also work with quantities.
But wait, there’s more! If you call now, we’ll throw in a second set of these knives absolutely
free! That’s right, an extra set for the same price. And we’ll even throw in this handy knife
sharpener. No extra charge!
Here the infomercial is taking the reference quantity and augmenting it. You expected to pay $39.99
for one set of Miracle Blade knives, but now you are getting an extra set, and a knife sharpener, for
the same price. In addition to the price being lower than your expectations (which was set by them in
the first place), the additional goods makes the offer seem like an even better deal.
How far will the effect of putting something on sale go? Marketing scientists Eric Anderson and
Duncan Simester wanted to find out. So a few years ago they paired up with a company that sends
clothing catalogs to homes across the United States. Think L.L. Bean, Spiegel, or Lands’ End. Most of
the clothes in these catalogs are full price, but sometimes the catalog features certain sale items and
drops its prices. Not surprisingly, this increases sales. People like to pay less, so dropping the price
makes things more desirable.
But Anderson and Simester had a different question in mind. They wondered whether consumers
find the idea of a discount so powerful that merely labeling something as “on sale” would increase
To test this possibility, Anderson and Simester created two different versions of the catalog and
mailed each to more than fifty thousand people. In one version some of the products (let’s call them
dresses) were marked with signs that said “Pre-Season SALE.” In the other version the dresses were
not marked as on sale.
Sure enough, marking those items as on sale increased demand. By more than 50 percent.
The prices of the dresses were the same in both versions of the catalog. So using the word “sale”
beside a price increased sales even though the price itself stayed the same.
Another tenet of prospect theory is something called “diminishing sensitivity.” Imagine you are
looking to buy a new clock radio. At the store where you expect to buy it, you find that the price is
$35. A clerk informs you that the same item is available at another branch of the same store for only
$25. The store is a twenty-minute drive away and the clerk assures you that they have what you want
What would you do? Would you buy the clock radio at the first store or drive to the second store?
If you’re like most people, you’re probably willing to go to the other store. After all, it’s only a
short drive away and you save almost 30 percent on the radio. It seems like a no-brainer.
But consider a similar example. Imagine you are buying a new television. At the store where you
expect to buy it, you find that the price is $650. A clerk informs you that the same item is available at
another branch of the same store for only $640. The store is a twenty-minute drive away and the clerk
assures you that they have what you want there.
What would you do in this situation? Would you be willing to drive twenty minutes to save $10 on
If you’re like most people, this time around you probably said no. Why drive twenty minutes to
save a few bucks on a TV? You’d probably spend more on gas than what you’d save on the product.
In fact, when I gave each scenario to one hundred different people, 87 percent said they’d buy the
television at the first store while only 17 percent said the same for the clock radio.
But if you think about it, these two scenarios are essentially the same. They’re both about driving
twenty minutes to save $10. So people should have been equally willing to take the drive in each
Except they weren’t. While almost everyone is willing to endure the drive for the cheaper clock
radio, almost no one is willing to do it when buying a TV. Why?
Diminishing sensitivity reflects the idea that the same change has a smaller impact the farther it is
from the reference point. Imagine that you enter a lottery at your office or your child’s school. You’re
not expecting to get much out of it, but to your surprise you win $10. Lucky you! Winning anything is
great, so you’d probably be pretty happy about it.
Now imagine you won $20 instead. You’d probably feel even happier. Maybe you wouldn’t be
doing backflips in either case, but winning $20 would feel significantly better than winning only $10.
Okay, now let’s take that same lottery and that same $10 increase in winnings and let’s raise the
stakes a little. Imagine you won $120 rather than $110. Or even better, $1,020 rather than $1,010.
Suddenly that extra $10 wouldn’t matter as much. You’d probably feel essentially the same if you
won $120 rather than $110. If you won $1,020 rather than $1,010 you probably wouldn’t even notice.
The same change—gaining ten more dollars—has a smaller and smaller impact the farther you move
from your reference point of zero dollars or not winning anything.
Diminishing sensitivity helps explain why people are more willing to drive to save the money on
the clock radio. The clock radio was much cheaper, so a discount from $35 to $25 seems like a pretty
good deal. But even though the television is also $10 off, it doesn’t seem like a bargain given how
much more expensive the television was in the first place.
HIGHLIGHTING INCREDIBLE VALUE
Deals seem more appealing when they highlight incredible value. As discussed in the Social
Currency chapter, the more remarkable something is, the more likely it will be discussed. We’re
bombarded with deals all the time. If we shared every time the grocery store knocked ten cents off a
can of soup no one would be friends with us anymore. A deal needs to cut through the clutter to get
As prospect theory illustrates, one key factor in highlighting incredible value is what people
expect. Promotional offers that seem surprising or surpass expectations are more likely to be shared.
This can be because the actual deal itself exceeds expectations (for example, the percentage off is so
unbelievable) or because the way the deal is framed makes it seem that way.
Another factor that affects whether deals seem valuable is their availability. Somewhat
counterintuitively, making promotions more restrictive can actually make them more effective. Just as
in the examples of Please Don’t Tell and Rue La La that we discussed in the Social Currency chapter,
restricting availability through scarcity and exclusivity makes things seem more valuable.
Take timing or frequency. Putting something on sale can make it seem like a good deal. But if a
product is always on sale people start to adjust their expectations. Rather than the full, “regular”
price being their reference point, the sale price becomes the expected price. This happens with rug
stores that always offer 70 percent off. People come to realize that “sales” are the norm and no longer
see them as deals. The same is true even with the word “sale.” While noting something is on sale can
increase demand, if too many items in a store are listed as being on sale, it can actually reduce
But offers that are available for only a limited time seem more appealing because of the restriction.
Just like making a product scarce, the fact that a deal won’t be around forever makes people feel that
it must be a really good one.
Quantity limits work the same way. Retailers sometimes create limits around the number of a given
discounted item a given customer can buy. “One per household” or “Limit three per customer.” You
might think that by making it harder for people to get as many as they want these restrictions would
hurt demand. But they actually have the opposite effect by making the promotion seem like an even
better deal. “Wow, if I can only get one of these, it must mean that the deal is so good that the store is
worried about running out of them. Better get one fast!” Indeed, research finds that quantity purchase
limits increase sales by more than 50 percent.
Even restricting who has access can make a promotional offer seem better. Some deals are
available to everyone. Anyone can walk up to the discount rack at the Gap and get money off chinos,
just as any patron can take advantage of happy hour at his or her local pub. But other deals are
customized, or restricted to a certain set of customers. Hotels reward loyal members with “exclusive”
hotel rates and restaurants have “soft openings” for a certain clientele.
These offers seem special. This boosts sharing not only by increasing Social Currency, but also by
making the deal itself seem better. Like restrictions on quantity or timing, the mere fact that not
everyone can get access to this promotion makes it seem more valuable. This increases Practical
Value, which in turn, boosts sharing.
The Rule of 100
Another framing factor that impacts practical value is how promotional offers are expressed. Some
offers are expressed in dollars off, or absolute discounts ($5 or $50 off). Other offers are expressed
in percentage off, or relative discounts (5 percent or 50 percent off). Could whether a promotion is
framed as money or as a percentage off affect how big the discount seems?
Take twenty percent off a $25 shirt. The same reduction can be represented as 20 percent off or $5
off. Which seems like a better deal?
Or think about a $2,000 laptop. The same reduction on a $2,000 laptop can be represented as 10
percent off or $200 off. Does one method of framing the discount make the deal seem better than the
Researchers find that whether a discount seems larger as money or percentage off depends on the
original price. For low-priced products, like books or groceries, price reductions seem more
significant when they are framed in percentage terms. Twenty percent off that $25 shirt seems like a
better deal than $5 off. For high-priced products, however, the opposite is true. For things like
laptops or other big-ticket items, framing price reductions in dollar terms (rather than percentage
terms) makes them seem like a better offer. The laptop seems like a better deal when it is $200 off
rather than 10 percent off.
A simple way to figure out which discount frame seems larger is by using something called the
Rule of 100.
If the product’s price is less than $100, the Rule of 100 says that percentage discounts will seem
larger. For a $30 T-shirt or a $15 entrée, even a $3 discount is still a relatively small number. But
percentagewise (10 percent or 20 percent), that same discount looks much bigger.
If the product’s price is more than $100, the opposite is true. Numerical discounts will seem
larger. Take a $750 vacation package or the $2,000 laptop. While a 10 percent discount may seem
like a relatively small number, it immediately seems much bigger when translated into dollars ($75 or
So when deciding how good a promotional offer really is, or how to frame a promotional offer to
make it better, use the Rule of 100. Think about where the price falls relative to $100 and how that
shifts whether absolute or relative discounts seem more attractive.
One last point about promotional offers is that the practical value is more effective the easier it is
for people to see. Take the shopper discount cards that you get at your local grocery store or
pharmacy. These cards are certainly useful. They save consumers money and sometimes even give
them free gifts if they have accumulated enough purchases. But one problem is that the practical value
is not very visible. The only information people get about how much they saved is hidden among a
half dozen other pieces of information on a lengthy receipt. And given that most people don’t show
their receipts to others, it’s unlikely that anyone but the person who used the card will see how much
they saved. That makes it less likely that the information will be contagious.
But what if stores made the practical value easier to see? They could put up a sign at checkout that
shows other people in line how much the person checking out saved. Or the store might ring a bell
every time someone saved more than twenty-five dollars. This would make two things happen. First,
people would get a better sense of how much they could save by getting the card, encouraging anyone
who doesn’t have one yet to get one. Second, it would allow people to see the impressive amounts
that some other shoppers were able to save, encouraging them to transmit these remarkable stories of
practical value. As discussed in the Public chapter, it’s hard to talk about something you can’t see.
MORE THAN MONEY
I am terrible at investing. Too many options, too much daily volatility, and too much risk. I’d rather
keep my money in a cardboard box under my bed than put it in some mutual fund that could lose
money. The first time I bought stocks I barely dipped my toe in. I picked two or three that seemed like
good long-term investments based on being strong brands and tried to leave it at that.
But my curiosity got the best of me. I frantically checked every day how each stock was doing. A
dollar up today? Huge success! Thirty-five cents down the next day? Hopelessly despondent and
considering giving up investing ever again.
Needless to say I needed help. So when it came time to put money in my 401(k) for work, I picked
some safe index funds that track the stock market.
Soon after, Vanguard, the firm that manages my retirement plan, sent me a short e-mail asking if I’d
like to receive its monthly newsletter, MoneyWhys. Like most people, I try to avoid signing up for
new mailing lists, but this one actually seemed useful. Last-minute tax tips, responses to common
questions about investing, and an answer (or at least an opinion) on that age-old question of whether
money can really buy happiness. I signed up.
Now, once a month, Vanguard sends me a short e-mail with useful information about financial
management. One month it was tips on what homeowner’s insurance actually covers. Another month it
provided tips on using your PC to track personal finances.
To be honest, I don’t read every e-mail Vanguard sends (sorry, Vanguard), but I end up forwarding
many of the ones I do read to people I know who I think will find them useful. I sent the piece about
homeowner’s insurance to a colleague who just bought a home. I forwarded the piece about tracking
personal finances to a friend who is trying to become more fiscally responsible. Vanguard nicely
packages its expertise into a short, tight bundle of useful information, and the practical value made me
pass it along. And along the way I’m spreading the word about Vanguard and its investment expertise.
Useful information, then, is another form of practical value. Helping people do things they want to
do, or encouraging them to do things they should do. Faster, better, and easier.
As we discussed in the Emotions chapter, our analysis of The New York Times Most E-Mailed list
found that articles about health and education were some of the most frequently shared. Recipes and
reviews of up-and-coming restaurants were also highly shared. One reason is that these types of
articles all provide useful information. The health section suggests solutions for people with hearing
loss and techniques for boosting mental fitness in middle age. The education section covers useful
programs for teens and provides insight into the college admissions process. Sharing this type of
content with others enables them to eat, live, and learn better.
Look at the content you’ve been e-mailed over the past few months and you’ll see similar patterns.
Articles about sunscreen brands that Consumer Reports rated the best, tips to recover quickly from
exercise, or hints for great pumpkin carving design around Halloween. All these things are useful.
Practical advice is shareable advice.
In thinking about why some useful content gets shared more, a couple of points are worth noting.
The first is how the information is packaged. Vanguard doesn’t send out a rambling four-page e-mail
with twenty-five advice links about fifteen different topics. It sends out a short, one-page note, with a
key header article and three or four main links below it. It’s easy to see what the main points are, and
if you want to find out more, you can simply click on the links. Many of the most viral articles on The
New York Times and other websites have a similar structure. Five ways to lose weight. Ten dating
tips for the New Year. The next time you’re waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, take a
look at the magazines and you’ll see the same idea being applied. Short lists focused around a key
A cosmetic manufacturer makes a helpful iPhone application for business travelers. In addition to
providing local weather information, it also provides expert skin care advice that is tailored to those
local conditions. Humidity, rain, and air quality affect your hair and skin, so the application tells you
the right way to respond. This practically valuable information not only is useful, but also
demonstrates the company’s knowledge and expertise in this domain.
The second key is the audience. Some stories or information have a broader audience than others.
In the United States, at least, more people follow professional football than follow water polo.
Similarly, you probably have more friends that like American restaurants than like Ethiopian
You might think that content that has a broader audience is more likely to be shared. A piece about
football should be shared more than one about water polo; a review about a new American restaurant
should be passed on more than a review of a new Ethiopian place. After all, people have way more
friends with whom they could share the article, so shouldn’t it end up reaching more people overall?
The problem with this assumption, though, is that just because people can share with more people
doesn’t mean they will. In fact, narrower content may actually be more likely to be shared because it
reminds people of a specific friend or family member and makes them feel compelled to pass it along.
You might have a lot of friends who like American food or football. But because so many people are
interested in that type of thing, no one person strongly comes to mind when you come across related
content. In contrast, you may have only one friend who cares about Ethiopian restaurants or water
polo, but if you read an article about those topics you think about your friend right away. And because
it seems so uniquely perfect for her, you feel you have to share it.
So while broadly relevant content could be shared more, content that is obviously relevant to a
narrow audience may actually be more viral.
A NOTE ON TRUTH
You may have heard that vaccines cause autism. If so, you’re not alone. In 1998, a paper was
published in a medical journal suggesting that an immunization against measles, mumps, and rubella
could cause autism in children. Health-related news spreads fast, particularly when it relates to kids,
and soon lots of people were talking about the potential downsides to vaccines. As a result,
childhood vaccination rates decreased.
All this would be good if the link between vaccines and autism were true. But it’s not. There is no
scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. The original paper turned out to be a fraud. The doctor
who authored it had manipulated evidence, apparently owing to conflict of interest, and after being
found guilty of serious professional misconduct, lost his medical license. But even though the
information was false, lots of people shared it.
The reason is practical value. People weren’t trying to share false things, they just heard something
they thought was useful and they wanted others’ kids to be safe. But many people didn’t hear the news
that the original report had been discredited, and so they continued to share an incorrect narrative.
Our desire to share helpful things is so powerful that it can make even false ideas succeed.
Sometimes the drive to help takes a wrong turn.
So the next time someone tells you about a miracle cure, or warns about the health risks of a
particular food or behavior, try to verify that information independently before you pass it on. False
information can spread just as quickly as the truth.
Practical value is about helping. This chapter discussed the mechanics of value and the psychology
of deals, but it’s important to remember why people share that type of information in the first place.
People like to help one another. We go out of our way to give advice or send others information that
will make them better off. Sure, some of this may be selfish. We think we’re right and we can’t help
but toss our two cents into other people’s lives. But not all of it is about us. It’s also about altruism,
the inherent goodness of people. We care about others and we want to make their lives better.
Of the six principles of contagiousness that we discuss in the book, Practical Value may be the
easiest to apply.
Some products and ideas already have lots of Social Currency, but to build it into a video for a
blender takes some energy and creativity. Figuring out how to create Triggers also requires some
effort, as does evoking emotion. But finding Practical Value isn’t hard. Almost every product or idea
imaginable has something useful about it. Whether it saves people money, makes them happier,
improves health, or saves them time, all of these things are news you can use. So thinking about why
people gravitate to our product or idea in the first place will give us a good sense of the underlying
The harder part is cutting through the clutter. There are lots of good restaurants and helpful
websites, so we need to make our product or idea stand out. We need to highlight incredible value
and use the Rule of 100. Like Vanguard, we need to package our knowledge and expertise so that
people learn about us while they pass it along. 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.
The war had raged for ten long years, with no finish in sight. According to legend, Odysseus
devised a cunning plan to end the fruitless siege. The Greeks built a giant wooden horse and hid their
best warriors inside. The rest of their army then sailed away, pretending to return to their homeland
and leaving the monumental horse behind on the beach.
The Trojans found the horse and dragged it into Troy as a symbol of their victory. They tied ropes
around the beast’s neck and dozens of men set huge log rollers underneath the wooden body to pull it
slowly up from the beach. Others worked to take down the gate so that the monstrous sculpture could
be dragged inside the city walls.
Once the statue was inside, the Trojans celebrated the end of the decade-long conflict. They
decorated the temples with greenery, unearthed the jugs of sacrificial wine, and danced to rejoice at
the conclusion of their ordeal.
But that night, while the city lay unconscious in drunken slumber, the Greeks sprang from their
hiding place. They slid to the ground, silenced the sentries, and opened the huge gates to the city. The
rest of the Greek army sailed back under the cover of darkness and soon joined them, easily walking
through the very gates they had fruitlessly assaulted for so many years.
The city was able to stand a decade of battle, but it could not withstand an attack from within. Once
inside, the Greeks destroyed the town, decisively ending the Trojan War.
The story of the Trojan Horse has been passed on for thousands of years. Scientists and historians
estimate that the battle took place around 1170 BC, but the story was not written down until many
years later. For centuries the tale was transmitted orally as an epic poem, spoken or sung to music.
The story reads like a modern-day reality show. It’s full of twists and turns that include personal
vendettas, adultery, and double crosses. Through a potent mixture of drama, romance, and action, it
holds listeners’ interest.
But the story of the Trojan Horse also carries an underlying message: “Beware of Greeks bearing
gifts.” A more general interpretation would be “never trust your enemies, even when they seem
friendly.” In fact it is exactly when they are making such overtures that you should be especially
suspicious. So the tale of the Trojan Horse is more than just an entertaining story. It also teaches an
Still, if Homer and Virgil had simply wanted to teach people a lesson, couldn’t they have done it
more efficiently? Couldn’t they have gotten right to the point rather than writing an epic poem with
hundreds of lines of poetry?
Of course. But would the lesson have had the same impact? Probably not.
By encasing the lesson in a story, these early writers ensured that it would be passed along—and
perhaps even be believed more wholeheartedly than if the lesson’s words were spoken simply and
plainly. That’s because people don’t think in terms of information. They think in terms of narratives.
But while people focus on the story itself, information comes along for the ride.
STORIES AS VESSELS
Stories are the original form of entertainment. Imagine you were a Greek citizen in 1000 BC. There
was no Internet. No SportsCenter or six o’clock news. No radio or newspapers. So if you wanted
entertainment, stories were the way to get it. The Trojan Horse, The Odyssey, and other famous tales
were the entertainment of the day. People would gather round a fire, or sit in an amphitheater, to hear
these epic narratives told again and again.
Narratives are inherently more engrossing than basic facts. They have a beginning, middle, and
end. If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. When you hear people tell a good
story you hang on every word. You want to find out whether they missed the plane or what they did
with a house full of screaming nine year olds. You started down a path and you want to know how it
ends. Until it does, they’ve captured your attention.
Today there are thousands of entertainment options, but our tendency to tell stories remains. We get
together around our proverbial campfires—now water coolers or girls’/guys’ night out—and tell
stories. About ourselves and the things that have happened to us lately. About our friends and other
people we know.
People tell stories for the same reasons they share word of mouth. Some narratives are about
Social Currency. People tell the story of going through the phone booth to get into Please Don’t Tell
because it makes them look cool and in the know. Other stories are driven by (high arousal) Emotion.
People tell the story of Will It Blend? because they are amazed that a blender could shred marbles or
an iPhone. Practical Value also plays a role. People share the story of how their neighbor’s dogs got
sick after eating a certain type of chew toy because they want your dog to avoid the same fate.
People are so used to telling stories that they create narratives even when they don’t actually need
to. Take online reviews. They’re supposed to be about product features. How well a new digital
camera worked and whether the zoom is as good as the company suggests. But this mostly
informational content often ends up being embedded in a background narrative.
My son just turned eight so we were planning our first trip to Disney World last July. We
needed a digital camera to capture the experience so bought this one because my friend
recommended it. The zoom was great. We could easily get sharp pictures of Cinderella’s
Castle even from far away.
We’re so used to telling stories that we do it even when a simple rating or opinion would have
Just like the Trojan Horse itself, stories are more than they seem. Sure, the outward shell of a story
—we could call this the surface plot—grabs your attention and engages your interest. But peel back
that exterior, and you’ll usually find something hidden inside. Underneath the star-crossed lovers and
thundering heroes there is usually something else being conveyed.
Stories carry things. A lesson or moral. Information or a take-home message. Take the famous story
“The Three Little Pigs.” Three brothers leave home to head into the world to seek their fortune. The
first little pig quickly builds his house out of straw. The second pig uses sticks. Both throw their
houses together as quickly as possible so they can hang out and play the rest of the day. The third pig,
however, is more disciplined. He takes the time and effort to carefully build his house out of bricks,
even while his brothers have fun around him.
One night, a big bad wolf comes along looking for something to eat. He goes to the first pig’s house
and says those words so beloved by small children: “Little pig, little pig, let me in.” But when the pig
says no, the wolf blows the pig’s house down. He does the same to the house of sticks. But when the
wolf tries the same thing at the third pig’s house, it doesn’t work. He huffs and he puffs but the wolf
can’t destroy the third pig’s house because it’s made of bricks.
And that’s the moral of the story. Effort pays off. Take the time to do something right. You might not
have as much fun right away, but you’ll find that it’s worth it in the end.
Lessons or morals are also embedded in thousands of other fairy tales, fables, and urban legends.
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” warns about the dangers of lying. “Cinderella” shows that being good to
others pays off. Shakespeare’s plays carry valuable lessons about character and relationships, power
and madness, love and war. These are complex lessons, but they are instructive nevertheless.
The ordinary stories we tell one another every day also carry information.
Take the story of the coat my cousin bought from Lands’ End. He’d moved from California to the
East Coast a couple of years ago, and in preparation for his first real winter he went to a fancy
department store and bought a nice topcoat. The coat was one of those three-quarter-length wool
varieties that men often wear over suits. It fitted well, the color was perfect, and my cousin felt like a
dapper English gentleman.
There was only one problem. It wasn’t warm enough. It was great when the temperature outside
was in the fifties and even the forties, but once the temperature got down to the thirties the cold
seeped right through the coat into my cousin’s bones.
After one winter of looking great but freezing every day on his way to work, he decided it was time
to get a real winter coat. He even decided to go whole hog and get one of those goose-down numbers
that make you look as if you’re wearing a sleeping bag—the kind of coat that is ubiquitous in the East
and Midwest but never seen in California. So he went online, found a great deal at Lands’ End, and
bought a down commuter coat rated to minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Warm enough to withstand
even the coldest East Coast winter.
My cousin really liked the coat, and indeed it was super warm. But halfway through the season he
broke the zipper. Ripped it right off the lining. He was devastated. He had just bought the coat a few
months before and it was broken already. How much would it cost to have it fixed? And how long
would he have to wait to get it back from being repaired?
It was mid-January, not a very ideal time to be walking around without a winter coat.
So he called Lands’ End. How much will it cost to repair, he asked, and how long will it take to be
My cousin braced for the icy reply he was used to getting from customer service people. It always
seems to be the customer’s problem. So sorry to hear the product broke or the service isn’t working,
customer service people usually say, but unfortunately it’s not our fault. It’s outside the warranty or
you tried to do something beyond the normal use. But we’d be happy to repair it for twice the cost of
the product or send someone out to check on it. Just as long as you can stay home from work for the
three-hour window during which we may or may not show up. Oh, and by the way, the script the
brand consultants wrote reminds us to tell you that we really appreciate your business.
But to his surprise, the Lands’ End customer service person said something entirely different.
“Repair?” she asked. “We’ll just send you a new one in the mail.” “How much will that cost?” my
cousin asked nervously. “It’s free,” she replied, “and we’ll send it out two-day mail so you don’t
have to wait. It’s too cold this winter to go out with a broken coat.”
A free replacement sent right away if a product breaks? Wow! That’s almost unheard of in this day
and age of “the customer is always wrong.” Remarkable customer service. Customer service the way
it is supposed to be. My cousin was so impressed he just had to tell me what happened.
My cousin’s experience makes for a nice story, but when you look closer there is also a huge
amount of useful information hidden in the narrative: (1) Topcoats look great but aren’t really warm
enough for a bitter East Coast winter. (2) Down coats make you look like a mummy, but they’re worth
getting if you want to stay warm. (3) Lands’ End makes a really warm winter coat. (4) It also has
outstanding customer service. (5) If something goes wrong, Lands’ End will fix it. These are just a
handful of the nuggets of knowledge woven into a deceptively simple story.
The same is true for most stories people tell us. How we avoided the traffic jam or how the dry
cleaner was able to take our oil-splattered white shirt and make it look like new. These stories
contain helpful information: a good route to take if the highway is blocked; a great dry cleaner if you
need to get out tough stains.
Stories, then, can act as vessels, carriers that help transmit information to others.
LEARNING THROUGH STORIES
Stories are an important source of cultural learning that help us make sense of the world. At a high
level, this learning can be about the rules and standards of a group or society. How should a good
employee behave? What does it mean to be a moral person? Or on a more basic level: who’s a good
mechanic who won’t overcharge?
Beyond stories, think about other ways that people could acquire this information. Trial and error
might work, but it would be extremely costly and time-consuming. Imagine if finding an honest
mechanic required taking your car to two dozen different places around town and getting work done at
each one. It would be exhausting (and expensive).
Alternatively, people could try direct observation, but that’s also tough. You’d have to cozy up to
the mechanics in all the different shops and convince them to let you watch what they did and tell you
how much they charged. Guess how well that would work.
Finally, people could get their information from advertisements. But ads aren’t always trustworthy,
and people are generally skeptical of persuasion attempts. Most ads for mechanics will say they have
great prices and do good work, but without really checking, it’s hard to know for sure.
Stories solve this problem. They provide a quick and easy way for people to acquire lots of
knowledge in a vivid and engaging fashion. One good story about a mechanic who fixed the problem
without charging is worth dozens of observations and years of trial and error. Stories save time and
hassle and give people the information they need in a way that’s easy to remember.
You can think of stories as providing proof by analogy. There is no way to be sure that if I buy
something from Lands’ End, I’ll get the same wonderful customer service my cousin received. But the
mere fact that it happened to someone who is like me makes me feel that there is a pretty good chance
it will happen to me too.
People are also less likely to argue against stories than against advertising claims. Lands’ End
representatives could tell us that they have great customer service, but as we discussed earlier, the
fact that they are trying to sell something makes it difficult to believe them. It’s harder to argue with
First, it’s hard to disagree with a specific thing that happened to a specific person. What is
someone going to tell my cousin, “No, I think you’re lying, there’s no way Lands’ End would be that
Second, we’re so caught up in the drama of what happened to so-and-so that we don’t have the
cognitive resources to disagree. We’re so engaged in following the narrative that we don’t have the
energy to question what is being said. So in the end, we’re much more likely to be persuaded.
People don’t like to seem like walking advertisements. The Subway sandwich chain offers seven
subs with less than six grams of fat. But no one is going to walk up to a friend and just spit out that
information. Not only would it be weird, it would be out of context. Sure, this information is
practically valuable if someone is trying to lose weight, but unless weight loss is the topic of
conversation, or the situation triggers people to think about ways to lose weight, they’re not going to
bring it up. So the fact that Subway has a bunch of low-fat options may not be brought up that often.
Contrast that with the Jared story. Jared Fogle lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches. Bad
eating habits and lack of exercise led Jared to balloon to 425 pounds in college. He was so heavy that
he picked his courses based on whether the classroom had large-enough seats for him to be
comfortable rather than whether he liked the material.
But after his roommate pointed out that his health was getting worse, Jared decided to take action.
So he started a “Subway diet”: almost every day he ate a foot-long veggie sub for lunch and a six-inch
turkey sub for dinner. After three months of this self-imposed regimen he had lost almost 100 pounds.
But he didn’t stop there. Jared kept up his diet. Soon his pants size had dropped from an enormous
sixty inches to a normal thirty-four-inch waist. He lost all that weight and had Subway to thank.
The Jared story is so entertaining that people bring it up even when they’re not talking about weight
loss. The amount of weight he lost is impressive, but even more astonishing is the fact that he lost it
eating Subway sandwiches. A guy loses 245 pounds eating fast food? The summary alone is enough to
draw people in.
The story gets shared for many of the reasons we talked about in prior chapters. It’s remarkable
(Social Currency), evokes surprise and amazement (Emotion), and provides useful information about
healthy fast food (Practical Value).
People don’t talk about Jared because they want to help Subway, but Subway still benefits because
it is part of the narrative. Listeners learn about Jared, but they also learn about Subway along the way.
They learn that (1) while Subway might seem like fast food, it actually offers a number of healthy
options. (2) So healthy that someone could lose weight by eating them. (3) A lot of weight. Further,
(4) someone could eat mostly Subway sandwiches for three months and still come back for more. So
the food must be pretty tasty. Listeners learn all this about Subway, even though people tell the story
because of Jared.
And that is the magic of stories. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle
BUILD A TROJAN HORSE
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.
So how can we use stories to get people talking?
We need to build our own Trojan Horse—a carrier narrative that people will share, while talking
about our product or idea along the way.
Tim Piper never had a sister. And he grew up going to an all-boys school. So he had always
thought it was a little ridiculous that so many of his girlfriends had beauty issues. They were always
worried that their hair was too straight, their eyes were too light, or their complexion wasn’t clear
enough. Piper didn’t get it. They seemed pretty enough to him.
But after interviewing dozens of girls, Piper started to realize that the media were to blame.
Advertising, and the media in general, taught young women that something was wrong with them. That
they needed fixing. And after years of being bombarded with those messages, women started to
What would help women realize that these ads were fake? That the images being shown didn’t
One night his girlfriend at the time was putting on makeup to go out when it hit him. He realized that
girls needed to be exposed to the before before the after. What models look like before the makeup
and hair styling and retouching and Photoshop swoop in to make them “perfect.”
So he created a short film.
Stephanie stares into the camera and nods her head to the crew that she is ready to begin. She is
pretty, but not in a way that would make her stand out in a crowd. Her hair is dark blond, feathered,
and relatively straight. Her skin is nice but a few blemishes mar it here and there. She looks as though
she could be anyone—your neighbor, your friend, your daughter.
A bright light turns on, and the process begins. As we watch, makeup artists darken Stephanie’s
eyes and highlight her lips with gloss. They apply foundation to her skin and blush to color her
cheeks. They groom her eyebrows and lengthen her lashes. They curl and tease and style her hair.
Then the photographer appears with his camera. He takes dozens of photos. Fans are turned on so
her hair appears naturally tousled. Stephanie alternately smiles and stares provocatively at the
camera. Finally, the photographer gets a shot he likes.
But getting the perfect snapshot is only the beginning. Next comes the Photoshopping. Stephanie’s
image is fed into a computer, and begins to morph before our eyes. Her lips are inflated. Her neck is
thinned and lengthened. Her eyes are enlarged. These are only a handful of the dozens of changes that
You are now gazing at a snapshot of a supermodel. As the camera pans backward, you can see that
the image has been placed on a billboard for a makeup campaign. The screen fades to black, and
small words appear in white writing. “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”
Wow. This is a powerful clip. A great reminder of all that really goes on behind the scenes in the
But in addition to being a great conversation piece, it’s also a clever Trojan Horse for Dove
The media in general, and the beauty industry in particular, tend to paint a skewed picture of
women. Models are usually tall and skinny. Magazines show women with flawless complexions and
perfect teeth. Ads scream that their products can transform you into a better you. Younger face, fuller
lips, softer skin.
Not surprisingly, these messages have a hugely negative impact on how women see themselves.
Only 2 percent of women describe themselves as beautiful. More than two-thirds believe that the
media has set an unrealistic standard of beauty that they’ll never be able to achieve. No matter how
hard they try. This feeling of not living up to expectations even affects young girls. Dark-haired girls
wish they were blond. Redheads hate their freckles.
Piper’s video, entitled “Evolution,” gives a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making the
images we are bombarded with every day. It reminds people that these stunning-looking women are
not real. They are fantasies, fictions only loosely based on actual people. Concocted using all the
magic that digital editing can provide. The clip is as raw and shocking as it is thought provoking.
But the film wasn’t sponsored by concerned citizens or an industry watchdog group. Piper made the
film in coordination with Dove, maker of health and beauty products, as part of its “Campaign for
Real Beauty.” This was Dove’s effort to celebrate the natural physical variations we all have and
then to inspire women to be confident and comfortable with themselves. Another ad for soap featured
real women of all shapes and sizes, rather than the rail-thin models people are used to seeing.
Not surprisingly, the campaign sparked a great deal of discussion. What does it mean to be
beautiful? How are the media shaping these perceptions? What can we do to make it better?
The campaign created more than just controversy. In addition to making the issue more Public, and
giving people an excuse to talk about a topic that would have otherwise been private, the campaign
also got them thinking, and talking, about Dove.
The company was commended for using real people in its campaigns and for getting people to talk
about this complicated but important issue. And “Evolution,” which cost only a little over one
hundred thousand dollars to make, got more than 16 million views. It netted the company hundreds of
millions of dollars in exposure. The clip won numerous industry awards and more than tripled the
website traffic the company received from Dove’s 2006 Super Bowl ad. Dove experienced double-
digit sales growth.
“Evolution” was widely shared because Dove latched onto something people already wanted to
talk about: unrealistic beauty norms. It’s a highly emotional issue, but something so controversial that
people might have been afraid to bring up otherwise. “Evolution” brought it out in the open. It let
people air their grievances and think about solutions. And along the way the brand benefited. Dove
got people talking by starting a conversation about beauty norms—but the brand was smuggled in as
part of the discussion. By creating an emotional story, Dove created a vessel that carried its brand
along for the ride.
And that brings us to the story of Ron Bensimhon.
MAKING VIRALITY VALUABLE
On August 16, 2004, Canadian Ron Bensimhon carefully shed his warm-up pants and stepped to the
edge of the three-meter springboard. He had attempted dives from this height many times before, but
never during an event of this magnitude. It was the Athens Olympics. The world’s biggest stage for
sport and the pinnacle of athletic competition. But Ron did not seem fazed. He shook off the jitters
and raised his hands high above his head. As the crowd roared, he leapt off the end of the board and
completed a full belly flop.
A belly flop? In the Olympics? Surely Ron must have been devastated. But as he emerged from the
water he seemed calm, happy even. He swam around for a few moments, hamming it up for the
audience and then slowly swam to the side of the pool, where he was met by a platoon of Olympic
officials and security guards.
Ron had broken into the Olympics. He wasn’t actually on the Canadian swim team. In fact, he
wasn’t an Olympic athlete at all. He was the self-proclaimed most famous streaker in the world, and
he had crashed the Olympics as part of a publicity stunt.
When Ron jumped off the springboard, he wasn’t naked, but he wasn’t wearing swim trunks either.
He wore a blue tutu and white polka dot tights. And emblazoned across his chest was the name of an
Internet casino, GoldenPalace.com.
This wasn’t the first Golden Palace publicity stunt (though the company did say that Ron’s stunt
was done without its knowledge). In 2004 it bid $28,000 on eBay for a grilled cheese sandwich that
some people believed displayed an image of the Virgin Mary. In 2005 it gave a woman $15,000 to
change her name to GoldenPalace.com. But the stunt with the “fool in the pool,” as Bensimhon has
been called, was one of the biggest. Millions of people were watching, and the story got picked up by
news outlets around the world. It also got a huge amount of word-of-mouth chatter. Someone crashing
the Olympics and diving into a pool in a tutu? What a story. Pretty remarkable.
But as the days ticked by, people didn’t talk about the casino. Sure, some people who saw
Bensimhon’s jump went to the website to try to figure out what was going on. But most people who
shared the story talked about the stunt, not the website. They talked about whether the interruption
threw off the Chinese divers, who flubbed their final dive right after the trick and lost the gold medal.
They talked about security at the Olympics and how someone could slip through so easily at such a
major event. And they talked about Bensimhon’s trial and whether he would serve jail time.
What they didn’t talk about was GoldenPalace.com. Why?
Marketing experts talk about “the fool in the pool” as one of the worst guerrilla marketing failures
of all time. Usually they deride it for having disrupted the competition and ruining the moment for
athletes who had trained all their lives. They also point out that it led to Bensimhon being arrested
and fined. These are all good reasons to consider Bensimhon’s belly flop, well, a flop.
But I’d like to add another one to the list. The stunt had nothing to do with the product it was trying
Yes, people talked about the stunt, but they didn’t talk about the casino. Polka dot tights, tutus, and
breaking into the Olympics to dive into a pool are all great story material. That’s why people talked
about them. So if the goal was to get people to think more about security at the Olympics or get
attention for a new style of tights, the stunt succeeded.
But it had nothing to do with casinos. Not even in the slightest.
So people talked about the remarkable story but left the casino out because it was irrelevant. They
might have mentioned that Bensimhon was sponsored by someone but didn’t mention the casino either
because it was so irrelevant that they forgot, or because it didn’t make the story any better. It’s like
building a magnificent Trojan Horse but forgetting to put anything inside.
When trying to generate word of mouth, many people forget one important detail. They focus so
much on getting people to talk that they ignore the part that really matters: what people are talking
That’s the problem with creating content that is unrelated to the product or idea it is meant to
promote. There’s a big difference between people talking about content and people talking about the
company, organization, or person that created that content.
Evian’s famous “Roller Babies” video had the same problem. The clip shows what appear to be
diaper-wearing babies doing tricks on roller skates. They jump over one another, hop over fences,
and do synchronized moves, all to the beat of the song “Rapper’s Delight.” The babies’ bodies are
clearly animated, but their faces look real, making the video remarkable to watch. The video got more
than 50 million views, and Guinness World Records declared it the most viewed online
advertisement in history.
But while you might think that all this attention would benefit the brand, it didn’t. That same year
Evian lost market share and sales dropped almost 25 percent.
The problem? Roller-skating babies are cute, but they have nothing to do with Evian. So people
shared the clip, but that didn’t benefit the brand.
The key, then, is to not only make something viral, but also make it valuable to the sponsoring
company or organization. Not just virality but valuable virality.
Take Barclay Prime’s hundred-dollar cheesesteak that we talked about at the beginning of the book.
Compared with dancing babies and bottled water, an expensive, high-end cheesesteak and an
expensive, high-end steak restaurant are clearly more related. And the item wasn’t just a stunt, it was
an actual option on Barclay’s menu. Further, it directly spoke to the inferences the restaurant wanted
consumers to make about its food: high quality but not stuffy, lavish but creative.
Virality is most valuable when the brand or product benefit is integral to the story. When it’s
woven so deeply into the narrative that people can’t tell the story without mentioning it.
One of my favorite examples of valuable virality comes from the Egyptian dairy company Panda,
which makes a variety of different cheese products.
The commercials always start innocuously: workers talking about what to have for lunch, or a
hospital nurse checking in on a patient. In one spot a father is grocery shopping with his son. “Dad,
why don’t we get some Panda cheese?” the son asks as they walk by the dairy aisle. “Enough!” the
father replies. “We have enough stuff in the cart already.”
Then the panda appears. Or rather, a man in a panda suit. There’s simply no way to describe
adequately the ludicrousness of this moment. Yes, a giant panda is suddenly standing in the middle of
a grocery store. Or in a different commercial, an office. Or in another, a medical clinic.
In the grocery-store video, the father and son stare at the panda, obviously dumbfounded. As a
Buddy Holly tune plays, the boy and his father look at the Panda cheese on the shelf, then back to the
panda. And back and forth again. The father gulps.
Then, pandemonium ensues (excuse the pun).
The panda slowly walks toward the shopping cart, calmly places both hands on its sides, and flips
Food flies all over the aisle—pasta, canned goods, and liquids everywhere. The stare-down
continues as the father and the panda stand on opposite ends of the cart. A long pause ensues. Then the
panda kicks the overturned food for good measure. “Never say no to Panda,” a voice intones as a
panda hand flashes the product on the screen.
The commercial and others like it are impeccably timed and utterly hilarious. I’ve shown them to
everyone from college kids to financial service executives and everyone laughs until their sides hurt.
But note that what makes these videos so great is not just that they’re funny. The commercial would
have been just as funny if the guy was dressed in a chicken suit or if the tagline was, “Never say no to
Jim’s used cars.” Someone dressed in an animal suit kicking groceries is funny regardless of which
animal it is or what product it’s for.
They’re successful—and great examples of valuable virality—because the brand is an integral part
of the stories. Mentioning the panda is a natural part of the conversation. In fact, you’d have to try
pretty hard not to mention the panda and still have the story make sense (much less get people to
understand why it’s funny). So the best part of the story and the brand name are perfectly intertwined.
That increases the chance not only that people telling the story will talk about Panda the brand, but
also that they will remember what product the commercial is for, days or even weeks later. Panda is
part and parcel of the story. It’s an essential part of the narrative.
The same can be said for Blendtec’s Will It Blend? campaign. It’s impossible to tell the story of
the clips where the blender tears through an iPhone without talking about a blender. And without
recognizing that the Blendtec blender in the videos must be extremely tough—so strong that it can
blend almost anything. Which is exactly what Blendtec wants to communicate.
In trying to craft contagious content, valuable virality is critical. That means making the idea or
desired benefit a key part of the narrative. It’s like the plot of a good detective story. Some details are
critical to the narrative and some are extraneous. Where were the different suspects at the time of the
murder? Critical. What was the detective eating for dinner while he mulled over the details of the
case? Not so important.
The same distinction can be applied to the content we’ve been discussing. Take Ron Bensimhon’s
Olympic stunt. Jumping into a pool? Critical. GoldenPalace.com? Pretty much irrelevant.
The importance of these different types of details becomes even clearer when people retell the
story. Think about the story of the Trojan Horse. It has survived for thousands of years. There is a
written account of the story, but most of the details people know come from hearing someone else talk
about it. But which details people remember and retell? It isn’t random. Critical details stick around,
while irrelevant ones drop out.
Psychologists Gordon Allport and Joseph Postman examined a similar issue more than fifty years
ago. They were keenly interested in what happened to rumors as they spread from person to person.
Did the stories stay the same as they were transmitted or did they change? And if they changed, were
there predictable patterns in how rumors evolved?
To address this question, they had people play what most of us would describe as a game of
First, someone was shown a picture of a detailed situation—in one case, a group of people on a
subway car. The car appears to be an Eighth Avenue Express and it is going past Dyckman Street.
There are various advertisements posted on the car, and five people are seated, including a rabbi and
a mother carrying her baby. But the focus of the picture is two men having an argument. They are
standing up, and one is pointing at the other and holding a knife.
Then the game of Telephone starts. The first person (transmitter) is asked to describe the picture to
someone else (receiver), who cannot see it. The transmitter conveys the various details as he sees fit.
The transmitter then leaves the room and a new person enters. That new person becomes the receiver,
and the original receiver becomes the transmitter, sharing what happened in the image with the new
receiver, who also hasn’t seen the image. Then the original receiver leaves the room, a new person
enters, and the game is repeated to a fourth, fifth, and eventually sixth person. Allport and Postman
then looked at which story details persisted along the transmission chain.
They found that the amount of information shared dropped dramatically each time the rumor was
shared. Around 70 percent of the story details were lost in the first five to six transmissions.
But the stories didn’t just become shorter: they were also sharpened around the main point or key
details. Across dozens of transmission chains there were common patterns. Certain details were
consistently left out and certain details were consistently retained. In the story about the subway car
the first person telling the story mentioned all the details. They talked about how the subway car
seemed to be an Eighth Avenue Express, how it was going past Dyckman Street, and how there were
a number of people on it, two of them arguing.
But as the story was passed on down the telephone line, many of the unimportant details got
stripped out. People stopped talking about what type of subway it was or where it was traveling and
instead focused on the argument. The fact that one person was pointing at the other and brandishing a
knife. Just as in the detective story, people mentioned the critical details and left out the extraneous
If you want to craft contagious content, try to build your own Trojan Horse. But make sure you think
about valuable virality. Make sure the information you want people to remember and transmit is
critical to the narrative. Sure, you can make your narrative funny, surprising, or entertaining. But if
people don’t connect the content back to you, it’s not going to help you very much. Even if it goes
So build a Social Currency–laden, Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable Trojan
Horse, but don’t forget to hide your message inside. Make sure your desired information is so
embedded into the plot that people can’t tell the story without it.
Ask three people where they got their last manicure, and chances are good that at least one of them
had a Vietnamese nail technician. But the story of how it got that way might surprise you. It started
with twenty women and a set of long coral nails.
She’d been a high school teacher in her home country, but when Thuan Le arrived at Hope Village
in 1975, she had nothing but the clothes on her back. The tent city outside Sacramento was a holding
ground for Vietnamese refugees who escaped to America after the fall of Saigon. Teeming with new
immigrants, the camp simultaneously brimmed with hope and despair. People had come to America
with dreams of a better life for themselves and their families, but with little English knowledge, so
the possibilities were limited.
Actress Tippi Hedren, who had starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, was drawn to the
refugees’ plight and would visit Hope Village every few days. Hedren wanted to help, so she became
a mentor to some of the women. Former business owners, teachers, and government officials in
Vietnam, these industrious women were eager to get to work. Hedren was enchanted by their stories
of Vietnam. They, in turn, noticed something about her: her beautiful nails.
The women admired Hedren’s glossy light pink fingernails, so she brought her manicurist in once a
week to give them lessons. How to trim cuticles, wrap nails, and remove calluses. The women were
quick studies and practiced on Hedren, themselves, and anyone they could get their hands on.
Soon a plan was hatched. Hedren got the women free classes at a nearby beauty school. They
learned how to file, paint, and trim. Then Hedren asked around and helped Le and the other women
find jobs in Santa Monica and surrounding cities.
It was tough at first. Manicures were not yet the rage and there was lots of competition. But Le and
the other women passed their licensing exams and started doing business. They worked hard, labored
long hours, and took the jobs no one else wanted. The women were diligent and kept at it. They made
money and worked their way up.
Seeing Le’s success, a few of her friends decided to get into the business. They opened one of the
first beauty salons owned by Vietnamese Americans and encouraged others to do the same.
The success stories soon spread. The thousands of Vietnamese who came to the United States
looking for new possibilities heard what others were doing, and they listened. Vietnamese nail salons
started opening up all around Sacramento. Then through the rest of California. Then the entire country.
These twenty women started the trend, but soon it had a life of its own.
Today, 80 percent of manicurists in California are Vietnamese Americans. Nationwide the number
is greater than 40 percent.
Vietnamese nail salons became contagious.
The story of Thuan, Tippi, and the spread of Vietnamese nail salons is pretty amazing. But even
more surprising is the fact that it’s not unique.
Other immigrant groups have cornered similar niches. Estimates suggest that Cambodian
Americans own approximately 80 percent of the doughnut shops in Los Angeles, and that Koreans
own 65 percent of the dry cleaners in New York City. In the 1850s, 60 percent of the liquor stores in
Boston were run by Irishmen. In the early 1900s, Jews produced 85 percent of men’s clothes. The list
When you think about it, these stories make a lot of sense. People move to a new country and start
looking for work. But while the immigrants may have had various skilled jobs previously, their
options in the new country are often limited. There is a language barrier, it’s tough to transfer
previous certifications or qualifications, and they don’t have as many contacts as they had back home.
So immigrants look to their friends and acquaintances for help.
And as with the rest of the products and ideas we’ve talked about throughout the book, social
influence and word of mouth kick in. The topic of employment is frequent among new immigrants
looking for work (Triggers). So they look to see what jobs other recent immigrants have taken
(Public) and talk to them about the best opportunities. These more established immigrants want to
look good (Social Currency) and help others (Practical Value) so they tell exciting (Emotion)
narratives (Stories) about others they know who have been successful.
Soon these new immigrants follow their peers and pursue the same line of work.
The story of Vietnamese manicurists, and immigrants’ choice of occupations more generally,
highlights a number of points we’ve discussed throughout the book.
First, any product, idea, or behavior can be contagious. We’ve talked about blenders ( Will It
Blend?), bars (Please Don’t Tell), and breakfast cereals (Cheerios). “Naturally” exciting products,
like discount shopping (Rue La La) and high-end restaurants (Barclay Prime’s hundred-dollar
cheesesteak) and less traditionally buzz-worthy goods like corn (Ken Craig’s “Clean Ears
Everytime”) and online search (Google’s “Parisian Love”). Products (iPod’s white headphones) and
services (Hotmail) but also nonprofits (Movember and Livestrong bands), health behaviors (“Man
Drinks Fat”), and whole industries (Vietnamese nail salons). Even soap (Dove’s “Evolution”). Social
influence helps all sorts of products and ideas catch on.
Second, we saw that rather than being caused by a handful of special “influential” people, social
epidemics are driven by the products and ideas themselves.
Sure, every great story has a hero. Tippi Hedren helped Vietnamese women learn about manicures,
and George Wright had the creative idea that started Will It Blend? But while these individuals
provided the initial spark, they’re only one small part of the story. Describing why a small handful of
cool or connected people (so-called influentials) are not as important to social epidemics as we
might think, sociologist Duncan Watts makes a nice comparison to forest fires. Some forest fires are
bigger than others, but no one would claim that the size of the fire depends on the exceptional nature
of the initial spark. Big forest fires aren’t caused by big sparks. Lots of individual trees have to catch
fire and carry the flames.
Contagious products and ideas are like forest fires. They can’t happen without hundreds, if not
thousands, of regular Joes and Janes passing the product or message along.
So why did thousands of people transmit these products and ideas?
And that’s where we get to the third point: certain characteristics make products and ideas more
likely to be talked about and shared. You might have thought it was just random why some things
catch on, that certain products and ideas just got lucky. But it’s not just luck. And it’s not a mystery.
The same key principles drive all sorts of social epidemics. Whether it’s about getting people to save
paper, see a documentary, try a service, or vote for a candidate, there is a recipe for success. The
same six principles, or STEPPS, drive things to catch on.
We share things that make us look good
Top of mind, tip of tongue
When we care, we share
Built to show, built to grow
News you can use
Information travels under the guise of idle chatter
So if we’re trying to make a product or idea contagious, think about how to build in these key
Some of this can happen in the design of the product or idea itself. The hundred-dollar cheesesteak
was engineered to have Social Currency. Rebecca Black’s song was frequently triggered because of
its title. Susan Boyle’s performance evoked lots of Emotion. Movember raised millions for men’s
cancer by taking a once private behavior and using moustaches to make it Public. Ken Craig’s “Clean
Ears Everytime” video is two minutes of pure Practical Value.
But these STEPPS can also be built into messaging around a product or idea. Blendtec’s blenders
had always been powerful, but by showing that power in a remarkable way, the Will It Blend? videos
generated Social Currency and got people buzzing. Kit Kat didn’t change its product, but by linking it
to a popular beverage (coffee), the company increased the number of Triggers to make people think
(and talk) about the candy bar. People share Vanguard’s MoneyWhys because they provide Practical
Value, but passing them along boosts word of mouth for the company itself. People shared Dove’s
“Evolution” video because it evokes lots of Emotion, but by embedding itself in the narrative, Dove
benefits from the chatter as well.
If you want to apply this framework, here’s a checklist you can use to see how well your product or
idea is doing on the six different STEPPS.
Follow these six key STEPPS, or even just a few of them, and you can harness social influence and
word of mouth to get any product or idea to catch on.
One last note. The best part of the STEPPS framework is that anyone can use it. It doesn’t require a
huge advertising budget, marketing genius, or some sort of creativity gene. Yes, the viral videos and
contagious content we’ve talked about were created by particular individuals, but not all of them
were famous or could boast ten thousand followers on Twitter. They relied on one or more of the six
key STEPPS and this made their products and ideas more contagious.
Does talking about your product or idea make people look good? Can you find the inner remarkability? Leverage game
mechanics? Make people feel like insiders?
Consider the context. What cues make people think about your product or idea? How can you grow the habitat and make it
come to mind more often?
Emotion Focus on feelings. Does talking about your product or idea generate emotion? How can you kindle the fire?
Does your product or idea advertise itself? Can people see when others are using it? If not, how can you make the private
public? Can you create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people use it?
Does talking about your product or idea help people help others? How can you highlight incredible value, packaging your
knowledge and expertise into useful information others will want to disseminate?
What is your Trojan Horse? Is your product or idea embedded in a broader narrative that people want to share? Is the story
not only viral, but also valuable?
Howard Wein needed a way to help a new restaurant break through the clutter, a way to raise
awareness while staying true to the Barclay Prime brand. The hundred-dollar cheesesteak did just
that. It not only provided a remarkable (Social Currency), surprising (Emotion) narrative (Story) but
also illustrated the type of quality product that the steakhouse offered (Practical Value). And the
prevalence of cheesesteaks in Philadelphia offered ready reminders for people to pass it on
(Triggers). The hundred-dollar cheesesteak got people talking and helped make Barclay Prime a
George Wright had almost no marketing budget. He needed a way to generate buzz about a product
most people wouldn’t ordinarily talk about: a blender. By thinking about what made his product
compelling and wrapping that idea in a broader narrative, he was able to generate hundreds of
millions of views and boost sales. The Will It Blend? clips are amazing (Emotion) and remarkable
(Social Currency). But by making the product’s benefits (Practical Value) integral to a broader
narrative (Stories), the videos provided a perfect Trojan horse to get people talking about an
everyday household appliance and make Blendtec catch on.
Regular people with regular products and ideas. But by harnessing the psychology of word of
mouth, they were able to make their products and ideas succeed.
Throughout the book we’ve discussed cutting-edge science about how word of mouth and social
influence work. If you follow these six key STEPPS, you can make any product or idea contagious.
Whenever I said I was writing a book, people often asked whether anyone was helping me. While I
did not have a co-author, that question was tough to answer because this book would never have
reached fruition without countless people’s help.
First, I want to thank my various collaborators over the years. People like Ezgi Akpinar, Eric
Bradlow, Dave Balter and the team at BzzAgent, Gráinne Fitzsimons, Raghu Iyengar, Ed Keller and
the folks at Keller Fay Group, Blake McShane, Katy Milkman, Eric Schwartz, and Morgan Ward,
without whom the papers I discussed in the book would not have been possible. Bright students like
Rebecca Greenblatt, Diana Jiang, Lauren McDevitt, Geneva Long, Keri Taub, and Jennifer Wu
helped support these projects. Malcolm Gladwell wrote the amazing book that sent me down this
road. Anna Mastri pushed me to be a better writer, and books by Seth Godin, Stanley Lieberson,
Everett Rogers, Emanuel Rosen, Thomas Schelling, and Jonathan Weiner inspired me to pursue this
line of research. A debt of gratitude also goes out to people like Glenn Moglen, who introduced me to
academic research; Emily Pronin, who introduced me to social psychology; Noah Mark, who
introduced me to sociology; and Lee Ross and Itamar Simonson, who said to always shoot for big
ideas. Thanks also to all my colleagues at Wharton and Stanford and all the teachers and staff at
Montgomery Blair High School and Takoma Park Middle School who taught me, and thousands of
other lucky kids, about the wonders of math and science.
Second, I want to thank the people who made the book itself possible. Dan Ariely, Dan Gilbert,
and Sarah Lehrer helped me understand what writing a book really meant. Alice LaPlante sharpened
the writing. Jim Levine and all of his colleagues at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency were guiding
lights throughout the process. Jonathan Karp, Bob Bender, Tracey Guest, Richard Rhorer, Michael
Accordino, and the rest of the team at Simon & Schuster helped form these ideas into a real book.
Anthony Cafaro, Colleen Chorak, Ken Craig, Ben Fischman, Denise Grady, Koreen Johannessen,
Scott MacEachern, Jim Meehan, Tim Piper, Ken Segall, Brian Shebairo, Howard Wein, and George
Wright took the time to share their stories with me. Various Wharton Executive EMBA students were
nice enough to provide feedback on the draft. The UPenn lunchtime soccer crew provided a welcome
break from writing. Maria Ana brought an eagle eye to revising. My brother, Fred, Danny, and the
whole Bruno family not only gave feedback on the drafts but reminded me why I was doing all of this
in the first place.
A few more people deserve special note. First, to Chip, who not only has been an advisor, mentor,
and friend, but has taught me most of what I know about writing and research: I cannot thank you
enough. Second, to Jordan for sticking through the process with me and being both a thoughtful editor
and a tireless champion, depending on what was needed. Third, to my parents, Diane Arkin and
Jeffrey Berger, not only for reading and supporting this project, but for laying the groundwork to make
it all possible. And finally, to my grandmother. For kicking off this journey and supporting me along
Contagious: Why Things Catch On
By Jonah Berger
Simon & Schuster Readers Group Guide
What makes products and ideas catch on and become popular? Why do some stories get shared more
than others? Why are some rumors infectious? What makes things “go viral”?
In Contagious, Jonah Berger shares the secret science behind social transmission. Why we talk about
and share some things rather than others. Why we pass things on. Filled with engaging stories and
comprehensive research Contagious is an essential tool for anyone that wants to make their product
or idea spread.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1) Consider and discuss the most recent email forward you received. It might have been a news
article, video, or story. What aspects of the STEPPS framework did it adhere to? Do the same
analysis for the last viral video you watched, hot restaurant you tried, hit movie you saw, etc.
Which concepts in the framework apply?
2) Which examples that Berger mentioned (e.g., Blendtec, Dove’s Evolution, white iPhone
earbuds) had you been aware of before the book? Trace how these cultural touchstones came to
3) Discuss and analyze something you do using the lens of game mechanics. What makes that
game, club, website, community, or activity so engaging? Consider each of the STEPPS. What
keeps you hooked? Also, why do we value achievement so much? Where is an area you’ve
noticed yourself being motivated by it?
4) Can mundane things (like a blender) really diffuse through public consciousness as quickly as
remarkable things can? Does sensationalism or novelty (inherent remarkability) carry an
advantage, even when STEPPS are considered?
5) What is an example where you’ve noticed yourself being motivated by scarcity? New high
tech devices (new phones, gadgets, etc.) are frequently scarce when they are released. Does
possession of these products carry social currency? Does their frequent release (a veritable
flooding of the market) make them less scarce?
6) Would you brave the phone lines to enter Please Don’t Tell? What about its seclusion appeals
to you? Is there also something that turns you off to the fight for a seat?
7) Compare an instance of ongoing and immediate word of mouth. Is one more powerful than
8) Without thinking too hard, what is currently top of mind for you? Can you identify triggers is
your own life that bring things to mind? For example, whenever I see or hear __________ I think
9) Like the Mars Bar and Rebecca Black’s Friday, discuss products or campaigns that have
“natural” triggers. Does having a pre-existing “habitat” increase likelihood of sharing? Of
10) Discuss high-arousal versus low-arousal emotions. What are some examples of each that you’ve
noticed in your own lives? Is it strange that “contentment” (which so many people strive for in
every day life) elicits little arousal? Have you ever shared something sad?
11) Privacy is a paramount concern in today’s information-driven digital era. How does this fit with
the idea of making the private public? (Consider Movember, Hotmail, and the Facebook
generation.). When do we want our choices and opinions to be public versus private? Where are
the lines drawn between open and closed information?
12) Watch Tim Piper/Dove’s Evolution video. Discuss the idea of Trojan Horses and how emotion is
coded into the narrative of ideas.
13) Which aspect of STEPPS do you think is most affective? Compare Berger’s various examples of
Social Currency, Triggers, Emotions, Public, Practical Value, and Stories. Is one of these
characteristics most important for driving sharing? Is there a specific combination that makes one
thing more appealing than another?
EXPAND YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Perform an experiment and monitor the “most emailed” section of NYTimes.com for a week.
Do you begin to notice patterns in what is shared? Consider arousal emotions, practical value,
and the very subject matter of the articles.
2. Keep a transmission journal and note the ways in which products, ideas, campaigns, and
companies use the tenets of human behavioral sharing to make their wares “stick” and “spread.”
How much of your life is subject to the basic STEPPS?
3. Create your own viral video with the STEPPS in mind. What are the challenges of making
something that addresses all of these sharing factors? Track the success of your video and how
people react. Have you cracked the code to viral content?
A CONVERSATION WITH JONAH BERGER
1. The Harvard neuro study revealing that sharing is rewarding in the same way as food and
other high-pleasure reward was incredibly interesting. Taking this into consideration, how do
you explain what is referred to as the “me” generation of Twitter and Facebook, in which
individuals share the most minute aspects of their everyday lives. Are all generations focused on
“me?” Is there something different going on in modernity?
People have always thought about and cared about themselves, but social media makes this easier to
see because it creates a written record of our actions. What we said, what we shared, and what we
“like.” But research suggests that these methods of communication may also contribute to making us
“me” focused. Computer mediated communication, and talking to large groups (rather than a single
other), may focus us more on ourselves and less on the wants and needs of others.
2. What’s the most recent thing you shared? And what was most recently shared with you?
Wow. Good question. One thing I recently shared was a New York Times article that has a quote
related to a research project we’re working on. One thing I just received was a restaurant
recommendation for good Asian fried chicken. I had talked about something related in a Financial
Times article about brand extensions, and someone who read the article sent me a note to prove me
3. Do you think you’ve cracked the code of efficient product advertising? Would you ever try
your hand at it?
Can we make ads more effective and viral? Yes. Have we “cracked the code”? There is always more
to learn. Definitely like trying my hand at it. I often help companies use the STEPPS framework to
improve their products and ideas and it is always lots of fun.
4. Along those same lines, have any of your students gone on to become successful
advertisers/viral video makers/idea-spreaders?
Definitely. I teach an exercise in my class where students use the STEPPS framework to try and
create a viral video. It’s tough but some people do amazingly well!
5. Discuss how you think sharing today compares to sharing 30 years ago. What about our digital
culture has made things different? Has sharing decreased in any way?
Sharing today is certainly different in some ways. There is less face-to-face interaction with our
friends and family, so we talk more over the phone or through the web. Research shows that this
decreases some of the benefits of social interaction. Warm interpersonal contact reduces stress, but
things like texting don’t have the same effect. Do we share less? Doubtful, but we do share
6. The nature of current commercials seems more and more “off-brand,” as companies create
non-sequitur and nonsensical ads to elicit a laugh or capitalize on “irony.” Are they failing to
follow the STEPPS? Is there remarkability to silliness un-related to product? (Unlike the Panda
in the food store).
Funny ads are great. And as a consumer, I love to watch them. But if the goal is not just to make
people laugh, but to get them to buy something, then valuable virality becomes vital. People will
share funny or ironic ads, but at the end of the day it doesn’t help the company if the consumer has no
idea what the ad was for.
7. Do you think most STEPPS happen at the unconscious level, or do you believe people create
things with these fundamental human behaviors in mind?
People are more aware of some of the STEPPS than others. Practical Value? We see that every day.
Social Currency? We see it in others all the time (even if it’s hard to see in ourselves). But we are
less aware of how Triggers or Public affects our behavior.
8. Is there something to be said for over-saturation? Can a good method of viral sharing exhaust
itself in our fast-as-lightning culture?
There is a key difference between psychology and marketing tactics. We may get over-saturated with
a particular tactic (e.g., pop-up ads or a certain style of ad) but the underlying psychology that drove
us to like it still remains. If every company makes their product “scarce” consumers will start to catch
on, but does that mean we’ll stop valuing scarcity altogether? Probably not.
9. Is one element of STEPPS more vital than the others?
No one of the STEPPS is most important, but certain ones are definitely easier to apply in certain
situations. It’s easier to leverage Public if you have a physical product. It’s easier to use Emotion if
you sell something related to children or animals. But the key is not just using the easy STEPPS.
Trying to incorporate the more difficult ones will really boost their impact.
10. Have you ever eaten the $100 cheesesteak at Barclay’s?
Yes. I highly recommend it.
© DEBORAH FEINGOLD
JONAH BERGER is the James G. Campbell Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton
School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published dozens of articles in top-tier academic
journals, and popular accounts of his work have appeared in places like The New York Times, The
Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Science, Harvard Business Review, Wired,
BusinessWeek, and Fast Company. His research has also been featured in The New York Times
Magazine’s annual “Year in Ideas” issue. Berger has been recognized with awards for both
scholarship and teaching, including being named Wharton’s “Iron Prof.” He lives in Philadelphia,
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Introduction: Why Things Catch On
Sixty percent are gone: www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Courses/Ec1F07/restaurantsfail .
“It was like eating gold”: Taken from Barclay Prime’s Yelp page,
Most restaurants bomb: Shane, Scott (2008), “Startup Failure Rates—The REAL numbers,” Small
Business Trends, April 28, http://smallbiztrends.com/2008/04/startup-failure-rates.html.
People share more than 16,000 words: See Mehl, Matthais R., Simine Vazire, Nairan Ramirez-
Esparza, Richard B. Slatcher, and James W. Pennebaker (2007), “Are Women Really More
Talkative Than Men?” Science 317, 82.
100 million conversations about brands: see Keller, Ed, and Barak Libai (2009), “A Holistic
Approach to the Measurement of WOM,” presentation at ESOMAR Worldwide Media
Measurement Conference, Stockholm (May 4–6).
We try websites our neighbors recommend: see Trusov, Michael, Randolph E. Bucklin, and Koen
Pauwels (2009), “Effects of Word-of-Mouth Versus Traditional Marketing: Findings from an
Internet Social Networking Site,” Journal of Marketing 73 (September), 90–102.
Word of mouth is the primary factor: Bughin, Jacques, Jonathan Doogan, and Ole Jørgen Vetvik
(2010), “A New Way to Measure Word-of-Mouth Marketing,” McKinsey Quarterly (white paper).
Goel, Watts, and Goldstein 2012: “The Structure of Online Diffusion Networks,” Proceedings of the
13th ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce (EC ’12).
$200 increase in restaurant sales: see Godes, David, and Dina Mayzlin (2009), “Firm-Created
Word-of-Mouth Communication: Evidence from a Field Study,” Marketing Science 28, no. 4, 721–
twenty more books sold: Chevalier, Judith, and Dina Mayzlin (2006), “The Effect of Word of Mouth
on Sales: Online Book Reviews,” Journal of Marketing Research 43, no. 3, 345–54.
Doctors are more likely: Iyengar, Raghuram, Christophe Van den Bulte, and Thomas W. Valente
(2011), “Opinion Leadership and Social Contagion in New Product Diffusion,” Marketing Science
30, no. 2, 195–212.
People are more likely: Christakis, Nicholas A., and James Fowler (2009), Connected: The
Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (New York: Little,
Brown and Company).
while traditional advertising is still useful: Stephen, Andrew, and Jeff Galak (2012), “The Effects
of Traditional and Social Earned Media on Sales: A Study of a Microlending Marketplace,”
Journal of Marketing Research (forthcoming); Trusov, Bucklin, and Pauwels, “Effects of Word-
of-Mouth Versus Traditional Marketing.”
customers referred by their friends: Schmitt, Philipp, Bernd Skiera, and Christophe Van den Bulte
(2011), “Referral Programs and Customer Value,” Journal of Marketing 75 (January), 46–59. See
Millions of people use these sites: Eridon, Corey (2011), “25 Billion Pieces of Content Get Shared
on Facebook Monthly,” Hubspot Blog, December 2,
The actual number is 7 percent: This book provides a really nice perspective on the importance of
face-to-face word of mouth: Keller, Ed, and Brad Fay (2012), The Face-to-Face Book: Why Real
Relationships Rule in a Digital Marketplace (New York: Free Press).
Close to two hours a day: See http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-10421016-93.html.
the average tweet: Arthur, Charles (2009), “Average Twitter User has 126 Followers, and Only
20% of Users Go via Website,” The Guardian, March 29,
offline discussions are more prevalent: When thinking about whether online or offline word of
mouth will be more effective, also think about where the desired action is taking place. If you’re
trying to get people to check out a website, then online word of mouth is great because the desired
action is only a click away. The same thing is true with offline products or behaviors. Online word
of mouth about pasta sauce is great, but people need to remember to buy it when they’re actually in
the store, so offline word of mouth may be even better. Also think about whether and where people
do research before they buy. While most people buy a car offline, they do a lot of research online
and may make their decision before they ever step into the dealership. In those instances, online
word of mouth may sway their decision.
Only one-third of 1 percent: See http://articles.businessinsider.com/2009-05-
“by the efforts”: Gladwell, Malcolm (2000), The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a
Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown).
“one in 10 Americans”: Keller, Ed, and Jon Berry (2003), The Influentials: One American in Ten
Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy (New York: Free Press).
making things go viral: Right now there is little good empirical evidence that people who have more
social ties or who are more persuasive have a bigger impact on what catches on. See Bakshy,
Eytan, Jake Hofman, Winter A. Mason, and Duncan J. Watts (2011), “Everyone’s an Influencer:
Quantifying Influence on Twitter,” Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Web
Search and Data Mining, Hong Kong; see also Watts, Duncan J., and Peter S. Dodds (2007),
“Networks, Influence, and Public Opinion Formation,” Journal of Consumer Research 34, no. 4,
441–58. Think about the last story someone told you that you passed on. Did you share it because
the person who told you was really popular? Or because the story itself was so funny or surprising?
Think about the last news article someone sent you that you forwarded on to someone else. Did you
pass it along because the person who sent it was particularly persuasive? Or because you knew
someone else would be interested in the information the story contained? In these and most other
cases, the driving force behind word of mouth is the message, not the messenger.
Tom Dickson was looking for a new job: Sauer, Patrick J. (2008), “Confessions of a Viral Video
Superstar,” Inc. magazine, June 19. Go to http://jonahberger.com to see Tom blending an iPhone.
in 1999 Blendtec was founded: See http://donteattheshrimp.com/2007/07/03/will-it-blend-gets-
blendtec-in-the-wsj/ and http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2391 for some good discussions of
the early years at Blendtec.
1. Social Currency
Brian decided: Interviews with Brian Shebairo on May 16, 2012, and Jim Meehan on May 13, 2012.
40 percent of what people talk about: Dunbar, Robert I. M., Anna Marriott, and N. D. C. Duncan
(1997), “Human Conversational Behavior,” Human Nature 8, no. 3, 231–44.
half of tweets are “me” focused: Naaman, Mor, Jeffrey Boase, and Chih-Hui Lai (2010), “Is It
Really About Me? Message Content in Social Awareness Streams,” Proceedings of the ACM
Jason Mitchell and Diana Tamir: Tamir, Diana I., and Jason P. Mitchell (2012), “Disclosing
Information About the Self Is Intrinsically Rewarding,” Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences 109, no. 21, 8038–43.
We make educated guesses: See Berger, Jonah, and Chip Heath (2008), “Who Drives Divergence?
Identity Signaling, Outgroup Dissimilarity, and the Abandonment of Cultural Tastes,” Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 3, 593–605. See also Berger, Jonah, and Chip Heath
(2007), “Where Consumers Diverge from Others: Identity Signaling and Product Domains,”
Journal of Consumer Research 34, no. 2, 121–34, for discussions of research in this area.
Prada handbag: Wojnicki, Andrea C., and Dave Godes (2010), “Word-of-Mouth as Self-
Enhancement,” University of Toronto working paper. See also De Angelis, Matteo, Andrea
Bonezzi, Alessandro Peluso, Derek Rucker, and Michele Costabile (2012), “On Braggarts and
Gossips: A Self-Enhancement Account of Word-of-Mouth Generation and Transmission,” Journal
of Marketing Research, forthcoming.
Something “out of the ordinary”: For a discussion of the story behind Snapple facts, see
Wharton professor Raghu Iyengar: Berger, Jonah, and Raghuram Iyengar (2013), “How Interest
Shapes Word-of-Mouth over Different Channels,” Wharton working paper.
More interesting tweets: Bakshy, Eytan, Jake M. Hofman, Winter A. Mason, and Duncan J. Watts
(2011), “Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter,” WSDM, 65–74. See also
Berger, Jonah, and Katherine Milkman (2012), “What Makes Online Content Viral,” Journal of
Marketing Research 49, no. 2, 192–205.
psychologists from the University of Illinois: Burrus, Jeremy, Justin Kruger, and Amber Jurgens
(2006), “The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story: The Distortion of Stories in the
Service of Entertainment,” University of Illinois working paper.
One way to generate surprise: Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath (2011), Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas
Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House).
Mysteries and controversy: Ibid. See also Chen, Zoey, and Jonah Berger (2012), “When, Why, and
How Controversy Causes Conversation,” Wharton working paper.
Shot on a handheld camera: Details about The Blair Witch Project can be found at
black toilet paper: Information about Renova, the Portuguese company that makes colored toilet
paper, can be found at http://www.renovaonline.net/_global/.
180 million people: The facts about frequent flier programs came from
discrete markers motivate us: Information about how goals can act as reference points and how
discrete progress markers can affect motivation can be found in: Heath, Chip, Richard P. Larrick,
and George Wu (1999), “Goals as Reference Points,” Cognitive Psychology 38, 79–109; Amir,
On, and Dan Ariely (2008), “Resting on Laurels: The Effects of Discrete Progress Markers as Sub-
goals on Task Performance and Preferences,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning,
Memory, and Cognition 34, no. 5, 1158–71; and Kivetz, Ran, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng
(2006), “The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal
Progress, and Customer Retention,” Journal of Marketing Research 43, no. 1, 39–56.
By increasing motivation, the cards: Kivetz, Ran, Oleg Urminsky, and Yuhuang Zheng (2006), “The
Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and
Customer Retention,” Journal of Marketing Research, 43 (February), 39–58.
They preferred to do better: Solnick, S. J., and D. Hemenway (1998), “Is More Always Better? A
Survey on Positional Concerns.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 37, 373–83.
the contest helped drive sales: Information about Burberry’s “Art of the Trench” campaign can be
found at http://blogs.wsj.com/source/2010/01/19/burberry%E2%80%99s-trench-website-too-
“It’s like the concierge”: Interview with Ben Fischman on June 12, 2012. Thanks to Dave Balter for
introducing me to this great story.
If something is difficult to obtain: For a discussion of how effort influences inferences of value, see
Aronson, Elliot (1997), “The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: The Evolution and Vicissitudes of
an Idea,” in The Message of Social Psychology: Perspectives on Mind in Society, ed. Craig
McGarty and S. Alexander Haslam (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing), 20–35; and Aronson,
Elliot, and Judson Mills (1959), “The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group,”
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66, no. 6, 584–88. See also Sela, Aner, and Jonah
Berger (2011), “Decision Quicksand: How Trivial Choices Suck Us In,” Journal of Consumer
People evaluate cookbooks: There are a number of valuable papers on how scarcity affects value.
See Verhallen, Theo (1982), “Scarcity and Consumer Choice Behavior,” Journal of Economic
Psychology 2, 299–322; Worchel, S., J. Lee, and A. Adewole (1975), “Effects of Supply and
Demand on Ratings of Object Value,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 32, 906–14;
Fromkin, H. L., J. C. Olson, R. L. Dipboye, and D. Barnaby (1971), “A Commodity Theory
Analysis of Consumer Preferences for Scarce Products,” Proceedings 79th Annual Convention of
the American Psychological Association, 1971, pp. 653–54.
Chicken McNuggets: Thanks to Dave Balter for telling me about the McRib locator. For background
details on the story, see http://www.maxim.com/funny/the-cult-of-the-mcrib-0 and
as soon as you pay people: For early (and extremely clever) research on intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation, see Lepper, Mark R., David Greene, and Richard E. Nisbett (1973), “Undermining
Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward: A Test of the ‘Overjustification’ Hypothesis,”
Journal of Social and Personality Psychology 28, no. 1, 129–37. For a more recent treatment, see
Heyman, James, and Dan Ariely (2004), “Effort for Payment: A Tale of Two Markets,”
Psychological Science 15, no. 11, 787–93.
“Nobody talks about boring companies”: Sernovitz, Andy (2006), Word of Mouth Marketing: How
Smart Companies Get People Talking (Chicago: Kaplan Publishing).
People talk about Cheerios: The finding that Honey Nut Cheerios get more word of mouth than Walt
Disney World comes from the BzzAgent analysis we discuss in this chapter: Berger, Jonah, and
Eric Schwartz (2011), “What Drives Immediate and Ongoing Word-of-Mouth?” Journal of
Marketing, October, 869–80. The finding also comes from Twitter data on the frequency with
which these two brands are discussed.
sixteen word-of-mouth episodes: Carl, Walter (2006), “What’s All the Buzz About? Everyday
Communication and the Relational Basis of Word-of-Mouth and Buzz Marketing Practices,”
Management Communication Quarterly 19, 601–34.
American consumers mention specific brands: Keller, Ed, and Barak Libai (2009), “A Holistic
Approach to the Measurement of WOM,” presentation at ESOMAR Worldwide Media
Measurement Conference, Stockholm (May 4–6).
Dave gave my colleague Eric Schwartz: This included information about the product in each
campaign and the number of BzzReports each BzzAgent submitted. We were especially interested
in the fact that we could analyze the buzz generated by each product by agent. After all, certain
people might share more word of mouth than others: Chatty Cathys talk more than Quiet Quentins.
But by looking at how much individual agents talked across different campaigns, we could identify
patterns. We could see whether an agent talked more about a coffee brand than a new type of digital
camera. And we could start to understand why certain products got more word of mouth than
others. Not just whether people talked about certain product categories (such as food) more than
others (such as movies), but what really drives discussion in the first place—the psychology of
some thoughts are more top of mind: Accessibility is a huge topic in psychology; for some classic
research on the topic, see Higgins, E. Tory, and G. King (1981), “Accessibility of Social
Constructs: Information-processing Consequences of Individual and Contextual Variability,” in
Personality, Cognition, and Social Interaction, ed. N. Cantor and J. F. Kihlstrom (Hillsdale, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum), 60–81; and Wyer, Robert S., and T. K. Srull (1981), “Category Accessibility:
Some Theoretical and Empirical Issues Concerning the Processing of Social Stimulus Information,”
in Social Cognition: The Ontario Symposium, vol. 1, ed. E. T. Higgins, C. P. Herman, and M. P.
Zanna (Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum), 161–97.
Some things are chronically accessible: For an early paper on chronic accessibility, see Bargh, John
A., W. J. Lombardi, and E. Tory Higgins (1988), “Automaticity of Chronically Accessible
Constructs in Person X Situation Effects on Person Perception: It’s Just a Matter of Time,” Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology 55, no. 4, 599–605.
stimuli in the surrounding environment: There is a huge literature on stimuli in the environment and
spreading activation, but for some classics, see Anderson, John R. (1983), The Architecture of
Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press); Collins, Allan M., and Elizabeth F.
Loftus (1975), “A Spreading-Activation Theory of Semantic Processing,” Psychological Review
82, no. 6, 407–28; and Higgins, Tory E., William S. Rholes, and Carl R. Jones (1977), “Category
Accessibility and Impression Formation,” Journal of Social Psychology 13 (March), 141–54. For
examples in a consumption context, see Nedungadi, P. (1990), “Recall and Consumer
Consideration Sets: Influencing Choice Without Altering Brand Evaluations,” Journal of
Consumer Research 17, no. 3, 263–76; and Berger, Jonah, and Gráinne M. Fitzsimons (2008),
“Dogs on the Street, Pumas on Your Feet: How Cues in the Environment Influence Product
Evaluation and Choice,” Journal of Marketing Research 45, no. 1, 1–14.
the candy company Mars: White, Michael (1997), “Toy Rover Sales Soar into Orbit: Mars Landing
Puts Gold Shine Back into Space Items,” Arizona Republic, July 12A, E1.
Music researchers Adrian North: North, Adrian C., David J. Hargreaves, and Jennifer McKendrick
(1997), “In-Store Music Affects Product Choice,” Nature 390 (November), 132.
Psychologist Gráinne Fitzsimons: Berger and Fitzsimons, “Dogs on the Street,” 1–14.
people possess core beliefs: Riker, William, and Peter Ordeshook (1968), “A Theory of the Calculus
of Voting,” American Political Science Review 62, no. 1, 25–42.
Arizona’s 2000 general election: Berger, Jonah, Marc Meredith, and S. Christian Wheeler (2008),
“Contextual Priming: Where People Vote Affects How They Vote,” Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences 105, no. 26, 8846–49.
Rebecca’s parents paid four thousand dollars: Details about Rebecca Black came from
Triggers boost word of mouth: Also see Rosen, Emanuel (2003), Anatomy of Buzz (London: Profile
Books), for a nice related discussion of triggers.
More frequently triggered products: Berger, Jonah, and Eric Schwartz (2011), “What Drives
Immediate and Ongoing Word-of-Mouth?” Journal of Marketing, October, 869–80.
analyzed hundreds of New York Times book reviews: Berger, Jonah, Alan T. Sorensen, and Scott J.
Rasmussen (2010), “Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase
Sales,” Marketing Science 29, no. 5, 815–27.
the Kit Kat tune: Details about Kit Kat’s history came from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kit_Kat.
Details about the coffee campaign came from an interview with Colleen Chorak on February 9,
one of the top ten “earworms”: Details about the “Give me a Break” song being an earworm came
from Kellaris, James (2003), “Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the ‘Song-Stuck-in-Your
Head’ Phenomenon,” presentation to the Society for Consumer Psychology. See also
ideas also have habitats: Berger, Jonah, and Chip Heath (2005), “Idea Habitats: How the Prevalence
of Environmental Cues Influences the Success of Ideas,” Cognitive Science 29, no. 2, 195–221.
an experiment we conducted with BzzAgent and Boston Market: Berger and Schwartz, “What
Drives Immediate and Ongoing Word-of-Mouth?” 869–80.
“Bob, I’ve got emphysema”: See http://no-smoke.org/images/02_Bob_14x48 .
the poison parasite: Cialdini, Robert B., Petia Petrova, Linda Demaine, Daniel Barrett, Brad
Sagarin, Jon Manner, and Kelton Rhoads (2005), “The Poison Parasite Defense: A Strategy for
Sapping a Stronger Opponent’s Persuasive Strength,” University of Arizona working paper.
Anheuser-Busch revised the slogan: Cialdini, Robert B. (2001), Influence: Science and Practice
(Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn & Bacon).
Poke too many holes: Information about the fan effect can be found in Anderson, John R. (1974),
“Retrieval of Propositional Information from Long-term Memory,” Cognitive Psychology 6, 451–
74; and Anderson, John R. (1983), The Architecture of Cognition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
out spills fat: To see the Department of Health’s campaign in action, visit http://jonahberger.com.
products associated with the color orange: Berger and Fitzsimons, “Dogs on the Street,” 1–14.
you’ll notice a neat pattern: Thanks to Scott A. Golder for providing these data.
schlieren photography: Grady’s article about the cough can be found at Grady, Denise (2008), “The
Mysterious Cough, Caught on Film,” New York Times , October 27;
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/28/science/28cough.html. The New England Journal of
Medicine article on which her piece is based is Tang, Julian W., and Gary S. Settles (2008),
“Coughing and Aerosols,” New England Journal of Medicine 359, 15.
That doesn’t really tell us much: Not surprisingly, external factors like where an article was
featured also correlated with whether an article made the list. Articles that appeared on the front
page of the physical newspaper were shared more than those placed inside. Articles featured at the
top of the Times home page were shared more than those buried several clicks into the website.
Articles written by U2’s Bono or former senator Bob Dole were shared more often than articles
written by less famous authors. But these relationships are neither that surprising nor that helpful.
Buying a Super Bowl ad or hiring Bono will help increase the chance that content gets viewed and
shared. Most people, however, don’t have the funding or personal connections to make those things
happen. Instead, we focused on aspects of the content itself that were linked to sharing.
More useful articles: A full description of our research on The New York Times Most E-Mailed list,
as well as our findings, can be found in Berger, Jonah, and Katherine Milkman (2012), “What
Makes Online Content Viral,” Journal of Marketing Research 49, no. 2, 192–205.
awe is the sense of wonder: For a great overview article on awe, see Keltner, D., and J. Haidt
(2003), “Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion,” Cognition and Emotion,
17, 297–314. For a more recent empirical treatment, see Shiota, M. N., D. Keltner, and A.
Mossman (2007), “The Nature of Awe: Elicitors, Appraisals, and Effects on Self-concept,”
Cognition and Emotion 21, 944–63.
“The most beautiful emotion”: The Einstein quote comes from Ulam, S. M., Françoise Ulam, and Jan
Myielski (1976), Adventures of a Mathematician (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 289.
Awe-inspiring articles: Berger and Milkman, “What Makes Online Content Viral,” 192–205.
Susan Boyle’s first appearance: Susan Boyle’s performance can be found at http://jonahberger.com.
helps deepen our social connection: For a discussion of how the social sharing of emotion deepens
social bonds, see Peters, Kim, and Yoshihasa Kashima (2007), “From Social Talk to Social
Action: Shaping the Social Triad with Emotion Sharing,” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology 93, no. 5, 780–97.
negative content should be more viral: For a discussion of positive and negative word of mouth, see
Godes, Dave, Yubo Chen, Sanjiv Das, Chrysanthos Dellarocas, Bruce Pfeiffer, et al. (2005), “The
Firm’s Management of Social Interactions,” Marketing Letters 16, nos. 3–4, 415–28.
psychologist Jamie Pennebaker: A discussion of linguistic inquiry and word count can be found in:
Pennebaker, James W., Roger J. Booth, and Martha E. Francis (2007), “Linguistic Inquiry and
Word Count: LIWC2007,” accessed October 14, 2011; http://www.liwc.net/. For a review of how
LIWC has been used to study a range of psychological processes, see Pennebaker, James W.,
Matthias R. Mehl, and Katie Niederhoffer (2003), “Psychological Aspects of Natural Language
Use: Our Words, Our Selves,” Annual Review of Psychology 54, 547–77.
the amount of positivity and negativity: The greater the percentage of emotional words in a passage
of text, the more emotion it tends to express. Pennebaker, J. W., and M. E. Francis (1996),
“Cognitive, Emotional, and Language Processes in Disclosure,” Cognition and Emotion 10, 601–
newcomers falling in love with New York City: Berger and Milkman, “What Makes Online Content
Articles that evoked anger or anxiety: Ibid.
physiological arousal: A great deal of research in psychology has examined the so-called two-
dimensional theory of affect (valence and arousal). For discussions, see Barrett, Lisa Feldman, and
James A. Russell (1999), “The Structure of Current Affect: Controversies and Emerging
Consensus,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 8, no. 1, 10–14; Christie, I. C., and B.
H. Friedman (2004), “Autonomic Specificity of Discrete Emotion and Dimensions of Affective
Space: A Multivariate Approach,” International Journal of Psychophysiology 51, 143–53; and
Schlosberg, H. (1954), “Three Dimensions of Emotion,” Psychological Review 61, no. 2, 81–88.
This is arousal: For a discussion of the neurobiology of arousal, see Heilman, K. M. (1997), “The
Neurobiology of Emotional Experience,” Journal of Neuropsychiatry 9, 439–48.
funny content is shared: The result that arousal boosts social transmission can be found in Berger,
Jonah (2011), “Arousal Increases Social Transmission of Information,” Psychological Science 22,
no. 7, 891–93.
While traveling to a gig: A summary of Dave Carroll’s odyssey with United Airlines can be found in
his book: Carroll, Dave (2012), United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of
Social Media (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House). To hear the actual song, go to http://jonahberger.com.
The clip tells a budding love story: A clip of “Parisian Love” can be viewed at
http://jonahberger.com. The story behind “Parisian Love” came from an interview with Anthony
Cafaro on June 20, 2012.
“The best results don’t show up in a search engine”: The quote came from Iezzi, Teressa (2010),
“Meet the Google Five,” http://creativity-online.com/news/the-google-creative-lab/146084.
Simply adding more arousal: Berger and Milkman, “What Makes Online Content Viral,” 192–205.
obesity reduces life expectancy: The statistic about obesity came from Whitlock, Gary, Sarah
Lewington, Paul Sherliker, and Richard Peto (2009), “Body-mass Index and Mortality,” The
Lancet 374, no. 9684, 114.
disgust is a highly arousing emotion: For a discussion of how disgust affects social transmission,
see Heath, Chip, Chris Bell, and Emily Sternberg (2001), “Emotional Selection in Memes: The
Case of Urban Legends,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 6, 1028–41.
the practice strengthens the maternal bond: To learn more about baby-wearing and attachment, see
the company created an ad centered on the aches: To see a clip of the Motrin ad, see
the marketing debacle: Learmonth, Michael (2008), “How Twittering Critics Brought Down Motrin
Mom Campaign: Bloggers Ignite Brush Fire over Weekend, Forcing J&J to Pull Ads, Issue
Apology,” AdAge.com, November 17, retrieved from http://adage.com/article/digital/twittering-
Ken Segall was Steve Jobs’s right hand man: All taken from my interview with Ken Segall on May,
15, 2012. For more information on Ken’s work with Apple, see Segall (2012), Insanely Simple:
The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success (New York: Portfolio/Penguin).
If lots of people are eating there: For an economist’s take on this issue, see Becker, Gary S. (1991),
“A Note on Restaurant Pricing and Other Examples of Social Influence on Price,” Journal of
Political Economy 99, no. 3, 1109–16.
pick entrées preferred by other diners: For evidence of social influence in entrée choice, see Cai,
Hongbi, Yuyu Chen, and Hanming Fang (2009), “Observational Learning: Evidence from a
Randomized Natural Field Experiment,” American Economic Review 99, no. 3, 864–82. For
research on conformity in hotel towel use, see Goldstein, Noah J., Robert B. Cialdini, and Vladas
Griskevicius (2008), “A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental
Conservation in Hotels,” Journal of Consumer Research 35, 472–82. Similar approaches have
also been applied to get people to reduce home energy consumption.
People are more likely to vote: For evidence of social influence in voter turnout, see Nickerson,
David W. (2008), “Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments,” American
Political Science Review 102, 49–57. For a discussion of how social influence may affect obesity
and smoking cessation, see Christakis, Nicholas A., and James Fowler (2009), Connected: The
Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (New York: Little,
Brown, and Company).
what brand of coffee to buy: For evidence of social influence in coffee choice, see Burnkrant, Robert
E., and Alain Cousineau (1975), “Informational and Normative Social Influence in Buyer
Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research 2, 206–15. For evidence of social influence in paying
taxes, see Thaler, Richard (2012), “Watching Behavior Before Writing the Rules,” New York
Times, July 12, retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/business/behavioral-science-
people are more likely to laugh: For evidence about social influence in laughter, see Provine, R. R.
(1992), “Contagious Laughter: Laughter Is a Sufficient Stimulus for Laughs and Smiles,” Bulletin of
the Psychonomic Society 30, 1–4.
“social proof”: Cialdini, Robert B. (2001), Influence: Science and Practice (Needham Heights,
Mass.: Allyn & Bacon).
when she looked at hundreds of kidney donations: The findings from Juanjuan’s clever paper, as
well as assorted statistics about kidney failure and donation, can be found at Zhang, Juanjuan
(2010), “The Sound of Silence: Observational Learning in the U.S. Kidney Market,” Marketing
Science 29, no. 2, 315–35.
Koreen Johannessen started: Interview with Koreen Johannessen on June 21, 2012.
college students . . . report drinking alcohol: For some statistics about college students’ binge
drinking, see Weschler, Henry, and Toben F. Nelson (2008), “What We Have Learned from the
Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study: Focusing Attention on College Student
Alcohol Consumption and the Environmental Conditions That Promote It,” Journal of Studies on
Alcohol and Drugs 69, 481–90. Also see Hingson, Ralph, Timothy Heeren, Michael Winter, and
Henry Wechsler (2005), “Magnitude of Alcohol-Related Mortality and Morbidity Among U.S.
College Students Ages 18–24: Changes from 1998 to 2001,” Annual Review of Public Health, 26,
259–79, and http://www.alcohol101plus.org/downloads/collegestudents .
how they felt about drinking: Psychologists use the term “pluralistic ignorance” to talk about this
issue. Pluralistic ignorance refers to a case where most people in a group privately reject a norm
(such as drinking a lot) but incorrectly assume that others accept it, in part because they can see
others’ behavior but not their thoughts. For a broader discussion, see Prentice, Deborah A., and
Dale T. Miller (1993), “Pluralistic Ignorance and Alcohol Use on Campus: Some Consequences of
Misperceiving the Social Norm,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64, no. 2, 243–
A restaurant might be extremely popular: This is why the maître d’ will often seat the first few
arrivals near the window at the front of the restaurant. As a funny side note, there is a place in New
York City that I always assumed was extremely popular because it has benches outside that were
always full. I assumed that the people sitting on them were waiting to eat. Only later did I realize
that they may have been sitting there because it was a convenient place to rest for a few minutes.
1.5 million car sales: For the full story on our automobile research, see McShane, Blakely, Eric T.
Bradlow, and Jonah Berger (2012), “Visual Influence and Social Groups,” Journal of Marketing
Research, (forthcoming). Also see Grinblatt, M., M. Keloharrju, and S. Ikaheimo (2008), “Social
Influence and Consumption: Evidence from the Automobile Purchases of Neighbors,” The Review
of Economics and Statistics 90, no. 4, 735–53.
The easier something is to see: For evidence about how public visibility affects word of mouth, see
Berger, Jonah, and Eric Schwartz (2011), “What Drives Immediate and Ongoing Word of Mouth?”
Journal of Marketing Research 48, no. 5, 869–80.
cancer claims the lives: For statistics about how cancer affects men, see
It all started one Sunday afternoon: For the backstory on the founding of Movember, as well as
statistics on its growth and development, see ca.movember.com and http://billabout.com/get-your-
Johannessen was able to decrease heavy drinking: For a related discussion, see Schroeder,
Christine M., and Deborah A. Prentice (1998), “Exposing Pluralistic Ignorance to Reduce Alcohol
Use Among College Students,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 28, 2150–80.
350 million users: For basic details and statistics about Hotmail, see
Apple’s white headphone cords stood out: Such visible signals are particularly important in domains
where there are network effects, or where the value of a product depends on the number of others
who are using it.
it’s called behavioral residue: The term “behavioral residue” comes from psychologist Sam Gosling.
For a discussion of his research in the area, see Gosling, Sam (2008), Snoop: What Your Stuff
Says About You (New York: Basic Books).
“a stupid idea”: Mickle, Tripp (2009), “Five Strong Years,” Sports Business Daily, September 14,
retrieved from http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2009/09/20090914/This-
Even Armstrong was incredulous: Carr, Austin (2011), “Lance Armstrong, Doug Ulman Thought the
Livestrong Wristband Would Fail,” Fast Company, November 11, retrieved from
This public visibility: Many things contributed to making Livestrong bands a success. They cost only
a dollar, making it easy for people to try out being part of the movement, even if they weren’t sure
they wanted to commit themselves. The wristbands were also really easy to wear. Unlike breast
cancer ribbons, which you have to pin on different pieces of clothing, Livestrong bands could be
worn all the time. You could wear one all day, keep it on while sleeping, even wear it in the
shower. You never had to take it off or remember where you left it. But color also played an
important role, as discussed.
“The nice thing about a wristband”: Interview with Scott MacEachern, 2006.
installing these buttons: Gelles, David (2010), “E-commerce Takes an Instant Liking to Facebook
Button,” Financial Times, September 21, retrieved from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/1599be2e-
whether anti-drug ads were actually effective: Hornik, Robert, Lela Jacobsohn, Robert Orwin,
Andrea Piesse, and Graham Kalton (2008), “Effects of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media
Campaign on Youths,” American Journal of Public Health 98, no. 12, 2229–36.
“30 billion songs were illegally downloaded”: Recording Industry Association of America website,
http://www.riaa.com/faq.php, retrieved June 1, 2012.
people who stole petrified wood: Cialdini, Robert B., Linda J. Demaine, Brad J. Sagarin, Daniel W.
Barrett, Kelton Rhoads, and Patricia L. Winter (2006), “Managing Social Norms for Persuasive
Impact,” Social Influence 1, no. 1, 3–15.
5. Practical Value
If you had to pick someone: Interview with Ken Craig, February 20, 2012. A clip of Ken’s corn trick
can be seen at http://jonahberger.com.
Kahneman received the Nobel: For a popular treatment of prospect theory, see Kahneman’s book
Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. For a more academic treatment,
see Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky (1979), “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision
Under Risk,” Econometrica 47 (1979), 263–91. Many of the scenarios discussed in this chapter
are adapted from Richard Thaler’s work on mental accounting. See Thaler, Richard (1980),
“Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice,” Journal of Economic Behavior and
Organization 1, 39–60; and Thaler, Richard (1985), “Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice,”
Marketing Science 4, 199–214.
To test this possibility: Anderson and Simester’s research can be found at Anderson, Eric T., and
Duncan I. Simester (2001), “Are Sale Signs Less Effective When More Products Have Them?”
Marketing Science 20, no. 2, 121–42.
buy a new clock radio: Adapted from Thaler, “Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice,” 39–
While noting something is on sale: A good deal of research has examined how saying something is
on sale affects perceived value. For examples, see Blattberg, Robert, Richard A. Briesch, and
Edward J. Fox (1995), “How Promotions Work,” Marketing Science 14, no. 3, 122–32; Lattin,
James M., and Randolph E. Bucklin (1989), “Reference Effects of Price and Promotion on Brand
Choice Behavior,” Journal of Marketing Research 26, no. 3, 299–310; and Raju, Jagmohan S.
(1992), “The Effect of Price Promotions on Variability in Product Category Sales,” Marketing
Science 11, no. 3, 207–20. For an empirical investigation of how sale signs affect purchase, see
Anderson and Simester, “Are Sale Signs Less Effective,” 121–42.
quantity purchase limits increase sales: Inman, Jeffrey J., Anil C. Peter, and Priya Raghubir (1997),
“Framing the Deal: The Role of Restrictions in Accentuating the Deal Value,” Journal of
Consumer Research 24 (June), 68–79.
This increases Practical Value: For evidence on how restrictions on who can get access to a deal
affect perceived value, see Schindler, Robert M. (1998), “Consequences of Perceiving Oneself as
Responsible for Obtaining a Discount: Evidence for Smart-Shopper Feelings,” Journal of
Consumer Psychology 7, no. 4, 371–92.
whether a discount seems larger: For evidence that perceived value is affected by absolute and
relative discounts, see Chen, S.-F. S., K.B. Monroe, and Yung-Chein Lou (1998), “The Effects of
Framing Price Promotion Messages on Consumers’ Perceptions and Purchase Intentions,” Journal
of Retailing 74, no. 3, 353–72.
You may have heard: See the following for a discussion of the link between vaccines and autism and
the consequences of the false information: McIntyre, Peter, and Julie Leask (2008), “Improving
Uptake of MMR Vaccine,” British Medical Journal 336, no. 7647, 729–30; Pepys, Mark B.
(2007), “Science and Serendipity,” Clinical Medicine 7, no. 6, 562–78; and Mnookin, Seth (2011),
The Panic Virus (New York: Simon and Schuster).
battle took place around 1170 BC: Estimates of the timing of the Trojan Horse come from this paper:
Baikouzis, Constantino, and Marcelo O. Magnasco (2008), “Is an Eclipse Described in The
Odyssey?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, no. 26, 8823–28.
Stories . . . help us make sense of the world: Baumeister, Roy F., Liquing Zhang, and Kathleen D.
Vohs (2004), “Gossip as Cultural Learning,” Review of General Psychology 8, 111–21.
we’re much more likely to be persuaded: For research related to how stories can make it harder to
counterargue, see Kardes, Frank R. (1993), “Consumer Inference: Determinants, Consequences,
and Implications for Advertising,” in Advertising Exposure, Memory and Choice, ed. Andrew A.
Mitchell (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum), 163–91.
He lost all that weight: See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jared_Fogle for an overview of the Jared
So he created a short film: The backstory came from an interview with Tim Piper on June 18, 2012.
The “Evolution” video can be seen at http://jonahberger.com.
2 percent of women describe themselves as beautiful: This fact comes from Etcoff, Nancy, Susie
Orbach, Jennifer Scott, and Heidi D’Agostino (2004), The Real Truth About Beauty: A Global
Report; retrieved on June 1, 2012, from
double-digit sales growth: See
022944/ retrieved on May 15, 2012. Also see
Canadian Ron Bensimhon: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3579148.stm.
part of a publicity stunt: For a brief discussion of the events, see BBC News (2004), “Jail Sentence
for Tutu Prankster,” August 19.
most viewed online advertisement in history: World Records Academy (2011), “Most Viewed
Online Ad: ‘Evian Roller Babies’ Sets World Record,” retrieved May 2012 from
sales dropped almost 25 percent: O’Leary, Noreen (2010), “Does Viral Pay?” retrieved May 21,
2011, from http://www.adweek.com.
In one spot a father is grocery shopping: To watch the Panda clip, go to http://jonahberger.com.
without talking about a blender: For further discussion of valuable virality, see Akpinar, Ezgi, and
Jonah Berger (2012), “Valuable Virality,” Wharton working paper.
Psychologists Gordon Allport and Joseph Postman: Allport, Gordon, and Joseph Postman (1947),
Psychology of Rumor (New York: H. Holt and Company).
when Thuan Le arrived: For the story of Thuan Le and the Vietnamese nail salons, see Tran, My-
Thuan (2008), “A Mix of Luck, Polish,” Los Angeles Times, May 5. Also see
Cambodian Americans own: Ardey, Julie (2008), “Cambodian Settlers Glaze a Donut Trail,” Daily
Yonder, February 18; retrieved from http://www.dailyyonder.com/cambodian-settlers-glaze-donut-
Koreans own: Bleyer, Jennifer (2008), “Dry Cleaners Feel an Ill Wind from China,” New York
Times, April 27.
60 percent of the liquor stores in Boston: Retrieved on March 10, 2012, from
Jews produced: Klinger, Jerry, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” America
Jewish History 1880–1924, retrieved on March 15, 2012, from
Duncan Watts makes a nice comparison: Watts, Duncan J. (2007), “Challenging the Influentials
Hypothesis,” WOMMA Measuring Word of Mouth 3, 207.
ABC News, 149
Abercrombie & Fitch, 142
Ad Age, 119
Advertising, 2, 4–7, 16, 19, 32, 125, 187, 208
emotions evoked by, 117, 123
misleading, as Trojan horse, 190–91
self, through public visibility, 140–44 (see also Branding)
social currency of, 37, 39
triggers and, 62, 66, 70, 79–85
trustworthiness of stories versus, 186
virality of, 22, 196–98
word of mouth versus, 8–10, 43–44
see also Public service announcements; campaigns for specific products
Airline frequent flier programs, 44–45, 47–48
Alcohol abuse, 132–35, 139–40
Allport, Gordon, 199–200
Amazement, 22, 102, 188
American Airlines, 45
Anderson, Eric, 165
Antista, Chris, 30
Apple, 125–27, 142, 153
“Think Different” campaign, 109
Arab Spring, 120
Arend, Rene, 56
Arizona, University of, 132–33, 140
ARK Music Factory, 76
Armstrong, Lance, 144, 145
Atkins diet, 4
false information on connection of vaccines and, 176
Awe, power of, 102–8
Baby names, 20
Balter, Dave, 62–63, 66
Barclay Prime (Philadelphia), 1–2, 170, 210
hundred-dollar cheesesteak at, 2–4, 22, 23, 25, 42, 88–89, 196, 206, 207, 210
Barn raising, 159
Beauty, unrealistic standard of, 191–93
Beckham, David, 3
Behavioral residue, 24, 144–49, 153, 209
Bensimhon, Ron, 193–94, 199
Best Food Ever (television show), 3
Bhatia, Sabeer, 140–41
Binge drinking, 133–35, 139–40
Birds, The (movie), 203
Black, Rebecca, 75–77, 83, 92, 207
Blair Witch Project, 42–43
Blendtec, 16–18, 42, 43, 171, 208
Will It Blend? campaign, 17–18, 22, 26n, 59, 182, 198, 206, 210
Blogs, 10, 26, 33
emotions and, 95, 97, 119, 123
public visibility of, 149
BMW, 103, 113
Book reviews, 8, 19, 80–81
Boring topics, see Interesting versus boring topics, word-of-mouth about
Boston Market, 84
Boyle, Susan, 103–105, 207
“Boy Who Cried Wolf, The,” 183
Bradlow, Eric, 135
Branding, 210, 221n
stories and, 193, 196, 198
see also specific brands
Brigham Young University, 15, 16
Britain’s Got Talent (television show), 103–104
Buckley, William F., Jr., 158
Budweiser beer, 79–80, 92
Bullying, campaigns against, 68
Burberry, 50–51, 142
Bush, George W., 75
Buzz, see Word of mouth
BzzAgent, 63–69, 78, 84, 221n
Cafaro, Anthony, 113–16, 123–24
Cambodian Americans, 205
emotions evoked by, 103, 118
promoting public awareness of, 137–38, 144–45, 153, 207
Carroll, Dave, 111–12
purchases of, 20, 36, 135, 217n
repairs to, 186
Cheerios, 61–62, 66, 90–91, 206
Cheesesteak, hundred-dollar, 2–4, 22, 23, 25, 42, 88–89, 196, 206, 207, 210
Chicken McNuggets, 56
Chorak, Colleen, 81–82, 84, 92
Cialdini, Bob, 152
Clinton, Bill, 14
Clothing industry, 205
Coca-Cola, 70, 86, 113
College campuses, alcohol abuse on, 132–35, 139–40
Congress, U.S., 150
Consumer Reports, 36, 174
Corn, shucking, 155–56
Corona beer, 61
Cosby, Bill, 14–15
Coupons, 64, 65
Craig, Ken, 155–56, 158, 206, 208
Crest toothpaste, 7
Crick, Francis, 162–63
Crif Dogs, 29–31, 39
bar at, see Please Don’t Tell
CSI (television show), 122
Customer rewards, 52, 63, 170–71
see also Frequent flier programs
Customer service, 43
emotions evoked by, 109, 120
remarkable, story about, 184–85, 187, 189
Deal or No Deal (television show), 122
Deals, psychology of, 162–70, 176
Delta Airlines Platinum Medallion, 47–49
Democratic Party, 73
Diamond Multimedia, 142
Dickson, Tom, 15–18
Diet crazes, 4
Diminishing sensitivity, 166–68
Discounts, 51, 59, 206
practical value of, 160–61, 164, 166–71
Discover magazine, 94
Discovery channel, 3
Disney Corporation, 55, 99
see also Walt Disney World
Dole, Bob, 224n
Donut shops, 205
Dove products, 191–93, 206, 208
effectiveness of, 5, 160
recreational, campaign to discourage teens from using, 150–52
Dry cleaners, 205
Einstein, Albert, 102, 162
Emmy Awards, 94
Emotions, evoking, 22, 23, 25, 93–124, 205, 207–10
of arousal, 108–12, 116–18
of awe, 102–8
exercise and, 120–23
focus on, 112–16
practical value and 158, 160, 173, 177
in sharing, 96–101
social currency and, 90
through stories, 182, 188, 193, 201
Erectile dysfunction (ED), 149n
Exclusivity, 31–33, 51–57, 59–60, 169
Facebook, 7, 10, 12, 33, 40, 47, 57, 149
False information, 5
traction of, 120
Fantasy football, 57–58
Fast food, 20
see also McDonald’s; Taco Bell
Fierce People (Wittenborn), 70
Fight-or-flight response, 108
Fischman, Ben, 51–53
Fitzsimons, Gráinne, 72
Flash sales, 52
Fogle, Jared, 188–89
Fortune 500 companies, 9
Foursquare, 48–49, 59
Free samples, 9, 64
Frequent flier programs, 44–45, 47–48
Game mechanics, leveraging, 23, 36, 44–50, 59, 209
Gap, 35, 170
Gates, Bill, 14
Gilligan’s Island (television show), 53
Gladwell, Malcolm, 13
GoldenPalace.com, 194, 199
Google, 101, 119
Creative Lab, 114–16
“A Google a Day” trivia game, 114
“Parisian Love” video, 113, 115–16, 123, 206
Gore, Al, 75
Grady, Denise, 93–97, 101, 103, 124
Grisham, John, 112
Grocery shopping, 50, 148, 174
practical value in, 159, 168, 171
reward programs for, 171
stories about, 197–98
triggers for, 71, 89–90
word of mouth for, 68
Guerrilla marketing, 66
Guinness World Records, 196
Gurus, social media, 14, 62
Habitats, triggers in, 81–84, 92, 209
Haidt, Jonathan, 102
Halal Chicken and Gyro food cart (New York), 130–31
Halal Guys food cart (New York), 131
Hargreaves, David, 71
Harvard University, 33, 46–47
Healthy habits, promoting, 4, 8, 10, 95
emotions versus information in, 112–13, 118
stories for, 187–89
triggers for, 71–73, 87–89
Heath, Chip and Dan, 21, 101
Hedren, Tippi, 203–6
Herd mentality, see Social proof
Hershey candy company, 81–82
Hire, The (short film series), 117
Hitchcock, Alfred, 203
Holiday Inn Express, 65
Holly, Buddy, 197
Hope Village, 203
Hornik, Bob, 150–52
Hotmail, 140–41, 153, 206
Hot Topic, 35
Illinois, University of, 40
Imitation, 23, 127–32, 134, 153
Immediate word of mouth, 67–69, 78
Immigrants, niche businesses of, 203–6
Insiders, feeling like, see Exclusivity; Scarcity
Interesting versus boring topics, word-of-mouth about, 15, 100–1
social currency of, 39–42
triggers for, 62, 66–69, 78–79, 90
International Babywearing Week, 118
Internet, 84, 117, 127, 140–41, 156, 181
casinos on, 168
see also specific servers and websites
iPhone, 110, 123, 174
iPod, 142–43, 206
Irish Americans, 205
Iyengar, Raghu, 34
Jack Link’s, 40
Jewish immigrants, 205
Jobs, Steve, 125–27
Johannessen, Koreen, 132–33, 140
Jokes, 14, 36, 38, 105, 110
“Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, 150–51
Kahneman, Daniel, 162, 163
Keller Fay Group, 11
Keltner, Dacher, 102
Kidney donations, 129–30
Kit Kat, 81–85, 92, 208
Korean Americans, 205
L.L. Bean, 165
Lance Armstrong Foundation, 145–46
see also Livestrong
Land’s End, 165, 184–85, 187, 189
Late Show, 3
Lauren, Ralph, 65, 124
Le, Thuan, 203–5
Letterman, David, 3
LGBT community, 149n
Liquor stores, 205
Livestrong, 4, 206
wristbands, 144–47, 153, 229–30n
Logos, 126–27, 142, 153
Louboutin, Christian, 143
Loyalty marketing, see Customer rewards
Lululemon, 148, 153
MacEachern, Scott, 144–47
Made to Stick (Heath), 21, 116
Mad Men (television show), 62
“Man Drinks Fat” (public service announcement), 87–88, 118, 206
March of Dimes, 65
Marlboro cigarettes, 83–85
Mars, Franklin, 71
Mars candy company, 70–71, 83
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 130
McKendrick, Jennifer, 71
McNeil Consumer Healthcare, 118
McShane, Blake, 135
Medicines, see Drugs
Meehan, Jim, 32, 55n
Meredith, Marc, 74
Michelob beer, 86
Milkman, Katherine, 99
Millikan, Robert, 94
Miracle Blade knives, 164, 165
Mitchell, Jason, 33
MoneyWhys, 173, 208
Most E-Mailed lists, 40, 93–94, 96–98, 103, 105, 107–8, 173
emotions and, 108, 113
systematic analysis of, 98–101
public visibility and, 145
Motivation, 29, 45–46, 57–59, 77
Moustaches, public visibility of, 136–39, 153, 207
Movember Foundation, 138–39, 153, 206
Movies, 42, 164
emotions evoked by, 108, 117
reviews of, 7
social currency of, 40, 43, 55
word of mouth about, 13, 15, 68, 221n
digital players, 142–43
emotions and, 102, 112, 115
illegal downloads of, 152
public visibility and, 149
social currency of, 35–36
stories and, 180
Nail salons, 203–5
Narratives, see Stories
National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), 70–71
National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, 150
New England Journal of Medicine, The, 83
New York City Department of Health (DOH), 87–88
New York magazine, 130
New York Times, The, 20, 94–96, 102, 119
book review, 80–81
Most E-mailed list, 40, 93, 97–101, 103–5, 107, 174, 224n
NeXT Computer, 125
Niche businesses, immigrant-owned, 203–5
Nike, 142, 144–46
Baller Bands, 145
Nobel Prize, 162–63
Nonprofits, 10, 25n, 26, 113, 206
see also specific organizations and foundations
North, Adrian, 71
Novelty, 39, 42, 66–67
Obama, Barack, 103
Obesity, campaigns against, see Healthy habits, promoting
Observability, see Public visibility
Odyssey, The (Homer), 157
O’Hare Airport, 111
Olympics, 50, 118, 193–95, 199
Ongoing word of mouth, 67–69, 78
Opinion leaders, 13
Organ transplants, 129–30
PageRank algorithms, 113
Panda cheese, 197–98
Pathfinder mission, 70–71
Pay it forward, prosocial ideal of, 159
Pennebaker, Jamie, 93
Pennsylvania, University of, 17
Petrified Forest National Park, 152–53
Physics Today magazine, 94
Physiological arousal, 108–12
Pinocchio (movie), 55
Piper, Tim, 189–92
Please Don’t Tell, 31–32, 39, 54, 55n, 59–60, 169, 206
Politics, 20, 26, 131, 158
emotions evoked by, 120, 123
practical value in, 160
triggers and, 75
word of mouth in, 10, 13
see also Voting behavior
Polling places, influence on voter behavior of, 73–75
Postman, Joseph, 199–200
PowerBook G4, 110
Practical value, 24, 25, 26n, 94, 155–77, 205, 207–10
of information, 101, 172–76
public visibility and, 141
of saving money, 160–68
of stories, 182, 188
Price, 5–7, 16, 57, 186
high, see Cheesesteak, hundred-dollar
public visibility and, 146
practical value and, 160–71
social currency and, 51–56
of stocks, impact of emotion on, 112
Private sales, 52
Product reviews, 20, 182
Promotional offers, 63
practical value of, 160, 168–71
see also Discounts
Prospect theory, 163–68
Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, 138
Public service announcements (PSAs), 86–90, 112–13, 118, 149–52
Public visibility, 20, 23–25, 26n, 125–53, 205, 207, 209
antithetical effects of, 149–53
behavioral residue and, 144–49
emotions evoked by, 97, 115
imitation and, 127–32
power of, 132–36
practical value and, 172
providing private concerns with, 136–40
through self-advertising, 140–44
social currency and, 54
stories and, 192, 201
Quality, 5–7, 25, 196, 210
of buzz, 59, 130
see also Practical Value
Rasmussen, Scott, 80
Reagan, Nancy, 150
Reduced prices, see Discounts
Reese’s Pieces, 89
Reference price, 165
Remarkability, 22, 26n, 31–32, 36–44, 59
of practical value, 168–72
public visibility and, 141
of stories, 185, 188, 194–95
triggers and, 69, 89
Republican Party, 73
Restaurants, 36, 38, 40, 48, 174–75
casual dining, see Boston Market; Crif Dogs
high-end, see Barclay Prime
practical value of, 170, 177
public visibility of, 127–28, 148
reviews of, 127, 174, 175
triggers for, 84
word of mouth for, 2–3, 10, 22, 23, 53, 64, 66
Reusable bags, 89–90, 148
book, 8, 19, 80–81
product, 20, 182
restaurant, 127, 174, 175
Rolex watches, 54
“Roller Babies” video, 196
Rubenstein, Marke, 37–38
Rue La La, 52–54, 55n, 59, 169, 206
Rumors, 13, 26, 199
false, emotions evoked by, 120
on social media, 7
Sales, 5, 10
emotions and, 117
negative publicity and, 20, 80–81
practical value and, 161, 164–66, 169
public visibility and, 135, 142
social currency and, 51–53, 56, 210
stories and, 192, 196
triggers for, 20, 63–64, 70–71, 80–83
word of mouth and, 8, 18
Sample sales, 52
Scarcity, 54–57, 59, 169
School of Visual Arts, 113
Schwartz, Eric, 66
Secrecy, see Exclusivity
Segall, Ken, 125, 127
Shakespeare, William, 183
Shake Weight, 81
emotions and, 96–101
self-, 36, 59
see also Word of mouth
Shebairo, Brian, 30–31
Silk nondairy milk products, 65
Simester, Duncan, 165
Six Sigma management strategy, 4
Smart Shopper loyalty club, 52
Smith, Jack, 140–41
Smoking cessation, see Healthy habits, promoting
Snow White (movie), 55
Social currency, 22–23, 25, 26n, 29–60, 205, 207–10
emotions and, 101, 103, 106
of exclusivity and scarcity, 31–33, 51–57, 59–60
of inner remarkability, 37–44
leveraging game mechanics for, 44–51
motivation and, 57–59
practical value and, 158–60, 168–70, 177
public visibility and, 139, 141–42, 147–48
of self-sharing, 33–36
stories and, 181, 188, 201
triggers and, 62, 66, 69, 77, 90
Social epidemics, 4, 13, 18, 206–7
Social media, 10–12, 62, 119–20
see also Facebook; Twitter; YouTube
Social proof, 128–31, 134, 141–44, 147, 148, 151, 153
Social transmission, 7–10, 26–27
see also Social media; Word of mouth
Sonicare electric toothbrushes, 63–64
Sons of Maxwell, 111
Sorensen, Alan, 80
South Beach diet, 4
Stapleton, Bill, 146
Starwood Hotels, 1
Status symbols, 23
airline rewards programs as, 44–45, 47–49
credit cards as, 49–50
public visibility of, 148
scarcity and exclusivity of, 55
STEPPS, 25, 207–10
see also Emotions, evoking; Social Currency; Practical Value; Public visibility; Stories; Triggers
Stockholm University, 162
Stories, 7, 13, 21–22, 24–26, 179–201, 203–5, 207
emotions evoked by, 106–7, 121
learning through, 186–89
practical value of, 158, 172, 175, 210
social currency of, 39–42
Trojan horse, 189–93, 209
as vessels, 181–86
virality of, 193–201
Subway sandwich chain, 187–89
Sudoku puzzles, 46
Sunny Delight, 71
Super Bowl, 224n
Supermarkets, see Grocery shopping
Surprise, generating, 67, 102
by breaking expected patterns, 42
in stories, 22, 188
Taco Bell, 64
Tamir, Diana, 33
Targeting, 8–10, 72, 79
Terra Blues, 42
Thaler, Richard, 163
Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, 112
Tide detergent, 7
Time magazine, 94, 112
Tipping Point, The (Gladwell), 13, 19, 21
Tour de France, 144, 146
Triggers, 23, 25, 61–92, 205, 207–10
affected on behavior of, 69–75
context of, 77–81
days of week as, 75–77
effective, frequency of stimulus for, 85–90
emotions evoked by, 95, 118
habitat for, 81–85
immediate versus ongoing, 67–69
practical value and, 158, 177
public visibility of, 136
stories as, 186, 189, 201
Trojan Horse, 24, 179–82, 191, 199, 200
Truth, 5, 176
Tversky, Amos, 163
Twitter, 10, 12–13, 47, 48, 57, 90, 119, 208
United Airlines, 111–12
Premier status, 44–45, 47
Urban legends, 20, 183
USA Today, 3
Vacuum cleaners, 157–58
Vanguard, 173–74, 177, 208
Victoria’s Secret, 148
Videos, 40, 97, 114–15, 191–92, 196, 208, 210
emotional response to, 103–5, 114–15, 123–24
public service announcement, 87–88, 149–51
see also YouTube; titles of specific videos
Vietnamese refugees, 203–6
Village People, 81
Village Squire Restaurants, 40
Virality, 6–7n, 13–15, 17–18, 20, 22, 201, 208, 209
emotion and, 93–100, 103–12, 115, 120
practical value and, 155–58, 174–75,
social currency and, 26, 32
stories and, 24, 193–201
triggers and, 66, 76–77
Voting behavior, 128, 207
public visibility and, 147–48, 153
triggers and, 73–75
word of mouth and, 7, 13, 51, 68
Wall Street Journal, The, 3, 98–99
Walt Disney World, 61–62, 66, 90, 158
Watson, James D., 162–63
Watts, Duncan, 206
Weber grills, 161
Websites, 5, 7, 32, 38, 81, 97, 131
content, 97–98, 123
game mechanics and, 48, 50–51
practical value of, 160, 174, 177
public visibility and, 136, 139, 144, 149, 152
word of mouth about, 216n
see also specific websites
Wein, Howard, 1–2, 210
Wells Fargo, 39–40
Wharton School, 17, 18, 34, 105, 136–37, 148
Wheeler, Christian, 74
Word of mouth, 7–15, 20, 21–22, 27, 208–10
emotions and, 117, 122
game mechanics and, 48
generating, 10–15, 39, 55, 59 (see also BzzAgent)
immediate versus ongoing, 67–69, 78
online, 11–12, 39 (see also Most E-mailed lists)
in political campaigns, 51
products and services worthy of, 15–18
public visibility and, 136, 141
stories and, 181, 194–96
triggers for, 62, 67, 77–81, 84, 90–91, 205
see also Social currency
Wright, George, 16, 206
“YMCA” (song), 81
YouTube, 6–7, 10, 12, 17, 20, 67, 110, 112, 123, 156
Zhang, Juanjuan, 130
Ziploc bags, 78–79
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Contagious : why things catch on/Jonah Berger.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. New products. 2. Consumer behavior. 3. Popularity— Economic aspects. I. Title.
ISBN 978-1-4516-8659-3 (ebook)
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why Things Catch On
1. Social Currency
5. Practical Value
Readers Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
Expand Your Book Club
A Conversation with Jonah Berger
About Jonah Berger
Introduction: Why Things Catch On
1. Social Currency
5. Practical Value
Readers Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
Expand Your Book Club
A Conversation with Jonah Berger
About Jonah Berger