Contagious – How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age By Jonah Berger

Contagious: adjective, (of an emotion, feeling, or attitude) likely to spread to and affect others.

Contagious was gifted to me by our lovely MD Claire Nutter leading up to the launch of our refreshed branding. With a business that is built on forging great relationships, many a new business partnership is a result of positive word of mouth. I wanted to delve deeper into how we could apply Berger’s formula to our work here at Cracked.


I love to read, but reading and learning at the same time is always a bonus, and I’m a sucker for a book that can help me develop my skills and make my life easier at the same time!

In Contagious, Jonah Berger tells us about these six principles of ‘contagiousness.’ Each chapter brings together research and examples, and looks at the science behind each principle. He also explores how individual organisations have applied them to help their products, ideas and behaviours catch on.

So, what are these six principles that will help us foodservice marketeers?

1. Social currency

The most powerful form of marketing is personal recommendation and, let’s be honest, people like to talk about things that make them look cool. We all love an opportunity to talk about remarkable things, which in itself is a form of social currency; nuggets of information that are defined as unusual, extraordinary or worth noticing. The more exclusive a piece of social currency is, the faster it catches on, as it seems more desirable. Take the resurgence of speakeasys for example. How does a secret eatery become famous when you aren’t supposed to tell anybody about it? Social currency, of course!

2. Triggers

According to Berger, people are 15% more likely to talk about a product if it has a trigger. But how do we do this? According to Berger, it’s all about psychology. Products have habits that will cause consumers to think of them when they see or hear that trigger. For example, if your local wine-seller wants to shift more French wines, playing French music will actually increase the chances of a customer purchasing wine from France! A strong trigger can be much more successful than a catchy slogan. Social currency is a brilliant start in getting people to talk about your product to others, but triggers keep your product top-of-mind, which means it’ll also be on the tip of their tongues.

3. Emotion

When we care, we share. Instead of harping on about function, we all need to focus on feeling. Sharing emotions also helps us connect, and it’s a bit like social glue in that it maintains and strengthens our relationships. And even if we’re apart— the fact that we both feel the same pulls us together.

Activating emotion is the key to transmission. Berger’s research shows that high emotional arousal is more likely to lead to a share, with awe-inspiring articles being 3 times more likely to make most-mailed lists. Us marketeers can also boost emotional arousal by controlling when consumers witness the idea. For example, a prime advertising time is often during the middle of a sporting event. After witnessing some high-intensity competition, our blood pressure is raised and anxiety levels are high, therefore our emotional state is heightened, and our chances of having our product shared is increased!

4. Publicity

Ever hear of the phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do?’ It’s been said that when people are free to do as they please, they normally imitate others and look to those around them for information about what is right to do in any given situation — from where to eat to the brands they buy.

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 public. We need to design products and initiatives that create behavioural residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product.

A great example of this is the hours that Steve Jobs poured over in deciding the location of the Apple logo on the Macintosh. Should it be located in a direction that allows the user to see the logo just before they open their laptop, leaving it upside down to those who may be sitting opposite them in a coffee shop, or is it placed the other way, upside down to those who have already purchased the products, and in the correct way for those potential customers? I’ll let you guess which one they went with.

5. Practical value

People like to help others. We go out of our way to give advice and information that will benefit our friends and family. If we can show them how our products or ideas will save time, improve health or save money, our consumers will spread the word. But given how inundated people are with information these days, we need to make our message stand out. We need to highlight the practical value we offer in our products and services — monetarily or otherwise.

Practical value is the easiest of Berger’s principles to apply. All products in some shape or form will have practical value. The difficult part is cutting through the noise of all of the other products, brands and ideas out there that are providing value to potential customers. But not to worry — packaging in all the other principles will help potential customers learn more about the product and pass it along. For example, one of the most shared Facebook articles of recent years is ‘get clever with your clutter…7 organisation hacks’ with 16 million shares!

6. Stories

People don’t just share information, they tell stories. A little like a Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry morals and lessons. We need to make sure that the information that people will actually be able to remember is critical to the product story’s narrative — if you can’t connect a story back to your product it’s not going to help the cause, even if it does go viral. Like the Trojan Horse, we need to hide the story inside the product itself. The product is the plot that people can’t tell the story without.

A great example of this is the blender brand Blendtec. They hired a marketer to help them get noticed in an already saturated market. The blender was well made, durable and practical — but how interesting can a blender be? One day in the factory, the durability of the latest model was being tested, and it was at this moment the ‘Will It Blend’ campaign idea was born. With a set and camera ready, the Blendtec founder was dressed up in a lab suit and the experiments began. Golf balls? Pulverised. iPhone? Reduced to dust. It left customers asking what else it could blend! In the first week alone, the campaign racked up 6 million views — an absolutely awe-inspiring piece of social currency, with the plot being Blendtec.

I thought this book was an excellent read and I would recommend to anyone who would like to know more about what makes an idea ‘contagious.’ It was interesting, informative and often quite funny with real descriptions of the thought process behind each bucket, and real examples to depict how the buckets are brought to life. With word of mouth being behind 20¬–50% of all purchasing decisions, it’s something any marketeer will find thought-provokingly useful!